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The music industry's inconvenient truths.

Happy holidays! Hope you are all excited for the winter break and for the new year ahead. Writing hig
The music industry's inconvenient truths.
By Cherie Hu • Issue #43 • View online
Happy holidays! Hope you are all excited for the winter break and for the new year ahead.
Writing highlights since the last newsletter issue include my first-ever bylines in Rolling Stone and the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as more globally-oriented articles for Billboard about China’s Tencent Music and the streaming ecosystem in the Middle East and North Africa. You can head to the “My writing” section below to check those pieces out!
Today’s essay—the last of the year—is more of a long read: it revolves around one of my favorite philosophical questions from the tech world, which could serve as a valuable decision-making framework for the music industry in 2019 with respect to challenging ingrained ways of thinking.
Again, enjoy the rest of your holiday, and hope you find plenty of time to relax and reflect. :)

The music industry's inconvenient truths.
However politically controversial Peter Thiel is now, I think his book Zero to One is a must-read for anyone passionate about technology, entrepreneurship and the constant battle to predict the future.
In chapter two of the book, Thiel reveals one of his favorite job interview questions: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
I first read Zero to One around a year and a half ago, and this question has been bouncing around in my head ever since. In trying to dig for potential answers, I realized just how much my own mental models have been shaped by external forces whose conception of the “truth” may be weaker and more arbitrary than I thought. In fact, many of the institutions that shape our everyday decisions—school curricula, governments, companies—operate under already agreed-upon, if unspoken, ideas of what is “true” or “right,” without opening up a forum for criticism or debate.
Anyone interested in pursuing disruption must make it a career mandate to unpack and challenge long-held consensuses about the way the world works. I’ve found that venture capitalists and startup founders are especially passionate about debating each other’s assumptions about innovation and tech adoption, and updating their own beliefs if necessary (hence the phrase “strong opinions, weakly held”). As a concrete example, I highly recommend this blog post from Andreessen Horowitz partners D'Arcy Coolican and Li Jin that debunks several widespread myths about network effects.
This is a mindset that I haven’t seen to the same extent in the music industry. An unfortunate stereotype in music is that an artist’s or executive’s success depends so much more on image, politics and surface-level reputation than on actual financial performance; I’ve written in the past about how this constant push towards visibility could potentially homogenize creative strategy and end up being self-destructive, especially for up-and-coming artists.
Yet I think many would also agree that the most iconic artists and their teams define progress as accomplishing something no one has done before, rather than simply copying what worked for someone else. The demand for this type of thinking will never go away, but the necessary forums for challenging consensus to accomplish this goal seem few and far between today.
So as a small experiment, I decided to ask Thiel’s question on Twitter, slightly reworded: What is one truth about the music industry that very few people agree with you on?
I was pleasantly surprised by how many people not only shared their own responses, but also engaged and debated with each other. Some of my favorite replies were about the underrated importance of publishing, the value of being early over being good and the need to switch from a big-business mentality to a labor/sustainability mentality when discussing artists’ business models.
Another common thread throughout many of the responses was that marketing and business management are much more important to an artist’s success than the quality of their music. One user claimed that “success in music more or less requiring other factors (design, marketing, music videos) is a good thing”; another argued that “if you’re trying to get paid and have to choose between a higher quality drum pack, or a graphic designer, hire the designer.” Interestingly, this is far from a novel idea—and has arguably held true in the mainstream music business from the moment of its existence—but is still framed as controversial and anti-consensus today.
Below are two of my own responses to Thiel’s question in the context of the music industry. I’m not aiming to be controversial, so much as to challenge points of consensus I’ve noticed pop up in the industry recently. Perhaps I’ve failed in my attempts, in that many of you would actually agree with my statements. Regardless, I would love to hear what you think—feel free to reply to this email with feedback, and/or any responses of your own!
1. Financially serious musicians are in the service business.
I’ve recently spent some time diving into the philosophy of marketing guru Seth Godin, who has published over 7,000 (!) posts to date on his wildly popular blog.
