The perfect harmony between data and art: Water and Music

We speak to Cherie Hu, founder of Water and Music, about owning your audience and nurturing a community.

Cherie Hu from Water and Music

Cherie Hu, founder of waterandmusic.com

“My first experience with the ‘music industry’ was as a music fan and performer,” starts Cherie Hu, the founder of Water and Music, a research and publishing company in the music tech industry. “I grew up playing classical piano and so the creative performing side is very near and dear to me, but academically, I was into math and that's what I studied in college.” It seems that the theoretical foundations for Water and Music, which sits at the intersection of math and music, were laid at an early stage.

But it wasn't until her sophomore year of college that Cherie became truly aware of the music industry as a professional ‘machine’: “For every major record that goes out, there's a huge team of people behind it – label, publisher, artist manager, all kinds of roles,” she continues. “I wasn’t aware of the industry until college but the more I became aware of it, the more I realized that there is a big data problem – as I think there still is.” As with so many creative industries until recently, the people working in it are not data-literate. “There are so many things to track and analyze: social media engagement, streaming, the reach of community platforms. There's so much hype around Spotify and TikTok but from the artists’ perspective, you actually get very little information about who your fans are. You don't actually own your audience,” she continues.

Cherie completed a work shadowing experience at Interscope Records in 2015 as her first deep dive into the industry. “The A&R team scouts artists, and connects them with the right collaborators. It struck me how not data-driven it was,” she remembers. There seemed to be many opportunities to use data in interesting ways: “There was a huge gap there. The concept of a data analyst at a label was very new at the time. That's what I thought I would do, or working at a streaming service from the tech side, understanding how people consume or engage with music. Writing was never in the plan.”

Cherie continued with internships in the industry and wrote about her experiences and opinions but only informally and on the side. But university changed all that: “I went to college in Boston and Berklee College of Music hosted a lot of music and tech events. At the end of junior year in 2015, I went to a media career fair, just to see who was attending.” There just happened to be an editor at Forbes there, who was looking to expand the magazine’s music and tech coverage.

“Apple Music had just launched; the tech and music conversation was accelerating. Spotify and Apple were buying up a lot of music data startups and no-one was covering it,” Cherie explains. It was cool to see that these big mainstream business publications were interested in diving more into it.” Cherie started freelancing for Forbes almost instantly and continued to write for them while completing her studies. After she graduated, she noticed other publications were searching for tech writers. “Billboard was looking for a tech writer; Music Business Worldwide wanted a tech column, diving into streaming in particular. I wrote a couple of columns for them and had work commissioned by Pitchfork and Variety.”

Owning your audience

Water and Music started soon after, as a ‘metaproduct’ of conversations Cherie was having with artists in the industry. “A topic that came up frequently was the importance of owning your audience, having a direct relationship with your fan base,” she explains. “So many people rely on scale at the cost of not even knowing who your top fans are, let alone being able to reach them.”

Cherie had realized that she too needed a way to communicate directly with her readers. So Water and Music was born, initially as a free newsletter and nowadays she encourages others to “invest in simple but powerful things like email lists, or memberships”. Back in 2015, this conversation wasn't coming up very often, especially for professional and aspiring writers: “For myself and other freelancers, it was very much about writing for the big publications. But I thought, ‘Maybe if I want to be a full-time independent writer, I should have something on the side where people can follow me directly.’ Cherie was thinking beyond the bylines and had started to look for ways to people can follow her work across all publications.

The inspiration for the publication name came later that same year, when Cherie heard an interview with Kendrick Lamar and Quincy Jones: “At the very end, Quincy Jones says the last things to leave the planet will be water and music. That phrase spoke to the value of music for me personally, which I didn't want to let go of even as I was writing more about the business side of the industry.” Water and Music was born.

Thankfully, many of the publications Cherie already wrote for allowed her to link to the newsletter in her writing bio, and people began subscribing. “It wasn't until 2019 that it grew to a point where I thought, ‘There's a community of people here who are subscribing because they have this like-minded view on music and tech’.” Cherie notes that she’s always tried to push a “not just analytical but future-looking approach, of not being afraid to dive into the weeds on music theory as well” and the content was clearly resonating.

The community around Water and Music has continued to grow and take up its own mantle, becoming a publication in its own right. “Recently, there have been people who know about Water and Music without knowing about me,” Cherie says. “For a very long time, it was just me writing the articles!”

Going ‘off-program’

Almost ironically, the online community grew because of offline in-real-life (IRL) events: “I still go to a ton of conferences for my job,” she continues. “Every single time, the most interesting discussions and connections that happen at these events are not during the panels. They're on the side. No disrespect to event programmers – the conversations are always really good – but in terms of connecting attendees, the collective expertise of people in the room is always going to be more than people on stage, just because it's more people. These conversations don't get activated until you go ‘off-program’, at dinners or networking events.

Particularly in terms of music tech discussions, the most interesting conversations Cherie was having were at those off-program events. After the conferences ended, Cherie would stay in touch with the people she met and connected with, but there was no way to to continue the conversation, or to “workshop ideas and get feedback”.

Water and Music was growing partly to facilitate the continuation of these offline conversations as well as take the theoretical side of the subject deeper. “It was great to connect with people, but it also was helpful from a research perspective. People were looking for more analytical perspectives: I knew there was a critical mass of like-minded people who were looking for this outlet, a lot of whom didn't know each other."

