'We're helping fuel incredible growth': Inside Spotify's UK HQ with Tom Connaughton, Sulinna Ong and James Cator

James Cator, Tom Connaughton and Sulinna Ong

In his first ever interview, Spotify UK MD Tom Connaughton joins head of music Sulinna Ong and podcast supremo James Cator to show off their new London HQ. As the No.1 DSP targets further growth, Music Week meets the reshaped leadership team leading the British streaming revolution...

Tom Connaughton beams with paternal pride as he gives Music Week a personal tour of the grand art deco Adelphi building that houses Spotify’s new London HQ.

“We’re going to have podcast studios, recording studios for music, photography rooms, green rooms, event spaces, multiple listening rooms, it’s an incredible investment in all of the people here, in our partners and really in London as well,” says the streaming giant’s UK and Ireland MD.

“We’re really excited about making this a great home for our teams, but also a great home for everybody we work with.”

The Adelphi has brought together the tech and curatorial teams for the first time.

Sulinna Ong, head of music for the UK and Ireland, has already bagged a favourite spot in the new building.

“I always go to Boy In Da Corner,” she smiles, pointing out that meeting rooms are named after classic albums.

As they pose for pictures, Connaughton is self-consciously stooping to get his 6ft 7ins frame in the shot (“I’m very tall, so I’m told. Often. By strangers”). When he isn’t crouching on demand, Connaughton is admiring head of studios James Cator’s natty jumper.

Before long, these streaming execs are imagining an alternative career.

“Our band name is Any Other Business,” says Ong. “We’re doing a podcast too.”

Ong and Connaughton are fresh faces in charge of the UK, while podcast supremo Cator is a practically a veteran in his fifth year at Spotify.

Connaughton left his New York-based role at Vevo to return home to London as Spotify’s head of artist & label marketing on April 9, 2018, six days after the company’s IPO. In the months after it went public, many of the streaming giant’s execs departed, as it was transformed into a listed company whose numbers could now be closely scrutinised by investors and analysts.

It was the move to Apple Music by Spotify’s head of music culture, international shows and editorial George Ergatoudis, formerly of BBC Radio 1, that opened up a big promotion for Connaughton before he had barely unpacked his bags.

Last summer, Ong had a similarly rapid three-month rise following her move from Deezer to become head of artist and label services, which involves overseeing all the music teams – artist & label marketing, music culture & editorial, artist & industry partnerships, urban and artist marketing.

She was promoted after former BBC 1Xtra exec Austin Daboh left his role as Spotify’s UK head of shows & editorial to join Ergatoudis at Apple Music.

When Music Week brings up the former leadership, there’s little willingness to discuss Spotify execs who jumped ship for their biggest rival.

“The remits are somewhat different, we don’t really get drawn into executive departures,” says Connaughton. “Sulinna’s role is a new role, nobody’s held a head of music role in the UK before and had such a broad music remit.”

So do their rapid promotions suggest they are equally brilliant music executives?

“Yes, the answer is yes,” Ong deadpans.

“I’m not sure, someone else would have to answer that,” frowns Connaughton.

While high-profile and opinionated former Radio 1 and 1Xtra faces were once the right fit for Spotify, the New York Stock Exchange listing perhaps encourages more restraint. This is, in fact, Connaughton’s first ever interview and he’s largely careful to avoid deviating from CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek’s utopian vision.

In his first 18 months or so, Connaughton has focused on the job of steering Spotify through its second decade. But he acknowledges the efforts of his predecessors in the UK.

“There’s been an incredible amount of work that’s gone into Spotify over the past 10 years,” says Connaughton. “We really are standing on the shoulders of giants in terms of all the work that has been put into this before our time.”

While the stakes are high, there’s easygoing banter between Connaughton and Ong. It turns out that the pair go all the way back to the early noughties at Sony Music.

We’re all focused on ensuring that we’re really helping drive the business in the UK and Ireland

Tom Connaughton

“We met and had our first argument over the Wu-Tang Clan,” recalls Ong. “We had a very heated debate over who was the best MC – Ghostface Killah obviously.”

Connaughton started his career in 2001 at Sony, working for Jackie Hyde in the artist relations and corporate PR team.

“On my first morning in the record industry, the fax machine had all these clippings about the Napster trial coming through,” he recalls. “So I was there at the beginning of the period of digital disruption.”

Over the next nine years in various roles on the A&R and marketing teams, Connaughton witnessed the music industry shrinking as piracy took hold.

