What does an artist-centric future for music-tech look like?

Cherie Hu
Cherie Hu
Sep 19 · 29 min read

Below is a transcript of an interview with Kiran Gandhi (a.k.a. Madame Gandhi) for the Water & Music podcast. Hosted by me, Cherie Hu, the podcast unpacks the fine print behind big ideas at the intersection of music and tech, featuring a curated selection of leaders, artists, thinkers and innovators from across the music business. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Overcast, Pocket Casts and Transistor.

Formerly a touring drummer for the likes of M.I.A., Thievery Corporation, and Kehlani, Kiran also has an MBA from Harvard Business School, and made international headlines in 2015 for running the entire London Marathon “free-bleeding” (i.e. on her period without a tampon, pad or menstrual cup) to combat the global stigma around menstruation. She’s had an impressive and packed schedule every year since — performing her own musical work as well as speaking at conferences and other events around the world about gender equality, feminism and, of course, the power of music and art in pushing these messages forward.

She’s also advised a handful of music companies in the past such as Spotify and Stem, so has a lot of firsthand experience at that intersection of music and tech, which we focus on in this episode. In fact, she and I first met when I was doing a research project on music and tech at Harvard Business School back in 2015. I was immediately struck by her confidence, thoughtfulness and assertiveness in how she frames her own ideas and opinions, and I think all of that comes out in this conversation.

Topics we discuss include, but are not limited to:

  • Why artists are left out of the majority of conversations about the future of music-tech;
  • The importance of artist-residency programs within music and tech startups (of which Kiran was previously a participant);
  • The myth of the “gut-versus-data” binary;
  • How international consumption trends are changing the type of visual content artists need to create, and
  • How artists rely heavily on tech platforms to determine the constraints of their creativity — perhaps to a fault.

Hope you enjoy. :)


Cherie Hu: Kiran, thank you so much for joining!

Kiran Gandhi: Hi, Cherie! How are you?

CH: I’m good, how are you?

KG: I’m good! Mic check 1, 2.

CH: [laughs] One thing I’m really excited to talk to you about, and that I think will be a theme of this episode in particular, is the role that artists play in driving narratives around music and tech.

This is something that I’ve seen as a really big gap. I’ve been going to a bunch of music conferences, where almost all sectors of music — from the future of streaming to VR/AR to live music — are covered. Almost two years ago, I did this analysis of who was speaking at those conferences. and artists accounted for only around 6% of them. That was from back in October 2017; based on my anecdotal experience, I don’t really think that number has really gone up beyond 10%.

Also if you look at the articles being written [about the music industry], this is something that I’m trying to be a lot more mindful of in my own articles too: including artists’ perspectives in articles even about topics that might be considered a little dry, or only an industry-facing issue — because, you know, artists are the reason that the industry exists, because of the music that they make.

Just to start off with that, I would love to get your perspective on why you think that gap might exist now, in terms of artists often being left out in these kinds of discussions about music and tech.

KG: I think one of the reasons that artists get left out from music and tech is sort of the old-school music-industry paradigm, whereby the folks on the business side — and now the folks on the tech side who control the money — actually prefer to operate from [a position of] information asymmetry.

I don’t think anyone’s ever getting together in a meeting and saying, “Let’s exclude all the artists.” It never looks like that. But it certainly does benefit the folks who are trying to make money, for them to feel like they’re the only ones who know how to do it and to prevent that information from being accessible to all people. I think if artists were more in control of their own business — you know, making, performing and selling their music — we would be in a really different industry.

At least for me, I try my best to be so aware of what the payouts are, how to collect royalties, how to negotiate for live show performances, how to understand what other folks in my same artist tier are making — so that when I’m partnering with different people, I’m coming from an empowered place of knowledge. And I think part of my desire to go to conferences has been just that, so that I can hear what’s happening in these mainstream conversations and then feel like I could be the artist who would never be exploited.

