Why music artists are upset with the CEO

In November, Spotify cofounder and CEO Daniel Ek revealed he was backing Helsing.ai, a European artificial intelligence company that develops national security and defense sector technology, to the tune of 100 million euros ($113 million). That news has since caught the ire of many social media users—including music artists and Spotify subscribers—sparking a movement to #boycottSpotify over its chief executive’s support of the military industrial complex.

Ek’s investment followed up on his 2020 pledge to commit 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) of his personal fortune—presumably, largely built by Spotify—to deeptech projects over the next decade, including forays in machine learning, biotechnology, materials science, and energy. Helsing, which was founded this year and holds offices in London, Munich, and Berlin, engineers software that pieces together a real-time picture of an “operational environment” by organizing unstructured data from multiple sensors on vehicles and systems—such as tanks, drones, or satellites—including video feeds, thermal imaging, and sonar and radar frequencies. Such a tool could be valuable for military reconnaissance by helping officers assess battlefield combat situations or identify critical targets, and could also prove crucial in a cyberattack scenario, as it can reach conclusions a million times faster than humans. So far, it has reportedly been sold to French, British, and German forces.

Helsing itself states that it hopes to give an information edge specifically to “countries which meet the highest democratic standards”—or those with “liberal democratic values worth defending”—in order to “help protect free societies for future generations.” However, Ek’s bankrolling of Helsing’s mission to develop and deploy war weapons has angered some Spotify users, who argued on social media that they don’t want their subscriber dollars to fund military fighting. While they were on the topic of revenues, many also echoed recent accusations that Spotify has slighted the often-struggling music artists who power its platform with meager revenue shares, despite the company’s booming profits.

Today, I am proud to announce that after having been a Spotify user since the beta in 2007 I cancelled my account because of this, driven by a mission to help build a thriving society – which AI powered weapons systems are most certainly not part of.

— Michail / opiumhum.eth Ⓥ (@opiumhum) November 17, 2021

Just cancelled my @Spotify subscription. The CEO has given €100m, that he’s leeched from artists over the years, to a military company using AI weaponry.

If I had the power to pull my music off those platforms I would. #boycottspotify https://t.co/W0c1C1gzWS

— Janey (@janeyjstarling) November 30, 2021

Meanwhile, many artists have been calling to pull their music from the platform in protest. “When music is used as a weapon, you know things are out of tune. There’s no music in war,” wrote fusion producer Darren Sangita. “Enough is enough—using our content to fund war is the final straw,” wrote gothtronica artist Saint Martyn. Jazz percussionist Sameer Gupta offered a 95% discount for his catalog through Bandcamp, a major Spotify competitor. Others offered other coupons.

#BoycottSPOTIFY now! Cancel your subscription today. Artists and music lovers must not support the military #AI industry! Register your anger at the #Spotify involvement in sponsorship of Arms Corporations. This is so vile. Music is NOT War! Just wrong on every level. https://t.co/5k4Wnv6zj0

— Darren Sangita (@darrensangita) November 22, 2021

Reached by email, a Spotify representative declined to comment, but stressed the separation between Spotify and Prima Materia, which have no connection beyond Ek cofounding both. (Prima Materia was also cofounded by Shakil Khan, Spotify’s head of special projects.)

A Prima Materia representative also declined to comment.