The story of Daniel Ek – Mr Spotify

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Daniel Ek.
Foto: Spencer Platt

According to US business magazine Forbes, he’s the most important man in the music industry. 

He’s on text messaging terms with U2 singer Bono and 'Zuck' with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. 

But now the year is 2006 and he's 23 years old. He's sold his red dream Ferrari and got rid of his city apartment. 

Daniel Ek is sitting in a cabin in the woods, deep in depression and fumbling about for a purpose in life. 

It's late friday afternoon, but nobody looks as if they're on their way home. From the atrium in the centre, with a view of the enormous open-plan office floors, it's almost like a cross section of an anthill. Teeming with young professionals, some wearing headphones at their laptops, many with beards, a group are playing pool.

People are jostling over the meeting rooms, which are named after hits like 'Pretty vacant', 'Poker face' and 'Teen spirit'.

"Did you definitely book the room?"

"Where can we sit?"

"Can you use a different room?" 

When Spotify moved to new offices on Birger Jarlsgatan in Stockolm in 2012, the music giant took over three floors. As they expanded, other companies in the building were bought out and the head office now occupies five floors.

There's no sign of the football field there's been talk of.

But it's true that everyone speaks English.

Jonathan Forster.
Foto: Jens L'Estrade

We've managed to book a meeting with Jonathan Forster, managing director Spotify Nordic, Spotify's first person to be begin work on the business side of things.

Forster has been around from the very beginning, when half a dozen young KTH graduates were assembling Ikea furniture in an apartment on Riddargatan, just a stone's throw away.

It feels a long way off from our position at the top, in the lunch area with a view of half the city, in front of a stage on which artists like Mando Diao, Little Jinder, Timbuktu and Markus Krunegård have been invited to play at the company's after-work drinks, and where Spotify founder Daniel Ek, 31, usually holds court.

- About once a month Daniel gets his leadteam together, either here or in the office in New York. They go on stage and talk to the whole company, they livestream it to the other offices. He sits upon the stage and do Q&A, he talks openly about whats  going on, what the plans are, what we have to be worried about, explains Jonathan Forster.

- And its very cool, cause it does´nt  leak.

The story of the cheeky little Swedish IT company that put the world at its feet is like a Hollywood film in itself, with a leading character who has experienced extreme success as well as huge nosedives.

The prologue to Spotify is written and enacted in the Stockholm suburb of Rågsved.

Daniel Ek grew up with a father who was out of the picture early on, with his mother Elisabet, his stepfather Hasse and younger brother Felix, under conditions that he described on the radio the summer before last as “An average Swede. We didn't have much money".

But music was around from the beginning.

"Music really was Daniel's thing. If music wasn't on his timetable, he would come to the music room anyway, or if he had a free period."

His grandmother was an opera singer, her husband a jazz pianist and on the wall at home in Rågsved hung a classic Spanish, nylon string guitar.

Daniel Ek is four-five years old when he learns to play Swedish nursery rhyme 'Lilla snigel'.

In secondary school he's given the chance to combine two of his favourite subjects, music and technology. He installs the Internet at the Oasen youth club, where the story of Joakim Thåström' and his punkband 'Ebba Grön' once started, creates websites for his friends and builds bands with a hint of Britpop.

When Daniel Ek was the guest presenter on Swedish radio show 'Sommarpratarna' (Summertime chats), he uses the opportunity to thank one person in particular, "Musikmajjen (music man) Tony, the driving force at my secondary school."

- I was so proud when he mentioned me in the show. That kind of thing is so heart warming when you've worked for 40 years, says Tony Kinberg when Expressen reaches him.

- Music really was Daniel's thing. If music wasn't on his timetable, he would come to the music room anyway, or if he had a free period. He's a really good singer and guitar player, says Tony Kinberg, who is still the music teacher, and explains that the Spotify creator played lead role in school musicals based on classic feature films on several occasions.

- He was in both 'The Playboy of the Western World' and Roman Polanski's 'The Fearless Vampire Killers'.

- Rågsved is what it is, there were a lot of troublemakers. I wouldn't say that Daniel was in trouble, but music became a way for him to look forward to school.

Daniel Ek in ninth grade.

Music, and his interest in computers.

- He was into programming even then and was light years ahead of the others at school, says Tony Kinberg, who follows his old student's successes with euphoria.

- It's incredible how big it's become, you can't believe it's true when you hear how much Spotify is worth! At first, when Spotify was in the papers, I didn't understand what it was, but I got in touch with Daniel and he actually gave me my first year's subscription for free.

The fact is that the boy from Rågsved was already good for (Swedish) millions before Spotify happened.

After three years at the IT college in Sundbyberg with top grades in eleven subjects, among them English, religion and datacom, Daniel Ek applies to study engineering at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, but leaves after just eight weeks when he realises that the first year is all about theoretical mathematics.

Plus the fact, he business acumen has started to kick in.