Now, for artists who are listening to the conversation: you know, it’s expensive to go to these conferences and buy a ticket. So one way I tackled that problem was to say, “I really want to go to these conferences, but I can’t afford it. So what if I contribute to it? How can I contribute to it?” And so I cold-emailed people and looked at the folks who were curating panels, to see if maybe there was a panel with only three people instead of four and say, “Hey, do you need a fourth perspective on talking about the future of digital streaming? Well, I used to work at Interscope Records.”

Or looking at drum technology, as you and I both know Sensory Percussion is coming up in the music-tech world. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Kiran uses Sensory Percussion regularly in her performances.] I would reach out to them and say, “Hey, I used to drum for M.I.A. Do you all need another drummer to come speak on this panel?” And if they would say yes, then that was my entry point into being able to be part of the conversation.

And then for folks who are listening who might be on the music-tech side: It is true that sometimes it’s frustrating to have artists in the room. Sometimes when I was working at Interscope, I remember folks on the business side would feel really misunderstood and underappreciated by artists, saying that artists don’t understand just how much work is being done for their projects and that they’re ungrateful. And for that exact reason, that’s why artists should be invited to the conversation, just to see how much work is being done on the good side for the music industry.

CH: Speaking of people on the music and tech side, I feel like there’s an increasing number of founders who are interested in tech-based solutions for artists to help run their businesses, or to help reach new audiences and cultivate new fans. That can include Spotify, which has been around for a while now — but I’m thinking of companies like Stem, which recently changed their model to focus on more established artists and their businesses; Troy Carter’s company Q&A is also focused on trying to build better business services for independent artists.

Given that you have worked and partners with a lot of these companies, I’m curious to hear what advice you might have for those founders who are trying to build for artists. What are some important things to keep in mind? Are there any myths or misconceptions about what artists might actually need, or maybe don’t need?

KG: That’s a great question. I think two of my favorite companies that I enjoyed working are Stem, the company I use to distribute and upload my music to streaming platforms, as well as Spotify itself, which obviously is one of the biggest music streaming platforms in the world.

Both companies had artist-in-residence programs at their onset. I remember it was 2015, I had graduated from Harvard Business School and had been doing the consulting project for Spotify, and was really surprised that they would have folks who were either an official artist-in-residence or who were former, you know, rock-and-rollers, or hip-hop talent, or any talent on the music side as artists who were now coming back in as programmers, as the artist-relations people, as the label-services people. I just thought that was so clever. It makes a lot of sense. You’re having people who have the empathy of being on either side, so they know how to talk to artists, instead of being sort of awkward or corporate or not really knowing how to liaise.

I think it creates empathy, and I think it’s more fun. I think it makes the artists feel excited, as they want to take ownership of being part of Spotify or Stem, instead of feeling like they’re forced to upload their stuff to those services out of industry necessity. You don’t want someone using your platform because you’ve strong-armed the industry so much that people don’t have a choice. You want them to use their product because they love it. It’s like people who use Lyft versus Uber use Lyft because they love it. They feel a different kind of affinity towards the Lyft brand than they do towards the Uber brand. And it’s the same for people who use Spotify.

So, do I think it’s important to have artist folks who work at the actual tech companies? Yes, I do. Even now, even though I’ve worked at tech companies before, even though I’ve gone to Harvard Business School — when I go have these meetings now, coming in as someone who’s on the artist side, it’s almost annoying sometimes, the way tech folks are condescending towards the musicians who are literally powering their entire platform. I think it’s a bad look. I think there’s a way to explain things and to teach and to be communicating in a way that is uplifting and mutually exchanging value, as opposed to being oddly condescending to the person you’re meeting with.

CH: Yeah, like tech platforms assuming either that they know best, or if artists are complaining, “oh no, you should be grateful, we’re giving you so much” — so much of what they perceive to be value, even if it doesn’t align with what artists are really looking for. Is that what you’re getting at?

KG: Yes.

