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There have been a rash of series about the beginnings of tech giants, but most of them have an element of schadenfreude to them; in other words, we watch because we want to see arrogant blowhards like Travis Kalanick (Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber)or Adam Neumann (WeCrashed) go down. But there may also be interest in seeing just how many obstacles and hoops a successful tech company needed to overcome in order to become the giant it is today. That’s the purpose of a new series from Sweden, the home of music juggernaut Spotify.
Opening Shot: A Rolls Royce pulls into the bowels of an arena. A voice over says, “What is music, really? Technically speaking, it’s a series of sounds strung together to cause a reaction in the human mind.”
The Gist: That’s the voice of Daniel Ek (Edvin Endre), the co-founder of Spotify. We hear in his voice over how much music influenced him, like when he and his mom would dance to Aretha Franklin.
He’s in the arena to make a talk about his company’s mega success, but then we flash back to Rågsved, Sweden in 2004. Ek is a coder for a small auction website, but he has much bigger ideas. After he gets a rejection letter from Google, he decides to quit his job and work for himself; he takes a few months to develop a website that digitizes coupons and brings revenue to companies that sign up for it. The site catches the eye of two big-time entrepreneurs, including Martin Lorentzon (Christian Hillborg); the pair buy Ek’s company.
He celebrates by going to a club to see his old high school classmate Bobbie T (Janice Kavander) sing. She complains to him that recordings of her gigs are constantly going up on a illegal torrent site called Pirate Bay. It gives Ek the idea, which he proposes to Lorentzon: Beat Pirate Bay at their own game by providing a fast-lag-free music streaming service. The music stays free for users, but the company — he calls it “Spotify” — will pay the licensing rights for the songs; the revenue will come from advertising.
Ek and Lorentzon put the company together, and hire what Ek calls the “coders nobody else wants,” but are brilliant, and he wants the coders to be in charge. One problem: They can’t just buy licensing rights from Sweden’s main licensing agency, like Ek thought. They have to go to the individual record companies to get those rights, and Ek finds that they’re so hidebound and afraid of anything digital that they don’t want to deal with him. He has hope when it comes to Sony’s CEO in Sweden, Per Sundin (Ulf Stenberg), who seems to believe that the future of music is coming sooner than the industry thinks.
Maxine (Severija Janusauskaite), a Sony exec that was on Ek’s side, encourages him to go to another Bobbi T show, where Sundin might be. But when he encounters Sundin and tries to pitch him, Sundin curses him out as yet another coder who wants him to give away his label’s music.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? How many series have we seen recently about the origins of tech companies? Granted, most are along the lines of WeCrashed and Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber, where the drama is about some sort of downfall of the company’s founder, but both are similar to what we see with The Playlist.
Our Take: The structure of The Playlist, based on the book Spotify Untold written by Sven Carlsson by Jonas Leijonhufvud, tells the story of Spotify from various perspectives: Ek, Lorentzon, Sundin, head coder Andreas Ehn (Joel Lützow), Bobbie T, who challenges the paltry revenue artists received from the service, and Petra Hanson (Gizem Erdogan), the corporate lawyer who went to work for Spotify and handled how the company would cooperate with the hidebound record labels.
That structure helps slice up a story that doesn’t have a ton of conflict. Yes, artists have been railing against how Spotify pays them very little when their songs stream hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of times. Spotify has gotten some flak lately as it’s gotten into the podcasting game and paid big money to controversial podcasters like Joe Rogan. But, for the most part, the company has been a massive success, with Ek remaining as their CEO. There hasn’t been a downfall like what happened to Travis Kalanick at Uber or Adam Neumann at WeWork.
So, instead of telling the story in a linear fashion, the writers fictionalized the story a bit and then told it from those multiple perspectives. Now, will this get repetitive after awhile? Perhaps. But the first episode, told from Ek’s perspective, moved well enough that we have hope for the rest of the season, if the writers can find enough about each perspective to mine.
Sex and Skin: None in the first episode.
Parting Shot: As Ek and his team give out cards with Spotify’s URL to some kids at a school, Sundin sees his son with a card. “What the hell? That’s not how it happened,” Sundin says to the camera.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to Janice Kavander as Bobbi, because she sells the fact that she and Ek were actually friends in high school. Maybe they were, but they don’t even seem like they were in the same social circles back then.
Most Pilot-y Line: Bobbie asks Ek what he’s been up to. He nonchalantly replies, “Not much. I just sold a company for 10 million, but other than that…” What a humblebrag, right? Also, that feels like something a TV character would say.
Will you stream or skip the Swedish tech drama #ThePlaylist on @netflix? #SIOSI
— Decider (@decider) October 15, 2022
Our Call: STREAM IT. While The Playlist doesn’t give audiences the satisfying dose of schadenfreude that other tech bioseries have provided, it does effectively show just how many perspectives there are to the start of a massive success like Spotify.
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.
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