Voices Behind the Music Podcast Episode 2 Cherie Hu

Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric, is a story you've never heard. Music is highly personal, and our experiences with it shape our memories, thoughts, and desires. So much goes into every note and lyric behind the scenes, which is why we’re bringing you Voices Behind the Music to share untold music business tales. Our guests range from artists, producers, and managers to tech creators and more, each sharing their unique past experiences, current projects, and visions for the future. Voices Behind The Music is presented by Feed Media Group, the leading B2B music licensing platform.

Hosted by Jeff Yasuda, CEO, Feed Media Group.


Episode 2: Predicting Music Trends, Understanding Crypto for Artists, and Deconstructing In-Game Concerts - with Cherie Hu

Cherie is an award-winning researcher and entrepreneur focused on the nexus of music, technology, and business. She is the founder and publisher of the paid music/tech newsletter Water & Music and has freelance bylines in Billboard, Forbes, NPR Music, Pitchfork, and many other publications. She also teaches classes on music, business, and gaming at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.



Podcast Transcript:

Cherie: [00:00:00] A diehard super fan can pay like $10,000 for it, whereas how would you express that fandom on Spotify? Streaming the song more and incrementally contributing three more cents?

So I think conceptually that is at the core of why artists are so excited about crypto. having more flexibility to create more diverse models or other work.

Jeff: Behind every favorite artist, song, or lyric is a story you've never heard.

In Voices Behind The Music, we go much deeper than the frontman you hear on the album or the guitarist you see on stage. People from all aspects of the music industry work together to make the business what it is and are often some of the busiest, but nicest, funniest, and smartest people out there. I'm Jeff Yasuda, CEO at Feed Media Group, the creators behind the leading B2B music licensing platform. Join me as I sit down with some of my favorite voices behind the [00:01:00] music to hear their insider stories about what makes the music industry so exciting.

Today I'm here with the amazing Cherie, who is an award-winning journalist educator, and thought leader at the intersection of music and technology.

The Harvard grad brainiac was a writer for Forbes and later wrote for Billboard and Music Business Worldwide. But has also written for countless publications, including NPR Variety, Music Ally, and many more. She is an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU and is the founder and publisher of the critically acclaimed newsletter and community, Water and Music. 

Cherie is also an accomplished pianist, having also studied at Julliard and is always at the cutting edge of where the music industry is going. And on that note, I initially met Cherie years ago when she was a writer at Forbes, discussing fitness as the next distribution [00:02:00] vehicle for the music industry, which she predicted way back in 2018. Case and point, Peloton is now the seventh-largest revenue driver for labels and publishers after streaming giants, like Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and Amazon Music.

Cherie, welcome to Voices Behind the Music.

Cherie: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

Jeff: Great to see you. Great to chat with you. So a little birdie has told me that you are doing something now with a group called Seed Club, and tell me what you're working on.

Yeah, for sure. My main thing that I work on right now full-time is my own newsletter, Water and Music, and as of just a month ago, I am also part of a new accelerator called Seed Club, which helps communities build their own social tokens. And it's expanding into not just social tokens, but helping them navigate NFTs, like how to integrate NFT drops into their community strategy.

And Water and Music already [00:03:00] has a very active community. We have a discord server that's active on a daily basis where people are already going to discuss the latest news, help each other find the next job opportunity in music and tech, or the next creative project to work on. So there's already a lot of this community-driven, collective learning, collaboration ethos, that I've been very intentional about trying to promote from the very beginning.

So at least to me, creating some tokenized on-chain way to track those contributions and to reward the most active standout members. It seems like a natural next step.

And what is an NFT and why is it good for artists and why is it good for fans?

Cherie: So NFT stands for a nonfungible token. I personally would like to see it have like a more user-friendly name because if you say NFT or nonfungible token, it doesn't really resonate with the average person, I don't think. But the way that it works is, unlike say a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or [00:04:00] Ether, that is fungible in that you and I each have one Bitcoin, we can interchange it. And it has the exact same function, just like any Fiat currency, like the US dollar.

 And NFT is nonfungible, meaning it is verifiably scarce. You can't break it down. It's multiple pieces. You can't mutually interchange it with another token.

