"Music has always been about more than just music," Alex Bodman, Spotify's global executive creative director, tells Muse. "It affects culture. It has a rich visual world. It has started revolutions. It has changed lives. Its impact goes beyond just the tune itself, and artists have been some of the most innovative creators and thinkers. So for us, it makes sense to do more than just supply the music."
Since his 2015 arrival at the streaming service, Bodman has helped devise diverse campaigns across multiple media to drive Spotify's playlists and podcasts higher on the cultural hit parade. There's tons of clever advertising, deployed in concert with fun, compelling stunts. These include last year's transformation of a New York City subway station into a David Bowie museum (winner of three Gold Clios at the Clio Music Awards) and a pantheon of life-size statues honoring hip-hop stars (which won a Silver Clio in 2018). Bodman has also worked to evolve "Wrapped," the brand's enormously popular holiday-season push that lets users rediscover and share their favorite tunes and podcasts from the year.
Does all that sound good? It should. Such efforts have helped raise Spotify's profile, with the brand and its playlists gaining special significance in people's daily lives. The service recently surpassed 100 million paying subscribers for the first time. That's a 32 percent rise year over year—representing twice the subscriptions of Apple Music—to go along with a similar rise in revenue (though Spotify still expects a loss for 2019).
"We are the way 200 million fans worldwide [Spotify's active users] access this incredibly rich culture," says Bodman, a Clio Music juror this year. "So we take that responsibility to partner with artists and to celebrate the music very seriously. There's also some obvious strategic reasons why it makes sense. When I joined Spotify four years ago, one of the main goals was to have people stop thinking of us as a tech company and start thinking of us as a music and culture company."
In the following conversation, edited for length and clarity, Bodman reveals how he keeps the image machine humming right along.
Muse: The hip-hop statues, the Bowie takeover, the meme-inspired billboards—what do those efforts say about Spotify's approach to advertising?
Our belief is that when we make stuff that doesn't feel like advertising, that engages with people in other ways, that's where we see the best results, and that's where we see real impact for the business. We're at the intersection of tech and culture. It's an incredibly privileged place to be. As a brand, we try to have fun with that. We try to engage with that. We try to get the most positive reactions out of people with that.
You do a lot of fan outreach. What's special about the "Fans First" program?
Our content team sets up "Fans First" concerts that allow people to go to very intimate events with their favorite artists. It creates a really special energy because, of course, whenever an artist gets close to their fans, that's exciting. In many of these cases, we've worked with the artists to put on the event they've always dreamed of.
A couple of years ago, our team created a bubble in the middle of the desert for Troye Sivan, because that's what he'd always dreamed of performing in. Less than 100 of his biggest fans were taken out there—to have their dream come true, and watch his dream come true.
Billie Eilish—she created an amazing album that went straight to No. 1, and she told us her vision was to have an experience where each room represented a different one of her songs. We collaborated to bring that to life. The queues were around the block [in Los Angeles in March] for the entire weekend when that installation was available. And of course, she came along and even brought friends. Those experiences are special, and we're going to continue to do them.
You've also celebrated cultural awareness around Black History Month.
Music has always been at the forefront of change and important conversations. If you look at the cultural landscape—whether it's seeing who are some of the top artists on our platform, and the top genres, or whether you just want to look into the world and see Kendrick Lamar winning a Pulitzer Prize [for music]—what you see is that black artists are so important, as they have been for decades, in shaping music and culture.
With "Black History Is Happening Now," what we really wanted to do was find a way to further that conversation, and to provide a platform for different artists and intellectuals to talk about issues that were relevant to them. So we partnered with Pharrell Williams. We partnered with Janelle Monáe. We partnered with curators from the Smithsonian and celebrated unsung moments of music history, and created custom merchandise in partnership with black artists. I'm glad it wasn't just one month. I'm glad it wasn't just one year. I'm glad it's an ongoing initiative we'll continue to support.
Why did you do the podcaster bootcamp?
That initiative, "Sound Up Bootcamp," came out of "Black History Is Happening Now." Our social impact team noticed there was a terrible lack of representation when it came to women of color in the podcasting space. At the same time, there have been some really amazing women of color who've broken out because of podcasts. Some of them have even got TV shows, etc. On the one hand, we saw a real lack of opportunity, and on the other hand, we saw that if an opportunity was given, a huge impact could be made.
