For most people, having a colleague pick up a guitar and plug it into a Marshall amp in the middle of the workday would be annoying. But for Tristan Jehan, it’s normal. The machine-listening specialist and cofounder of The Echo Nest has been a musician his whole life, so when his company was acquired by Spotify in March, he didn’t bat an eye at suddenly being surrounded by fellow musicians.
Just as other startups boast gourmet snacks, ping-pong tables, and insane rooftop views (Spotify has all of the above), the music subscription market leader coaxes talent with a culture that is deeply infused with an obsessive focus on music and musicianship. For Spotify’s employees, this climate is as much of a perk as the traditional comforts of startup life–and it’s not bad at keeping talent, either.
Here’s what it’s like to work at the world’s most popular music service.
“People are very passionate about music here,” says Jehan, who moved to New York from Boston after the Echo Nest acquisition. “On Saturday there was a hackathon organized by Spotify and it was all about how to make new musical instruments.” Here, much like at The Echo Nest’s Somerville, MA offices, events like this are standard.
Such is life at Spotify’s New York City offices, where conference rooms are named after famous music venues and stars regularly stop by for in-office performances. On the day of my first visit, the rapper Common is in the next room previewing some of his latest tracks. The Marshall amp? That’s planted next to a set of turntables and a rack of guitars in the middle of the office floor.
Across departments and throughout its multiple offices around the world (it’s headquartered in Stockholm), Spotify employs dozens of musicians, many of whom hold positions that have very little to do with music itself. Hunter in engineering. Stacey in analytics. Marie in ad sales. They’re all musicians. At Spotify, the person silently typing away at the next workstation could be a classical flutist or have a past life as a budding alternative rock star.
“When I was younger, my school didn’t have a strong music program, so I was always that one girl that played cello and played in orchestra,” says Christina Choi, who works on customer service and business development at Spotify. “It’s really nice to find an environment where music is appreciated.” Outside the office, Choi plays in the New York Symphonic Arts Ensemble, a community orchestra that plays about a half dozen concerts each year.
Regardless of one’s department or discipline, the common language of music has a way of uniting employees who may not otherwise ever speak to one another. Sometimes, colleagues wind up becoming bandmates.
For an example, look no further than the office auditorium. In addition to the beverage machines and tables you’d expect, this room also houses a stage lined with amplifiers, a drum kit, and a red Nord synthesizer. It’s reportedly not uncommon for employees to blow off steam by jamming here midday. Until the in-house recording studio is finished being built, this setup will have to suffice for employees itching to play. Along the wall, an array of dozens of autographed drumheads are decoratively hung. Of course.
When I walk into the room, the stage is occupied by the Spotify house band–yes, Spotify has a house band–who are tuning their instruments. As they deliberate over what song to play next, a few of their colleagues sip coffee at one of the tables in the room. One guy shuttles through the room on some important-seeming mission between departments. Apparently if you work at Spotify, the sight of a band rehearsing around the corner from your cubicle at 2 p.m. is just a part of the office landscape. Some of the people passing through don’t even seem to notice.
The band, which only plays covers by bands not yet available on Spotify, is aptly named The Blacklist. They used to do a lot of Led Zeppelin songs, before Spotify secured the rights to stream the band’s catalog. This afternoon, they’re fine-tuning some Beatles covers.
Standing stage right with a bass guitar is Sandy Smallens. To people in this office, he’s known for his work on artist marketing and original content. But fans who were tapped into the pop-punk scene in the early ’90s may recognize him from Too Much Joy, a band that landed a deal with Warner Brothers Records and embarked on several national tours. (Coincidentally, Too Much Joy was fronted by singer Tim Quirk, who later went on to work at Rhapsody and Google’s “Play Music” Spotify competitor.)
“We took this little band of high school friends and through sheer effort and perseverance and just touring around, we were able to make a go of it for seven years,” says Smallens. “It was the most insane thing in the world. A dream come true.”
Smallens left the band in 1994 to pursue a career on the business side of the industry, but still occasionally plays with members of the band. “It’s sort of what I do instead of playing golf,” he says. “I play punk rock.”
The years Smallens spent playing in Too Much Joy were about much more than letting loose and chasing the rock star lifestyle. For him, those were formative years during which he developed a sense of entrepreneurialism that would pay off in later stints at Atlantic Records, Vivendi, Universal Records, and CBS Radio.
“When you’re in a band, it’s extremely entrepreneurial,” says Smallens. “We booked our own tours. I wrote all our press releases and bios. We had to learn how to market ourselves from the ground up.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but this real-world crash course in being an independent–and then signed–musician was the perfect training for the job Smallens would have 20 years later. Today, he handles artist marketing and original content at Spotify. In this context, he helps sell artists on the benefits of streaming music–not always a painless endeavor–and secures Spotify-exclusive interviews and recording sessions. The Spotify Landmark series, in which famous records from artists like Nas and Nirvana are revisited via extensive, documentary-style interviews, is one of the projects he oversees.
“The reason we’re building the recording studio is half for the outside artists and half for employee requests,” says Smallens. “People want to be able to practice their drums during work hours or learn how to do Pro Tools or record some tracks.”
