We begin this review by naming what the musician might consider the book’s most striking feature, which is an absence, in this case the absence of music: throughout the text, no composer nor songwriter is named, no album nor track identified by title other than the fake album Election Music by fictitious creator Hein Duthel. This lack must strike the reader/listener still anchored in the visceral enjoyment of sound as highly unusual and ironic, considering that the authors’ subject is the streaming service that is supposed to fulfill our every musical desire or need. Or we could interpret the book’s text itself as a shrewd enactment of Spotify’s own covert strategy of shifting from music as product to the music consumer as product: Spotify Teardown simply cleverly performs the service’s own de- and re-commodification.
Perhaps in recognition of the company’s intransigence, the authors wear at times playful and at times academic hats, which reveal themselves in part through the book’s alternation between more analytical, interpretive chapters and what the authors term “interventions,” tangible attempts at “tearing down” specific aspects of the technologies. In these sections, the collective’s imaginations hold sway and lead to experiments that test the workings of the streaming giant, ranging from the public launch of the prankster-ish app Songblocker that inverts traditional song and ad volume levels—ads are audible, songs are silent—to creating a fake record label that allowed the researchers to explore the “back end.” In essence they created fake music, described as “unappealing and mundane sound recordings” by the collective (72) in order to tease out how Spotify adopts music from aggregators. They also used music-playing bots on Spotify (“SpotiBot”) in order to query how the company handles royalties.
Generally stated, never before has an investigation of a major music industry actor mobilized such a varied array of tactics in order to uncover and explicate how one of the largest corporate players has developed and affected the creative marketplace. The historical chapter (“Where Is Spotify?”) is exemplary for its use of primary sources and market context to present the service’s history according to its financing. Following the path of founders Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon into and through the world of high-tech investment is fascinating in and of itself—in bringing the company’s story to light, the authors reveal along the way that music was only a secondary consideration for the Swedish entrepreneurs, who took their initial cues from pirate sites like Pirate Bay in the desire to create a digital platform for the delivery of content. Spotify has endured through periodic waves of investment, ever more resembling a media company rather than the source of a “personalized music experience” (32), as the service’s storytelling would have us believe.
The third chapter “How Does Spotify Package Music?” performs a valuable service in its interrogation of the mechanisms behind the creation of playlists and the construction of interfaces. In the end, the authors are able to lay bare how Spotify’s “trope of personalization…form[s] part of a politics of content that seeks to map and shape the lives of streaming users” (136). As suggested by the empirical market study of the fourth chapter, Spotify’s “predictive behavioral targeting capacities” (172) have transformed the consumer into the consumed, as other media companies have also done. Indeed, the book inexorably seems to lead to the conclusion that Spotify is not a “tech platform” but rather a media outlet, and as such is sorely in need of regulation. The collective never states that outright, but at every turn the authors attempt to situate the streaming service within the technological, business, and internal cultural frame of other major media providers.
Unfortunately, their path to a rather unclear end (if not goal) is beset with pitfalls like those that any video game character might encounter on their quest, but the authors do not possess extra lives that could help out. At times the prose becomes overburdened with technical detail. At other times, the writing borders on overindulgence, particularly when the authors explicate the cleverness of their interventions or the badness of Spotify in attempting to block their research. Spotify Teardown hovers uneasily between empirical experimental tradition and novel critical perspective, at times undercutting decidedly brilliant conclusions such as at the end of Chapter 4—about Spotify’s linking “the world of finance to our own imagination”—with the almost frivolous Songblocker experiment.
The reader cannot help but wonder if the five-author collective might not have contributed to the inconsistencies. Nowhere does the book explain or even mention the workings of the group. While this may not be necessary in STEM articles about experiments, it would be helpful and ethical for a manuscript written by scholars at various stages of their careers. While the lure of sole authorship may be waning in the Humanities disciplines, the drive toward transparency and self-reflexivity is increasing. Spotify Teardown’s collective approach to authorship may leave readers wondering about qualifications and vested interests, among other questions.
One other small but reasonable complaint: the index is a shoddy piece of work, selective and inconsistent. Only five pages are identified for “royalties,” a word that appears in clusters throughout the text. The term “playlist” is limited to the pagination of the subsection titled “What’s in a playlist,” and “bot” does not figure at all in the index. A major publisher like MIT Press should have paid greater attention to this feature, even if they were not responsible for its assembly.
This is not to diminish the authors’ important accomplishments in the resourceful analysis of the streaming media platform, and that without direct access either to Spotify management or to its data. In light of all the digital sleuthing that came before, the book’s concluding section might appear anti-climactic. And yet, its focus on reviewing the methodologies they deployed rather than summarizing the evils of the company might provide the key to understanding Spotify Teardown. That would explain the circumstantial reporting on failed experiments, the variety of approaches adopted by the interventions, and the ultimately ambivalent attitude toward the company itself (other than its ham-fisted attempts to muzzle the researchers, which turned them into martyrs of sorts). Could we read the book along the lines of Ek and Lorentzon’s own ambivalence toward their commodity—music—whereby the authors might have undertaken a similarly methodology-based study applied to a different tech giant? In other words, the results might have been secondary to the methods used to obtain them. That recognition will enable the reader to appreciate the project for its significant contribution to scholarship regardless of the outcomes.