Spotify’s acquisition of music data and recommendation company the Echo Nest is a clear statement from a pre-IPO Spotify to the market that it takes the challenge of the Tyranny of Choice seriously. In doing so it has established ideological fault lines between it and rival Beats Music. While Beats has put its faith in human curation Spotify has bet big on algorithms. It’s men against machines. But the most important implication is neither this nor even the fact that Spotify now powers the discovery tools of many of its competitors, but instead the shockwaves that Spotify could send throughout the entire tech start up ecosystem if its screws up how it deals with the Echo Nest’s API. This is the first major text case for the Age of the API.
Over the last half decade open APIs have become a central component of the technology space with countless start ups opening up their code and data for other start ups to riff off. It has been a win-win for start ups on both sides of the equation: the givers more quickly permeate throughout their target marketplaces while the takers get to short cut to functionality that might be otherwise unobtainable. Consequently we now have countless companies that are built upon a patchwork of interconnected APIs and a richer seam of products and services.
This is the exact strategy the Echo Nest pursued, aggressively pushing their API out into the digital music market place with very liberal usage terms and putting themselves at the heart of the Music Hackday movement. (Few Hackday entrants worth their salt will be found without the Echo Nets API coursing through their virtual veins.) Only Soundcloud can lay claim to having been more successful in the music API game.
But now that the Echo Nest is deeply embedded in the digital music marketplace what happens if it turns off or dials back its API? Currently it is making all the right noises, that its API will remain both “free and open”. But there is a big difference between the aspirations of a newly acquired company and the actual behavior of the buyer 12 months or so down the line. Indeed, a highly plausible scenario is that Spotify will eventually wind down the Echo Nest as a distinct entity, bringing all of its functionality behind the walls. After all, if you break down what motivated Spotify’s acquisition, other than the prime motive of sending the right message to the street, the core assets are not the data itself – Spotify has plenty enough of that – but instead the expertise and the technology. Data is worthless if you cannot interpret it properly. Why let competitors benefit from that?
So right now the technology sector as a whole should be paying close attention to what Spotify does with the Echo Nest’s API. If it does indeed eventually turn off the tap then it will rightly make investors and start ups alike question the strategic integrity of building businesses on the foundations of third party APIs. Spotify needs to get this one right because the implications are far bigger than Spotify’s IPO, or indeed even the broader digital music market. Instead this is the future of the entire technology start up marketplace.