CH: Just to zoom out on that topic: Diversity, inclusion, feminism and femininity are all such important aspects of the music that you’re making, and I feel like those issues and how they intersect with technology are coming more and more to the forefront, especially in the context of streaming and as companies like Spotify and Apple Music become ever larger in terms of the audiences they reach. Even a couple of years ago, they were very hesitant about calling themselves “gatekeepers,” and now I don’t think they’re really hesitant about that at all. I don’t really hear Spotify execs saying, “Oh, no, we’re not gatekeepers; we’re trying to bypass the gatekeepers.” They’re very much full-on editorial curators now. I mean, that’s how their whole homepage is set up.

And then along with that, they have a lot more responsibility with what they present to users. There have been a lot of pieces written by writers like Liz Pelly about the diversity or lack thereof in their playlisting and in their curation. [EDITOR’S NOTE: For another, more recent example, Martina McBridge publicly criticized Spotify in September 2019 for the dire lack of non-male artists in the platform’s algorithmic recommendations for country artists.]

That’s just one example of how tech platforms can impact diversity, for better for worse. So I’m wondering what you think about where that intersection is going, and how you’ve been using technology to help further the creative vision and the mission that also infuses your work.

KG: That’s a good question. As you know, I was lucky to give a couple talks at Spotify, and my most recent one was for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). What I said to the folks at Spotify was like, listen: I understand the need for playlisting culture. It’s actually cool that they have folks internally, and we also can make our own playlists as tastemakers outside of the platform.

But the folks who are making playlists in the platform have the biggest reach and the biggest access. And if the folks who are programming those big playlists are under the belief that a certain kind of music is “good,” or that what’s in the mainstream is the best music that’s available, that already is a problematic assumption that will continue to keep folks isolated from ever being heard. It’s kind of like if M.I.A — who now is one of the greatest artists of our time — if someone hadn’t given her a shot. That kind of crazy, Sri Lankan, percussive music that was her first album Arular? There’s no way it would ever get playlisted or heard, because it would have been such a risk.

So I think for me, the biggest thing is that for folks who are playlisting, there should be some sort of internal anti-biasing process that controls for people’s inherent, unconscious biases of what they perceive to be good.

And then also, as a musician who’s making electronic music, trap music, percussive music, I either sing about love, or about feminism and where we are today in this battle for gender liberation. And if Spotify playlists me on the women’s playlists, I’m grateful — especially when it’s a time that’s culturally relevant like the Women’s March, [in which case] you’re soundtracking for history. But if they’re only playlisting you according to the theme of your music and not the music itself, then the message is actually only being told to people who have a feminist inclination to begin with. And that music is not infiltrating the more mainstream playlists, where I actually really do want my message to live. And the idea is to use the beats of the music and the melodies to captivate my listeners, so that then they’re hit with the message after the fact.

So this is really the interesting thing about playlists, and what I’m hoping to figure out even more.

CH: Looking beyond playlisting and just looking at the role technology and the internet have played in branding and marketing around an artist… This is like a total sidenote, but whenever people ask me for recommendations about which artists on Instagram to follow, I always mention you, because I feel like the way you use Instagram — not just as a promotional tool, but to showcase in a really strong and immediate way what you’re all about and what your message is — I think it’s really good.

KG: Wow, thank you.

CH: Yeah, of course!

But also thinking about technology in general, it’s not just Instagram. There are so many other platforms and startups that are coming up all the time — some of which are directly targeting artists in terms of who they want to work with, others of which are just cool video platforms or photo platforms. And I have heard a lot of artists just say that they feel very overwhelmed in that there’s just so much going on, and there are so many potential places to put your music or yourself or your message, and you can’t possibly cast a completely comprehensive net across all those platforms without burning yourself out or diluting your message in some way.

So I’d love to hear from you: One, are you thinking about the scope of the tech that’s available? And then two, how are you navigating that, and thinking through which platforms will be most effective for you?

KG: I love this question. I always think of what I’m looking for when I’m trying to check out other artists and other folks who inspire me.

