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  • Financial Music
  • Robin James (bio)
Spotify Teardown: Inside the Black Box of Streaming Music
Maria Eriksson, Rasmus Fleischer, Anna Johansson, Pelle Snickars, and Patrick Vonderau
MIT Press
288 Pages; Print, $19.95

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"[T]he aggressive discursive framing of Spotify's operation as being primarily technological has tended to obscure its long-term entrepreneurial, financial, and culture-changing strategies. . . . [I]n line with the company's intensifying relations to finance . . . Spotify's prevalent classification as a tech company is somewhat obscure."

Spotify Teardown

Spotify Teardown is, in part, a book about method: how does one study someone who doesn't want to be studied and (unlike Spotify's users) has the power to enforce that wish? How can scholars research a firm whose business model rests, at least in part, on proprietary quantitative human behavioral research and holds its own privacy above that of its users/research subjects?

"Teardown" is the authors' answer to this question. They claim that they borrow their method "from reverse engineering processes" where one "disassembles" or tears down the object of study to see how it works. As Nick Seaver notes in his review, rather than cutting into and disassembling its object of study, the project exhibits a "methodological commitment to exteriority." Spotify Teardown isn't a disassembly so much as a genealogy in Friedrich Nietzsche's sense. As Michel Foucault explains in his essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," the genealogical method

follow[s] the complex course of descent . . . to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion . . . to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversals—the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us.

In other words, the genealogical method traces the far from smooth and linear series of events that have brought us to where we are today. Explaining that "[t]his book traces, on various levels, the process of Spotify's becoming" such as "the . . . manifold transactions . . . [and] the process that allowed Spotify to grow from micro-to macrosize," the authors echo this idea of the genealogical method. The sense of significance is what distinguishes a genealogy from the less evaluative "history" that Spotify originally proposed the team write. As Nietzsche explains in section 17 of the Second Essay in On The Genealogy of Morals, the "so what?" or "value for what?" question is always central to genealogical methods.

The overall structure of the book reflects this genealogical approach. The first chapter tells Spotify's history, which the authors break into periods that reflect significant shifts in the company's funding and business model, which they call

a principle of dividing time that is based . . . on financialization as a structuring principle of media history. The main question asked in this chapter is how Spotify has managed to receive new funding for running its operations at ever larger losses for over a decade.

The answer is an ever-increasing "dependence on financial speculation." Spotify survived by adapting to the basic practices of financialization, such as the shift away from traditional asset-based value to what scholars such as Lisa Adkins and Louise Amoore call "promise"-based value. In this promissory model, what investors or creditors care about isn't the probability of your ability to repay a debt or turn a profit, but "promise" in the sense of an auspicious future performance due to belief in your capacity to overcome present limitations. Arguing that "Spotify would not be valued at several billion dollars—and would not have had its losses repeatedly covered by venture capital—if there were not a story connecting its open-ended past to a certain and positive future," the authors point to one way Spotify adopts the basic principles of financialization. If the chapter's central question and argument focuses on its alliance with and dependence upon financial capitalism, this helps us interpret what otherwise may seem like a curious title for a historical chapter: "Where Is Spotify?" Though it may present itself as a tech company, it is more accurately located...