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If artists are startups, what are the songs?

Happy August! I'm super excited that the Water & Music community has now surpassed 1,500 subscrib
If artists are startups, what are the songs?
By Cherie Hu • Issue #34 • View online
Happy August!
I’m super excited that the Water & Music community has now surpassed 1,500 subscribers. That’s double what it was just six months ago! Thank you all so much for supporting me and providing feedback on my articles over these years, and for helping me hone in on the questions that matter in this fast-paced industry.
If you’re a new subscriber, I’d love to hear from you and learn about what you’re up to these days—simply reply to this email and it’ll go straight to me!
This week’s newsletter is inspired by a recent conversation I had with an EDM artist about the concept of artists’ careers as startups, which has been on my mind incessantly this year. This particular artist currently has around two million monthly Spotify listeners and has toured internationally; for anonymity’s sake, let’s name them Ash.
During our conversation, Ash highlighted several similarities between artists and startups in how they run their day-to-day operations—from the difficulties of assembling teams and managing multiple, often technologically complex interdependencies to get a product/song to its final form, to the importance of a solid go-to-market strategy to complement the creative process. In Ash’s words: “You can make what you think is the best music in the world, but if no one wants to listen to it or if no one can access it, what is it going to do?
(That comment reminded me of an amazing talk that Berklee Professor Susan Rogers gave at Sónar+D about the neuroscience of creativity, in which she said that one of the most widely agreed-upon criteria for what makes something creative is that it must be useful and valuable to others.)
At one point, Ash brought up the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) in the startup world, and how that framework could be helpful for artists in terms of understanding their career as a product in constant development, incorporating feedback from fans. “Startups begin with a basic, stripped-down MVP that they release into the world, and hope consumers will use and respond to it,” said Ash. “Features grow and improve the more they are used and the more feedback users give. Similarly, the more music you release as an artist, the deeper your connections with fans and the more likely they’ll come to your shows.”
While I don’t completely agree with that last statement—there isn’t always a direct correlation between the number of songs an artist releases and the number of concert tickets they can sell—I do agree that many artists underestimate the value of arriving quickly at a state of learning, and acting on that learning as nimbly as possible, rather than poring over whether or not a given piece of artwork is “perfect” or “ready” for release. In fact, this is a struggle that I and many other journalists also experience all the time: deciding whether to work for one more day until our articles are closer to “perfect,” or simply to press publish and reach a state of learning and feedback-gathering about our ideas as quickly as we can.
It’s worth noting that commentators have been talking about applying the term “MVP” to music as early as 2011, when Eric Ries’ modern classic The Lean Startup was first published. That same year, musician and data analyst Ryan Tanaka wrote a blog post suggesting that artists should adopt a lean-startup methodology and “release works in progress as soon as [they] reaches a point of coherency,” rather than waiting until an entire album or project is clean and finished. Ryan argued that this is precisely the function that demo tapes serve: capturing the general idea of an album and higher-level essence of an artist at low cost, such that fans and prospective business partners can give constructive feedback.
After hearing Ash talk about MVPs in artists’ careers, I brought up how writers at TechCrunch, HipHopDX and the LA Times have referred to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo as “entertainment software” and “the first SaaS album,” to characterize how the rapper updated the album with new and revised tracks several weeks after first releasing the project exclusively on Tidal.
While “album as software” is also an imperfect analogy, and would probably make pure-tech people scoff, it resonated strongly with Ash in terms of how he makes a living and extends his brand as an electronic artist. “That’s what remixing is: a new interpretation designed to appeal to more users,” said Ash. “It treats music as something that can be updated and augmented.”
My conversation with Ash made me realize that the framework of songs as regularly-updated features of the larger product that is the artist is a stark contrast to the way many people today talk about the role of recorded music in an artist’s career.
Given that streaming financials often revolve more around fractions of pennies than around dollars, many artists see their songs simply as “advertisements” and loss leaders for other higher-margin revenue streams, such as live shows and brand endorsements. I know many industry veterans who would argue that the ongoing maturation of the all-you-can-eat paid-streaming ecosystem is only exacerbating the “song-as-advertising” mindset by leaving little opportunity for artists to create stickier, higher-value experiences within those platforms on their own terms.
But when startups release a new feature for their product, the underlying motivation is usually to build more engaging experiences and to create “stickier” users who ultimately incorporate those features into their own day-to-day habits. From my understanding, you don’t create “stickiness” with advertisements. In fact, today’s ads often create the exact opposite effect, to the point where users (myself included) will automatically divert their attention away from something that’s labeled as a “sponsored post.“
Instead, stickiness comes in part from some sort of perceived value exchange that unveils itself over a longer period of time. Therefore, if an artist wants to think like a startup—and if they want to treat their songs like "software updates"—they need to think as much about stickiness, habit formation and concrete value exchange over the long term as about the catchiness of a hook or the wittiness of an Instagram caption in the short term.
My question for you: how can artists rise above thinking of their songs merely as advertisements, and instead begin to think of songs as interactive, habit-forming, valuable features?
There are some tech trends pointing to potential solutions: back in May I wrote about how loop, sample and stem marketplaces are ”unbundling the song“ into interactive, open-sourced components that can be reinterpreted by curious fans and seasoned artists alike—further democratizing remix culture and treating songs as dynamic platforms for self-expression, rather than static pieces of work.
What is your take? If you’re an artist, do you see your songs as advertisements, dynamic product "features,” the end product itself, or something else? Does it make sense to co-opt startup language to describe artists’ output in this way? Will there need to be some sort of structural change in the wider music industry in oder to move away from thinking of songs merely as loss leaders? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

My writing
How Technology Has Transformed, And Complicated, Music Fandom: Interview With Nancy Baym
Updates
I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Break the Business podcast for a second time, engaging in candid conversation with host Ryan Kairalla about the future of Twitch, Spotify and other companies in the music industry. The episode just came out yesterday—you can listen by clicking here!
Later this week, I’m spending a few days outside of my normal music-industry zone at the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) National Convention in Houston, TX. I won’t be speaking on any panels—just absorbing a ton of information and gaining new journalism skills, plus taking part in an invite-only digital business news workshop hosted by CNBC. If you’ll also be around, I’d love to meet up. :)
Good reads
What Cracking Open a Sonos One Tells Us About the Sonos IPO
Obligatory potato
Thanks to the ASCAP Daily Brief, of all places, for putting this on my radar: mashed potato wrestling is apparently a thing at multiple potato festivals across the country, including but not limited to the Potato Blossom Festival in Maine, Potato Day in South Dakota and the Potato Days festival in Minnesota. Doesn’t look like the most pleasant or hygienic pastime to me… but still, so much FOMO.
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Cherie Hu

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