He gets a job at TradeDoubler, then Europe's biggest online advertisement company, and rapidly becomes successful. The money is rolling in and the door to the life he has always longed for is wide open.

"I realized the girls I was with weren't very nice people. That they were just using me, and that my friends weren't real friends"

At the age of 23, Daniel Ek has fulfilled his goals, he is financially independent, has a red Ferrari Modena in the driveway and a VIP card to the hottest clubs in the upscale Stockholm district of Stureplan. There were plenty of women to share the expensive bottles of champagne with, but not the women he was actually interested in.

- I realized the girls I was with weren’t very nice people. That they were just using me, and that my friends weren’t real friends, explains Daniel Ek in a recent interview with The New Yorker. They were people who were there for the good times, but if it ever turned ugly they’d leave me in a heartbeat.

- I had always wanted to belong and I had been thinking that this was going to get solved when I had money, and instead I had no idea how I wanted to live my life.

He sinks into depression, gets rid of his three room apartment in central Stockholm, sells his dream car and moves to a 29 m2 cabin 20 km out of town.

The house that Daniel Ek lived in when he was depressed.
Foto: Emmalisa Pauly

The house, which Daniel still owns, is surrounded by tall pine trees, today heavy with rain, and a few simple cottages.

The nameplates on the letterboxes along the gravel road reveal that his mother still lives in the area.

We ask a neighbour if he's aware that it was in that little red cottage that the seeds to the world's largest music streaming service were sown, but get an angry response.

We ask someone else and the door is slammed in our face.

- I don't care where you're from, I'm ill, thunders a 6 foot biker dude with a rubber band around his beard.

After having spent a cold winter plinking about on his guitar and meditating over the meaning of life, Daniel Ek comes into contact with Martin Lorentzon.

Lorentzon survived the IT crash and is crazy rich after having raked in $70 million when TradeDouble, of all companies, went public.

Together, the two IT nerds with a common love of gangster films begin working on a breathtaking business idea: an advertisement-based free service that allows users to listen to all of the music in the world.

We are back at the head office in the Jarlahuset building with Jonathan Forster.

The British businessman is the no. 6 at Spotify and had recently met his Swedish fiancée and moved to Sweden when he met a young, secretive entrepreneur through Stockholm’s startup networks.

- I started seeing who I could get introduced to, friends of friends that worked in the internet. A couple of close friends brought Daniel along to a dinner at restaurant Godot in the upscale Stockholm area of Östermalm. We had a few beers and talked about football. He was quite quiet, he is quiet. Everybody said he was" working on something, but he wont tell us what it is."

That was what happened the first three times they met, smiles Jonathan Forster. But then one evening.

- I got back from honeymoon and Stardoll (online gaming company) was having a party. There were tables full of beers, and I don't know if it was cause he was just ready or cause he`d had a few beers, but he told me about this idea for Spotify.

- I thought, that sounds AWESOME!

In November 2006, Jonathan Forster waltzes into the spartan little office at Riddargatan in Östermalm, Stockholm and finds Daniel Ek and half a dozen young technology graduates, all of whom were hand picked from KTH's finest, about to change the music industry.

- They were still buildning the product, but I wanted to wrap things up with my old company properly, so I worked in the day and hung out with them in the evenings. I was impressed at how young they were and ridiculously bright kids, and wanted to be part of it. We all understood that it was going to be huge.

- Daniel clapped 'Faster, faster!' He wanted everything to go faster, recalls Forster.

A few days later Forster sends his first email to a record company.

The rest is, as they say, Swedish IT history.

"When we launched Spotify, Iphone wasnt available in Sweden... We worked in an office as small as this meetingroom. Now we have to move teams about because we've grown so much"

Today, 1,500 people around the world work for Spotify and at a tech event in Helsinki earlier this winter, chairman and co-founder Martin Lorentzon hinted that they were planning to expand their army to 2,000 in the years ahead.

- When we launched Spotify, Iphone wasnt available in Sweden... We worked in an office as small as this meetingroom. Now we have to move teams about because we've grown so much, says Jonathan Forster and takes a seat on the sofa in the common room, or the 'play and chill area'.

Rumour has it that Daniel Ek was defeated 20-0 by Justin Bieber in a table tennis match during one of the teen heartthrob’s trips to Sweden. Something that probably still grieves the Spotify creator, even if football game Fifa is his favourite.

- I think he has just lost the crown, but for long time Daniel was the champion of the company in Fifa. He loves football (AIK in Sweden and Arsenal in Premier League). I remember playing him once when his phone rang and he picked up "I am playing a videogame, can I call you back?" I asked "Who was that, Daniel?" and he answered "The guy who is buying Warner Music". Haha, that was fun", says Jonathan Forster and continues,

- Having a nice environment isn't about being flashy, it's about the fact that we want our employees to hang around here. People stay in the evenings and we are very happy if they do. We are pretty relaxed about what time they come in the morning, and it's quieter here at 9am, I can tell you. But if you are here at 7 or 8 pm in the evening it will be like it is now.

