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Artist education is the new competition [PART ONE].

Happy weekend everyone! Hope you’re all excited for spring, SXSW and/or whatever else is coming your
Artist education is the new competition [PART ONE].
By Cherie Hu • Issue #47 • View online
Happy weekend everyone! Hope you’re all excited for spring, SXSW and/or whatever else is coming your way this March.
Before we dive into today’s essay, there are lots of exciting updates to share since the last newsletter.
The biggest one is that the Water & Music podcast is now live on all your favorite podcast listening platforms—including but not limited to Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play and RadioPublic!
As you may have noticed, the podcast shares the same name as this newsletter, and is meant to serve as a similar, living archive of conversations and big ideas in music and technology. In Episode No. 1, fellow music writer David Turner and I break down the key elements of Ariana Grande’s wildly successful marketing strategy around Sweetener and thank u, next, and reflect on the myth that pop music is “behind” in the streaming era. You can find full show notes here.
The podcast is ad-free and supported entirely by my supporters on Patreon—which brings me to my next big update: my Patreon page has just surpassed the $1,000/month mark!!
Again, this has grown far beyond my expectations, and is already sparking new ideas on how to expand on my newsletter, podcast and writing at large that I had never thought of previously. There’s definitely a steep learning curve in growing this experiment in real time, and I really appreciate all of your support so far—any and every small gesture really means a lot! :)
Since the last newsletter, I’ve posted a handful of exclusive Patreon essays, including a review of the book Spotify Teardown and a preview of my upcoming piece for Billboard about SoundCloud’s expansion into distribution. I also just hosted my first monthly video hangout for $40/month patrons earlier this week, during which we had a really informative discussion on topics such as SoundCloud’s new distribution venture and the potential over-saturation of paid subscriptions and memberships (e.g. Facebook’s new Fan Subscriptions feature, which was met with lukewarm reception).
Special thanks to Alex Mitchell, Basak Kizilisik, Tony Guidry, Duncan Anjuna and Chris Lindsey for joining the $40 tier since the last send-out. 🙏
Today’s newsletter essay ended up being so long, I decided to divide it into two parts to spare your eyes and your inboxes. Below is Part One—which I hope gives you a valuable overview of the ever-crowded landscape of educational resources for artists and music-industry professionals, and how I think the digital-literacy issue in music can be more effectively addressed.
I’ll send out Part Two on Monday—and as a reminder, $3+/month patrons can vote on all future newsletter topics. This one in particular was a close call!

Artist education is the new competition: rethinking digital & strategic literacy for artists [PART ONE]
In an era when a growing number of artists are eschewing corporate music contracts in favor of maintaining more control over their careers, educational tools for artists are the new table stakes for staying competitive as a music company.
Over the past five years, the landscape of artist education has become more and more crowded and saturated. You may have noticed, for instance, that every indie distribution and artist-services company now seems to have its own blog dedicated to education.
The blogs of CD Baby, TuneCore, Symphonic Distribution, AWAL, Amuse, Stem, Spinnup, RouteNote, Songtrust and Synchtank cover everything from recording, publishing and management contracts, to logistics for setting up a home recording studio, to best practices for influencer marketing, depending on which audiences these companies are trying to target. Both AWAL and Spinnup have even given the same exact title to their latest series of educational posts, i.e. “Decoded” (here are links to the former vs. the latter). More explicitly education-oriented platforms like Heroic Academy, Dotted Music and Soundfly also run their own online publications. (Full disclosure: I have gotten paid to write for a handful of these blogs in the past.)
Interestingly, the indie-services world is jumping on the artist-education bandwagon much more aggressively than streaming services are.
The one exception is the Spotify for Artists franchise, which offers a steady stream of educational, pro-artist-independence content, including but not limited to its polished video series The Game Plan and live event series Co.Lab. In contrast, the blogs of Pandora and SoundCloud focus more on product updates than on artist education; Tidal’s blog takes a more explicitly cultural approach, working with the likes of DJBooth on content partnerships; and Apple Music and Amazon Music don’t run any educational blogs at all, presumably because their brainpower is concentrated on more lucrative revenue streams.
Where streaming services are competing more directly with distribution services, and with each other, is around some form of data transparency for artists.
In the wake of Pandora launching its AMP suite of analytics and marketing tools in 2014, almost every other major service has since rolled out a similar dashboard. Spotify’s Fan Insights (now simply Spotify for Artists), YouTube’s Music Insights (now YouTube for Artists) and independent data-analytics platform Soundcharts all launched in 2015.
