Musicians Are Dragging Spotify’s CEO For Funding A Military AI Company

Daniel Ek's $113 million investment in Helsing AI has drawn ire from some artists, who criticize the streaming platform for underpaying musicians.
Janus Rose
New York, US
Spotify CEO Daniel Ek wearing a black jacket and sunglasses.
Bloomberg / Getty Images

Posting Spotify Wrapped playlists has become an annual end-of-year tradition on social media—and in many ways the shareable listening stats are symbolic of the streaming platform’s dominance over the music industry.

But some artists have been less enthusiastic this year after a recent announcement that Spotify’s CEO has invested $113 million in Helsing AI, a military defense firm that claims to use algorithmic systems which “integrate data from infrared, video, sonar and radio frequencies, gleaned from sensors on military vehicles, to create a real-time picture of battlefields.”

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The move has caused some artists to call for boycotts and bristle at the idea of the company’s streaming profits being used to fund military technology. Some are even offering free or discounted music on competitor platform Bandcamp in exchange for proof that people canceled their Spotify subscriptions.

“His actions proves once again that Ek views Spotify and the wealth he has pillaged from artists merely as a means to further his own wealth,” wrote Zack Nestel-Patt, an organizer with the Union of Musician and Allied Workers (UMAW), in a statement emailed to Motherboard. Nestel-Patt added that Spotify created software and AI that has eroded the music industry, and is now investing in similar technology that is to be applied on “battlefields” in order to, as Helsing’s website notes, “serve our democracies.” 

The funding comes from Ek’s investment company Prima Materia, which last year earmarked $1.2 billion for investment in European tech companies. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down music venues last year, activists launched multiple campaigns aimed at helping struggling artists and demanding that streaming platforms offer them a fair share of their growing profits. UMAW’s “Justice At Spotify” called for the company to increase revenue share to $0.01 per stream and increase transparency. Fight For The Future also launched a petition after Spotify filed a patent for technology designed to eavesdrop on users’ speech and use emotional data to target ads.

While all streaming music platforms are all known for the minuscule royalties they give to independent artists, Spotify is a frequent target of criticism due to its prominence in the space. Critics have slammed the platform for its particularly stingy payouts and algorithmic pay-for-play schemes, which they say advantage large labels while exploiting smaller artists. 

Ultimately though, the problem lies not in Spotify itself but in the core business model of streaming, which is designed to gather data on users while profiting off artists’ work. And for many labels and musicians, removing their work from large streaming platforms is simply unfeasible—no matter how shady they may be.

“It was bad enough when big corporate record label CEOs were the gatekeepers of the music industry exploiting artists for our labor,” Evan Greer, a musician and deputy director of Fight For The Future, told Motherboard. “Big Tech CEOs actively building a surveillance-driven dystopian future is even worse."