How Cherie Hu pioneered a new way to understand the world

Clovis McEvoy
June 12, 2023
“We’re always trying to make things more understandable and accessible” — Cherie Hu, founder, Water & Music

Water & Music has established itself as the first port of call for anyone looking to understand the modern music industry. Founder and editor, Cherie Hu, talks to Clovis McEvoy about the benefits of decentralisation, their new focus on education, and the importance of bringing virtual communities into the physical world.

“I really don't like presenting myself as a capital-T ‘thought leader,’” Cherie Hu tells me — though, in truth, she has every right to. As founder and editor of Water & Music, she’s helped steer a solo newsletter into a globally-recognised music insights platform, simultaneously creating one of the most interesting decentralised organisations in the web3 ecosystem.

“Perhaps if I did,” she continues, “I’d have five times the Twitter followers, but that was not the culture I wanted to promote.” Attempts at praise are quickly redirected towards the 1,500 strong community of music professionals and researchers that Cherie says make it all possible. “Water & Music is a collaborative effort,” she says adamantly. “It should be presented that way.”

Of course, none of this was Cherie’s original plan. Prior to university, she was aiming for a career making music, rather than analysing the industry surrounding it. “I was definitely on the path to go to a conservatory for piano,” she recalls. “But maths was my favourite subject in school, so that was never completely out of the picture either.”

Cherie Hu, founder and editor of Water & Music.

The rest is history. Majoring in statistics with a music minor, Cherie explored her fascination with “that connection between maths and music”, which ultimately turned into research work on the industry at Harvard Business School, and then an early career in data analytics.

It was a chance encounter with a music reporter that brought Cherie back to music proper. “He was looking for more writers to cover music and tech, and we just hit it off immediately. So, I got the gig.”

A double threat with inside industry knowledge and a love for statistics, Cherie’s music analysis stood out in a field that often suffers from a lack of hard data. “I always tried to bring an analytical point of view to my writing,” she says. “I didn’t want to do quick news pieces, but in-depth examinations of problems, opportunities, and trends in the industry — fortunately, I got a lot of early feedback from people who had been looking for that kind of perspective.” Cherie had found her niche. 

“The culture within the community was already very collaborative and peer to peer.”

— Cherie Hu

Writing for Forbes, Music Business Insider, and Billboard, Cherie was soon attracting enough attention to justify her own weekly newsletter. Christened Water & Music, Cherie says that what began as a space to aggregate her freelance writing quickly morphed into a “creative sandbox” where she could explore deeper concepts that larger publications were reluctant to publish.

“By early 2019 I think I had around 5,000 free subscribers,” she recalls. “At the time, it was still directed entirely by me, with a few guest writers and a small but mighty team, but the culture within the community was already very collaborative and peer to peer.”

That collaborative, non-hierarchical aspect of Water & Music would become one of its core strengths: allowing a diverse set of people from across the industry to connect, discuss, and collaborate on an equal footing. “I was hearing really interesting perspectives that I wouldn’t hear anywhere else,” she says. “Smaller artists who don’t have a huge following, entry-level people, independent managers or marketers — those aren’t usually the people first in line to be interviewed for a story. So, the community was learning from these voices that might otherwise have been dismissed.”

Water & Music's Music AI Ecosystems dashboard.

Water & Music’s paying subscribers gain access not only to community-source market research and analysis, but a set of dashboards and databases that track everything from the latest creative AI music applications to the secondary sales of music NFTs.

Even at its debut, for professionals working within the music industry, it offered a perfect mix of hard data, diverse viewpoints, and big-picture insight. As subscriber numbers continued to increase, and Cherie looked to grow beyond the bounds of Patreon, she knew it was essential not only to protect the organisation’s collaborative culture, but to make it an intrinsic part of the next phase.

“My question was: is there a way to formalise media creation within this collaborative paradigm? And can you properly credit and reward people who contribute to that collective perspective?”

Cherie sought a technical foundation for her online community that would foster the group participation that made Water & Music such a valuable resource. Again and again, she kept coming back to web3 — “DAOs in particular,” she recalls. In a moment of serendipity, 2021 brought an opportunity to join Seed Club, web3’s leading accelerator programme for decentralised organisations like hers. It was the perfect moment to make the leap by formalising the publication’s innately decentralised culture as the Water & Music DAO.

Launching with its own $STREAM token — a blockchain-based credit gained through research and community contributions — Cherie says that the effect has been profound. “The DAO structure has impacted almost every aspect of how the organisation is run,” she says. “It would look and feel completely different without it.”

Water & Music's $STREAM token is a blockchain-based credit gained through research and community contributions. (Image: OpenSea)

With members empowered to deliver their own research projects, Water & Music’s decentralised authority is intrinsic to the research group’s operations. But Cherie also notes that the overall structure is best described as a hybrid, rather than fully decentralised. “I'm very open about this: certain parts of Water & Music are very distributed, and others are not,” she says. “There are things that, organisationally, we feel are important to keep centralised. For example, we are not decentralising our legal operations because it would just be too risky.”

One unexpected effect of reorganising as a DAO has been a shift in demographics among its membership. In its pre-DAO phase, the community was weighted towards founders, label insiders, and investors, however Cherie says the initial launch precipitated a large influx of independent and unsigned artists eager to learn more about web3. “They were looking for educational resources,” she says. “They wanted to teach themselves how the technology worked and to experiment with these tools.”

That demand for learning materials has only increased as transformative technologies like AI and mixed reality have left many stakeholders across the music industry struggling to keep up. In response, Water & Music have moved education to the core of their mission: releasing easy to digest ‘starter packs’ on a range of current topics, databases that track creative tools, and an NFT contract builder tool that covers the basics of music copyright law and its application to the digital realm.

“We’re always trying to make things more understandable and accessible.”

— Cherie Hu

Most recently, the group has finished up the first season of the new Water & Music Academy, which focused on global music rights. “It was a three-week bootcamp, focused on the complexity of music rights at a regional level,” Cherie explains. “For example, the way copyright works in India and China is completely different from markets like Latin America or West Africa. All these markets are growing on a commercial level and yet are still so often misunderstood. We’re always trying to make things like this more understandable and accessible.”

Cherie says one of Water & Music’s biggest goals moving forward is to bring the digital community into the physical world. “I think it is really important to establish community in various local cities around the world where our membership is active,” she says. That’s already becoming a reality: Water & Music’s inaugural Wavelengths Summit took place in New York on May 6th with a who’s who list of speakers from the world of music and technology — including Mark Redito from Songcamp and Medallion's Derek Davies.

The pace of innovation seems only to accelerate, making the need for research, insight, and collaboration all the more important. Building Water & Music as a decentralised organisation is a bet to ensure that the research hub can adapt to wherever the industry goes next. For their part, Cherie says the community will keep doing what it does best — sharing knowledge, collaborating on research, and growing the organisation together. “There's no playbook for any of this; every DAO is experimenting with their own framework. We keep iterating and just see what works.”

“The community was learning from these voices that might otherwise have been dismissed.”

— Cherie Hu

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.