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When fans cut up your music, what happens to your brand?

Happy Friday! I spent last week at A3C, one of the biggest hip-hop festivals and conferences in the U
When fans cut up your music, what happens to your brand?
By Cherie Hu • Issue #39 • View online
Happy Friday!
I spent last week at A3C, one of the biggest hip-hop festivals and conferences in the U.S., to soak in Atlanta for the first time and speak on a panel about best metadata practices for artists and producers. I kept hearing the phrase “for the culture” over and over again in conversation, and have yet to encounter that same level of passion for sustaining cultural communities at other music business conferences of the same scale. Of course, Atlanta is a unique case—it’s likely one of the top five cities in the world right now when it comes to cultural influence on the mainstream charts—and perhaps I had been to the wrong panels elsewhere. But, in any case, closing the gap between tech and culture is now top-of-mind for me.
Today’s newsletter topic, at its core, is about the myriad ways that artists and their teams are trying to build more robust creation and innovation ecosystems around their work. There are some scrappily hand-drawn but hopefully helpful visuals to go along with the essay, so I’ve given it a separate section below. Enjoy!

When fans cut up your music, what happens to your brand?
Let’s start off with a little piece of history. Back in April 2007—just around one year before Spotify launched—consulting firm Accenture published the findings of its annual survey of senior media executives, and gave the report the eye-catching headline “User-Generated Content Is Top Threat to Media and Entertainment Industry.”
One of the executives quoted on record was Roger Faxon, former Chairman/CEO of EMI Music Publishing and current board member of Pandora. Faxon took a stance that seems more relevant than ever today: the music business was moving from a pure sales model to a participation model that valued listening and engagement behavior over purchasing patterns alone.
One of his statements really stood out to me: “The commercial roles of music companies will be more as facilitators for bringing music and the rights that support them into the market place, as opposed to being originators of the content itself.
I would argue that many record labels and other music companies today would still think of being facilitators rather than originators of content as radical, even ridiculous.
Yes, there are distributors like TuneCore, CD Baby and Amuse as well as label services companies like Kobalt/AWAL that are building viable businesses as facilitators, allowing the artist-originators to maintain full control over their IP and creative process. But most labels, publishers and other copyright holders still seem to prioritize maximizing the value of their IP, which in part means maximizing control and origination.
Yet, some of the most vibrant and sustainable fandoms operate in tension with this demand for artist/label/publisher control. In he book Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection (which I wrote about for Forbes), the author Nancy Baym argues that in the digital age, sustaining music fandom in the long term may be less about top-down promotional communication from artist to fan, and more about developing and nurturing a long-term infrastructure for fans to find and bond with each other, independently of an artist’s output or promotional cycle. In other words, the artist can thrive more or less in perpetuity as a platform for self-organizing communities of eager fans and followers—as a facilitator rather than originator of conversation and engagement.
What happens when we apply that philosophy to the musical content itself, not just to the artist’s overall personality? What if we treat the recording and its underlying parts as a platform for self-organizing creators, the way artists’ personas serve as platforms for fan expression?
Even though Faxon delineated this phenomenon over a decade ago, we’re only now seeing what true execution of his ideas might look like in the creative process.
A few months ago, I wrote a Forbes article titled “Unbundling The Song: Inside The Next Wave Of Recorded Music’s Disruption” that dove into the various ways artists and labels were “unbundling” otherwise static songs into:
  1. Isolated vocal and instrumental stems that fans—or machines—could remix on the fly (e.g. Jammer, Weav),
  2. Samples that could be easily and affordably licensed and incorporated into new, royalty-generating repertoire (e.g. Tracklib), and
  3. Packs of artist-branded, one-shot sounds and loops that anyone could buy and incorporate into their music without having to worry about royalties (e.g., Splice Sounds).
In the above cases, the music companies are "facilitators of content” not just in terms of distribution and marketing infrastructure, but also in terms of creativity—providing lower-level musical “ingredients” for other creators to incorporate freely into their own works.
After that article was published, I realized that many people in the music industry compared the ongoing “unbundling” of content into individual ingredients to the rise of short-form video apps like Snap, Vine, and Dubsmash, and would often group those two trends together as tapping into the same user motivations for interacting with a piece of music. In reality, in the majority of cases those two worlds could not be more different—and I’ll try to explain why below, with the help of some visuals.
Say a major label releases a pop song that’s around four minutes long. Short-form video apps (Snap, Vine,, Dubsmash, etc.) will chop up the song like this:
The dotted lines demonstrate how these short-form video apps are cutting up a record along the axis of time—working with excerpts up to 60 seconds long that maintain the sonic quality of the original, but can be visually remixed through videos and photos by everyday users on these platforms.
This is also what constitutes the practice of sampling, if you’re lifting directly from the original master recording: you’re looping and layering a sample of an already-composed song, and then recording additional, original vocal and instrumental tracks on top.
By cutting a song vertically along the axis of time, you reveal its hooks, earworms and most distinctive moments. But you’re still marketing a static song, with all of its components intact; its underlying elements have not truly opened up as tools that creators can repurpose for their own use.
In contrast, when you break down this hypothetical four-minute pop song into individual stems, the dotted lines are more hamburger-style, like this:
