herie Hu was winner of the award for “Best Music Business Journalist of the Year” at Reeperbahn Festival 2017. The awards belongs besides ones for “Best Music Journalist” and “The Year’s Best Work of Music Journalism” (both with winners in the “German-language” and “international” categories) and an award in the German “Under 30” category for new talents to the International Music Journalism Awards.
Reeperbahn Festival: First of all, congratulations on winning our first “Best Music Business Journalist of the Year” award! To be honest, we didn’t anticipate that we would have a winner that contradicts most prejudices one might (rightly or wrongly) have about the profession. Quite obviously, you’re not a 50-plus-year-old white male! Do you think people voted for you because you are young and female or despite it?
Hu: Thank you so much! I myself was definitely surprised to hear the good news, especially given my background and relatively recent involvement in the industry – but yes, in retrospect, my unique perspective has certainly been an asset in my career. My overarching goal as a journalist is to write about and for people like me: young, entrepreneurial and curious professionals who want to know what’s really going on in music, and where the true opportunities lie for growth and innovation. I’m deeply passionate about educating future leaders in addition to current ones. Also, even though my work has spanned a combination of quicker news pieces that take only a few hours to write and longer features that require weeks of research and interviews, I think there’s a much bigger opportunity to cultivate a unique voice in the latter space, which is where I started out. Since I began writing about music as a college undergraduate, I incorporated a rather academic and research-oriented lens into my early writing, which I think gave me a leg up simply because there weren’t many other young people doing the same thing at the time.
Reeperbahn Festival: What is your professional career so far?
Hu: I’ve written a music-tech column for Forbes for the past two years, and recently joined Billboard.biz as a contributing editor – which has allowed me to cover a much wider range of topics beyond tech, including artist management and music-focused social impact initiatives. You can also find my bylines in Music Ally, Cuepoint and the Harvard Political Review. I’ve had the honor of speaking at and moderating panels at conferences including SXSW, Sónar+D, FastForward, SF MusicTech, Sørveiv, and L.A. Comic Con.My early work experience in the music industry has heavily influenced my approach to journalism. In summer 2015, I worked as a research assistant at Harvard Business School, where I helped launch a new project with their Digital Initiative about innovations in music business models. That was the first time I learned about companies like PledgeMusic, CASH Music, Future of Music Coalition and Patreon, and really set the stage for how I understand tech’s role in growing and empowering the DIY music community. I’ve also interned in product marketing at Ticketmaster and in account management at ticket sales analytics startup Jamplify, which has equipped me with an in-depth knowledge of the live and ticketing sector that I think is still lacking in music journalism. My first-ever exposure to the industry was a two-week A&R internship at Interscope Records in January 2015 – that was my first time meeting people who were both ambitious and genuinely passionate about the music business, and it set a hopeful tone for everything else I’ve done since.
Reeperbahn Festival: You publish articles on a wide array of music business-related topics – covering everything from traditional music-business structures (like labels etc.) to streaming platforms, from data analysis to the financing / venture capital aspects of startup culture. Which topics are most relevant for you and what skill set does today’s music business journalist need to have in order to approach these?
