The importance of competing on innovation ecosystems, not just on finished products

Cherie Hu
Cherie Hu
Oct 15, 2018 · 9 min read
One of the dishes available at Bo Songvisava’s restaurant Bo.Lan in Thailand, as featured in the Netflix series “Chef’s Table.” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

NOTE: This is an adapted version of the latest issue of my biweekly email newsletter Water & Musicwhich features original essays with a wide-angle view on the future of the music business, alongside updates on my outside journalistic and speaking work. The original title of this essay is “When fans cut up your music, what happens to your brand?”; you can read previous issues and subscribe to the newsletter here.

As a music and tech journalist, I am somewhat amused at how one of my greatest creative inspirations and cures for writer’s block has become Chef’s Table, a documentary series about world-class, award-winning chefs that just released its fifth season on Netflix.

More than any other food series I’ve watched, Chef’s Table treats its subjects not merely as day-to-day manual laborers, but as serious artists who have spent decades honing their craft and assembling the right teams to execute on their groundbreaking creative philosophies.

The series is also an unabashed feat of ingredient marketing. In every single episode, there are several scenes in which the featured chef takes a stroll through the local, independent farms, gardens and greenhouses from which they source the ingredients for their dishes. The viewer has the opportunity to eavesdrop on chefs’ conversations with farmers, debating the quality of certain produce or explaining the nuanced layers of flavors that can only come from local soil.

In other words, Chef’s Table isn’t just stroking its subjects’ egos and giving them a one-directional megaphone to sell their restaurant to viewers. It’s also arguing that chefs are inseparable both from their ingredients and from the sprawling ecosystems of nature and human talent and labor that bring those ingredients, and hence the resulting dishes, to life.

It may seem like a leap of thinking, but I believe this approach to unpacking and marketing chefs’ careers holds potentially ripe inspiration for the music business.

Musicians and songwriters, like chefs, are nothing without their ingredients—which in this case include physical and virtual instruments and hardware, digital audio workstations (DAWs such as GarageBand, Logic Pro X, Ableton, etc) and recorded source material for loops and samples, as well as ever-widening teams of collaborators (songwriters, producers, mixing & mastering engineers, etc.).

One key difference: much more than restaurants, music companies and copyright holders are dealing in intellectual property. This in part involves keeping ingredients secret—or at least penalizing anyone who uses their explicitly copyrighted ingredients without permission.

Yet for better or for worse, music has also become the poster child for how technological and societal changes democratize access to cultural ingredients. The rise of Napster and other P2P file-sharing services at the turn of the 21st century kicked off a revolution in media consumption that still has one-third of the world pirating and stream-ripping music today. Producers and songwriters are now selling their “signature sound” for download on sites like Bandcamp and BeatStars, or via subscription models on the likes of Splice and, for other artists to co-opt for their own creations—which may indeed outperform their original sources. The popularity of songs like Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and “In My Feelings” proves that mere memes and dance challenges give anyone with an Internet connection the tools and permission to participate in derivative culture.

Many music rights-holders still believe this pro-derivative culture of democratizing the ingredients behind a piece of recorded music damages and even cannibalizes potential future business. But harking back to Chef’s Table, I think we can learn a lot from the food and cooking worlds when it comes to marketing ingredients in a way that is complementary both to consumer satisfaction and creator value.

If we think about how an individual chef both shapes and is shaped by their surrounding natural and organizational ecology, we can also begin to conceptualize the creative ecology around an artist—which, as I argue below, will be an increasingly important differentiator and revenue generator for artists and their brands over the next five years.

Back in April 2007 — just around one year before Spotify launched — consulting firm Accenture published the findings of its annual survey of senior media executives, and gave the report the eye-catching headline “User-Generated Content Is Top Threat to Media and Entertainment Industry.”

One of the executives quoted on record was Roger Faxon, former Chairman/CEO of EMI Music Publishing and current board member of Pandora. Faxon took a stance that seems more relevant than ever today: the music business was moving from a pure sales model to a participation model that prioritized listening and engagement behavior over purchasing patterns alone.

A particular statement of his really stood out to me:

The commercial roles of music companies will be more as facilitators for bringing music and the rights that support them into the market place, as opposed to being originators of the content itself.

I would argue that many record labels and other music companies today would still think of being facilitators rather than originators of content as radical, even ridiculous.

Yes, there are distributors like TuneCore, CD Baby and Amuse as well as label services companies like Kobalt/AWAL that are building viable businesses as facilitators, allowing the artist-originators to maintain full control over their IP and creative process. But most labels, publishers and other copyright holders still seem to prioritize maximizing the value of their IP, which in part means maximizing control and origination.

Yet, some of the most vibrant and sustainable fandoms operate in tension with this demand for artist/label/publisher control. In the book Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences, and the Intimate Work of Connection (which I wrote about for Forbes), the author Nancy Baym argues that in the digital age, sustaining music fandom in the long term may be less about top-down promotional communication from artist to fan, and more about developing and nurturing a long-term infrastructure for fans to find and bond with each other, independently of an artist’s output or promotional cycle. In other words, the artist can thrive more or less in perpetuity as a platform for self-organizing communities of eager fans and followers — as a facilitator rather than originator of conversation and engagement.

