On November 9th 2021, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek proudly tweeted that, through his company Prima Materia, he would be investing €100 million in AI military tech startup Helsing. This follows last year’s pledging of €1 billion to fund moonshot projects with the interest of boosting European tech companies, whom he considers to be underfunded compared to those in the US. Also in the tweet, Ek claimed that “Prima Materia was founded to partner with teams like Helsing. Ambitious, ethical, & driven by a mission to help build a thriving society.” Speaking at a Slush Music online conference, Ek said that “Europe needs more super companies for the ecosystem to develop and thrive, but more importantly, if we’re going to have any chance to tackle the infinitely complex problems that our society is dealing with at the moment.”
The investment has spurred backlash from both users and musicians alike, who are incensed at the idea of music funding warfare. History is rife with morally ambiguous investments at the hands of executives and tycoons, to the despair of their customers, and in this case, Ek has gone public with his. Does this smack of the emboldened arrogance of the rich, young entrepreneur; does it suggest he truly, and naïvely, expected a positive response; or is he just honouring his home country’s dogma on transparency?
How did we get here?
Daniel Ek, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, began his entrepreneurial career at a young age, developing websites from the age of thirteen and by eighteen was making as much as $50k a month and overseeing a team of 25. He dropped out of college and went on to fill high-level positions at tech companies such as uTorrent and Stardoll before founding Spotify in 2006.
In the early 2000s, platforms such as Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and PirateBay completely transformed the way we consume music. We were becoming accustomed to fast and free, yet nowhere more than Sweden, whose government-mandated broadband policy still affords them internet speeds unrivalled throughout the rest of the world. The music industry was under threat, and Ek’s promise was to create a speedy and affordable alternative to music piracy; something that would benefit users, musicians and the industry.
As of the end of 2021, Spotify has an estimated 365 million users. Our primary modes of music consumption have changed again, and despite Ek’s initial claims of a model beneficial to all, it has contradictorily proven to be very much at the cost of the artists, who see pitiful revenue for their work, even when compared to other music streaming platforms. For a while, this was doing little to damage the reputation of Ek, who in 2017 was nominated in Billboard’s Power 100 List as the number one most important person in the music industry.
Criticism towards Ek has been building however, notably in 2020 when he stated in an interview with Music Ally that musicians “can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough,” belying his professed image as a music lover and instead making clear his assertions of music being nothing more than a product.
What do we know about Prima Materia and Helsing?
Prima Materia is an investment company founded by Daniel Ek and Shahil Khan, the Head of Special Projects at Spotify. Their homepage reads: “We are a European investment company that builds, grows, and owns companies for the long term. Through our companies, we advance ambitious technological and scientific innovation to solve the world’s biggest challenges and help society progress towards a better future.” They claim that Europe has a chance to advance AI systems in “an ethical, transparent and responsible manner” – moralistic ambitions they say they share with Helsing.
Helsing is a military AI tech startup, founded in 2021, who “focus on serving countries which meet the highest democratic standards.” So far, they are working with the British, French and German militaries. “Highest democratic standards” indeed – the UK, for one, is currently barrelling through constant updates about the extent to which our Prime Minister undermined his own Covid restrictions, and we’re so accustomed to our own failing democracy that we’re doing it without even blinking.
Helsing’s manifesto reads as follows: “We believe that software – and, in particular, artificial intelligence – will be the key capability to keep liberal democracies from harm. Our ambition is to achieve global technology leadership in real-time information processing, turning unstructured sensor data into information advantage for democratic governments. Our platform aims to provide the clearest picture possible in any operating environment. We’re looking for people with their heart in the right place, who share our conviction that liberal democratic values are worth protecting, for ourselves and for future generations.”
Owing almost entirely to Daniel Ek, Helsing’s Series A financing has seen €102.5 million raised so far and they are now claiming a valuation of over €400 million. Ek will also be joining the company’s board.
What do musicians think about the investment?