To use an analogy that might resonate with people in the music industry, and I think unsurprisingly, one of the most common applications for NFTs in the industry, is like a digital piece of merchandise. If you think about a piece of merge that you would get from an in-person tour, for example, it has some level of scarcity. Especially if it was like a limited edition. The term digital collectible has caught on for this reason.

So yeah, I guess to sum it up, it's a kind of token that has verifiable scarcity and you can verify that using blockchain, it was kind of the underlying rails of crypto. It's a decentralized ledger that multiple people never can access. So why is this valuable for artists and fans?

There are a lot of different reasons. One, [00:05:00] if you think about the economics of streaming and why it does not work for most artists, arguably, in terms of making like a sustainable living, is because once you distribute your music onto say Spotify or Apple Music, you're automatically put into a system that incentivizes and only rewards scale. Also, ubiquity, which is the opposite of scarcity.

The only way that you can earn a sustainable living from music streams is if you get millions of streams per month, which requires having a global presence reaching larger audiences. I feel like that is very often, understandably so, the success metric for the mainstream music industry. It's like scale and more scale, both streaming and social media.

Obviously, if you are like a niche artist, I wouldn't even call these like niche genres, but say you're a classical or jazz artist, and your catalog might not be getting that many streams on Spotify. Or if you're only paid out a royalty for a song after 30 seconds, but [00:06:00] your classical music piece is 10 minutes, you're not rewarded for additional listening time and so I think a lot of artists do face this pressure or this perception of a lack of choice.

In participating in this industry, I have to funnel my whole career into this one dominant model that might not serve my community or my needs. And so what I think is really interesting about crypto in general, with NFTs being a subset of this, is that you can almost code your own economics around your creative work into your token.

It's much easier and much more immediate to set up more decentralized like revenue splits, for example, and especially for artists who care about that transparency, all that information is available on-chain. So people can verify that the right people are getting paid, which is a huge issue in the industry.

 The notion of scarcity, which understandably people have mixed feelings about, but there are some artists for whom that notion of scarcity does resonate really well with their fans. And now they can sell this, one of one single version token connected to the song [00:07:00] and a diehard super fan can now if they want to pay like $10,000 for it. Whereas, how would you express that fandom on Spotify? Streaming the song more and like incrementally contributing like three more cents? Like there isn't as much flexibility to showcase and then on the artist side, monetize that range of fandom.

So I think conceptually, that is at the core of why artists are so excited about crypto. It's having more flexibility to create more diverse models or other work, as opposed to feeling like they only have to be funneled into the dominant streaming or social.

Jeff: Perfect. That was an awesome description by the way. And it's actually, to me, very analogous to the age-old thesis. When you are in a band, I did run a label and a management company at one point, and we learned very quickly that that there are few artists that actually make money at the time selling [00:08:00] CDs.

Right. Most artists, most musicians make money on the road playing live gigs and obviously selling merch. But now we have moved to the digital format, and where tech, and particularly your knowledge at the intersection of music and tech is so powerful. Is that NFT's and this crypto world per se, just represents another revenue stream for artists that historically and traditionally have had trouble monetizing. 

I think this is even more important as the DIY movement is fully embraced. A lot of artists just don't have the capability to get signed to a label, even an indie label, or even a distribution deal. And I go back to that great Brooklyn band probably in your neighborhood Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who actually pushed out their initial album themselves. They pressed it, [00:09:00] they pushed it out. I think their first album sold 30,000 copies, which to a major label would be a massive disaster. But if you own all the rights and you're essentially making at the time 9.99 per CD, you're actually doing pretty darn well.

But it is fascinating to me, this world of NFTs. It's a perfect concept because in some ways to sort of fandom, isn't just about, Hey, being in the background saying, oh, I love your music. I listened to it. Fandom is about, Hey, I want to show off and brag to my friends that I'm a super fan because I've got this very unique thing, in this case digitally.

Cherie: Yes, so I totally agree. And I think that idea resonates with a lot of fans. I also think that is one of the biggest gaps in the NFT world right now. There's a lot of discussion about the utility of NFTs. What do you use NFTs for? And if you think about like merch, to your point just now, like the [00:10:00] main utility is like not a really functional thing.

It's like social status, some kind of cloud, I was hip to this artist or this span before you were, you know, a part of this community. It was a very clear way to show it, you wear the merch, you hang it on your wall or something. So many people are working on this, but right now, like say I buy an NFT from my favorite artist.

