Newsmaker: Angela Watts, Spotify

As Spotify focuses on attracting members to its digital-music platform, its head of global communications ensures that messaging is in sync and pitch perfect.

As Spotify focuses on attracting members to its digital-music platform, its head of global communications ensures that messaging is in sync and pitch perfect.

For someone who has had just a few hours sleep, Angela Watts, VP of global communications at Spotify, seems effortlessly bright and breezy.

The reason for her lack of shuteye was a global press conference to unveil some major changes to the digital music service. As PRWeek went to press, the event had generated more than 1,600 pieces of international coverage.

London-based Watts traveled to Spotify's New York offices to coordinate the event. The open-plan Chelsea space, which houses about 200 employees, has your typical tech company/startup feel: hip design, free food, and a fridge stocked with an array of coconut water. And it comes with an impressive view of the Empire State Building.

2010-present
Spotify, VP, global communications.
Previously held the role of VP, marketing and communications.

2003-2009
Various roles at Yahoo. Began as Overture's (a search company that was acquired by Yahoo) PR manager, UK, Netherlands, and Nordic region (2003-2006) before being named head of European PR, Yahoo search and search marketing (2006-2007). Watts was later installed as head of UK PR for Yahoo (2007-2008) before she was appointed as the company's head of trade PR in Europe (2008-2009).

1999-2003
Harvard Public Relations, senior account manager

Watts has spent a lot of time in New York in recent years. Her and a colleague even joke that they feel like they "moved here by accident" a couple of years ago, when Spotify was building its presence in the US

Spotify is a music-streaming service that works by paying royalties to rights holders every time a track from its catalogue is played. It has licensing deals with record labels and makes money through advertising and subscriptions to its ad-free premium service, priced at $9.99 a month.

Among the changes announced at the presser in December is that its mobile service is free – the implementation of Spotify's mobile-first strategy that has been about a year in the making.

"It is the way things are going," says Watts. "The more users we can get into the actual service, the more users will convert to become paid subscribers." 

Watts dismisses the suggestion that this maneuver to build its user base – currently 24 million active users in 55 markets with 6 million of those paying for premium service – is part of a wider plan to go public. Twitter, for example, recently went public on the strength of its user base, rather than its unproven revenue model.

"That is not part of our plans at the moment. Our sole priority is growth and making the product the best it can be. We want to be able to offer Spotify to everyone in all markets," she explains. "The difference between our company and Twitter is we have had a clear monetization strategy from the day we launched."

Watts declined to break down revenue split, but confirmed the business, which was recently reported to be worth $4 billion, does make more money from subscriptions than advertising.

Constant speculation
The announcement that Spotify was going free on mobile did not come as much of a surprise to anyone with an eye on industry news, since The Wall Street Journal broke the story the week before, just after invitations to a Spotify event were sent to the media. Watts was watching comedian Russell Brand in London and when she saw her phone light up, she realized the news was out.

"This industry is very leaky. Any time we would sign a deal or do anything, it would get out there. We are constantly dealing with rumor and speculation," she adds. "It is great in a way because there is so much interest, but if we commented on everything it would be very distracting, so we have a policy where we don't."

In the 18 months ahead of the US launch, Watts was fielding weekly "Why haven't you launched yet?" questions from journalists, after a leak gave a false launch date.

"The one upside is that it did create a shedload of buzz," Watts explains. "When we did actually launch, there was so much demand and interest." 

When Spotify was ready to enter the US in July 2011, Watts had to cut short her family holiday to fly to New York. Despite having what she calls "the most hideous throat infection known to woman" at the time, she soldiered on and bought surgical masks from a local Duane Reade so she would not infect other team members at a crucial moment in the company's history.

Watts pursued a "very PR 101" strategy for the launch – get as much mainstream coverage as possible. A cover feature was planned with Bloomberg Businessweek for launch day, complete with a photoshoot of Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek with popstar Christina Aguilera. But the News Corp. hacking scandal story meant it was bumped off the front page at the last minute.

However, the company's US launch got the blanket coverage it desired, with Spotify's US MD Ken Parks doing about 35 interviews in one day. To drive consumer awareness and create a feeling of exclusivity, Spotify gave artists including Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga 10,000 codes each to give to fans to try the then invitation-only service.

In the deep end, again
Watts had little time to catch her breath before being plunged into the deep end once more when Facebook launched a Spotify app just months later. The app allows users to share and see what their friends are listening to on the social network.

