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When "disruptors" become the pipes for incumbents.

Greetings from Cannes! I'm approaching the end of my first-ever MIDEM, where I moderated three panels
When "disruptors" become the pipes for incumbents.
By Cherie Hu • Issue #28 • View online
Greetings from Cannes! I’m approaching the end of my first-ever MIDEM, where I moderated three panels with some of the brightest minds across the music business—on topics from global vs. local streaming dynamics, to AI in music marketing, to Snapchat’s latest moves in creator tools and music partnerships.
Last week, I attended Primavera Sound in Barcelona (also for the first time), and got to see incredible sets by artists as diverse as Father John Misty, Björk, Lorde, Rex Orange County, Tom Misch, Fever Ray, Charlotte Gainsbourg and The Internet. I also took part in a panel hosted by the amazing writer Liz Pelly alongside Fernando Delgado (marketing director, ‎[PIAS] Ibero América) about how streaming upholds and exacerbates the status quo in the music industry, and what artists can do about it. A driving impetus for the panel was Liz’s fascinating study of gender bias on Spotify playlists, which is now published on The Baffler.
Next and final festival stop on this Europe trip: Sónar in Barcelona next week. Hit me up if you’ll also be around. :)
Today’s newsletter will try to connect the dots between some of my recent panels and a bunch of headlines I’ve noticed on the web.
First, let’s rewind to November 2017, when I attended and covered the Roundtable Conference in Norway. I met a researcher named Hyojung Sun, who is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and is working on the Music 2025 research project with the U.K. Intellectual Property Office.
Hyojung has a book coming out this fall called Digital Revolution Tamed: The Case of the Recording Industry, which makes a compelling argument about how a lot of the deterministic “digital revolution” that piracy, downloads and streaming promised for the music industry either didn’t happen at all, or manifested in a much tamer manner than expected. Consumption behaviors may have changed drastically, but on an organizational level, the dominant centers of power are still comfortably in place, while other entrants into the industry (i.e. streaming platforms) grew into “re-intermediating” rather than disintermediating forces.
Fast-forward to Music Biz in Nashville last month, when I moderated a panel about the relationship between music discovery and cross-platform video experiences. At one point, Scott Boyarsky (VP of digital home products at Comcast) revealed that Comcast’s X1 platform is currently one of the most valuable partners for driving new paid subscriptions to Netflix. This blew my mind because the dominant news narrative claims that Netflix is the enemy of cable TV on a product level, yet Netflix and cable actually see each other as complementary allies. Scott called this phenomenon “cord-shifting, not cord-cutting”—a phrase that made me chuckle, but is arguably true.
That same week, The Information published a feature on how Hollywood is reinventing BuzzFeed, not the other way around—forcing BuzzFeed, once considered a media “disruptor,” to hire a former MTV exec to lead the charge in developing more traditional films and TV shows with major studios, which the company hopes will generate a third of its total revenue in the long term. Again, shifting, not cutting.
Finally, last week at Primavera Sound, Liz kicked off our panel by outlining the myriad ways that streaming services arguably reproduce long-standing norms in the music industry: gender bias, the concept of “gatekeepers,” lack of transparency and agency for fans and artists, payola rumors, centralized power and major-label influence, corporate/brand influence and exploitation, prevalence of unadventurous sounds, the list goes on and on. I was also recently told that there is a section in Spotify’s licensing agreements with majors saying that aggregate algorithmic recommendations and editorial curation on the platform cannot undermine the labels’ existing market share. In other words, the incumbent power structure, which owns a significant stake in Spotify, is literally cemented into the service’s user experience.
All of this is to say: I can feel a weary skepticism of “disruption” spreading through certain parts of entertainment.
Uber indisputably disrupted transportation. Airbnb undoubtedly disrupted hospitality & tourism. Neither company has any incentive to position themselves as solutions for incumbents. They created an entire new way of life that still has traditional centers of power shivering in their sleep a decade after these startups were founded.
Yet, at least from my perspective, the startups that survive the longest in entertainment seem simply to give a new pipeline to incumbents—yielding added-value solutions, rather than elimination or irrelevance, for the systems that already exist.
Of course, you don’t need to “disrupt” anything to be an interesting and influential entertainment company. Augmenting the existing system with creator-fan relationships, career services, monetization opportunities and artistic tools for those who would otherwise be left behind by the corporate machine is an honorable mission in and of itself (e.g. crowdfunding sites like Patreon, or artist/label services companies like [PIAS] and AWAL). In offering advances to artists and managers to license music directly, Spotify is taking gradual steps to align themselves with this crowd as well—and it would ultimately bode better for their bottom line.
That being said, I think augmentation is necessary but insufficient for disruption. When it comes to entertainment, speaking the rose-colored vocabulary of disruption can obfuscate reality in an unproductive way, and fail to align with the status quo that still stands stubbornly under our feet. (This is a similar dynamic to what I’ve written before in this newsletter about the limitations of terms like “engagement,” “consumer” and “industry.”)
I’m curious to hear your take on all of the above arguments. Personally, I’m intrigued by how multiple experts across vastly different fields—academia, journalism, video entertainment—have all pointed to similar conclusions around the hazy state of disruption, but that doesn’t mean it’s the be all and end all of the current state of affairs. Is there a truly disruptive force, akin to Uber and Airbnb, that I blatantly missed from music? Simply reply to this email to share your thoughts!

My writing
Twitter Strategy: Tackling the Opinion-Driven Social Network
I will be making my first-ever trip to Melbourne in July, giving a talk at the inaugural CHANGES Festival about the future of voice and screen-less music consumption (yes, this will build off of my blog post about the same topic). Let me know if you’ll also be around that week and/or have any recommendations for sights to see, or methods to curtail jet-lag :)
Good reads
Technology imitates art: The rise of the Conversational User Interface (CUI)
Obligatory potato
The University of Maine has its own potato breeding and variety development program in its School of Food and Agriculture, and they just came out with a brand-new, proprietary gourmet potato variety, dubbed the Pinto Gold.
According to the program leader Gregory Porter (no, not the Gregory Porter), this new variety is especially well-suited for roasted dishes—but if you want to use it in your next recipe, it’ll cost you a whopping $16.55/pound. Those are Cannes-level prices, if you ask me…
Did you enjoy this issue?
Cherie Hu


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