• Even later, 10-11 pm on a Friday?

- It wouldn't surprise me. We have so many people here from abroad, relatively young people and they don't want to sit at home alone. In UK you go to the pub, here you hang out and play Fifa, says Forster and tells me that the company organizes loads of social events, like wine tasting, yoga, knife sharpening and squash.

I ask if the parties are wild, because that's something you also hear about, and he laughs.

- We have always been good at throwing parties, even now I think we do it pretty well. But in the beginning it was fairly primitive, we opened the doors, had tables full with beer and just partied until the police came.

It happened more than once, he admits, and shakes his head at the memories.

- At the time when we were about to launch we had our server with all of the music on in one cupboard that wasnt locked. That was really quite risky. Imagine if someone had gone in and stolen it... We had a backup, but it would have cost us months of work.

Daniel Ek, who was based in London for a few years, is back in Stockholm and lives just a five minute-walk from the head office, together with his partner and one-year-old daughter.

He scored big in love eventually too, with Sofia Levander, three years his senior and perhaps known by some from television. Ten years ago, the IT magnate's partner was in a reality show on Swedish TV3 that was based on trying to recreate a Swedish version of 'Sex and the City'.

The series was called 'Svenska Flickor' (Swedish Girls) and Sofia Levander was compared to 'Sex and the City's' Samantha, and was described by the channel as a "party princess with breast implants, awful one night stands and low self-esteem."

The couple haven't exactly been gracing the red carpets, but they made a rare appearance together at the Oscars this spring, and on Sofia Levander's birthday in December Daniel Ek posted the following on his Facebook wall: "Happy birthday to my Sofia! You are the apple of my eye. Love always."

That's kind of the impression you get of Mr Spotify when you ask around.

Daniel Ek may join the likes of Barack Obama on Time Magazine's prestigious list of the 100 most influential people in the world, he may be on text messaging terms with U2 singer Bono and have a selfie in his phone of him and Neil Young in his 1959 white Lincoln Continental (Forbes). He even admits in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that he likes it, saying, "I get to learn from some of the most inspiring people in the world, whether it's the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jeff Bezoses or famous brain surgeons. And on top of that I get to hang out with artists I've admired since I was a kid. That's pretty fun."

But at the same time, the inner circle appears to be extremely important to Spotify's head honcho. Several of his friends, as well as his younger brother, are employed by the company.

- I have never felt in any way that his friends are favored, I would actually say that the people Daniel has known for longer probably have it tougher, because he knows what they can do, says Jonathan Forster.

- And at first when he was putting the team together he selected a lot people that he knew, probably because they were the only people he could persuade, ha ha.

American super-entrepreneur and Napster founder Sean Parker has said of Daniel Ek, "He has a zen-like patience and an ability to not let the pressure get to him or to get frustrated. Again and again he puts himself in situations where any normal person would have thrown in the towel." An epithet that Jonathan Forster subscribes to.

- He is very Swedish, he doesnt lose his temper so much. Not even when he gets beaten at Fifa which makes most guys start throwing the controller. I have seen Daniel really angry twice, and both times he had been talking to people in the advertisingworld and had found the way they behaved incredible rude. He doesn't accept that kind of behaviour.

- And he is always frustrated if things are happening too slowly.

In Foresters opinion, Daniel Ek has remained grounded despite the successes and fat pay cheques.

- For a 30 yr old hugely successful founder of one of the coolest companies in the world, I think he is an down to earth normal grounded guy. That's awesome. And it is kind of crazy that so many of the things Daniel said would happen, have. It feels now like the world sort of accepted streaming, now it's everybody's interest in it, but we are in the lead.

- We got to the world cup finals, and now we're going to play Brazil.

Today Spotify has 50 million users in more than 58 countries, and Daniel Ek's shares in the company are estimated to be in the region of 12-14%, which would make him good for about SEK 4.5 billion.

The days of not knowing if and when there would be food on the table or whether he'd be able to pay the bills are long gone, and Ek admitted to the Metro newspaper that he doesn't have particularly expensive habits. "Now and then I do however tend to take a number of fun football trips."

In recent years he has become more and more involved in charity. In an interview with Swedish business periodical Veckans Affärer last year, he revealed that he had donated a million Swedish kronor and a further two million that he had raised amongst his friends for organisation Charity Water, whose goal it is to provide clean, safe water to the 800 million people who are currently without it.

After having rewritten the musical world map, he is convinced that it is possible to change the world as a whole.

- Look at Bill Gates. I think people will remember him more for his foundation than for the fact that he created Microsoft. He makes a huge difference! In ten years he has eradicated polio.

The pool game in the lounge with the Super Mario Bros wallpaper is over and the young men in funky t-shirts are getting ready for another game.

By the coffee machine in the lobby, bottles of fancy champagne are being lined up.

It's Friday and the evening at Spotify's heart has just begun.

Translation: Laura Crane-Åkerblom

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