Water and Music Austin meet-up The Water and Music meet-up at SXSW in Austin

Cherie would use Water and Music to bring people together online to begin a conversation – “I was like, ‘You two have to know each other!’ – so that IRL meetings and offline communication could blossom even more productively. “You’d go to these in-person events and see the power of the conversations that could happen,” she smiles. “I wanted to create an accessible resource for this, that didn't require paying like $1,000 such as for a South by Southwest ticket!”

Independent critical analysis

Water and Music was having a moment and several people had approached Cherie about advertising in the free newsletter. “It’s definitely a model that works for many people but I didn't want to feel beholden to ‘the market’ as a concept: beholden to writing things that would get the most clicks or views,” she explains. Cherie wants to “write about the most compelling idea and have that stand out and be the source of value, rather than reach the most eyeballs.” Even today, as Water and Music is growing still, there's no pressure to conform: “We don't want to compete on writing the most breaking, gossipy news, or clickbait.”

“We’re focusing on high-quality research,” she continues, and says she feels sponsorship or advertising is counterproductive to that. “Ads just create a lot of issues. Every media company that's ad-driven has probably run into conflicts of interest: ‘Oh, someone's a big advertiser. You can't write about them a certain way.’ I just wanted to avoid that. The goal is an independent critical analysis of the music industry.”

During her research on membership businesses, Cherie found an initiative called the Membership Puzzle Project at New York University (NYU), which has produced great information on local news outlets, both in the US and Europe, that run on a membership system. “Their goal is to understand whether membership makes sense as a sustainable model for local news, with the challenges that come up, as well as producing tools or frameworks to help.”

“Reading through that really helped inform my thinking,” she recalls, and notes the crucial difference between ‘membership’ and ‘subscription’ as concepts, similar to the difference between ‘community’ and ‘audience’ from her traditional music industry days. “With membership, you get so much more than just content; you're buying into a community with shared values or a shared mission.” Cherie’s mindset is that an online community must be a source of value from the moment you pay and nowadays that even influences how Water and Music markets to and onboards new members. For example, they promote their Discord server (an online chatroom), as a way for new members to instantly feel engaged with the community, more than they ever used to.

The importance of purpose

The necessity for new members to be instantly engaged is rooted in Cherie’s original considerations for founding the Water and Music community, as she thinks “the most important thing for membership is purpose”. She asks: “What is the purpose of the membership, especially not just from your perspective, but from the perspective of people who are going to be in the community? How are members interacting with each other and getting value – from each other as much as from you?”

She explains that a paid membership model requires consistent delivery of value; people are paying on a regular basis so they expect a regular output in return. “This certainly doesn't mean you have to post every single day but consistency and regularity are key,” she says. “There's an expectation of regular value coming from your membership, but that value could also come from other members, in addition to just yourself.”

Cherie notes that designing and managing these community interactions is a key element of membership success, not only because it’s crucial for member engagement but because it’s essential to avoid burnout. “A community manager is one of the most in-demand roles for the music industry. It takes work and patience to nurture a community over time; it definitely can't be rushed.” In terms of work schedule, Cherie says she’s “thinking from the perspective of a creator or artist, who's already working on a lot of stuff” and she’s aware that it’s necessary to deliver consistent value without overworking.

Water and Music team The Water and Music team featuring founder Cherie Hu (fourth from left)

She urges creators to think about the value they can bring in a way that integrates with their existing workflow; for example, ‘behind the scenes’ content works perfectly. “I was doing a lot of research on music tech, and a benefit of the membership was not just community access, but access to my ‘process’, essentially,” she explains. “For a trend piece, I would compile massive databases of music tech startups. I would show my way of thinking and how I would tag these startups and how that informed my thesis. A paid membership gave you access to that process, at the time these articles were coming together.” This content about Cherie’s analytical techniques, additional to the ‘bottom line’ conclusions coming from them, has been incredibly popular.

The always-on numbers game

Cherie knows that convincing people to pay for a membership requires high levels of trust. “Usually, during someone's first encounter with someone else online, they're not immediately going to be like, ‘Oh, I want to pay this person!’,” she smiles. “They want to get to know your point of view; they’ll want to follow you for a while before committing.” Cherie says you need to think hard about your strategy for building awareness with people outside of the community, to “introduce them to things that are happening that consistently show value, to gradually bring them in if they're interested”.

She notes that public awareness is an ‘always on’ numbers game: “You have to continue to communicate the value you're delivering, in a way that is free to people. I think a lot of artists might launch a membership site and expect to like a 50% conversion rate, but that’s impossible.”

She advises that a mix of constant offline and online interaction is required, and social media and IRL events in particular have been beneficial: “Twitter is important for modern music because that's where so many writers are. Conferences are expensive, but still important in terms of face-to-face awareness, and letting people know about your brand. People can start on the journey of getting to know you via as many platforms as possible – including, crucially, offline.”

People are definitely spending more time offline, relative to two years ago. “In 2020 and 2021, I spent so much time on Discord. It was probably not very healthy!” she laughs. But she recalls that the chatroom was hugely popular for the community and she has made lifelong friends through it. “However, the reality nowadays is that those people are not going to be staring at their screens for the whole day. You have to meet them where they're at, and they are increasingly going to offline meet ups in order to have more IRL connections. There definitely needs to be a balance.”

It sounds like balance has been a central theme of Cherie’s life: the intersection of science and art – or specifically data and music; the harmony between offline and online communication; and the equilibrium between creating her own content and encouraging others in her community to contribute. It seems that the harmonies Cherie has been creating since her musical childhood are very much a part of her professional life, too.

More information

If you’d like to hear more about Water and Music, Cherie is speaking at numerous conferences over the summer, including NFT.NYC on 20-23 June. Or you can follow her on on Twitter: @WaterandMusic.

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