I think it’s a couple of things. One is consistency. I love going deep into someone’s Instagram who’s inspired me and finding all the videos of them doing their thing — whether they’re posting music-tech videos, or posting tips, or posting their speeches. So for me, I try my best to keep it consistent. I try to post recaps from the different speeches that I do, and I always caption them so it’s accessible and easier to to listen and engage with. Then I’ll always post info for my shows and recaps from my shows, then of course I’ll post the actual artwork, whether it’s for my merchandise or for the new music that’s coming out.

I also think that social media and Spotify and all these tech platforms should really just be a way to expedite and reflect back who you already are. Because in a couple years, all this stuff will evolve onto the next thing. If you put all your life into making your Spotify and your Instagram look poppin’, be ready to do that again for something completely different. The consistent thing is that you know how to express yourself. That’s really the key.

Sometimes I’ll be a fan of someone on Instagram, and they’re super good at it — they have, like, thousands of followers and they’re always posting stuff. And I’m like, “Wow, I can’t wait to meet this person, they’re so inspiring.” Then you meet them, and they’re completely different! They’re either, like, super quiet, or they’re in the corner on their phone — which explains why they’re super good at Instagram — and it’s such a bummer. It’s like, what? You are so confident and outgoing on this two-dimensional platform, but in the real world, you’re not even looking at me in the eyes. Being on the other side of that made me never want to make that mistake.

So I was like, you know what, as much as I could be doubling down on my Instagram to be able to flex on my numbers, people can tell what’s real. I’ve seen people who have terrible live shows and excellent Instagrams. And I was like, no. For me, my priority and my choice is to have an excellent live show, and to always be able to communicate and exist in the real world. Not to say I don’t want to have an extraordinary social media presence, because it’s allowed me to engage with so many more people at a much more rapid rate. But I think the value of connecting on that spiritual level is becoming more and more rare. So the better you are at it, the more special you have something to offer.

CH: Absolutely. This has been coming up more and more, in terms of expectations that are set through Instagram or on Spotify and other streaming services, versus a live show. And there are a lot of artists who “stream really well,” but then their live shows aren’t that great, and that can break a career. And the other way around, there are still artists building sustainable careers who have amazing live shows, and don’t stream that well — but it doesn’t matter because people are still buying tickets to see them in person and supporting them in that way. So yeah, I think more and more artists are reckoning with that.

KG: I think the win from that statement, though, is that now more than ever, everyone can find their lane. Like, we don’t have to be dominating each other to be the one. Like, I can be Madame Gandhi, who is the artist who can give a speech and then give a performance. That’s what I do. I can make a whole career and a living out of doing podcasts and speeches and performances — and trading off somewhere else, because my revenue is coming in from doing those things, but maybe not doing something else. That is really powerful.

I think the key is to know who you are. Know who you are ahead of time and go all the way. Other folks are like, “I’m making ambient music that people are going to study to on Spotify, and I’m going to make bank doing it. Can I perform? No. But I have no intention to perform. I hate traveling.” … Those folks know what it is that they like.

For me, I have a message, and people want to hear that message out loud because they want to get inspired. Different folks around the world have an audience who they’re trying to inspire. So they’ll hire me to come and be the graduation speaker, come and be the keynote presenter, etc., because they’re hiring me to fulfill a task.

So the more we do that work to look inward and say, what is our intention? What are we here to do? Let’s get some clarity, and then we do it. That’s really the best way to operate.

CH: I love that. I totally agree.

This is kind of related to artists knowing who they are, and using technology to serve that purpose: One topic that’s been coming up a lot in conversations around AI is the impact of automation on artists, from the perspective of the creative process. I’ve written a couple articles around startups that are trying to build products around AI-facilitated music; I’m hesitant to use the phrase “AI-generated music,” but essentially that is a big part of it, in terms of developing algorithms that can compose decent, satisfactory music on the fly, making short clips that are royalty-free that users can download and maybe use in their own creative works. Or there’s one startup called Amper that’s targeting filmmakers and videographers who might not be able to afford a traditional sync license or a traditional commission, in terms of commissioning a human composer to write a whole bespoke piece for them.

