Interview With

Cherie Hu

Founder, Water & Music

 
 
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Cherie Hu

Founder, Water & Music

Harvard University

Bachelor of Arts, Statistics

The Juilliard School

Pre-College Diploma, Piano Performance

 

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Part of me is still amazed that I am a full-time writer today, because that was never part of the original plan. For most of my life, my experience with music was as a performer; I was classically trained in piano for 12 years, and initially intended on studying at a conservatory full-time. I also happened to be a huge math nerd growing up, and ultimately decided to pursue a liberal-arts education majoring in statistics while minoring in music, immersing myself in the best of both worlds.

I’ve been thinking about the intersection of music and math for years, and initially applied those interests to a mix of academic and industry-facing projects in college, including internships at Ticketmaster and Interscope Records and a research project on digital-music innovation at Harvard Business School.

My first writing opportunity was completely unexpected: When I was a junior in fall 2015, my friend persuaded me to check out my college’s Media & Advertising Career Fair with only 30 minutes remaining. I was running around the fair trying to meet everyone, and ended up stopping by the Forbes table because they were displaying their Celebrity 100 issue with Katy Perry on the cover. The man staffing the table ended up giving me my first freelance gig: we struck up a conversation about music and tech, and he mentioned that he was looking for more contributors to write about music streaming and startups for Forbes’ website. I knew nothing about freelance journalism at the time, but took up the opportunity just to see what would happen. I ended up falling in love with the process of writing, and of applying a data-driven perspective to communicating trends and patterns in an industry like music that was so dear to my heart on a creative level as well. The rest is history!

I also never saw myself as a frequent moderator or public speaker—I am a stereotypical introvert in every way—but the opportunities also came organically as conference organizers were looking for more specialists to speak on the topic of music, tech and innovation. My first-ever moderation opportunity was a panel at the 2016 Sonar Festival in Barcelona about the value of startup accelerators for music and other creative fields. At large, people have mixed feelings about the efficacy of conferences, but I think they are so important because they enable me to do my job better: building face-to-face relationships with my target market (and potential sources), as well as taking the pulse on people’s opinions and emotions on the latest industry trends.

 
 
 
 

I think more independent artists should be given the opportunity to weigh in on music-industry news and trends, especially beyond the major-label bubble. Major-label artists might bring in the majority of recorded-music revenue, but they account for a minority of musicians in the world trying to make it today. The economic realities of an independent or emerging artist in Asia, Africa, South America or Australia are so different from that of a Billboard chart-topper in Los Angeles, and I wish that that discrepancy were examined a bit more, through the lens of the artists themselves.

I also think more coverage should treat the “music industry” not as a standalone, siloed bubble, but rather as a permeable ecosystem that intersects with literally all other aspects of culture, including film, gaming, fashion and food. Events like Marshmello’s recent set in Fortnite, and the significant impact of the film Bohemian Rhapsody on streaming consumption for Queen’s discography, demonstrate music’s malleable impact across multiple cultural environments, and I look forward to seeing more articles dive into those complex relationships.

 
 
 
 

Yes! So glad you figured this out. As I was writing more about the music industry and talking more with artists about how they’re approaching growing careers and engaging their fans, I realized that traditional practices in the freelance journalism industry are actually quite backwards compared to music, for a number of reasons:

1. As a freelance writer, unless you go out of your way to set up your own system on Patreon or PayPal, there’s no way for readers who like your work to contribute financial support to you directly. Quite literally the opposite of direct-to-fan.

2. Many freelance contracts have clauses that give publications the rights to your work in perpetuity—a massive red flag for any independent creator building a career off of their intellectual property. (I think this practice is slowly changing, thanks in part to media resource groups like Study Hall and the rise of journalists optioning film rights for their articles to Hollywood studios).

3. Typical media-industry practices prioritize the brand of a publication over that of the individual writer. For instance, if an article cites this recent writeup from the New York Times, it will most likely cite the Times and not the two reporters. This is not “bad” per se but it is definitely a disadvantage to freelance writers trying to build their own brands.

In short, I’ve been putting a lot of effort this year into building out a freelance writing career that addresses all of these issues—i.e. that is truly direct-to-fan (or in this case “direct-to-reader”), that gives me ownership over the majority of my work and that allows me to cultivate my own audience that remains robust independent of any third-party brand. These are indeed priorities that a growing number of independent musicians share as well.

 
 
 
 

Timing is everything. There are multiple forces coming together now that are making podcasts such a hot investment:

1. Spotify needs to make more money and stop siphoning off so much of its revenue to rights holders, hence its multimillion-dollar podcast acquisition spree this year.

2. Artists demand more control over their own narratives, and need better tools for telling those stories and maintaining that control.

3. There’s a more abstract, perhaps dystopian element of modern-day consumers feeling lonelier and more isolated than ever; podcasts combine the convenience of on-demand with a feeling of intimacy, camaraderie and community that so many people need today.