How do I show it off? I can post it on social media, but I feel like it's not enough proof. So you actually have the token. Maybe I can like show the transaction on whatever blockchain it was on, the Ethereum blockchain, but it's just like a bunch of numbers. And like a really long string of characters.

It's like my wallet address. I feel like it's not as interesting or doesn't communicate what you're trying to show to people.

Jeff: I've also heard about some artists using their NFTs to essentially help build community. [00:11:00] Whereby the actual value of the NFT isn't what's embedded as part of the digital asset per se, but more so around how, if I now know that another person who bought this NFT is someone that I have potentially the chance to meet, this now becomes effectively a community of NFT owners.

There's a scarcity and, oh my gosh, I get to hang out with such and such because they too are an owner of this precious asset.

Cherie: Yes. And not in music, but elsewhere in crypto, we're seeing this community kind of vision happened with, I don't know if you're familiar with crypto punks or board ape yacht club, sad girls, I feel like there are too many of these projects out there now. But there are a lot of these like limited edition avatar projects whose only value you could argue is that they're like colorful [00:12:00] and just, they are scarce.

Like they only have value because they are scarce. So this like one group of people minted 10,000 NFTs of images that all had a similar aesthetic. So for like crypto punks, it's just like a very pixelated eight-bit style avatar face. And each of those NFTs will have a specific set of traits, like certain color hair, maybe they're wearing a hat, maybe they're wearing jewelry. And some traits are rarer than others and that's laid out very clearly. You have like a 0.01% chance of getting this feature, and so there I guess, are two things to point out.

One, you would think it's a very playful I guess kind of experiment. There's no real utility, but there's so much value in like a crypto punks market and that the rarest ones easily will sell for up six figures, like $100-200,000 each, which is crazy. Most people, I think they would look at that and be like, why? Like what is going on.

Jeff: [00:13:00] Right. Oh my gosh.

Cherie: But that also, and I guess there's no way to really verify this, but it's like an unspoken rule that if you own a crypto punk, you have to change your Twitter profile picture to your crypto punk. So there's a whole culture of like people changing their social avatars or PFP, is like an acronym that comes up a lot, like changing your PFP to your crypto punk or to whatever NFT you own in any of these other collections. So now there's so many spinoffs of crypto punks, like different avatar versions of these apes for board ape, there's a penguin one. There's like a sad girl-themed one that I like, I really like in terms of the aesthetic, it's all black and white. Yeah. And so it's, it's like a fun way to show.

Jeff: It's like crypto etiquette.

Cherie: Yeah. Completely. 

Jeff: Let's maybe segue a little bit into this concept of the metaverse. Some of the things that like roadblocks are doing right, and, and even [00:14:00] some of the initial concerts that took place on Fortnite, do you have a view on that virtual experience? 

Cherie: For sure. Okay. My semi-hot take on this is that for the most part, I think actually with the exception of second life, the concept of an in-game concert does not exist. And we've used the term in-game concert to describe things like fortnight shows that I actually think are like interactive music videos. If you think about Travis Scott's Fortnite show from last April, which I feel like has set the tone for how so many people are thinking about this topic. Travis was not actually performing live, the whole thing was premeditated. He was not there, interacting off of the energy of the audience. Everything. Yeah, it was done ahead of time. They spent like over six months, millions of dollars, making it. But it was immersive and interactive. I experienced it as like a fan/consumer as an immersive look at the world that he built around Astroworld [00:15:00] specifically, this album that he put out, it was like an extension of like the album cover almost. 

And then thinking about Roadblocks and Lil NAS X, I think he was one of their first big in-game concerts, quote-unquote, except that was also all prerecorded. There was no actual interaction with the artist. Like, as a fan, I guess you could react in real-time or chat in real-time, but it was actually quite limited. So you show up at a certain time for the premiere of a premeditated visual experience.

Whereas with second life, obviously, the tech was not as good. So I've read a lot of stuff about how you could only have like max 20 people in a venue or something before like the servers would just blow up and then you couldn't let anyone else in, or like obviously the avatars were not as good quality and we're like super clunky. But the vibe I got from seeing all the second life videos is actually kind of similar to seeing performing artists or cover artists on Twitch.