There’s been understandably mixed reactions from the artist community to this trend. Especially if you look at the companies that are making the most headway in building this tech, it’s Google, Facebook, Sony, IBM — understandably the bigger companies with the most resources to invest in developing this tech. And so some artists have expressed fear that [those companies] don’t have artists’ incentives in mind necessarily. Some companies like Google and IBM are working directly with artists, which is better than leaving [artists] out completely.

I’m wondering if that’s something that’s been on your mind at all. I feel like a lot of people see electronic music as being an especially low-hanging target for this kind of creative automation — given that so much of the creative process for electronic music is already happening on laptops, using software that helps facilitate the creative process without totally replacing it.

KG: See, the punishment is in the win. If you’re doing something that’s easy, and making quick money, it will burn out fast. Because as soon as you do something that simple, that a bunch of other people can do, you’re no longer delivering value and the system corrects for that.

So it’s like, as long as you know what you’re signing up for, do it. Get that quick cash. It’s the same as having a quick job anywhere. And then once you’ve done it, either you have to keep evolving and expanding your craft, which is the right thing to do, or you’ll become irrelevant and kind of eaten up quick. And I think that’s the rewarding thing — you can do that, or you can kind of be aware that playing the long game and designing something that no one else can offer, and making something that is so uniquely you, is how you create value for yourself and offer something that’s never been done before. There’s just more risk with that; you have to take more time, you have to find a way to sustain yourself while you’re developing your art, and then you have to hope that people actually want it.

So that’s why most folks would rather be the quick producer and make quick beats. And to their credit, if you’re making beats, even if it’s easy, I would imagine you’re getting better and better and hopefully learning how to expand your craft along the way.

CH: Speaking on that, this is a topic that’s come up a ton in articles I write, but also for this podcast, in terms of the pressure to create a lot of music all the time. I feel like that is especially the paradigm for a lot of rappers, in terms of releasing several mixtapes a year; there’s a pressure, especially in a streaming age, to take consistency to an extreme — to the point of releasing a single every week or month.

I’m wondering if you ever feel that pressure — or, if not, how you push it to the side and focus more on just making great music?

KG: That’s a great question. I think for me, I just do what feels fun. Because if I push stuff out every month, and it’s not fun, then the quality of the music will be terrible; it would just be forced and awkward. If I make music from a place of enthusiasm and excitement and inspiration, then the quality of the music is much more excellent. So this is the trade off: if I’m not getting inspired to make music every second, I just don’t. I get inspired to perform, so I go and perform. I get inspired to give a speech, I go and give a speech.

I think for me, I’ve always lived in a very multidimensional way. When I was at Harvard Business School, I was touring with M.I.A.; when I was working at Spotify, I was running the London Marathon free-bleeding. My stuff is all over the place. [laughs] So I think for me, I’ve always gone where it feels fun and exciting. And those two things are always within the span of my work anyway, which is music and feminism.

That was sort of the talk that I gave at TEDx Brooklyn many years ago: it’s called atomic living, which is this idea of doing the thing that, in that atomic moment of time, that little atom of time, feels awesome and feels good, because then the quality of each micro moment ends up being excellent. But that’s my personal philosophy. That’s how I stay happy and healthy and not burnt out. If I’m doing something for somebody else and it doesn’t react, you just feel so sad. You’d feel like, this sucks. So I’d rather at least first feel happy no matter what, and then if somebody else also feels happy, then it’s a win-win.

CH: Yeah, that’s great. I think when we first met in person and were working together, that was also for the first time that I heard about this concept of atomic living. It was actually quite influential on me at the time, in terms of learning how to make decisions to trust your trust your gut.

KG: Trust your gut! That’s it. And that’s a very tough thing to do in the industry, even for me. I’m departing from it a lot, and I have to come back to it. The more we see what other people are doing — the more we open up Instagram — the more we dilute our own intuition. And that is the thing that keeps us distracted, that is the thing that keeps us depressed, and that is the thing that keeps us from giving the world what we’re supposed to be giving.