So, we established the bootcamp, and it was an intensive week for 10 successful applicants, three of whom then got the support to produce their podcasts. That support went beyond financial—we provided cover art and branding and everything we could to set it up for success. The interesting thing was, when the initiative was put out, we didn't necessarily expect a huge response. We had to pull in a huge team at the last minute because there were 17,000 submissions for 10 spaces [for the first bootcamp in 2018]. One of those podcasts went on to be sponsored as a Spotify original … Dope Labs. Give it a listen. It is dope. And it was really exciting that something that started as an initiative for support became a way for us to identify a talent and to develop a new property for Spotify.
Your latest global campaign was themed "Podcasts for every mood" as well as "Music for every mood." Podcasts are clearly a priority now.
That campaign originally started with a brief that said, essentially, "How do we reach a slightly older audience that's yet to embrace streaming? How do we illustrate to them how we can be a seamless part of their everyday life, from the time they get up in the morning to when they go to bed?"
The obvious thought is [to say that we have] playlists for commuting, and we have playlists for working out, and [playlists for] everything else. But we felt that might be a little shallow. Because, sure, I can be on the subway in the morning, and I can be in a great mood, and I can be requiring a certain type of music for that. But maybe the person next to me is stressed, and doesn't want to go to work, and they need something else entirely. So we realized the real power was in moods. Because that's what music can create. It's what music can change. So we leaned into how, no matter where you are during your day, no matter what your mood is, we have the right accompanying playlist.
It was a tribute to our programming team, who for years have been creating thousands of incredibly well-thought-out playlists that really take you to very specific headspaces. There's so many different types of workout playlists, from "Work Out Twerk Out" to "Beast Mode" to "Indie Workout." Another thing that can alter your mood or way of thinking is an incredible conversation. That's what podcasts give you. So the reason why we wanted to put them [music and podcasts] together was to demonstrate the breadth of what we have to offer.
Are Spotify's podcasts as important as the music?
We're getting briefs to support podcasts. Not just a range of podcasts, but specific podcasts. This year, we've launched an original podcast with Jemele Hill. That had a video trailer and an accompanying campaign that would be as big as anything we would do for an artist because she's such an important voice. We also supported an original podcast around the Clash, including interviews with the band, and reflecting on their importance and impact. And there's Joe Budden—he's an extremely popular figure on our platform. More and more, we're seeing the type of campaigns [for podcasters] we normally do for [music] artist releases.
Talk about "Wrapped," the annual holiday campaign. Everyone looks forward to that.
During the holiday period, when you have the more traditional ads and Santa Claus, there would be a place for a brand like Spotify. It's also a time to look back at the year. But we also do things differently than everybody else. So we didn't want to be a traditional sort of list-maker. We wanted to find a way to celebrate individuals, and obviously, at the heart of "Wrapped" is a website that allows people to opt-in and then relive how they listened throughout the year.
We go to a lot of effort to make it feel different and fresh every year while giving people the familiar pleasures. But what really excites us every time is when we see Twitter light up. Indeed, we had the two top global-trending topics on Twitter the day we launched the "Wrapped" website last year. Also, last year, for the first time, on the exact same website, artists could log on and they could relive how people had listened to their music through the year. And that's not just useful from a career management point of view, it also gives artists a lot of feels in terms of reliving their career on Spotify.
When you were a young person, did you play in a band? Were you involved in music?
I've always had uniquely unfashionable music taste. I've always loved music, but I've never been that person at the party who would confidently make music recommendations. I always had to call friends who would give me the clues about what I should listen to. I did use Spotify the second it became available in the U.S. I was working at an agency at the time, and I preregistered to get my hands on it. It helps in a job like this not to be the ultimate music knowledge person, because while our platform is great for the true connoisseurs and the people who are on the edge of what's next, we're also a discovery platform for people who want to find out more about music.
What's on your playlist?
The last time I checked, there've been over 240 million streams of "Africa" by Toto, and I think I might be responsible for about 50 percent of them. My team is sick of me trying to slip it into every campaign. But that's the whole point. We all have those go-to places that mean something to you for some weird reason. I think there's a lot of power in being the music platform and brand that can celebrate that.
What's your favorite ad jingle of all time?
I'm from Australia. There's a famous Australian jingle called "I'm a Happy Little Vegemite." Every time I hear it, it takes me back to a certain place and time. The one that always sticks in my mind in the U.S. … I've always thought the Toys "R" Us jingle is catchy and charming.
Can you predict what Spotify will be like two or five years from now?
If you'd ask me this two years ago, I never would've guessed where we are now and what we'd be doing. And if I knew what Spotify would be like, or what we'd be doing [two years from now], I'd be worried. This is a relentlessly creative, innovative place that embraces change, and I love that I have no idea. That's what makes it exciting to work here.