Seth was recently interviewed on the entrepreneurship and productivity podcast The Tim Ferriss Show, and dropped the following gem around the 1:35:40 mark. The context is that he’s offering his advice to a hypothetical writer, painter or other artist who wants to get better at their job and gain more recognition for their work:
You don’t get better by getting rid of typographical errors … or by being more realistic in your paintings … you get better by serving the needs and wants and desires and dreams of the smallest viable audience you sought to serve. And if you’re not serving them by offering them a way forward—status, attention—with where they want to go, then it’s no wonder there’s no line out the door.
In other words, Seth strongly believes that you get professionally “better” only by better serving your core audience. Consistent research and delivery on the value that your most loyal supporters see in your work is the clearest path to sustainability and advancement. And the phrase “smallest viable audience” implies that your core support group doesn’t have to be big at all; as some have suggested, it can comprise just a thousand people.
Throughout my life, I’ve met many musicians who would disagree with Seth. In their eyes, an artist’s career advancement relies primarily on the long-term, focused cultivation of a highly specific skill, not on “serving” any external stakeholders or incentives. In other words, getting “better” simply means writing better melodies, or honing better technique on your instrument, or producing better beats on FL Studio, or having better stage presence during concerts.
But I strongly believe that long-term success as a musician requires adopting an outward mindset of service, not just an inward mindset of skill or self-expression.
Let’s put it this way: as long as music can be materialized as an item or activity whose purchase generates revenue for somebody, music is a product. People who buy or engage with a musical product are referred to by the industry as “fans,” so “fan” is just another word for “customer.” Customers buy the products that best satisfy their own needs and desires. So, like in any other industry, the best music products most effectively address customers’ needs and satisfy clearly-defined gaps in the market that other products haven’t filled.
It might sound harsh, but self-expression alone does not entitle an artist to a career or a fanbase, just like how the mere fact that a product exists in the market does not entitle that product to money.
On the other hand, self-expression that serves a purpose or demand that no one else in the market is addressing—e.g. critiquing stereotypes of minorities or marginalized groups, raising awareness of a social or political cause, speaking authentically to an overlooked age demographic or subculture, breaking down genre or geographic barriers—can be especially powerful in positioning an artist for long-term success. I think differentiation among artists in 2019 will increasingly ride on this higher-level messaging and servicing, not on the actual music.
An outward service mindset also requires thinking about what personal goals and ambitions a fan is trying to achieve in engaging with music. For instance, one of the replies to my open tweet claimed that fans won’t support musicians ”if there’s no emotional reward for them.”
While this might initially seem selfish on the part of the fan, I think it correctly positions fans as customers who uses music as a product to satisfy their needs. Those needs could include emotional reward, escape or amplification; connection with a like-minded community of other fans; insight into an historical, social or political issue; an association with a certain visual style or aesthetic; or just pure entertainment and humor. As an artist, figuring out what those needs are earlier on among your most loyal fan base—which, if they are truly loyal, should augment rather than stifle your creativity—will set you up for more sustainable growth.
This service mindset will become especially relevant in the context of artist-brand partnerships, the best of which demonstrate a tangible value exchange between the parties involved. Historically, when only A-list artists had access to high-profile brand deals, the majority of the “service” that an artist provided centered around additive, mass-market exposure and more positive emotional association for the brand. But as brands increasingly embrace partnerships with smaller, emerging artists, and as influencer marketing travels further down the long tail (I heard the phrase “nano-influencer” in conversation the other day), the nature of the “service” the artist provides becomes much less about scale, and more about helping a brand reach and understand a specific kind of consumer with a specific kind of need and purchasing behavior.
2. The word “creator” does more harm than good.
This point is definitely my writer/editor side coming out. I despise generalizations, and devote a lot of my time to scrutinizing “suitcase words,” i.e. vague words with multiple definitions that different groups of people can exploit to serve their own incentives. Many of these words abound in the music-business discourse, and I’ve written about some of them in previous issues of my newsletter—e.g. see “The death of Engagement” and “Audiophilia, consumers and other outdated ideas.”
“Creator” is a prime example of a suitcase word that has been leveraged by almost every major media, tech and streaming platform in 2018: YouTube Creators, Instagram Creators, Snapchat Creators, Facebook for Creators, Spotify’s “Creator Marketing” team, Creators on SoundCloud, Patreon Creators, the list goes on.
I understand that the word “creator” might be the simplest, most easily accessible term for addressing all possible users releasing content on a given platform. And don’t get me wrong: democratizing creativity is undeniably a force for good, and the last thing the world should do is give fewer people access to tools for making art and expressing themselves.