It’s actually a very Jimmy Iovine thing, where he would always say, “Why do you think they put blinders on a racehorse? They put blinders on a racehorse so that they keep their horse focused in their lane to go straight. But if the horse did not have those blinders on their eyes and were looking left and right, as soon as they look left, they’ll miss a step, and they won’t make the turn around the racetrack, and they’ll fall.” [EDITOR’S NOTE: Iovine also references this quote in IMO one of the best moments in the HBO docu-series The Defiant Ones.]

I really subscribe to this ideology. The less I can focus on what other people are doing, and the more I can focus just on my own journey and my own joyfulness, the better my quality of life and the better my quality of music.

CH: Yeah, totally. Something that’s kind of related to this is a phrase that I hear all the time at conferences, not just in music, but in any business: “gut versus data.

KG: I have so much to say on this.

CH: Yeah. So in, like the context of a panel, it would be presented as a hard binary of gut versus data, but then the end of the panel would be like, “oh, it’s actually a mix of both.” And that’s kind of the cliché that keeps like coming up over and over again, to the point where I feel like people are using that phrase less and less now. [laughs] Because people are also done fetishizing data and fetishizing everything being quantified. Data is there, it’s super important, but it’s not dictating everything and it only backfires if it starts to dictate every decision that we make, especially in an industry like music.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, especially as it applies to your own career, like as an independent artist. I mean, any artist by default can potentially be taking in tons of different data streams, from anywhere — whether from streaming services, from social media platforms, live music. The number of data sources is increasing, and that is also just another source of feeling overwhelmed for artists, too.

Do you see it as a “gut-versus-data” kind of thing? Or do you see it as a much more holistic rather than binary situation?

KG: I think it’s very simple: I think everyone’s just going by their gut, and then once they’ve decided in their mind what the answer is, what it is that they want to do, then they use the data to tell that story. Truly, I think that.

CH: Yeah. That is usually what happens. [laughs]

KG: I think people love to act like they’re using the most data. But I never saw that once. When I was at Interscope Records, I was a data analyst for two years, and most of the time, even though I was reporting as to what was exactly there and what my intuition was, I definitely think people wouldn’t take the numbers that they didn’t want to see or hear about. Even if they were good in some other direction, they would just ignore that and pick the ones that were telling the story that they were trying to tell.

CH: I heard this recently in the context of Netflix. Netflix has a reputation for being super data-driven, in terms of not only what content they’re recommending, but also the content that they’re making — like the buzz around things like House of Cards before it went downhill, or using data to inform storylines for original films and TV shows in general. And very similarly, it’s followed an evolution away from emphasizing the data. Execs used to say, “The way we make decisions is 30% gut, 70% data. Data takes priority.” And now, it’s very much like, “the art comes before the science.” That’s kind of the rhetoric that they’ll say now. It’s really interesting that there’s this wider mindset shift and people are embracing that data is just a tool to drive forward this creative vision that you have, that’s difficult to quantify at the end of the day.

KG: Yeah.

CH: The last question that I had before the last segment is related to the relationship between technology and culture on an international level. This is something that I’ve recently started to grapple with from a journalist’s perspective.

For instance, I’m planning on going to India at the end of August, which I’m excited about. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This already happened! :)] I’m going there in part for a conference called All About Music, but I do want to spend at least two weeks there to explore the country and meet people there, just because I’ve never been before. And part of why I wanted to go was not just because of that conference, but because I had already written a couple of articles about the music streaming landscape in India, and realized that there really was not that much more value I could add without being there on the ground. I’ve had the same feeling when writing about Japan and China — this feeling that I can’t really understand how people adopt technology without understanding the culture around them, and how that then impacts the way they use technology.

I bring up those examples because I know you also travel a lot as an artist. You were also recently in India, and in Indonesia as well. And something I think you do really well, that I think the music industry as a whole could do better, is break out of a Western-centric bubble in terms of talking about music and tech, and the music industry in general. And kind of looking globally not just at how people are consuming music in a commercial sense, but also how they relate to it.

Is there anything from your recent travels that comes up for you, in terms of ways that people internationally are relating to music that maybe you were surprised to hear, or that is impacting how you’re approaching your creative process or the way you share your music?