Like they were actually performing live, the audio was live, they set up all their tech to do that. And they were [00:16:00] interacting and getting feedback from the audience in real-time, even though it was through these avatars. And that sense of real-time intimacy and this experience that literally will not happen again because it's being created in real-time, I think it was really magical. 

And it's so crazy that idea feels forward-thinking, because a lot of the like in-game music experiences are actually not, they're not interactive in the same sense of the artists being present. Like a movie, it's like a music video that happens to be more immersive.

And I understand the challenge of trying to bring like that real-time live experience into something like Fortnite because that would just require so much computing power probably. And we hear all the time even today about like Livestream glitches and stuff.

Jeff: Yeah. So you would just summarize, you wouldn't call it inauthentic but you just have to make sure that as the fan it's clear, "Hey, I'm showing up and checking this out for the first time, but it's like a music video."

Cherie: Yes. And you can, there [00:17:00] definitely is like a longer semantic debate about what is a concert? That's a whole separate conversation, but yes, it's not that it's inauthentic if it's live, but making the value proposition to the fan clear and setting clear expectations.

Jeff: I'm going to put you on the spot again, but do you have a new prediction around where the music industry is going?

Cherie: Yeah. In fitness now, I was thinking about this earlier, so you have like the Peloton's of the world that are doing these very high profile curation partnerships with the likes of Beyonce or they'll invite major, major recording and performing artists. Or they will feature them and like their Peloton Music Festival that happened like early this year, right? Like a whole weekend of just curated music programming. And that seems to me like a relatively more standard artist partnership kind of model.

I'm also seeing companies like Endel would [00:18:00] fall in this category. I feel like Apple, out of all the big tech companies, is like best poised to go in the direction of more generative music. So I guess also this expands from just physical fitness and working out to health in general.

I've seen a ton of different apps for generative music-making that serves a much more functional purpose to the point where the artist almost doesn't matter. It's like listening to on YouTube, there are all these lo-fi hip hop playlists like 24/7 lo-fi hip hop beats to study to or whatever.

Usually, you listen to that and you don't pay attention to who the artist is. You listen to that to get in the right headspace and just like have it as like wallpaper, essentially.

Jeff: Well, you don't want to get distracted.

Cherie: Yes, exactly. You don't want to be distracted. Whereas like a Beyonce class for like Peloton, you are focused solely on the class, and this is probably why those partnerships have such high value. The music is so central to maintaining your focus and presence and performance ultimately, in the class. [00:19:00] And so, my predictions in terms of like the next couple of years kind of fall into those two buckets in a weird way.

The last year and a half in particular have seen a lot more artists partnerships on the meditation side. So John Legend, to bring him up again, was the Chief Music Officer at Headspace and curated all playlists. 

Jeff: Do you think that's just marketing or do you think?

Cherie: 100% just marketing. I'm sure he is very busy with other things.

So that as like a title is absolutely just marketing, but it was a very strong signal at the time that Headspace was interested in or realized the importance of music or like just high-quality sound in general and delivering the most calm meditation experience.

In the wake of that, Calm now I think actually even more than Headspace is very aggressive on their like exclusives. So they have artists across all genres coming in to do sleep remixes of their latest albums or ambient mixes. [00:20:00] I feel like if I'm a fan of any of those artists, I would want to hear it on streaming services too.

Like thinking strategically from the artist side, my sense is that it could be even more impactful if it was not just like an app exclusive. Obviously, I don't know the exact nature of how those deals are structured. That is like a trend that reached this peak during the pandemic, but I'm still seeing continue in a lot of different ways.

Like artists realizing the value of creating different versions of their albums to fit different contexts, depending on are looking for. Like, oh, you have a dance remix. Why not have a sleep remix that way? You know, fill a spectrum of emotion, energy, and activity.

Jeff: Let me ask you some fun questions around you. First of all, I want to hear about your piano playing. Most [00:21:00] people probably don't know you studied at Julliard.

Cherie: Yes. So I did their pre-college program. So every Saturday I would go and have like private lessons, chamber music lessons, music theory, ear training, electives like music history, composition. So it was a weekend school for music.

I'd love to do that.

Cherie: Yeah, it was all my gosh that was my dream. Probably what I looked forward to the most every week was hanging out with everyone else who thought as deeply about music as I did.

And like having that immediate connection. Yeah, it was just so magical. It was great. 

