Spotify on Netflix Brings out Old Frenemies

Netflix-mini series The Playlist tells the story of Spotify. It takes me back. I was not involved in Spotify, but I did work in the music industry in the 1990s (when Napster arrived). I have met many of those who appear as characters on the show: label boss Per Sundin. Pirate hunter Henrik Pontén (RIP). Pirate evangelist Peter Sunde. To mention some.

I am not the only one caught by nostalgia, many have stepped forward and shared their version of history – some fifteen years later. One of the most creative versions casts prosecutor Håkan Roswall as a Kremlin agent. And of course The Pirate Bay-spokesperson Peter Sunde takes the opportunity to do a bit of creative re-writing of history.

I have debated with Peter Sunde on several occasions (like here). He likes to paint me as a paid messenger for Big Entertainment. I always took that as confirmation that he had weak arguments and instead chose to attack my person. The truth is that while I have worked (and still work) for the entertainment industry in various arrangements, I always followed my moral compass. I have turned down many generous offers to work for business in order to keep doing this work. Sunde himself of course also made money as a pirate propagandist. The Pirate Bay took in Millions of SEK in advertising, court records show. The founders attempted (and failed) to sell their creation for 60 Million SEK. To my knowledge, Sunde owns and runs VPN-service Ipredator which charges a hardly altruistic €14 per month. In spite of this, I don’t believe Sunde is driven by commercial purposes. I am convinced he follows his moral compass. Only problem is that compass is more than a little off.


How did The Pirate Bay get started? Most people would guess it was some wiz kid tech-experiment that stumbled across a convenient way to distribute pirate content and built from there. Some might say it was a commercial endeavour from the get-go. Neither was the case, however. Before The Pirate Bay there was The Pirate Bureau. The latter was a sort of anti-copyright think-tank which developed theories about how internet might change society (and overthrow capitalism). It was run by some bright people, most of whom moved on to academic careers. The name was a pun on copyright enforcement law firm The Anti-Pirate Bureau. Tongue-in-cheek attitude since day one (I admit some of the jokes were really good). The Pirate Bureau developed the concept for a large-scale file-sharing service. It started as an ideological project, which was then accelerated and made successful by a more hands-on tech-savvy group. The political arm of the movement – The Pirate Party – appeared later (after party leader Rick Falkvinge according to his own account saw a cartoon that said that the only thing that would bring a revolution would be a ban on The Pirate Bay). It all started as ideology, anti-copyright ideology as the cornerstone for the new digital world. Coincidentally precisely the same idea that Arch-Tech-mogul Peter Thiel described as the recipe for Silicon Valley’s rise to domination. No, I don’t believe they were co-ordinated, but the ideological roots are shared between the pirates and Big Tech, no matter how much the former try to be anti-capitalist.


In his comment to The Playlist, Peter Sunde makes some noteworthy remarks. That they wanted to help the artists. That the entertainment industry voices did not. That distribution is the most expensive part of the entertainment business. That Spotify was created to make money from advertising. That Netflix itself owes its existence to The Pirate Bay. And that he is unhappy with the facial hair on his character in The Playlist. Let’s take a closer look.

Did The Pirate Bay want to help artists? Artists did not ask them to upset the economic system that sustained their livelihood. As described above, TPB had completely different motives. Just because some artists complain about their record companies, does not mean Sunde and his gang did them a favour.

Did the entertainment industry voices not want to help the artists? Okay, admittedly I would be one of those voices so you, dear reader, will have to take my words with the caveat that I am biased. Plenty of people speaking on behalf of artists’ and creators’ organisations demanded that the illegal service be stopped. They had the mandate from the members by way of organizational democracy, but they were dismissed as being loyal to the system rather than the creators. Those artists that did speak up, such as Metallica and Madonna, were dismissed as being too rich and successful to be credible. And those smaller artists that spoke up on the other hand were insignificant according to the pirates. There was always something wrong with whomever spoke out against copyright infringement. Perhaps fair game, but the ugly part is that the pirates were also the first organized trolls. They invented the playbook for the alt-right, the anti-vaxxers, the conspiracy theorists, the incels and the lot. Swedish rapper Petter was one of the first targets and it was so bad he considered giving up on music. So much for helping the artists. Some of it was done with some love, such as when the Pirate Party Youth-section brought Henrik Pontén ginger bread for Christmas (in Swedish tradition, eating ginger bread is supposed to make you a nicer person). Most of it not so much, such as when the board members of The Anti-Pirate Bureau were sent flowers with the note “This is the first of your funeral bunch”. Yeah, I also received threats and our website was hacked (credit to The Pirate Bureau-profile Rasmus Fleischer for offering his commiserations). Perhaps we had it coming for defending artists’ rights, but it sure would be interesting to hear Sunde’s take on what a monster they spawned. (This summer an alt-right madman, radicalized online, murdered health policy expert Ing-Marie Wieselgren at the Almedalen opinion summit in Visby Sweden, but the investigation suggests his real target was Center Party leader Annie Lööf. I’m not saying the pirates are to blame, there are many who have taken advantage of the toxic online climate. But the pirates pioneered the hate speech MO which paved the way for this horror.)

Is distribution the most expensive part of the entertainment business? No. A CD or DVD costs less than one Euro to print and even less to ship, but sells at 10 or even 20 Euros (more for some DVDs at the peak). Retail might take 30% or so, but much of that must be considered marketing. The Pirate Bay did nothing for artists in terms of marketing, recording costs, creative support or royalty advances. In the words of former Billboard editor-in-chief Rob Levine “all it did was replace the trucks that brought the discs to the stores, but that doesn’t get you invited to any good parties” (on Napster, but the same applies to TPB).

Was Spotify set up to make money from advertising? Maybe. My impression is that most users pay subscriptions to get rid of the ads, but what do I know? In any case, if advertising is so wrong, why did Sunde’s own business The Pirate Bay use that model?

Does Netflix owe its existence to The Pirate Bay? Nah. Rather TPB stood in the way of Netflix morphing from snailmail-DVDs to online streaming. Reed Hastings – founder of Netflix – has explained that the mail-order DVDs was just a step on the way until digital streaming was possible. Rather the illegal market stood in the way of investment into legal services.

I will give Peter Sunde one concession though. His character’s moustache on The Playlist is not particularly flattering.