KG: Yeah. Most people internationally all do have cell phones, and what I’m really seeing is that many folks use YouTube, because they have Internet and they all have data. So most people have international phones — they may not be iPhones, they’ll be the cheaper, local version of the smartphone that’s available — and then the data plans that are sold to folks are usually on a little SIM card, and then you can buy data per month, and people use that for their WhatsApp and definitely for YouTube.

And so that got me thinking: for most of my songs, I don’t have a music video. It’s just the album artwork uploaded. Since when did we decide that it’s either a really high-budget music video, or it’s just album artwork? At least that’s what I had in my head. So I’ve been trying to think of some sort of intermediary visual that could be played.

I know people have lyric videos, or people can make music videos [for] super cheap. But if I was gonna make a music video, I would want to go all the way … I was trying to think, like, what is an innovative, happy in-between that I can be making for my YouTube [channel] that makes watching or hearing the music fun, but it’s not as all-the-way expensive as a music video? So that was sort of an interesting thing I noticed.

CH: Yeah, that’s a really good question. One of the artists whom I also cite a lot, in terms of artists who use Instagram and visuals in a really good way, is Tierra Whack and what she did around Whack World — in terms of seeding different clips from the longer [music] video that ended up on YouTube.

But also, one feature that I think is super interesting — I don’t know if it’ll expand beyond Spotify, but they do have a Canvas feature, where artists can upload, like, a looping video [with their song].

KG: Yep. That’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Exactly.

CH: I think it would be cool to have that feature expand beyond Spotify, or to have that integrated with YouTube somehow — given that a platform like YouTube still has much more global reach than Spotify does right now, in terms of the number of countries where it’s active.

KG: Yeah.

CH: Cool. I think that’s all the questions I had before the last segment — I don’t know if any news or trends come to mind for you?

KG: I think the main trend that’s just so interesting is that all of us are making content based on the constrictions of tech. I’m literally hiring video teams to cut me video recaps of my shows, but I’m telling them I need a one-minute recap for Instagram, and then I need a three-minute recap for Facebook and YouTube, and now I’m telling my team I actually need a two-minute IGTV vertical video with captioning. That’s a whole other format to tell the story.

And it’s just really crazy how we in the artist community react to what’s happening in tech, and [tech platforms] do have a lot of leadership responsibility that way. That’s why sometimes I’m almost flabbergasted at how basic, relatively speaking, Spotify and YouTube are. As a creative person, you can’t control or skin anything. It all looks so janky. We all look the same. The joke is on us [the artists], you know? It’s so silly.

I think the platforms have gotten a little bit better about being accessible when the artist feels, “Oh something is spelled wrong,” or “actually that’s not my artist page but it says that it is,” or “that’s not my song but it’s looped in there,” or whatever. They’ll fix informational errors like that. But if you hit somebody up and you’re like, “Oh, I want to code my YouTube to make it all yellow and skin it with some Madame Gandhi fonts,” and things like that, you’re not going to hear back from them. That’s not a priority.

So I think it’s just interesting that all of us are really creating things only based on the platforms. Moreover, for Spotify, whether your song, as we know, is a minute or is 10 minutes, you get the same rate of the royalty. It doesn’t matter how long your music is. So we’re all incentivized to make super short music that people just want to play on repeat, and then double the amount that we’re making — rather than making long forms of art, if that might be your thing.

I tend not to keep entirely all these tech limitations in mind, but at the same time, it would be foolish for me to get inspired and upload a 10-minute track, instead of just dividing them into sub-songs and uploading them as many songs and knowing that that will quadruple the income. So these are just some of the trends that I’m seeing. We are all actively reacting and creating according to what we know the tech limitations are.

CH: Yeah, that’s so fascinating. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m thinking of an artist like Lil Nas X, who just released an EP, and he’s also super active on Twitter and has very openly said, “Oh, I made this one track ‘Panini’ shorter just to generate more royalties.” Same with Tierra Whack and Whack World: creatively, that’s a super interesting project, but also there’s a reason that she made every song one minute, and could do that and still generate the same royalties, if not more, just based on the number of streams that that leads to.

