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Is music innovation an input or an output?

Happy Friday! Greetings from Los Angeles, where I've been spending the past six weeks interning with
Is music innovation an input or an output?
By Cherie Hu • Issue #13 • View online
Happy Friday! Greetings from Los Angeles, where I’ve been spending the past six weeks interning with Ticketmaster’s Distributed Commerce team and falling in love with the local music, food and people. If this is your first time reading Water & Music (nearly 100 new subscribers have joined since the last issue, bringing the total to over 500!), please introduce yourself simply by replying to this email—I’d love to get to know you better!
As a super brief summary, Ticketmaster’s Distributed Commerce team is responsible for finding and implementing new opportunities to sell tickets off-platform—i.e. integrating the Ticketmaster API with sites like Facebook and Bandsintown, so you can purchase tickets without leaving those sites (what we call the “native flow”). I’ve been tasked with diving deeper into just how well these off-platform sales are doing, particularly on Facebook. It’s definitely much more of a tech and e-commerce role than a music role; my biggest takeaways have been equal parts learning about the nuances of ticketing economics and honing my skills in communicating rigorous data analysis in a clearer, more actionable manner. It’s also been fascinating to get an inside perspective on how all the moving parts of a corporate behemoth like Live Nation work together, and the challenges/opportunities that arise along the way—whereas previously I could only observe as an admittedly skeptical journalist from the outside (in fact, I first got connected with the Live Nation team after writing this article last year about what the company could do better :P).
This month’s subject line is an important question to ask regardless of what industry you’re in. Depending on your role or sector, you might define innovation input and output as entries on a balance sheet, defined by something along the lines of expenditures ÷ sales for new products. I’m more interested in zooming out and looking at the bigger picture: on an ideological level, what exactly is the link between innovation and process in the music industry? Should innovation itself be the process, or merely a side effect?
I began thinking about this question after reading a LinkedIn post by Brad Porteus about what we can learn about innovation from the Grateful Dead. Porteus’ first takeaway immediately caught my eye, and ultimately set the tone for this newsletter: “Innovation is an output, not an input.” In other words, the Grateful Dead’s creative and financial breakthroughs were not due to a five-year strategic innovation agenda that the band laid out ahead of time, but rather simply from a “desire to create and distribute their art,” while empowering their fans. Sticking to simple, strong values can reap high rewards.
Next, I came across this op-ed that two professors penned for the New York Times about America’s faulty prioritization of innovation over maintenance. Using NYC’s failing subway system as a starting point, the authors argue that Americans tend to “fetishize innovation as a kind of art,” while “demean[ing] upkeep as mere drudgery.” As more and more academic and corporate resources are funneled into researching innovation rather than upkeep, we risk losing sight of our present circumstances and our capabilities to keep our existing structures afloat.
In my opinion, these two arguments—innovation itself is not an agenda, and innovation cannot trump the value of maintenance—contrast starkly with how the music industry wants to shape its own future. Firstly, many are positing (justifiably so) that innovation is an agenda that the music business has been dismissing for way too long. One of the best articulations of this argument comes from Samuel Potts, Head of Radio at Columbia Records UK and the brain behind the Buzz Jam movement, who devoted his latest blog post to outlining how “music should be a verb” or even an API in itself, atop which coders and the music industry can collaborate more closely. The recent rise of music accelerators like Techstars Music and Zoo Labs certainly fuels the innovation-as-input movement as well.
Secondly, as someone who’s always on the lookout for new music, I rarely equate “music” with “maintenance.” At its most exciting, music never stays still.
Yet, in reality, maintenance is a significant yet oft-undervalued component of any artist’s career, both on indie and major levels. Just as some companies can spend as much as 40% of software development resources on fixing infrastructure rather than on building out new features, artists and their teams spend a good chunk of their day monitoring streams and social media, doing press and making sure they’re getting paid the right amount of money, rather than actually making art.
As I discuss in my latest article on Billboard, however, companies that make maintenance easier for artists often get left behind in the VC world because two conflicting definitions of innovation are at stake. The New York Times op-ed defines innovation as a “social process,” taking place over a long period of time and involving multiple actors; this aligns well with the current fragmented state of the music industry, in which substantial progress requires the consensus of multiple siloed stakeholders with complex incentives (*cough blockchain cough*). VCs, on the other hand, tend to measure the success of innovation both by ROI and by velocity; they appreciate simplicity.
So, to go back to the subject line, two possible answers come to mind. Either music innovation is an input: an accelerator, a hackathon, a corporate division, a methodology that can be taught. Or, music innovation is an output: a positive residual effect of a slower but more robust process, defined by sticking to one’s core brand and value set while keeping an eye on the stakeholders around you that are truly underserved—regardless of the technological sophistication involved.
Or, maybe the best music innovation is a yet-to-be-realized combination of both. What do you think?

My writing
Mary Meeker's 2017 Internet Trends: What Do They Mean For Music?
Music Pushes to Innovate Beyond Streaming, But Investors Play It Safe: Analysis
Looking back and ahead, indie labels preach the gospel of patience
Inside Kero & Azure's Old-School, New-Blueprint, Trans-Pacific Vision Of Indie Rap
  • I was a guest on the latest episode of Larry Miller’s podcast Musonomics, on which we discussed my analysis of this year’s music festival circuit and the compelling indie-vs.-major dynamics that ensue. Neil Shah, a music reporter with the Wall Street Journal, is another guest on the podcast!
  • Early last month, I moderated a panel about the health of the NYC music-tech ecosystem at Sound Development, a conference co-hosted by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment to kick off New York Music Month. Benji Rogers, Paramdeep Singh and Charlie Hellman (pictured below) joined in on a candid conversation about why NYC is arguably the best city for music and tech, in part because there are over twice as many music startups in NY as in Silicon Valley.
Charlie Hellman (VP of Product at Spotify) and an unnecessarily emotive me.
Charlie Hellman (VP of Product at Spotify) and an unnecessarily emotive me.
Good reads
How Music Drowns Apple’s Innovation
Liz Pelly on redefining the language of D.I.Y.
SoundCloud could have been the AngelList of music
The Rise of the Thought Leader
Obligatory potato
Texas A&M AgriLife Research, a state-run agricultural research agency, is making a line of colorful “designer potatoes” in an attempt to counter the national decline in potato consumption and appeal to younger, higher-income consumers. This is true potato innovation, as input AND output.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Cherie Hu


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