Hu: While I’ve covered a wide range of topics under the umbrella of music and tech, I think they all point to a fundamental tension between entrepreneurship and the status quo. I love profiling successful music entrepreneurs and their projects, but I’m also not afraid to point out where and why they might fail at the hands of industry incumbents. This is not a narrative that I fabricate from scratch – it runs wild in the music industry’s blood – but only recently have people actually come forward and articulated not only what that tension looks like, but also how it might actually encourage rather than stifle future progress.As for necessary skills in journalism, I believe the best writing on any topic connects the dots between otherwise disparate ideas. With the music industry in particular, there are so many conflicting perspectives at play: What do artists want? What do labels want? What do fans want? What do tech entrepreneurs want? What do we lose from generalizing the entire industry into buckets like these? Answering these questions is difficult for even the most senior music executives – and particularly for professionals who spend all their working hours hyper-servicing a narrow range of clients, and who might not be able to afford a bird’s-eye view on what’s going on.Therefore, for music business journalists, it’s important not just to do your research and demonstrate your knowledge, but also to present multiple perspectives in an accurate, digestible and actionable way. People usually read business journalism to make business decisions, so actionability is more important than ever. I also can’t overemphasize the importance of spending as much time as you can with music professionals, and taking a constant pulse on their most pressing concerns and questions. Once you understand their perspective, you can shape your writing in a way that empowers them with valuable knowledge and tools they can wield in their daily lives, and earn their trust in the process. Combining these elements will already elevate you above a lot of writing that’s being published about the business today.Another important skill that is directly related to “connecting the dots” is pattern recognition. History is most intriguing when it repeats itself, and the most evergreen pieces point to wider trends across multiple industries, stakeholders and time periods that no one has noticed or is willing to bring to light. To boost pattern recognition abilities, I think journalists can borrow a concept from the tech/design world of a “T-shaped” personality – deep, unparalleled expertise in a single field (the vertical line in the letter T) coupled with the ability to learn and collaborate across a much broader range of disciplines (the horizontal line in T). For me, my “T-shaped” perspective is augmenting deep expertise in music with a boundless curiosity for TV, movies, fashion, gaming, fine arts and philosophy. In its newfound period of growth, the music industry will likely widen its horizons and look to adjacent industries for expansion and inspiration, so I think this T-shaped approach will be more and more relevant moving forward.
Reeperbahn Festival: In the music business of old, everything is/was about contacts, networks, knowing the right people, etc. – one of the reasons the words “music business journalist” might conjure up the image of a 50-plus-year-old white male (see above). Do you think digitalization has brought about so much of a disruption that we now have a new, leveled playing field, or that the new digital music business is even more diverse etc. than the old one?
Hu: Speaking from my own professional experience, I think there is a more level playing field in the sense that the internet age allows younger, more diverse people to gain recognition and build new careers from the ground up in an otherwise legacy-oriented industry like music. I got my Forbes contributor position in part by submitting my scrappy WordPress music blog as my writing sample – as DIY as you can get. It’s analogous to how anyone can start posting music to SoundCloud or BandCamp, and how the rise of certain Latin and Asian genres today points to the power of streaming to elevate otherwise geographically-confined sounds onto the world stage.However, just because it’s a more “level” playing field doesn’t mean that you don’t have to put in the work, and this is where I think a lot of people fall short. If the barrier to entry is twice as low, I believe you need to work twice as hard to stay afloat above the rest of the noise. For my career, that meant doing twice the amount of research for articles, interviewing twice the number of people and putting myself out to conferences and other public platforms twice as often from the very beginning. In this sense, networks and contacts still matter, because the internet doesn’t go on autopilot for you.In fact, I once heard Hartwig Masuch (CEO of BMG Rights Management) make a really insightful point that digitalization actually makes mainstream artists and back catalog more relevant than ever before, because of something called the paradox of choice: when presented with a wider variety of choices, we actually gravitate towards what we are already familiar with. I think it’s crucial that aspiring music entrepreneurs keep this in mind and develop a keen sense of what is and isn’t familiar in the industry – after all, it’s important to know the system and the rules before you even think about breaking them. Also, as I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, succeeding in music requires that you surround yourself deliberately and constantly with people who are deep in the industry’s trenches, and take the time to understand what their values and concerns are. You are truly only as knowledgeable and powerful as the people with whom you surround yourself.
Reeperbahn Festival: In the music business of the last two decades the roles of the hunter and the hunted have seemingly changed time and again between music companies / rights owners and tech companies / digital distribution channels. While one side’s business models have been pushed to decline by new, more convenient technology, the other side’s business models have been constrained due to the powers that successfully defend intellectual property rights etc. Do you think these conflicts will endure or have the respective branches formed a new functional alliance?