In this case, you’re isolating vocals, beats, instrumentals and other elements of the song, while maintaining the song’s original length. This is the key difference to me: stems, in their original form, are not “short-form content.” Stems are inherently not “snackable.” They are only as “short-form” as their original source, and therefore tie into much different motivations for the users who seek them. A power user of a Snapchat music lens may not necessarily be interested in playing around with the vocals of their favorite pop track, because their preferred tools and materials are fundamentally different.
There some notable exceptions to this concept: a handful of recent initiatives in music are trying to combine the two visuals above by “consumerizing” and monetizing bite-size snippets of stems. One great example is Jammer, which has licensing deals with a few major labels to lay out vocal and instrumental stems from chart-topping hits in a user-friendly, gridded and quantized environment—such that users can make their own remixes of singles by the likes of Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj regardless of their musical background.
Another example is Native Instruments’ Sounds Originals, which just launched this week and is working with DJ-producers like Diplo and Richie Hawtin to unveil, and monetize, their “signature sound.” For instance, users can purchase a pack of Diplo’s signature vocal samples and synths and use them freely in their own production, without having to worry about royalties. Splice has been doing this for a few years as well, building exclusive “artist packs” with the likes of Slow Magic. In this case, the target market isn’t necessarily the average fan, but rather the up-and-coming or seasoned producer using Native Instruments equipment or looking for new sounds to enhance their latest tracks.
In all of these different examples, you’re cutting music horizontally, not just vertically—which means you’re revealing its underlying ingredients.
Marketing the ingredients of a song is a fundamentally different challenge from marketing its “moments.” Understandably, most music copyright businesses avoid “ingredient marketing” altogether. This is due to a mix of perceived lack of consumer demand, concerns over brand control and stubborn legal structures that can’t support proper licensing and monetization of said ingredients.
Given the metaphor, I think we can actually learn a lot from the food and cooking world, when it comes to marketing ingredients effectively while still maximizing both consumer satisfaction and attention on the creator’s personality.
One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Chef’s Table, a documentary series about Michelin-star chefs that just released its latest season on Netflix. More than any other food series I’ve watched, Chef’s Table treats its chef-subjects not merely as day-to-day manual laborers, but as serious artists who have spent decades honing their craft and assembling the right teams to execute on their groundbreaking creative philosophies.
The series is also an unabashed feat of ingredient marketing. In every single episode, there are several scenes in which the featured chef takes a stroll through the local, independent farms, gardens and greenhouses from which they source the ingredients for their dishes. The viewer has the opportunity to eavesdrop on chefs’ conversations with farmers, debating the quality of certain produce or explaining the nuanced layers of flavors that can only come from local soil.
In other words, Chef’s Table isn’t just stroking its subjects’ egos and giving them a one-directional megaphone. It’s also arguing that chefs are inseparable both from their ingredients and from the sprawling ecosystems of nature and human talent and labor that bring those ingredients to life.
Pardon the leaps of thinking, but there may be a lesson for the music industry here: in a world where fans have access to music’s ingredients, and where artists relinquish at least some control over how those ingredients are used, artists’ brands are increasingly about their surrounding creative ecosystems, not just about themselves. The source of creative innovation (and value) no longer lies solely in the creation or distribution of a finished product, but rather in how the ingredients underlying that product are made available to empower an entirely new ecosystem of self-organized self-expression.
From videos (RIP) and the oversaturated market of dance challenges to sample packs and remix apps, major labels and indie/DIY artists alike are now racing to create the strongest, highest-quality creative ecosystems around themselves.
I’d love to hear what you think about these ideas: Do you agree with Faxon’s thesis about the music companies of the future turning into facilitators rather than originators of content and its rights? Do you think the artists with the strongest, most open creative ecosystems will have the greatest long-term success—or is it something else? Is there even a demand for “ingredient marketing” in music when it comes to the everyday fan? Simply reply to this email and it’ll go straight to me!
My writing
Tencent Music uses "tipping" to rack up revenues. Why aren't Western music streaming platforms doing the same?
I will be giving a solo presentation on potential business cases for virtual reality in the music industry at the 2112 Immersive Tech Summit in Chicago next Saturday, October 20.
Funnily enough, I recently asked the Twitter hivemind what they thought were the most overrated and underrated music-tech stories right now, and the majority of respondents mentioned VR as overrated (see more detailed comments here and here). I hope to use my time at 2112 to delve into why this might be the case, and to brainstorm how tech and music companies could collaborate more effectively to change the narrative.
I’ll have only around 80 hours in Chicago—and, again, it’ll be my first time visiting—so any recommendations for sights to check out would be much appreciated!
Good reads
Unfree Agents
Obligatory potato
Chinese video app Kuaishou (a.k.a. Kwai) seems to have cornered a strange niche of the video market: short-form and live-streamed content of daily rural life in third- and fourth-tier cities. One user, who works as a farmer in a small town in Shandong province, regularly uses Kwai to document herself farming and cooking potatoes, and has garnered over 501,000 followers to date. In 2017, Tencent made a $350 million strategic investment in Kwai, which CEO Pony Ma deemed the app “for ordinary people.”
Did you enjoy this issue?
Cherie Hu


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