The Last Things to Leave This Planet: a Study of Cherie Hu and Her Water and Music Project
Marshall McLuhan’s maxim – “the medium is the message” – is his most enduring phrase. At its heart, the sentiment suggests that the vehicle of a message – not the content itself – should be the focus of our attention. The Canadian philosopher introduced the thesis in his 1964 book, Understanding Media, and for the decades that have followed, it's continued to hold water (and music).
The contours of a medium – the edges of a newspaper, the number of rivets on vinyl – clearly inform how a message can be constructed and delivered. On Spotify, for example, we focus on the song we’re listening to, but we should also examine why the platform is serving that song to our ears at that moment – out of a catalog of millions with 60,000 new songs being added every day.
Algorithms ostensibly save us from drowning in sound, but who builds the algorithm? What decides which artists are included on playlists? Could the commercial interests of major (shareholding) label partners inform the contents of those playlists? How is the interface subtly directing us toward certain content?
Few really know how it works, so black box platforms like Spotify – and the mass market social networks that necessarily supplement streaming platforms’ dearth of social tools – can just make changes if anyone intuits the machinery. The result? We’re living in a TikTok-colored world of immediacy where 90% of artists are generating less than 1% of streams. This is why McLuhan urges us to examine the medium – lest we become blind to the subtle structural changes that come to suffuse our society.
None of this is new to Cherie Hu, who occupies McLuhan-esque ground as a deep cultural thinker and commentator. Hu is an award-winning journalist and an eminent voice in music tech. She’s also the founder and driving force behind Water and Music, a music community, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO) and celebrated paragon of the web3 world.
“The fact that TikTok has only focused people’s energy on these 10-second hooks and that’s the only unit that matters…It’s a tricky balance because people always have a tendency to see which types of art fit the platform,” Hu said to me recently. “It definitely becomes dangerous commercially, because the platforms have strong commercial influence,” Hu said. “When you start to let that dictate how you run your career as an artist – when it’s something outside your control – that’s when it gets messy.”
Water and Music is decidedly a counterweight to the TikToks of the world. The collective has released invaluable research reports and dashboards on both web2 and the nascent web3 ecosystem, covering everything from music non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to fan sentiment to music DAOs. I connected with Hu to find out how she and her community have become a trailblazing force that’s doing everything it can to finally guide the industry out of the shadow of the black box.
Cherie Hu is the middle child of three girls. She started playing piano when she was five and was immediately captivated. Her parents saw the instrument as a means of building discipline, but she genuinely loved playing and expressing herself through music. “For a very long time I felt much more comfortable expressing myself through music than through speaking,” she said.
That comfort endured through her teens, when she attended Juilliard and grew ever more immersed in classical music. Her interests across music and math equipped her to appreciate both the technical and the emotional qualities of the piano.
“I’ve realized that most of my favorite pianists are both extremely technical and really expressive,” she told me. As examples, she mentioned Martha Argerich, Yuja Wang, Evgeny Kissin, and Yundi Li. “It’s really hard to have that combo, where only they can play these pieces, but it’s not at the expense of expression.”
“And now, in a very different way, I’m much deeper in music than ever, just from a very specific angle.”
Throughout school, Hu continued to pursue opportunities that brought her closer to the instrument. “I was almost sure that it was going to be my path. Sophomore and junior year of high school I did a summer music program in Aspen, Colorado. Those were idyllic. Those summers convinced me that I wanted to study piano and pursue it full time.”
As she began thinking about colleges, she explored a number of dual degree programs, seeking ways to pursue her love for both math and music. There were programs at Columbia and Juilliard, for instance, where five years of study would get you a bachelors from the former and a masters from the latter. But it was her own piano teacher who coaxed her down a different path.
“I still remember how jarring it was, because I was like, ‘I thought your whole role was to prepare your students and encourage them to pursue piano,’” she said, laughing. “She said if you do [that kind of program], you’re not going to sleep, you’re going to be constantly stressed out, and you’re only going to marginally improve on both. My piano teacher’s argument was that my very isolated dreamy experiences in Aspen – off of which I’d made the decision to study music – did not line up with reality.
“In hindsight I’m glad she pushed me in this direction,” Hu said. “Music will always be part of my life, and it’s always something I can go back to, but for more academic study, especially quantitative topics – it’s very hard to go back to that. And now, in a very different way, I’m much deeper in music than ever, just from a very specific angle.”