Jeff: Are you still playing?

Cherie: It's actually interesting. So I only play occasionally. I definitely don't practice as much as I could, but I just spent the last week in LA and it was my first time in LA since before the pandemic.

So it'd been a while since I went back, it was just like a work trip. But something about maybe being in a new city or like being in LA specifically has [00:22:00] motivated me to play more music now. It's a very like stereotypical LA thing to say. 

Woo. Yay. 

Cherie: But I'm very motivated and inspired by that. So as of right now, I'm playing a lot more than I used to in the last like a year and a half, which feels great.

Jeff: Fantastic. Fantastic. Okay. Some rapid-fire questions. What was your first album?

Cherie: Oh, my gosh. I only realized this when I was trying to teach, I taught like, it was very cute experience, a music journalism workshop to a bunch of really young people in my hometown, 10 to 12-year-olds. One of the first questions that I asked in this class is similar, what's your favorite music right now?

So their answer to that question is how I would answer this question. At that age, your music tastes are so influenced by your parents. There's one 10 year old in the class who was like, I love Louis Armstrong, but also like what!?

Jeff: Oh, wow.

Cherie: you are so cultured [00:23:00] and so sophisticated. great.

So my answer to this would be, unsurprisingly listened to a lot of classical music. So there was a record of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-yo Ma, I think it was a live album on vinyl. It might still be in my old house, but I that's the first album I remember.

Jeff: What about the greatest show you've ever seen?

Cherie: Oh Vulfpeck at Madison Square Garden.

Wow. You saw that show?

I was there. Yeah. 

Oh my gosh. 

Cherie: It was incredible. I feel like it's one of the most underrated music industry case studies, because they got Madison Square Garden self-managed, run their own label. They do have an agent which is probably how they got MSG, but Jack Stratton, who's one of the main guys in the band, he's like the defacto manager that runs the label. So it's a completely like bootstrapped operation, but they got to Madison Square [00:24:00] Garden and it was like totally full. Yeah, just super, super impressive.

And their previous show was Broken Steel in New York, I think just the year or two before. So like their ascent has just been crazy. yeah. 

Jeff: I've seen YouTube of that, where they had kind of that living room layout.

Cherie: Yes. Such a good design choice. Like even in one of the biggest venues in the world still maintain the ethos of their videos. Ugh. So, so great.

Jeff: Like irreverent. And then the last question is sort of your greatest star-struck moment? 

Cherie: So actually related, I have had dinner with Jack Stratton and that was like a huge, super fan moment. So you see Vulfpeck the band, and of course, you said it like very irreverent and like had their own sticks and their own personalities. Jack also is very, he's always been very observant and astute about the economics of music too. I mean, he has to [00:25:00] be, to run Vulfpeck, like the band.

And so he had like, I don't know if he does it as much now, but he had tweeted like super frequently about why are our Spotify rates going down? Now we need more streams to make the same amount of money and like always try to unpack why the streaming economy, just like critiquing the streaming economy.

So I think he and I had like connected online through those conversations. And then I was able to like have dinner with him and a bunch of other people in LA, but yeah. And it was so great also because, and maybe this is like a basic thing, but it struck me also that he is just like a very like normal person. That really struck me that the difference between the persona that you project like onstage, which of course it's important to like your brand as an artist and like how fans experience you, but that just like who you are as a person, most people I would hope are just normal.

They have normal hopes, concerns. You know, et cetera. So that was a very fulfilling experience to like, have that more holistic [00:26:00] view. Yeah. Super like a top star-struck woman. 

Jeff: Yeah. Well, we're going to end on that note. Cherie, thank you so much for spending time with us sharing your insights. How do people find out more about you? Just Cheriehu.com or where do you like to send people?

Cherie: You can go to my website, cheriehu.com. 

Thank you. And I'm also on Twitter @cherihu42, feel free to add me at the same handle on Instagram. And I'm also on LinkedIn, if you want to add either.

Jeff: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being on.

Cherie: Thank you again for having me.

Jeff: Thanks for listening to Voices Behind the Music, a Growth Network Podcasts production presented by Feed Media Group. We're on a mission to make it easy, fast, and legal for businesses to use music to power the most engaging customer experiences. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast wherever you get yours and learn more about us at [00:27:00] feedmediagroup.com


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