This career trajectory–from successful 90s band member to music industry vet, then onto a job at the heart of the new music economy–isn’t unique to Smallens. Sitting behind the drums on the auditorium stage is Steve Savoca, Spotify’s VP of content and distribution. In that capacity, he helps oversee the company’s relationships with record labels. This afternoon, he’s focused on something far less complicated: Drumming along to Beatles classics.
It’s not an unfamiliar position for Savoca. In the early 1990s, he played drums for a New York band called The Werefrogs, who enjoyed success in the U.K. and toured with Radiohead in 1993. Much like Smallens, Savoca’s early career in music has informed his role at Spotify, where he deals extensively with artists, many of whom are in a position Savoca once knew well.
“I’d like to think we try to put our artist hats on as much as possible,” says Savoca. “I’ve been on the other end of these really difficult conversations. And I saw a lot of unpleasant stuff when I was with other companies. We try to right some of those wrongs, because the music industry is just entrenched in what it does and how it operates.”
When he says “industry,” Savoca really means “record labels,” the corporate entities that have long made up the heart of the traditional music industry. But that’s changing. As intertwined as Spotify is with the legacy record business (the major labels each own a slice of the company), it’s slowly starting to take on some of the role traditionally played by labels, especially when it comes to artist development.
Take Lorde, for example. Like a growing number of young pop stars, the teenage singer didn’t rise to stardom through the old-school channels. Just as YouTube gave us Justin Bieber, Lorde was a by-product of Spotify’s ballooning influence in the new music economy. By adding a Lorde song to his popular “Hipster International” playlist on the service, Spotify investor Sean Parker single-handedly made Lorde go viral, leading to international stardom and a major record deal.
This type of story “is playing out repeatedly” on Spotify, according to Savoca. With over 40 million users and 20 million available songs, Spotify and its data analysts are able to surface insights that labels and radio stations could only ever dream of having.
“Radio has been disrupted,” says Savoca. “The formulaic approach is probably more risky now because suddenly there’s going to be a Gotye or a Lorde or Imagine Dragons. The kind of records I’m seeing in the charts are really surprising.”
Whatever gripes a guy like Savoca may have had with the inner workings of the old music business, his latest job is a chance to help reinvent the way things work without the internal friction of legacy business models. It’s something that only a history like his–which included tackling digital for record labels years before they were ready to embrace the Internet–could have prepared him for.
Streaming services aren’t going to replace the music industry, as blurry as the lines between old and new can get. Instead, it’s more apt to think of services like Spotify as a new cog in an increasingly complex machine. Just as it ingests industry vets from legacy businesses, Spotify can also incubate future industry talent.
That’s how James Solomon prefers to see it. The 28-year-old web developer currently works on Spotify’s public-facing website, but his long-term ambitions are much bigger. Outside the office, Solomon co-runs Johnny Park Records, a small independent label focusing on a handful of New York hip-hop artists. While Solomon started out making beats for rappers, he’s grown far more interested in the business side of music.
Conveniently for Solomon, he spends his days surrounded by a unique blend of music industry smarts and tech industry culture. Even for somebody focused on coding PHP all day, such an environment can serve as an immersive crash course in the new music business.
“The culture here is honestly the one I’m trying to instill in stuff we start,” says Solomon, who runs Johnny Park Records with three partners.
It’s a tiny label, but should it ever take off, Johnny Park will have been baptized in the nontraditional, not-as-top-heavy corporate spirit of Silicon Valley rather than the old-school mentality of most record companies. At Spotify, Solomon relishes in the laid-back environment and his own freedom to do things like speak up and challenge his superiors when he believes they’re wrong.
“If I notice a guy’s a VP, I don’t feel like I can’t speak my mind to them,” says Solomon. “In other places you usually never feel like you can voice that kind of opinion to somebody. Here, I’ve gotten high fives.”
As enthusiastic as he is about running his own label, Solomon isn’t about to jump ship at his day job. One reason is that members of the tech team at Spotify are encouraged to switch roles if they feel compelled to try something new. Tired of front-end web development? Try programming iOS apps. This policy helps prevent the experience from going stale and keeps people like Solomon around longer.
Like a lot of developers at hot tech startups, Solomon routinely gets contacted by job recruiters from the likes of Apple, Tumblr, and other companies that plenty of coders would dream of working for.
“All of them hit me up and I say no because this is the pinnacle for me,” says Solomon. “I don’t want to leave somewhere where I feel amazingly happy until it’s for something of my own.”
Without him explicitly stating it, it’s clear that Solomon views his stint at Spotify as a still-fertile learning experience that he’s not ready to abandon yet. If he’s going to set off on his own at some point, the education and connections he’s getting at Spotify are going to be priceless. Given the company’s particular focus on music, it’s an experience that the Tumblrs of the world would be hard-pressed to replace for somebody like him.
“It’s like finding a girlfriend, finally,” Solomon jokes. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah finally. She knows. She gets it. She gets it. Finally.’ I’ve been dating around and I finally found my company. They get it.”