In 2013 Hu began attending Harvard, where she pursued a major in statistics and a minor in music. After shadowing an A&R team at Interscope Records for a couple weeks her freshman year, she developed an interest in data analysis in the music industry. Two years later, she met a Forbes editor at a career fair who gave her an opportunity to formally merge the two, and so she began writing about music tech for the publication. Hu’s predilection for statistics furnished her with a powerful journalistic tool: the ability to supplement narrative with stats’ unique confirmation of truth. In short order, the medium became her favorite way to unpack complex technical issues, and she quickly emerged as a leading spokesperson for music tech.
I first encountered Hu through her writing at Billboard, where she started contributing in 2017. As I was immersing myself in music journals that gave editorial space to music tech, I found her approach to be the most balanced. Like the playing of her favorite pianists, her writing is both technical and expressive. Hu’s voice is pragmatic, yet optimistic, that’s clearly invested in how technology can create a more equitable, artist-centric music industry.
I soon found my way to her music tech-focused newsletter, Water and Music. I became a paying Patreon member in August of 2020, which also granted me access to the Water and Music Discord server – the first I ever joined.
At that time, Hu’s insightful research, journalism, and vision had already attracted a community of several hundred paying Patreon members. As her following grew, she gradually shifted Water and Music’s scope from an individual portfolio to a collaborative research community and media brand.
Web3, as an emerging technical solution for various music industry woes, started getting a lot of Water and Music’s attention. At the end of 2021, the community took another step toward the web3 world, joining the third cohort of Seed Club, an accelerator designed to help communities build their own social tokens. After the program, Hu and Co. announced the community would become a DAO and release $STREAM: “a research token designed to incentivize, credit and reward collaborative knowledge-sharing in music, tech and entertainment.”
During the conversion, Water and Music was careful to ensure that the new DAO could still accommodate folks less familiar with web3. Anyone can still access and participate in the community through a fiat-based subscription, for example, rather than learning the in’s and out’s of digital wallets. And the messaging was – and continues to be – exceptionally transparent across the motivations, advantages, and ongoing uncertainties of web3.
That transparency has produced relatively little community backlash during the transition. “I think a big part of that is being very honest about what we don’t know, which has already been my approach to writing about music anyways,” Hu said. “If the market has a lot of hype, say ‘ok, here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t know’, and then explore how we can ask better and smarter questions about this.”
Of the many things Water and Music does well, asking questions is near the top. The community issues biannual barometer surveys, hosts an Academy to educate people on the rapidly evolving music industry, offers an artist-friendly NFT contract template, and regularly publishes ‘how you can contribute DAOnloads’ to help bring people into the fold.
Even though the backlash has been minimal, Water and Music’s embrace of web3 has still fomented some skepticism. Through the community’s various feedback mechanisms, Hu was able to identify a couple areas of pushback: the first being doubt that, with such a robust existing community, a $STREAM token was actually necessary. The second was that the community’s focus has become “too web3.”
To be sure, an on-chain token adds more complexity – e.g. minting, gas fees, airdrops, and defining what all of those are to your community – than a centralized reputation system like Twitter, where people wield influence through likes and follows. But simplicity isn't everything.
Amidst the ongoing rigmarole regarding Elon Musk’s Twitter bid, many people are considering whether the social network is the right place to contribute time and energy. But if Twitter shuts down tomorrow, so does your reputation on that platform. “Should you move off Twitter? You’ll lose so much of your follower graph if you do,” Hu said. “Data portability is a very strong case for web3 in general, so I’m very interested in being part of that from a community perspective.”
The benefit of portability has already been demonstrated. Last November, the popular NFT marketplace Hic Et Nunc was suddenly shut down and taken offline, but because Tezos – the energy-efficient blockchain on which the marketplace was built – is open-source, and because media files were kept on a storage system called IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) that transposes data directly onto the blockchain, the community was able to come together and replicate the marketplace.
The incident unintentionally stress tested decentralized infrastructure and exemplified what can happen when the community itself is granted more agency. That kind of collaboration, curiosity, and dedication informs Hu's perspective on the other recurring critique: that Water and Music is giving web3 too much attention.
"I haven’t seen any other technology that has so many unknowns that are exciting people to experiment and collaborate in a more transparent way," she told me. "From a research perspective, it makes this a much more compelling topic to cover, because now you have all this information and all these people willing to contribute in a way that truly benefits the whole industry.”
Hu stressed multiple times that both pieces of feedback are absolutely valid, and that all critique is welcome. She also acknowledged that Water and Music, as an advocate for innovation, naturally attracts early adopters and thus may be less prone to crypto fallout than other entities – especially artists.