 
 

One of the most interesting stories to watch over the next five years will be whether Spotify can successfully rebrand itself as an all-purpose media platform, instead of relying solely on music. Within podcasts, they’re already hiring producers and editors to help with sports, lifestyle and news content, which is definitely out of left field considering how the majority of Spotify’s current users engage with the platform today.

Their acquisition of Soundtrap, and the recent launch of Soundtrap for Storytellers, suggest that Spotify is also interested in building a business around artist tools for creation, not just for marketing (in a manner similar to Splice). I personally don’t think video will be a major part of Spotify’s platform, as the company has tried to launch several different video strategies that have all flopped—users just aren’t interested in that.

 
 

Tools for analyzing natural language are still largely missing (I discuss this more in depth in the next question). Also, to my knowledge Amazon Music hasn’t built an artist dashboard yet, which is concerning given how influential smart speakers and voice activation has already become on people’s consumption habits. Independent artists are especially in danger of being left behind in a world without a visual discovery interface, so I think giving clearer, more contextual data around voice consumption to artists of all career stages should be a priority over the next year and beyond.

 
 

Not to be that person, but the answer to this question is a big, bold it depends.

First off, how do you define a fan? If you put an agent, label A&R, manager, publisher, branding expert and artist in a room, I am willing to bet money that they will all give you vastly different definitions of what “fandom” means to them. That is a blessing and a curse—that in today’s industry, you can define fandom for yourself and set your own rules based on the distinct goals you are trying to achieve.

A lot of people will likely point to “number of tickets sold” as the strongest indicator of fandom, but even that has the danger of generalizing the definition of fandom simply as who is willing to spend the most money on an artist. In reality, an artist may have diehard fans who are telling all their friends about that artist and streaming their catalog multiple times a day, but who are living halfway around the world and/or don’t have the budget to spend on a VIP ticket. Does that mean they should be discounted as a fan? I don’t think so.

Secondly, stardom and fan loyalty are two very different things! To me, fan loyalty is about a consistent level of engagement and investment, whether emotionally or financially. Number of streams/follows/likes/comments per fan per day is a good measure of consistency online, but that metric is so easily gamed and manipulated by fake accounts, especially if you’re relying on those data points without context. In this vein, I think natural language is woefully underrated when it comes to analyzing and measuring fandom. What are fans actually saying in YouTube comments, in Facebook fan groups, in Reddit threads, in Messenger chats? I look forward to seeing more tools that will help artists and other creators/businesses analyze these extremely context-rich, underutilized data sources.

Stardom requires both consistent engagement and consistent scale, so it is inseparable from more surface-level metrics of streams and impressions. But stardom is arguably less about the music, and more about how much mindshare a celebrity takes up in people’s day-to-day interactions and thoughts. Again, this is where natural language analysis is critical for understanding the conversations that everyday people and media platforms are having about an artist.

 
 

1. Predatory practices from people who are in the music business for the wrong reasons (e.g. hedge funds giving advances to artists with 30% fees). This is a symptom of a wider tendency to mistake the financial forest for the trees -- i.e. upon seeing that the music industry will grow to $45B by 2020, assuming that all artists will be better off and make significant profits as a result. For many artists the reality has been the opposite.

2. Sustaining independent models and communities amidst increasing consolidation, both in live concerts (e.g. Live Nation buying up indie venues and festivals) and recorded music (e.g. major labels acquiring indie distributors, Universal Music selling half of itself off).

3. Mounting pressure to flood the market with content and be “always on” in order to stay competitive, at the expense of supporting and improving the actual artist development process.

 
 
 
 

1. The ongoing mega-concentration of artist-development resources in Los Angeles, New York and Nashville, at the expense of building more robust A&R infrastructure in the smaller, regional communities that need it most. City governments from the likes of New Orleans have already spoken out about how they struggle to capture the true value of their local artists’ successes back home, because those artists end up choosing to sign with labels and agencies in L.A.

2. Artists using bots, fake accounts and/or shady paid marketing to pump up their streaming and follower metrics, in the hopes of getting noticed or getting a deal. I understand the pressure to deliver on metrics in a streaming-first world, but this approach ultimately hurts everyone involved— artists lose people’s trust, business partners make bad decisions and media partners end up giving credibility where it isn’t due while leaving those who truly put in the hard work behind.

3. The assumption that the Western music industry is the “default” model for the rest of the world. Most of the billions of people living elsewhere in the world have a vastly different experience with music than what the U.S. and Europe are used to; if the music industry is going to become truly global, I think we will need to stop centering Western markets as the “default” and celebrate the triumphs of different kinds of artists and fandoms from around the world, even if those triumphs are not “our own.” Part of me is also wary about the rhetoric of trying to get every market in the world to convert to a monthly paid streaming subscription, without more open discussion about the nuances of local music economies and the approach of strengthening what already works, rather than imposing an otherwise foreign business model.

 

Learn more about Water & Music and follow Cherie on Twitter.


 
 
 

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