Mark Zuckerberg later invited Ek to join him on stage at Facebook's f8 Developers Conference in 2011 (above), in what was Ek's first keynote. Watts and Ek rehearsed the speech for hours the night before.

"Angela, in short, is a machine," explains Ek. "She is always juggling at least 15 projects at any given moment. The fact that she is not only calm under pressure, but always finds a way to smile, makes her an amazing friend and asset to Spotify."

But Watts' whirlwind few months were not all work and no play as Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Spotify board member Sean Parker threw a massive party in San Francisco for Spotify to mark its appearance at the conference.

"The party has gone down in legend," says Watts. "In typical Sean Parker style, it was incredibly lavish and beautifully produced."

Snoop Dogg, Jane's Addiction, and The Killers played to the crowd of 400 that included Zuckerberg and Jonathan Ive, Apple's SVP of design.

While many artists are embracing Spotify and its mission, it has not been welcomed with open arms from all corners of the industry. In July, Radiohead's influential frontman, Thom Yorke, blasted Spotify on Twitter, complaining that it pays new artists nothing. He pulled his solo – and sideband, Atoms for Peace's – music from the service.

Watts says Spotify had been having conversations with Yorke prior to the outburst.

"It was a difficult situation for us," she adds. "He is a UK national treasure with so much respect in the industry. We wanted to have those conversations in private." 

In response to the situation, Spotify made its general stance and vision clear, and in an official statement explained how it pays artists, without directly referencing Yorke's comments. Ek himself, responded to the criticism on Twitter.

"This is the biggest change in the way people listen to music since the creation of the record," says Watts. "We understand why some artists are apprehensive about streaming because it is a new model and a difficult and complex thing. It will take time."

Watts also points out that several artists, such as Moby, have defended the service. In order to be more transparent about remuneration, Spotify recently launched tools for musicians and managers to see how often their music gets streamed and how much this pays.

Like the majority of employees at Spotify, Watts is passionate about music. She is a classically trained pianist, percussionist, and flutist. Her love of music was a major factor behind her joining the startup in 2010.

At the time, she had a young son and was promoted to the top communications role for Yahoo in Europe. But 10 minutes into a meeting with Ek and his clear vision convinced her this was too good an opportunity to refuse, despite the uncertainty that comes with working for a startup.

Rapid expansion saw her grow the team from three to 50 prior to the US launch. Following that, marketing and communications were split and Watts became global VP of communications. The marketing team is headed by Erin Clift who reports to Jeff Levick, chief sales and marketing officer.

"It is no surprise that she has risen to such levels," says Mark Casey, former MD of Prodigy Communications and founder of Dais PR, whom Watts worked for at Harvard PR. "What Angela possesses in spades is a mix of the qualities needed to be a first-class media operator, intelligence, a deep understanding of the issues that need
to be addressed, and real professional calmness, even when under fire."

CAMPAIGNS IN A BOX

Consumer PR is a key part of Spotify's growth strategy and the company has devised a way to make sure its message is heard in different markets.

C.J. Stanley, head of consumer PR creates consumer campaigns "in a box." For example, Spotify recently focused an effort on flying to mark the holiday season, with a suggested playlist of songs for nervous flyers. Anxiety psychologist Dr. Becky Spelman from the Private Therapy Clinic in London selected the tracks, which included artists such as Enya.

The campaigns are sent to markets at relevant times. For example, the flying initiative was used in the UK in April, ahead of the summer months, when most people go on vacation, while it was rolled out in Australia at the end of the year when more people travel. This ensures Spotify's consumer marketing is timely and relevant to each market, says Watts.

Agency support
Watts has a team of 15, with one or two heads of PR in each market where the service operates, as well as a head of consumer PR, C.J. Stanley, who reports to her. In the US, Spotify works with The OutCast Agency.

"I view our agencies as an extension of our team," she says. "It's the only way to work."

Looking back, Watts recalls the early days at the startup, when 30 staff crammed in a tiny London office with no meeting rooms, as they had been turned into desk spaces. She shared one with Ek and another staffer.
"That's startup life," she says, "but it was good to be working closely together." 

"I kind of miss those days," adds Watts. "But it's not like I am now sitting in an ivory tower. Every day is still a roll-up-your-sleeves day and that's how I love it."

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