What happens when we apply that philosophy to the musical content itself, not just to the artist’s overall personality? What if we treat the recording and its underlying parts as a platform for self-organizing creators, the way artists’ personas serve as platforms for fan expression?

Even though Faxon delineated this phenomenon over a decade ago, we’re only now seeing what true execution of his ideas might look like in the creative process.

A few months ago, I wrote a Forbes article titled “Unbundling The Song: Inside The Next Wave Of Recorded Music’s Disruption” that dove into the various ways artists and labels were “unbundling” otherwise static songs into:

  1. Isolated vocal and instrumental stems that fans — or machines — could remix on the fly (e.g. Jammer, Weav),
  2. Samples that could be easily and affordably licensed and incorporated into new, royalty-generating repertoire (e.g. Tracklib), and
  3. Packs of artist-branded, one-shot sounds and loops that anyone could buy and incorporate into their music without having to worry about royalties (e.g., Splice Sounds).

In the above cases, the music companies are “facilitators of content” not just in terms of distribution and marketing infrastructure, but also in terms of creativity — providing lower-level musical ingredients for other creators to incorporate freely into their own works.

After that article was published, I realized that many people in the music industry compared the ongoing “unbundling” of content into individual ingredients to the rise of short-form video apps like Snap, Vine, and Dubsmash, and would often group those two trends together as tapping into the same user motivations for interacting with a piece of music. In reality, in the majority of cases those two worlds could not be more different — and I’ll try to explain why below, with the help of some visuals.

Say a major label releases a pop song that’s around four minutes long. Short-form video apps (Snap, Vine,, Dubsmash, etc.) will chop up the song like this:

The dotted lines demonstrate how these short-form video apps are cutting up a record along the axis of time — working with excerpts up to 60 seconds long that maintain the sonic quality of the original, but can be visually remixed through videos and photos by everyday users on these platforms.

This is also what constitutes the practice of sampling, if you’re lifting directly from the original master recording: you’re looping and layering a sample of an already-composed song, and then recording additional, original vocal and instrumental tracks on top.

By cutting a song vertically along the axis of time, you reveal its hooks, earworms and most distinctive moments. But you’re still marketing a static song, with all of its components intact; its underlying elements have not truly opened up as tools that creators can repurpose for their own use.

In contrast, when you break down this hypothetical four-minute pop song into individual stems, the dotted lines are more hamburger-style, like this:

In this case, you’re isolating vocals, beats, instrumentals and other elements of the song, while maintaining the song’s original length. This is the key difference to me: stems, in their original form, are not “short-form content.” Stems are inherently not “snackable.” They are only as “short-form” as their original source, and therefore tie into much different motivations for the users who seek them. A power user of a Snapchat music lens may not necessarily be interested in playing around with the vocals of their favorite pop track, because their preferred tools and materials are fundamentally different.

There are some notable exceptions to this concept: a handful of recent initiatives in music are trying to combine the two visuals above by “consumerizing” and monetizing bite-size snippets of stems. One great example is Jammer, which has licensing deals with a few major labels to lay out vocal and instrumental stems from chart-topping hits in a user-friendly, gridded and quantized environment — such that users can make their own remixes of singles by the likes of Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj regardless of their musical background.

Another example is Native Instruments’ Sounds Originals, which just launched this week and is working with DJ-producers like Diplo and Richie Hawtin to monetize their “signature sound” via branded sample packs. Splice has been doing this for a few years as well, building exclusive artist packs with the likes of Slow Magic. In these cases, the target market isn’t necessarily the average fan, but rather the up-and-coming or seasoned producer using Native Instruments equipment or looking for new sounds to enhance their latest tracks.

In all of these different examples, you’re cutting music horizontally, not just vertically — which means you’re revealing its underlying ingredients.

Marketing the ingredients of a song is a fundamentally different challenge from marketing its “moments.” Understandably, most music copyright businesses avoid “ingredient marketing” altogether—due to a mix of perceived lack of consumer demand, concerns over brand control and stubborn legal structures that can’t support proper licensing and monetization of said ingredients.

But revisiting the fact that both chefs and artists are nothing without their ingredients, I would argue artists can provide a richer, more balanced and more wholesome “diet” for fans by transparently celebrating the multiplicity of the resources that got them there—and empowering fans and followers with the tools to do the same.

In a world where fans have access to music’s ingredients, and where artists relinquish at least some control over how those ingredients are used, artists’ brands are increasingly about their surrounding creative ecosystems, not just about themselves.

Indeed, from videos (RIP) and the oversaturated market of dance challenges to sample packs and remix apps, we are now seeing artists of all career stages racing to create the strongest, highest-quality creative ecosystems, powered by democratized creation and social interaction. The source of creative innovation (and value) no longer lies solely in the creation or distribution of a finished product, but rather in how the ingredients underlying that product are made available to empower an entirely new, innovative ecosystem of self-organized self-expression. Ecosystem-level branding, not just individual-level branding, will be the point of competition in tomorrow’s music business.

To read more of my thoughts on music, creativity, technology and business, you can follow me on Twitter and/or sign up for my weekly newsletter, Water & Music.

Cherie Hu

Written by

Cherie Hu

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

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