“I loved my time there,” he says. “But I can tell you that from a business perspective, it wasn’t much fun. It was cost-cutting, it was downsizing, it was mergers, it was redundancies. A lot of fantastic people were lost to the music industry at that period. So to be here at Spotify today, and be partly responsible for the next chapter, it feels like a real privilege.”

While the current Spotify team may be less outspoken than Ergatoudis and Daboh, they both have a colourful backstory and an obvious passion for music.

Connaughton hails from a Irish family in London and takes his middle name, Wolfe Tone, from an 18th century republican revolutionary. He still lives in Camden, where he grew up in the ’80s and ’90s going on family outings to The Devonshire Arms to see The Pogues.

The family tradition continues with Spotify’s UK boss taking his daughter on weekend trips to Kentish Town record store Let It Roll – perhaps a surprise for an executive whose job is basically getting us to ditch our music collection.

Ong is equally enthusiastic about a Can box set in which she’s just invested.

Her music tastes were formed during a nomadic childhood in Asia, the Middle East, Australia and the UK. Although born in Huddersfield, the family moved to her mother’s home of Tehran, but fled Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979.

“I’ve just discovered the story about how my parents left Iran in the middle of the night,” she says. “I often think what my life would have been like if I’d grown up there.”

While she was caught up in an actual revolution, the focus of Ong and her colleagues is now the streaming revolution.

Spotify declines to reveal UK figures within its 113 million global subscribers, reported in October. But Connaughton describes this as a “priority market” and he’s building the British subscriber base and monthly active users in order to remain No.1.

“It’s an incredible time to be here,” he smiles. “We’re really dominant as a platform for music audiences in the UK. The music industry is back into an incredible period of growth, we’re really helping fuel that growth and we’re really proud of that. We’re all focused on ensuring that we’re really helping drive the business in the UK and Ireland.”

But with rivals Apple Music and Amazon Music snapping as Spotify’s heels, it’s time to hear their masterplan for the next decade…

What’s your experience of working at Spotify so far?

Tom Connaughton: “It’s not really until you work here that you fully realise the strength, power and love for the brand in the UK. If I’m out and someone finds out where I work, the first thing they do almost without fail is they say, ‘Oh my god, I love Spotify, it’s changed my life’. And the next thing they do is they go on to tell me the three things they would do to improve it – and they’re always different things. I think that really speaks to the personal nature of the Spotify service, right? And that’s where the innovation comes from. So for us, it’s all about listening. We’ve spent a lot of time speaking to our partners, we’ve refocused our music teams, we’ve made a commitment to be the number one creative partner to artists and an amazing partner to labels. We’ve been building revenue and subscribers, we’ve been building out our podcasts and investing in our podcast and studios team.”

What’s the outlook for Spotify in the UK?

TC: “Our revenue is growing two and a half times faster than our operating costs – that is the pattern globally. A lot of the big upside for us has been improved retention and increased engagement on the platform. The UK has always held such an incredibly important and unique place in the global music ecosystem. We want to support that and build that.”

Urban is the only genre with a dedicated music team at Spotify. Is that scene key to growth?

Sulinna Ong: “We do work across all genres, we have genre specialists, especially on the editorial teams. The urban team works very closely with the community. So Who We Be is a good example: that started as a playlist, then became a podcast with Who We Be Talks and there’s Who We Be Live annually, so we are taking that playlist experience into the live world. Urban is a big genre for Spotify in the UK, it’s also a very important genre, if you look at the rise of European hip-hop. Hip-hop and urban music is in a perfect place with streaming, they have always been early adaptors of technology. For urban artists, it’s second nature to use streaming to gather an audience and fanbase.”

TC: “Historically, maybe that scene wasn’t supported in the way it could have been by the mainstream media and I guess ‘gatekeepers’. And so what that meant was that you had a whole community of people and a whole scene that went off and started doing things for themselves. You look at the work SBTV did back back in the day, you look at GRM Daily, Link Up TV, they built their own distribution. When you add social media plus streaming, it’s a very, very powerful distribution network. And when a lot of these big releases are shared, it’s not just music, it’s the news. It’s being talked about, obsessed about and really binged on streaming. A game-changing moment that made a lot of people sit up and take notice was the Dave and Fredo single Funky Friday, which dropped from nowhere and just went to No.1.”

How does the music industry feel about you pushing podcasts?

TC: “I haven’t had any direct negative reaction to that. Our move into the podcast space hasn’t happened overnight. What we’ve found is that we can maybe attract a different type of audience to the platform. And also that people who listen to podcasts on the platform go on to listen to a lot more music – it’s a much more engaged listener.”

