Spotify's Amy Vale on defining career success.
Ten years ago, music streaming didn’t exist. What is it like working in such a new industry and where do you see it going?
Digital is democratic; it doesn’t discriminate and it allows you to access content, whether you want to access it for free with advertising or whether you want to pay for it. So that’s broadening the reach of content, both by producers and users themselves. So it’s an exciting growth for streaming in general. I think there is a lot of consumer change that is going to happen and I think it’s going to take a while for it to settle. I haven’t seen so much constant change since digital became ubiquitous.
With generations growing up with digital as part of their DNA, it’s also going to shift the way we communicate with each other. But there needs to be a balance between screen time and personal time. If you don’t ever look up from your screen, you won’t have the skills to communicate with people in personal settings and all this will have a bigger impact that we can ever realise. That’s the balance that still needs to be found.
Spotify was launched in 2008 and now has more than 60 million users – how did it come about?
Spotify was created in Sweden when our CEO, Daniel Ek, recognised that piracy was a huge issue there. He wanted to figure out a way to solve that, so that artists and right holders were still paid, while still bringing music to people for free, but in a legal way. It took a long time to convince the content holders to focus on a different way of approaching monetising music. The ‘freemium’ model – if you will – has emerged as something that we know works.
What about the criticism from artists who say they can’t make a living from their music via streaming services?
I think anything new is confronting. Spotify is a stream-based model: it’s ongoing income. If I bought an album for $20, the artist would only ever get that money once, but if I’m an avid fan of that artist and I stream those 12 tracks for the rest of my life, they will continue to get money. So it’s a long-term investment. And that doesn’t stop them from bringing in money from iTunes or albums – it’s an additional form of revenue for them.
Why does marketing interest you and why is it important?
In year 12, my media class was given an assignment of making a video. Everyone was making these very emotional teenage-angsty short films. I made a TV commercial. So I was drawn to marketing even before I realised I wanted to make a career out of it.
Six months later I was accepted into the Advertising program at RMIT (not because of the TV commercial by the way). I've always been drawn to the discipline, I even used to glue my favourite print ads to my high school folders.
Marketing, and more specifically advertising, gets a bad rap as being intrusive and out for the almighty dollar. However, I see brands as much more than that – it's evolved to include social good, content and advice, and being present for really important moments. An example of being a part of important moments would be my love for McDonald's. My fondest memories of time with my grandfather, Alan, growing up was going through the drive-through at McDonalds and then sitting on the banks of the Murray River eating a burger with him.
How did you get into this industry and get the job in New York?
It was a lot of planning on my part! I’d always wanted to come to New York since I was 10 years old. I had a business in Melbourne, which meant I was able to come to the US on a business visa for six months. During that time I reached out to anyone and everyone who would hear from me and I met a recruiter who put me into contact with a mobile advertising company. It was a start-up and they were looking for someone to lead the marketing team, so that’s how I started.
Mojiva [a mobile advertising company] was my first job in NY and that was really illuminating from many different perspectives, not just around the expectation around start-up life but also the mobile industry, as well as how business is done in America. Three years later and I got the job at Spotify.
Even though my role at Mojiva was global, at Spotify we’re in 58 markets now, so having an understanding of what is happening in each of those marketplaces, from mobile to the digital landscape to the types of players, was a lot to learn. That was the biggest part of the transition.
One of the main challenges of my role now is being comfortable with change every single day – being OK with feeling unsettled and not always knowing what’s going on, simply because things are moving so quickly. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
How do you manage work/life balance?
That’s probably been one of the biggest things that I’ve had to work on, because I’ve spent a lot of time building up my career.
I invested most of my twenties into that and building my network and really getting as good as I could at what I do. But I’m starting to realise that’s only sustainable for so long. Maybe turning 30 made me realise that there’s a bit more to life than my career, although it is a big part of who I am. But I’m now a little more present in what’s going on as opposed to always checking my phone and my emails. I realise emails are always going to be there.
I think separating the personal from business is really important. You have to learn to remove yourself. I used to really invest everything that I had into my work and that took away from everything else I was doing. Being able to separate that out was a really important learning for me. It was a gradual thing which has come with age and experience. No one is expecting perfection, people make mistakes and that’s OK. That’s taken me the better part of a decade to arrive at.
What does success mean to you?
Business-wise, success means moving the business forward via the contributions I make and always being focused on the work. It's so easy for people to get caught up in politics or things that are out of their control, which does exactly zero to help the company achieve its goals.
Leadership-wise, success means being of service to my team; to remove roadblocks, be a sounding board for ideas and then get out of their way.
I’m proud of being in a role where I’m responsible for 26 people and helping drive a huge amount of commercialisation for the business. I feel very fortunate to have the privilege of being part of that team and building a pathway for them, so they are ready for their next job.
What are the values that drive your work?
Being curious is one of the best ways of being successful in your job. And the other part of that is listening. I think people are all too often focused on their response instead of focusing on what’s being said and I have to constantly work on listening as a skill. If you can be curious and if you can listen, things will start to fall into place.
Amy Vale graduated from an Advanced Diploma of Business in Advertising in 2005.
Images: Amy Vale pictured at Spotify's office in New York. Photos by Peter Rad.