But who owns and profits from that creativity is an entirely separate debate, in danger of being obfuscated by the widespread adoption and promotion of “creator” as a job title.
For every successful, independent, full-time creative person who owns all the rights to their work, there is probably another talented, creative person whose ideas are completely owned by an outside company thanks to a crappy deal, or whose work brings more profit to the company than to the actual person.
“Isn’t every bad major-label deal that way?,” you may be thinking, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But the mechanisms by which other companies can claim IP ownership in a world of democratized creation are becoming much swifter than reading through tens of pages of a record contract.
Take, for instance, Spotify’s #PraiseV social-media campaign to celebrate the release of Lil Wayne’s album Tha Carter V. In collaboration with the Sing Harlem Choir, Spotify invited fans to tweet about the album with the hashtag #PraiseV, with the chance that the choir would turn their tweet into a brand-new song. Immediately under the initial announcement on Twitter, however, Spotify’s tone of voice changed somewhat dramatically as it revealed the terms of the campaign:
Apparently, we now live in a world where a hashtag is a legally-binding contract, as decided by a corporation and likely unbeknownst to a budding “creator” who wants to participate in a given campaign.
And this isn’t the worst-case scenario: I found a similar hashtag-as-contract situation while researching my latest piece for Music Business Worldwide about United Airlines.
In short, United Airlines ran a “Rhapsody Remastered” social media campaign that invited anyone to post their own cover of Rhapsody in Blue on the social platform of their choice—tagging the @United account and using the hashtag #RhapsodyRemastered—for potential inclusion in future company advertisements and marketing materials.
But in the terms of service for the campaign, United Airlines states that all users who submit their recordings via social media (i.e. as signaled by the #RhapsodyRemastered hashtag) “will not receive compensation if [their] Submission is used,” and that each submission is “considered a work specially made for [United Airlines] as a work made for hire under copyright law.“ Moreover, legal authorship of all accepted submissions was transferred entirely to United Airlines itself: “For the avoidance of doubt, all so-called publisher’s and writer’s share(s) will also be assigned to [United]… [United] shall be deemed the author of the Work for all purposes.” In this case, the hashtag becomes a full-on publishing agreement that signs away all of one’s rights to a third party.
Throughout history, the democratization of creativity has coincided with a dilution of clarity around ownership, and more and more critics are speaking out about it now to ensure that we don’t repeat our past mistakes.
For instance, speaking on MTV News’ Twitter show Need To Know, fellow Forbes contributor Julian Mitchell shared his qualms about corporate brands taking ownership over creators’ futures. “Industrializing ideas and commodifying creativity is the new hustle for big companies,” he explained. “It’s going to turn talented creatives, who could [otherwise] build their own empires and be vertically integrated, into factory employees.” Liz Pelly expressed a similar sentiment in her recent piece for The Baffler called “Unfree Agents,” in which she argued that when artists let platform dynamics dictate their own creative decisions, “the line between ‘independent’ or platform-employed grows ever murkier.”
Again, making creativity more accessible is a force for good, but the tendency to exploit this democratization by turning hashtags and other social engagement tools into vehicles for transferring copyright, or to funnel an entire creative economy into one catch-all term that companies can use in different ways for their own benefit, should always be cause for question.
My writing
Why the Music Business Can't Afford to Ignore the Middle East In 2019
I’ll be visiting Washington, D.C. on January 23, 2019 to speak on a panel alongside Chris Molanphy and Kevin Erickson about “How Streaming is Changing Music.” The event will be hosted by Future Tense—a partnership among Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines the impact of emerging technology on politics and society—and I’m super excited to discuss the latest in streaming and music-tech with a wider audience.
Good reads
If record labels want to sign more interesting pop stars, they should look for artists with a Plan B
Obligatory potato
The groundbreaking invention you’ve all been waiting for: the self-driving potato. It’s not exactly practical—the potato can drive itself only 7.5 meters per day—but it’s a pretty great feat of engineering, and at its peak enables the potato to drive itself in any direction of its own “choice.” I encourage you to watch the entire video, it has quite a bittersweet ending…
Did you enjoy this issue?
Cherie Hu


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