An even greater flurry of activity took place in 2017—the year Spotify rolled its artist dashboard out of beta, Bandcamp launched its brand-new analytics and fan-messaging app, AWAL unveiled its own data-analytics app for clients and SoundCloud doubled down on better analytics for “creators” on its site, months after laying off 40% of its staff.
By 2018, any other subsequent data-dashboard announcements—e.g. Spotify adding publishing analytics, Apple Music for Artists launching as a very late mover—seemed rather predictable and, at worst, uninspired.
To be clear, this is a net-positive shift: providing greater transparency to artists should be treated as nothing more than a company’s admission ticket to gaining the music industry’s trust, instead of a flashy piece of news that deserves its own headline.
In short, educational blogs and data dashboards seem to have become two of the primary resources companies leverage to lure in artists as customers, and that artists are leveraging on their own to make business decisions.
But when it comes to more holistic, entrepreneurial education that equips artists with the appropriate mindset to chart their own creative and commercial paths, I think there’s still ample room for growth and improvement.
You can be collecting all the data from all the streaming services in the world on your dashboard, but if you don’t know how to translate that information from a pretty visualization on your computer screen into decisions that get you closer to your goals, then what’s the point? You can know about all the music startups in the world, but how do you actually make decisions about which startups will be the best partners for your specific needs?
At large: based on an artist’s unique positioning, how do you figure out what kind of knowledge and information is actually helpful and effective, and how do you go about obtaining it?
This is a question I’ve gotten in many forms at music conferences. For instance, during a work trip last week, I met with the University of Oregon’s Music Industry Collective, and one student asked for advice on how to keep up with digital trends and cultivate a “tech-forward” mindset as an artist manager. Others have asked me what types of publications to read, or where they can learn about best practices in digital marketing for music.
While I’m certainly not in a position to be giving artists foolproof advice on how to run their careers, I do have firsthand experience trying to navigate and digest today’s technological landscape in a systematic way, from the perspective of a writer. I thought I would take this week’s newsletter to share some of my philosophy around this navigation, in a way that is hopefully helpful for artists.
The tl;dr version of what you’re about to read can be boiled down to this: In today’s volatile, fast-changing technological climate, digital literacy is a way of thinking first, and a body of knowledge second.
The difference between the two is subtle but essential. A body of knowledge is something you can collect piece by piece in some kind of physical or metaphorical box. The emphasis is on volume. In contrast, a way of thinking is a muscle that you must train regularly over time, and that performs better the more you feed it the right “nutrients.” The emphasis is on agility and strength.
Hence, maximizing digital and strategic literacy as an artist, manager or any other kind of creative or business-minded person involves creating the ideal environment for yourself to hone and toughen the appropriate mental muscles, based on your unique needs—not just racing to amass the biggest imaginary box of “facts.”
Of course, being able to distill fact from falsehood is essential for staying informed and sane in the first place. But as more and more players than ever try to break into label services, distribution and other verticals of music, today’s artists have more leverage than ever in the deals and partners they choose. As a result, the north star that artists and their teams rely on to make decisions has become increasingly crucial.
Below is the first out of four pillars that I’ve found essential to honing my own sense of digital and strategic literacy that I think could be helpful in a musical context. The remaining three pillars will be included in the next send-out on Monday. I’d love to hear any feedback you have on these ideas—simply reply to this and it’ll go straight to me!
1. Build and seek frameworks that are modular and customizable, rather than prescriptive and one-size-fits-all.
Several blog posts in the realm of “artist education” are really in the business of selling artists and audiences on a highly specific vision of success that falls in line with a given company’s core business.
This is neither good nor bad; it’s simply the goal of good content marketing. And education through a content-marketing filter can still be valuable in its ability to spread awareness of particular tools, news, product features and techniques.
But as in any industry, perhaps the worst thing you can do as a creative enterprise is end up chasing other people’s definition of success, instead of your own.
I would love to see a wider diversity of models celebrated, studied and scrutinized in educational material about the music industry. An artist earning the majority of their revenue from YouTube, a classical musician making 90% of revenue from live shows and a songwriter pulling in a comfortable salary from adverting syncs after getting dropped from two label deals might all be earning the same income on an annual basis, but each have vastly different strengths, pain points and career goals.