Hu: The hunter/prey analogy is really interesting to me because it reinforces the notion that music and tech cannot coexist, which goes against my fundamental motivation for writing about their intersection. I do think that as long as people see “music” and “tech” as two separate industries, their conflict will endure. Part of it boils down to marketing: unlike most tech products, artists are not objects, they can talk back to you and have their own stubborn opinions about what their brands should be. Another part of it boils down to organizational styles and human resources. For example, knowledge and networks tend to flow much more freely and openly in the tech world, whereas the music world is still stifled by NDAs and senior execs who want to protect their egos and ensure their legacies. In addition, labels and publishers still invest shockingly little in data science, leaving most of the analytical prowess to streaming services and distributors and losing a lot of leverage in the process. Plus, while the aggregate music industry is now in a growth state, it seems that even the biggest music corporations need much more financing before they can feel comfortable prioritizing technological innovation over market share.On the other hand, I don’t know of any other industry aside from music where rights owners and digital distribution channels are so dependent on each other for success – in other words, if a major label like Universal Music Group pulled its entire catalog from Spotify, both companies would likely go out of business within a few years.I think part of building a “functional alliance” between music and tech will involve a gradual overhaul in senior management. I recently came to the realization that most execs at music-tech companies seem to have worked either for several years in music before transitioning to tech, or for several years in tech before transitioning to music. Conflict is inevitable in both circumstances, for all the reasons cited above. I look forward to seeing more music-tech leaders who were cultivated at that intersection from the ground up, and who can embrace more open innovation practices and make “digital” the core fuel behind an entire music company, rather than a single, siloed department to which everyone else has to catch up.
Reeperbahn Festival: What is your current professional “obsession”, which topics currently concern you most?
Hu: I wouldn’t say I have a single “obsession,” since I’m always trying to cast a wide net for anything interesting in the industry, but there are a handful of topics I would like to write about more in the future. International and emerging markets, particularly in Asia, are always top-of-mind for me. I recently wrote feature articles about the rise of Asian-American rappers and the evolution of the Indian music landscape, and hope to continue this thread with articles about music in China, Korea and Japan. The fact that the New York Times recently published a feature about the rise of Chinese hip-hop is pointing to a paradigm shift where non-western, non-English-speaking artists are gaining truly global recognition for the first time.I also strongly believe that the music industry’s growth will involve more tight-knit collaborations with other industries like film, TV and gaming. I’m currently working on an article about video game music, and plan to write more pieces about film music and the sync licensing business in the near future.A third trend I’ve been following closely, admittedly with some skepticism, is the adoption of blockchain in the music industry. I doubt that blockchain’s ultimate implementation in music will be as much of a disruptive utopia as its early entrepreneurs make it out to be, but its promise is nonetheless a fundamental cultural and financial shift that simply cannot be ignored. Plus, awareness and support of the technology is growing. The first time I ever heard the word “blockchain” was during a workshop at Berklee College of Music, during which most people in the room were completely clueless (including myself). Fast-forward two years to the latest SF MusicTech Summit, in which nearly everyone who attended the blockchain panel owned some form of digital currency and were much better-versed in the blockchain music startup landscape.
Reeperbahn Festival: What will be the key topics for the music business in 2018?
Hu: I think Spotify’s public offering will play a huge role in determining the future health of the music streaming sector. Pandora and SoundCloud suffered badly this year, and Tidal hasn’t been doing so well either, so Spotify seems to be the music industry’s last hope, at least in the “pure-play” world (not including the streaming services owned by big-tech companies like Google, Apple and Amazon). Speaking of big-tech, I also think Facebook’s impending licensing deals with major labels can have a drastic impact on the music business, specifically around how user- and publisher-generated content is monetized.Finally, to revisit blockchain, I think 2018 will be the year that reveals whether blockchain will actually deliver on its promises to the music industry. The fact that Björk offered cryptocurrency rewards to her fans, Ghostface Killah launched his own ICO and Gramatik renamed himself “Yung Crypto” on Twitter all within the last few months points to the quickening momentum of support, and the sheer diversity of artists who are now buying into blockchain’s power. Translating that artist diversity into fan action is the industry’s next big challenge.