The piece of news that I had in mind is actually multiple pieces of news under the same trend: I’ve noticed so much more buzz around the role of lyrics in streaming and social media. Instagram recently announced a new feature that allows select lyrics to be displayed in real time in Instagram Stories, along with Music Stickers. They integrated with Musixmatch, which is surprising to me — I thought they would integrate maybe with a site like Genius, but they went with one of their competitors. So there’s that.

Deezer recently announced a lyric integration feature with Instagram also. I don’t think they’re real-time displays, but I think you can share a song you’re listening to from Deeezer to Instagram and include a snippet of lyrics that are just displayed in the story. This is not related to social media, but Google and Genius also got into a conflict because Genius claimed that Google was scraping Genius’ website and posting lyrics as the search results without getting the proper licensing or paying rights holders properly. I think that got resolved and I don’t think Google was in the wrong, but there’s kind of a debate around that.

But anyway, I had never seen so many announcements or features around lyrics coming out at the same time, just over the span of a couple of weeks. With a pure business hat on, thinking about what’s the next opportunity to pay songwriters and publishers properly in a world of streaming and social media, there’s definitely still such an open opportunity to monetize those more effectively — mostly in digital formats. It is already happening in physical formats; I believe you’re also doing this yourself with merch, that’s definitely a popular avenue for lyrics. But yeah, there’s still an open opportunity to use sites like Instagram to give more user-generated context around lyrics, but also to compensate people more, and more efficiently, if that makes sense.

KG: Yeah, I just love hearing all these updates. I love lyrics so much, I love putting my lyrics everywhere. My lyrics are the whole thing for my project. I’m talking about gender liberation, I’m taking ideas from my speech and putting it into the body of work. So to hear that lyrics are becoming more of a priority makes me personally really happy.

I also find it interesting, though, because I feel like most of the time when I talk to people about, “What about the misogyny in this song? How can you play this music? It’s so violently misogynist.” People’s responses are always like, “Oh, I’m not listening to the lyrics, I’m just listening to the beat.” And so I find it interesting, in that day-to-day experience where people say they don’t care about the lyrics, to hear that this trend is actually suggesting the opposite.

I wonder if that will make people more aware of what’s actually being said. I think the normalization of misogyny, even for women and female-identifying folks and femmes, is such a problem, where at this point we just accept it. We’re like, “oh, I guess that’s just the way the world works.” No! We have to shut it down. We have to stop taking it, and we have to say, listen, you need to sing about something else if you want to talk about us like that.

CH: Yeah. I don’t think it’s totally out of the question that people will use these new features as more of an activist tool to say, “Hey, why are these lyrics here?” Or, “Did you know you were turning up to this beat but this person was actually insulting you or offending you in the process?”

KG: Yeah!

CH: Are there any last thoughts you wanted to share, or is there anything you’re working on that you wanted to promote?

KG: Yeah, I would say my album Visions comes out in October, which I’m very excited to share. So to anyone who’s listening, go and listen to my record and let me know what you think! It’s very percussive, it’s very international. This one has sounds from Brazil, from Nigeria, definitely from India. It’s very introspective, which is why I called it Visions. The idea is to look inward, nor to look outward. It’s about critiquing things that don’t necessarily work for all of us. And it’s also got some love energy in there.

CH: Awesome. Thank you for sharing. Super excited about that. And, yeah, thank you again for talking. So many interesting points.

KG: Yeah. I’m so proud of you and your podcast. So, so excited.

CH: Aw, thank you so much! Appreciate it.


If you enjoyed this conversation and want to follow similar analyses on the intersection of music and tech, please listen to the remaining episodes of the Water & Music podcast and/or subscribe to the eponymous newsletter.

You can also reach out to me via Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Cherie Hu

Written by

Cherie Hu

I run Water & Music, an independent media ecosystem (newsletter + podcast) unpacking big ideas in music and tech. bit.ly/waterandmusic

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