Resident Advisor reported that 80% of Twitter responses to Ek’s post were negative, including 95% of the retweets. RA also spoke with several musicians regarding the investment, including electronic fusion producer Darren Sangita, who tweeted, “#BoycottSPOTIFY now! Cancel your subscription today. Artists and music lovers must not support the military #AI industry! Register your anger at the #Spotify involvement in sponsorship of Arms Corporations. This is so vile. Music is NOT War! Just wrong on every level.”
Speaking to RA, Sangita urged that “AI means using computers to process information a hundred times faster so they accurately deliver a higher kill ratio. […] We believe in music as a powerful tool for peace, otherwise it’s a complete contradiction of our music philosophy.”
RA also spoke with Australian vaporwave artist b l u e s c r e e n, who told them, “War is hell […] There’s nothing ethical about it, no matter how you spin it. I also left because it became apparent very quickly that Spotify’s CEO, as all billionaires, only got rich off the exploitation of others. As an artist I cannot morally agree with inadequate payments of royalties to those whose entire livelihood is the reason for Daniel Ek’s success.”
Others were conscious of the possible implications of Ek’s investment, but wary of the consequences of the boycott. Aryan Ashoori, founder of London-based label and collective Outtalectuals told RA it “would be career suicide” to pull their artists from the platform. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing but it’s not a personal decision. […] We represent about 150 different artists, and I wouldn’t be able to pull the plug on the behalf of so many people either.”
Sameer Gupta, Brooklyn-based percussionist and composer, has cancelled his Spotify subscription and is prompting others to do so by offering a 95% discount on his whole Bandcamp discography.
“This has been a long time coming anyway but the Spotify CEO’s desire to invest in war AI tech was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back,” he told RA. However, he said he “can’t pull everything off Spotify because in the spirit of collaboration, it’s not entirely my choice to do so in every case,” adding that “it’s important we don’t let the power of music be co-opted by the corporate agenda. We as lovers and creators of music have the power to steer the industry in a direction we want.”
It’s of little surprise that the news has angered musicians. Ek’s model has worked persistently at their expense, and with more and more news giving evidence of an acquisitive and duplicitous character that perceives music only as a mechanism for revenue, what reasons would musicians have to trust or support him?
Some artists see the boycott as a shot in the foot, and this sheds light on a grimmer and wider issue; that Spotify is becoming to musicians what Amazon has been to writers for some time now: a market model whereby relative success through other means becomes impossible.
What can we conclude?
Ek has spoken in interviews about the Swedish concept of allemansrätten, the “freedom to roam”: the public’s right to walk, cycle, ski and camp anywhere except private lands and certain protected areas; he speaks about his home country being one that is built on trust, and that this trust is at the heart of all of his enterprises, including the Spotify model. Is there a chance that Ek really does only want to do good through this investment; that wealth hasn’t smashed his moral compass as it seemingly has so many others? The idea can be entertained, but any proof isn’t forthcoming.
At this time, it seems unclear what kind of impact Helsing’s success could have on world affairs. They’re a company who claim to be in the business of protecting people; or “liberal democracies”, as they put it, but how well could the average Spotify user or artist trust these claims, or begin to dissect the implications of their partnerships with European militaries? After all, we’ve seen what many so-called “liberal democracies” have done in the name of “peace”.
Currently, Spotify holds approximately a third of the total revenue of the music streaming market. Streaming itself makes up for almost 85% of the music industry. For one company to dominate any industry can too often subject that industry to the will of a few select minds – sometimes just one. The investment we’re discussing now is one that breaches the realm of just the music industry and into one of warfare.
With today’s monopolistic mentalities and detached one-click models of commerce, the reality is you could be funding any kind of enterprise, from the prosperous and magnanimous to the egregious and criminal, without ever knowing it. This time, we know where the money’s going, and it looks bleak, yet the consequences of Ek’s investment still hang in the balance. The real question is: how many more decisions like this will we allow ourselves to be a part of?
Words: Rory Hughes