What’s more, the vast majority of educational artist content being churned out about the music industry works under the assumption that full independence is the only viable path forward (because the companies writing them are trying to attract independent/unsigned artists as customers). In reality, there remain several artists today who see inking a major-label deal or competing on a show like American Idol as their next stepping stone, based on their own goals and definitions of success.
That is completely legitimate in the right situations—yet there’s very little educational material about how to navigate those types of corporate environments effectively, in a way that feels creatively empowering (probably because there are stacks of NDAs involved).
We know about all the tools available for unsigned artists—but how can you best prepare yourself for all the mental and commercial challenges that come with a bigger deal? How do you stay true to your own definition of success in an environment where so many other vested interests are colliding?
Some of the most compelling pieces of educational content I’ve seen about music—and about any industry for that matter—offer deeper-level strategic frameworks that would help each of these different artists gain clarity on what success means for themselves, then make decisions about their investments and partnerships accordingly.
This process obviously requires much more time and real estate than just a single blog post, but some of the tools to facilitate that process can be packaged in a more digestible manner.
One example of a useful model I saw recently that’s aimed at helping artists direct their decisions on their own terms is AWAL’s visual framework for “spending smart.” The full model is available on the AWAL website, but one of the screenshots toward the top of the post is attached below:
On some level, this framework shares nothing new: investment of particular resources will impact the perception and awareness of what you’re selling, and ideally provide valuable feedback to evaluate whether those investments were effective. This cycle applies to any product in any industry.
But the AWAL blog post then lay outs a modular, three-level system for how to guide said investments and resources as an artist. On a higher level, the argument is that you can’t amplify your music effectively if you haven’t laid the proper foundational building blocks of creative and logistical support to fuel your growth in the long term. As the Future of Music Coalition’s tweet said, there are lots of different types of resources that an artist can mobilize and activate at each of these stages of development—but there are very few shortcuts.
Screenshot from AWAL's blog post on "spending smart."
Screenshot from AWAL's blog post on "spending smart."
Yes, some terms in the AWAL framework might seem vague and open-ended—but the point is that entrepreneurs have the ability, and the requirement, to define those terms for themselves.
For instance, anyone and everyone in business is looking for some kind of “return on investment,” but what that return actually looks like can vary widely depending on where you’re headed. As the AWAL blog post reads, ROI “doesn’t have to include dollar signs—at least not from the jump. Attention is a return. Good will is a return. Fan retention is a return.”
I think the realization that words like “return” carry different meanings for different people (and hence is another example of a “suitcase word,” like “engagement” and “creator”) can be liberating rather than taxing for artists as they try to differentiate themselves in their growth.
I also love models like Amber Horsburgh’s Fan-First Budgeting Tool, which encourages artists to allocate their marketing budgets according to the unique characteristics and gaps in their own fanbases.
Screenshot from Amber's blog post explaining her fan-first budgeting tool
Screenshot from Amber's blog post explaining her fan-first budgeting tool
For her case study with rapper Yung Lean, for instance, Amber points out how a content-heavy campaign, particularly one that emphasizes video, would make sense for an artist like Yung Lean who is aspiring to “reach new audiences at the just aware, familiar and consideration stages.” In contrast, artists looking to strengthen relationships with already-existing fans, or to spread awareness and mindshare to more casual audiences, would do best to focus on other channels and strategies beyond content creation alone.
While this model is certainly grounded in facts about where music fans tend to spend their time, its power is ultimately in its more modular and customizable, rather than prescriptive, character, and in how it allows for flexibility based on any shifts in an artist’s future goals or performance.
Most importantly, all of the above examples encourage an environment for artists where technology supports growth and learning, but does not necessarily define it.
Technology is incredible in music insofar as it can automate otherwise mundane tasks (e.g. publishing administration, accounting), forge otherwise impossible connections with other human beings and help entrepreneurs gain more clarity around their goals—but technological solutionism in and of itself is arguably an insufficient stand-in for a way of thinking and a path to creative development altogether.
Thanks for reading so far—stay tuned for Part Two on Monday!
My writing and speaking around the web
Why Musicians Are Starting Their Own Podcasts — And Why The Podcast Industry Should Pay Attention
I had the pleasure of being a guest on The Frame (89.3 KPCC) this week, talking about how the Chinese music market is already comfortably breaking the rules that the Western music industry is hesitant to embrace—e.g. tipping, micropayments and direct deals between streaming services and artists.
Good reads
SoundCloud’s Path To Profitability Will be Achieved Selling to Labels Not Artists
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Cherie Hu


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