Artists face the onerous decision to either play the TikTok game and appease their web2 audiences or explore new web3 models that are more equitable and financially compelling – but also more stigmatized and potentially off-putting. Some artists are finding themselves caught in the middle.
Hu specifically mentioned Charlie XCX’s recent fan backlash when testing the web3 waters. The English pop singer was on the lineup of Afterparty, a music festival accessible only to people who own, can fund, or are invited by someone with a Utopia NFT. Although the disapproval she faced was largely attributed to the event’s exclusivity, fans also recoiled at environmental toll, plagiarism, and their generally negative perception of the crypto community. The musician eventually bowed out.
On the web2 side, Charlie XCX – and other major artists like Halsey and FKA Twigs – also created headlines by rebuking their labels for forcing them to spend outsized amounts of time on TikTok. Halsey’s label even purportedly held their new music hostage until they faked a viral TikTok trend. Vexingly, the uniquely time-intensive app forces artists to use bite-sized social appeal as a conduit for their actual music. Why should we punish an artist for not wanting to participate in an online social world that’s increasingly toxic and detached from the music itself? And if this is happening to our most revered artists, what’s the hope for the 99%?
Meanwhile, concerns are growing around TikTok’s too-big-to-fail status perpetuating an all too familiar relationship between the music industry and tech/media giants. In the words of Music Business Worldwide founder Tim Ingham, that it’s “‘building its business off the back of artists’ without paying those artists what they deserve.”
“It’s really disheartening when technology and culture shift in a way that … is so blatantly focused on pure consumerism,” the artist Vérité told the Washington Post.
Hu mentioned Vérité’s acuity for differentiating between her web2 and web3 fan bases and treating them as distinct groups, and that’s a skill that will need to be deftly tended to as artists seek to navigate double-edged frustrations.
The relentless industry gauntlet is likely one reason that artists have recently emerged as the best represented community in the Water and Music Discord server, overtaking founders, marketers, managers, label folk, and other startup people – according to a self-selection channel called “choose your role.”
In the wake of web2’s black box blueprint, artists are left categorically undervalued. Founders have to solve problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place while marketers, labels, and managers are forced to poke around in the dark for some semblance of strategy – pouring money into places like TikTok in the absence of better recourse. Water and Music is providing a much-needed forum where all of these entities can connect, communicate, and consider solutions together.
“I’m very frustrated by information silos,” Hu said. “In music specifically, there’s no reason why artists shouldn’t know x, y, and z, but because of the historical policies in the industry, there are all these siloes. So I definitely see that as our role as well, creating a shared understanding of what’s happening – a shared vocabulary in the industry.”
In this interim period where web2 continues to capitalize on information silos and web3 doesn’t yet have the cultural adoption to fully support artists, places like Water and Music are essential sanctuaries. In fact, the notion of ‘essential’ is foundational to the community.
The ‘Water and Music’ name comes from a 2015 interview between Quincy Jones and Kendrick Lamar (don’t miss Hu’s excellent medley of Lamar’s seminal record, To Pimp a Butterfly), where the former asserts that “the last things to leave this planet will be water and music” – two essential elements whose importance we can pretty much all agree on. I asked Hu if that origin still informs how she and the community think about their work.
“I’ve never explicitly made the connection, but now that I think about it, there definitely is a parallel,” she said. “There’s the shared language that we have around music, ‘the universal language.’ And then in terms of creating systems in the industry to enable even more of those experiences to happen so that artists can sustain themselves... That is the end game: keeping artists at the center of any of these discussions happening in music tech.”
Today there are so many people exploring blockchain technology as an emerging medium that music can leverage them to access untapped revenue and utility. It’s an important endeavor, but perhaps the true medium of web3 is shared language.
Shared language gives us common ground. DAOs give us a common mission to rally around. Without those, blockchain technology won’t do much. Messages don’t mean much to people if they can’t understand one another. But when you build consensus and inspire collaboration, everything starts to flow like water.
McLuhan would recognize this moment. In a telling detail, his famous quote was used as the title for his 1967 book with Quentin Fiore – except the printer introduced a typo: The Medium Is The Massage. McLuhan loved it and kept it. The massage is what’s all around us everyday in every medium, a beguiling rubdown of stimulants and convenient truths. In their commitment to telling the world how things really are, Hu and the rest of Water and Music are guiding us through the haze.
If more of us apply Hu’s mindset to our work, perhaps we’ll be on this planet long enough to make sure music keeps flowing, too. After all, as A.N. Whitehead said – quoted by McLuhan in his book: “It is the business of the future to be dangerous.”