James Cator: “We see the artist community and label community really stepping into the world of podcasts as well. We worked recently with Oasis and their artist team, they were launching a podcast around Definitely Maybe. That launched to an incredible set of figures. So that shows that the music industry is really starting to think about how those artists can tell stories outside of that format of a song or of an album.”

Can Spotify playlists help break UK artists?

SO: “Sam Fender’s a good [example]. Go back all the way to 2017 and Sam received a grant from the PRS For Music Foundation Momentum Fund, for which Spotify is the official digital partner. Playlisting began on our genre lists. In 2018, he really stepped up to flagship playlists, then we branched out Sam into mood playlists like Easy. In 2019 he was in Hot Hits UK, which is our biggest flagship playlist. And around the album, there was a big marketing campaign, as well as an event in Sam’s hometown in North Shields. So Spotify was there when he was told that he had the No.1 album, which was pretty special. There’s not one thing that breaks an artist – Spotify can ignite the flame but that flame needs to be fanned, which involves a whole load of stakeholders.”

And do your playlists give artists a global reach?

SO: “Absolutely. And on Spotify For Artists, an artist can pitch for any playlist on Spotify – it’s not UK-specific.”

TC: “Over 80% of UK artists are seeing the majority of their streams abroad, so the export piece is really important to us.”

Has it been an important 12 months for the streaming economy?

SO: “As each year goes by streaming becomes more important. Something like Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project involved many artists, so having that on streaming and accessing all of those artists’ fans was really key to the success of that campaign. Streaming also breaks down the country barriers that used to exist. So things move fast. Then you’ve got to make sure that you can keep the momentum.”

How important is touring in creating streaming spikes for artists?

SO: “We always strive to provide connection between an artist and an audience. We’ve got our Fans First pre-sales initiative. We’ve been trialling this with some artists. For example, with Mabel we moved 50,000 tickets in 11 days. The second thing is bringing the playlist into the real world. Since our first Who We Be event in 2017, we’ve welcomed 28,500 people to have that experience. We’re also seeing Modus Mio, which is the German hip-hop playlist, sell out in Berlin and Dortmund and the French are getting their first round of live events for their Pvnchlnrs playlist.”

TC: “When there are cultural trends and things happening off platform, you’ll see it very quickly impacting on platform. A great example of that was when Dave performed at Glastonbury and had that incredible moment where he brought Alex Mann, a young guy from the audience, up to perform Thiago Silva with him. You had a fantastic record, which was over three years old, it was ticking along at about 20,000 streams a day on Spotify. Then that one moment ignited it, so you’ve suddenly got a hit record with about 400,000 streams a day consistently on Spotify. What’s really interesting about that as well is the concept of catalogue has changed completely. Catalogue used to have a stigma attached to it, it used to be almost where good music was sent to die. Now nothing’s ever dead, it’s just dormant.”

We always strive to provide connection between an artist and an audience

Sulinna Ong

How long can £9.99 remain viable as a subscription price?

TC: “We’re always looking at pricing, both from UK perspective and globally. And right now we feel that we’re at the right price for the market.”

Does future profitability put pressure on that price, though?

TC: “We’re focused on providing the best offer and the best products for the consumer. And right now that’s at £9.99. There are obviously other products, like our family plan, and globally you might see some different products out there. We’re always looking at what’s the best price point.”

How did the IPO change Spotify?

TC: “I wasn’t here before, so it’s hard for me to comment. But what I would say is that this is a company that is extremely innovative and fast paced. It’s a place that really invests in people, and believes in developing and bringing in the best people possible to the business. Moving into this new space is a great signpost of the investment in the team and the belief in the team.”

A lot of people have been leaving Spotify in the last few years. What’s going on?

TC: “We don’t discuss executive departures, we’re here to talk about building our team and the strategy that’s ahead of us. Being in Spotify, it is a very fast-paced, fluid and dynamic environment, and it’s that way by design. If you were to speak to Daniel [Ek], he’d tell you that from the cusp of chaos comes innovation, and it’s innovation that’s put Spotify where it is as a platform today and helps it deliver this service that people love and that is great for artists and their teams.”

Finally, what’s going to drive Spotify’s growth in the UK over the next decade?

TC: “What’s massively exciting is that there really is so much room to grow in the UK and in Ireland, and globally. And we’re really focused on doing that. A big thing for us now is the transition from music service to the world’s first true audio network. Our mission, and the vision for the company from Daniel and his teams, is that we want to unlock the potential of human creativity. We want to enable a million creative artists to live off their work and a billion fans globally to enjoy it.”

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