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Why the future of music is like Amazon Books.

Happy Tuesday! Hope you all have an exciting, healthful and growth-filled 2018 ahead. :) One of my ma
Why the future of music is like Amazon Books.
By Cherie Hu • Issue #17 • View online
Happy Tuesday! Hope you all have an exciting, healthful and growth-filled 2018 ahead. :)
One of my many goals this year is to build up the frequency of Water & Music to weekly, rather than monthly. We’re only around two weeks into 2018, but this is already shaping up to be a pivotal year for the music industry. I don’t just say that for the sake of hype. There are so many new trends, theories and possible futures spinning around in my head that I want to share and debate with you directly, here, in your inbox—not to mention the many more articles I plan to write across Billboard, Forbes and a handful of other outlets (to be announced!).
A weekly pace is the best way not only to keep you updated on this throbbing pulse, but also to keep myself and this industry accountable for our actions and promises. So if you don’t see a new issue of Water & Music in your inbox on January 23, holler at me.
Today’s subject line is inspired by the combination of a Christmas shopping encounter and a Facebook ad.
I currently live a few blocks away from one of Amazon’s physical bookstores in New York City. I stopped by on Christmas Eve to purchase some gifts, and I have never seen a bookstore so crowded in my entire life.
Yes, it was arguably the holiday rush plus Amazon’s reputation for facilitating last-minute buys that contributed to the crowds. But the success of Amazon’s bookstores—and of the company’s wider move into brick-and-mortar (+Whole Foods)—raises an interesting debate around which forces will really keep physical media experiences alive over the next several years.
To explain this, I’m going to borrow a concept from the design world: the Amazon bookstore is an ingenious reversal of skeuomorphism, or the act of making digital objects represent their real-world counterparts.
Popular contemporary examples of skeuomorphic design include Apple’s iBooks, which displays digital books on a virtual wooden shelf, and music production software like Pro Tools that incorporate knobs and sliders into their UX.
Amazon Books feels so refreshing and remains so popular because it turns skeuomorphism on its head: it makes the physical world conform to its digital origins, rather than the other way around.
For those of you who haven’t seen Amazon Books in person yet, this 2017 article on Recode gives a pretty good visual rundown. From the outside, it looks like any other physical bookstore. On the inside, however, most of the shelves and book labels are presented in a manner that only Amazon can pull off with authority, drawing inspiration from its online user experience—and from its large swaths of consumer data:
  • “Highly rated: 4.8 stars and above”
  • “95% of reviewers rated this book 4 stars or higher”
  • “Books that have been reviewed more than 10,000 times”
  • “If you like ____, then you’ll love ____”
  • “Books Kindle readers finish in 3 days or less”
If Amazon Books continues to grow, it’ll be a slap in the face to traditional bookstores—and could serve as a model for other tech companies that harvest and analyze consumer data, and that want to prove they can use this data to deliver added value in analog environments that its brick-and-mortar competitors might not be capable of giving.
Enter Spotify.
If you study most of the complaints that have arisen around Spotify’s UX over the last year, you’ll realize that many naysayers want Spotify to be more skeuomorphic. Where are the liner notes? Where is the front-and-center cover art? Why has the album column disappeared from the desktop playlist layout? Why can’t we own our music?
My trip to Amazon Books made me realize that these complaints are completely missing the point. Spotify’s power in 2018 will come from reversing, not preserving, skeuomorphism.
Spotify’s power will come from curating live events around its flagship playlists, which is already happening. Last year, the streaming service successfully executed a six-city RapCaviar Live tour and produced its first-ever Who We Be concert in London. With the rising popularity of other flagship playlists like EDM-oriented mint, plus adjacent developments such as the official creation of a Grime genre category on the platform, we can only expect Spotify’s live events arm to expand in 2018. I don’t think it’s too crazy to claim that the concert of the future will just be a live playlist.
Spotify’s power will come from reaching out to fans more directly and more effectively than most labels can, which is already happening. Whether targeting avid listeners with discounted pre-sale tickets or inviting 30 hand-selected fans to decorate gingerbread cookies with Ed Sheeran, Spotify wants to eliminate the gap between artist loyalty and Spotify loyalty, between face-to-face artist engagement and Spotify engagement.
Last but not least, Spotify’s power in the live events space is confirmed when it pressures traditional music festivals to cater to the streaming lifestyle, which is already happening! Just a few days ago, I spotted a paid Facebook ad for the Boston Calling music festival that reads as follows:
“When you put your playlist on shuffle, does it skip from Tyler, The Creator to Fleet Foxes? Portugal. The Man to Brockhampton? With us, you can see it all.”
Surely, as onlookers continue to question the true value proposition of mainstream music festivals, Boston Calling is not alone. Music festival culture is rebranding itself as playlist culture—which means that Spotify has already done to live music what Amazon is currently doing to books.

My writing
Spotify’s Uncertain Road: Legal Battles, Profit Pressures Ahead of IPO
  • I will be moderating a panel at NY:LON Connect on January 23 about the role of AI in music composition. It’s gearing up to be a pithy, philosophical and exciting debate. If you’ll be in NYC the week of January 22—whether for NY:LON or for general Grammy Week festivities—please let me know simply by replying to this email!
  • If you don’t already, you need to know about Jake Udell, the brilliant founder of artist management company TH3RD BRAIN (which manages a few of my favorite artists, including ZHU and Gallant) and one of my biggest role models in the industry. He started a brand-new email newsletter this year called Art of a Manager, and recently gave me a shoutout in his discussion about the two-song release strategy. If you want daily advice on being a successful music manager, entrepreneur and/or strategist, I can’t recommend this newsletter highly enough.
  • I’m looking to speak with executives who have recently switched jobs from tech/VC to music (along the lines of Avid Larizadeh Duggan, who just joined Kobalt as its Chief Strategy and Business Officer after serving as General Partner at Google Ventures for three years). If you are one of those people or have any recommendations for contacts, please reply to this email and let’s chat!
Good reads
How the “Gangnam Style” Video Became a Global Pandemic
Obligatory potato
No one asked for it, but everyone needs it: a potato ocarina cover of Darude’s hit song “Sandstorm.”
Did you enjoy this issue?
Cherie Hu


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