Cherie Hu, the new wave of new media

Cherie Hu

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed one of the original bloggers, Jason Kottke, who started in 1998. This week’s interview is the perfect complement, as she represents the new generation of online media. Cherie Hu is a twenty-something music journalist from Brooklyn who runs an email newsletter and podcast, and earns revenue from these activities via Patreon.

Doing an email newsletter is the 2019 equivalent to writing a blog ten years ago. And podcasts? While they’ve been around almost as long as blogs, they’re now much more popular – especially since Spotify began acquiring podcast companies last month.

I’d been looking for someone to interview for this site who basically started out with the email newsletter format, as opposed to ye olde bloggers like Jason and I who have (begrudgingly?) migrated to it.

I recently discovered Cherie Hu’s newsletter, Water & Music, via a brilliant article she wrote about why musicians are starting their own podcasts . Her email newsletter and Patreon account features more of the same: thoughtful, insightful journalism focusing on the intersection of music and technology.

I reached out and Cherie generously agreed to do this interview. Note: this is a bit longer than my usual interviews, but I haven’t cut it since Cherie has provided some excellent insights into her business and the current state of online media. It’s worth your time, trust me.

CI: You started your Revue email newsletter in July 2016 and I understand were on TinyLetter before then. When did you start at TinyLetter and what made you launch your publication as an email newsletter, rather than say a blog?

Cherie: I started my Tinyletter in February 2016 as a more informal way to keep friends, acquaintances and curious strangers updated about my work and travel. The first issue documented my experience attending an international music conference for the first time (FastForward in Amsterdam), and reads more like an entry in a travel diary: iPhone photos of Amsterdam’s streets and cuisine interspersed with free-flowing, verbal streams of consciousness about music and identity.

At the time, I had been writing about the music business for only around three months, and was just starting to get more comfortable in my own skin as a journalist and writer. I decided an email newsletter would be more appropriate than a standard blog to share this level of vulnerability; while regular blogging can often feel like you’re projecting a futile broadcast into the giant, unending void of the Internet, the format of an email newsletter is much more intimate and direct, and inherently caters to a much more curated, self-selected readership (in that subscribers opt in themselves).

CI: You now have 3,000 subscribers, which seems like a solid growth trajectory. What kind of people read your newsletter, and has the target audience changed since you first started in 2016? And along the same lines, has your content evolved now that you can see – after 2-3 years – who exactly is reading your newsletter?

Cherie: The types of people reading my newsletter, and the resulting target audience, have definitely changed over time. Whereas the initial target audience was simply anyone who would be interested in learning more about my life, the current target is a bit more focused, comprising people who are interested in receiving regular, longform commentary about the business of music, entertainment and technology. I feel extremely fortunate that my current readership is inclusive of all kinds of roles and career stages in and around music: from budding artists and managers, to more senior executives at major labels and streaming services, to people in the gaming, film, advertising and similar industries who happen to be passionate about music.

Similarly, the newsletter content has shifted from a relatively informal, freeform “diary” to a more structured account both of the current state of the music business and of my latest writing, speaking and other professional engagements. In this vein, I would consider Water & Music a “trade” newsletter—attracting similar audiences who might regularly read Billboard and Variety, for instance—and think many readers look to my writing for some form of market intelligence, i.e. staying updated on the latest developments in the music industry in a way that helps them make smarter, more informed decisions in their own professional environment. This is the ultimate sweet spot for me as a writer: getting to write about topics that genuinely interest me, in a way that performs a valuable service for others.

CI: Currently your newsletter is free – I know you have a Patreon too (which I’ll get to in a minute), but have you considered charging for your newsletter as many of Substack’s leading newsletter writers do?

Cherie: Yes I’ve definitely thought about charging for my newsletter, and considered many other potential payment channels—including the paid tiers on Substack and Revue—before settling on Patreon.

The reason I ultimately chose to monetize through Patreon is because of the greater versatility and flexibility it offers creators with respect to content and pricing. I knew I wanted to experiment with alternative media formats and reader-engagement strategies in 2019, including but not limited to podcasts, videos, online forums and in-person meetups. I found Patreon not only allowed for that diversity of content, but also enabled multiple tiers of pricing, such that supporters could pay whatever they wanted every month (in my case, as little as $1 or as much as $40) and not feel pigeonholed into a single price.

In contrast, I think simply establishing a paid tier atop a newsletter would have restricted my business model to the written word alone (although Substack just rolled out native, subscriber-only podcast support, which is awesome). In addition, neither Revue nor Substack currently offer any level of price flexibility; i.e. if I were to charge directly for my newsletter, I could charge only a single monthly fee, as opposed to five different price tiers as I currently do on Patreon.

CI: On Patreon you’re nearing $1000 per month [update: she’s now over $1,200!]. That’s a nice part-time revenue stream for now, but I was curious about your main motivation to use Patreon: “First and foremost, I’m looking to better include readers in my writing and reporting process.”

I come from the blog world in Web 2.0. Back then blogs were great at including readers in the process – comments and trackbacks enabled community and everyone helped each other out. So I’m curious how it’s working out for you so far on Patreon, in terms of building a community and including them in your process?

Cherie: It’s going wonderfully! 🙂 I actually just reached 100 patrons paying a total of over $1000 a month—milestones that I never expected to reach in such a short period of time.

In planning the various tiers, benefits and content around my Patreon page, I was inspired by media startups like Hearken that are working with newsrooms to treat readers and the public as partners rather than merely as consumers throughout the lifecycle of a story, from the early days of research and reporting to the final publication date. At large, I also realized that the ongoing surge in paywalls for seemingly every single major newspaper and publication (e.g. Condé Nast, The Economist, The Atlantic) seemed to send two core messages to the consumer: 1) The only way that you (the reader) are valuable to us (the publication) is if you pay for our content; and 2) Content is the only thing that really matters to you (the reader) and is the most important factor in your willingness to pay us (the publication). Message no. 1 reduces the reader relationship to a financial transaction, while message no. 2 fails to address the vast diversity of reasons why readers might be paying for your product.

I designed my Patreon page with the intention of rewriting these two types of messaging—framing each tier first and foremost as an opportunity to participate behind the scenes and add more diverse forms of value beyond money alone, with exclusive content as the mere cherry on top. For instance, any patrons paying $3+ a month get to vote on future topics I cover in my newsletter. Those paying $7+ a month get access to an exclusive Discord server, as well as early previews of upcoming articles I’m working on. Similar to the Web 2.0 blog world, these patrons can then comment on and/or reply to these previews with any feedback or suggestions for additional angles I should explore. I also recently hosted the first monthly video hangout with my $40/month patrons, where we spent an hour talking about the latest music and entertainment news that we thought were the most interesting (more specifically, SoundCloud’s foray into distribution and Facebook’s controversial revenue split for Fan Subscriptions).

CI: You’ve just started a podcast to complement the newsletter. It has a similar content focus – big ideas in music tech. I know it’s early days, but how does the podcast compare so far to the newsletter in terms of being a vehicle to explore ideas and network with industry people? And is it reaching the same audience, or a slightly different one?

Cherie: Going back to the previous question, I love that you alluded to the Web 2.0 blog world, because so many of today’s “hot trends” around the “future” of media and marketing—including but not limited to podcasts and newsletters—actually involve technologies that have been around for decades.

There are two main reasons why I wanted to launch a podcast. The first reason actually came to me inbound, from a handful of readers who asked if I could record audio versions of my newsletter. Some of them were looking to listen to my newsletter issues during their work commute; others simply preferred the experience of listening to audio over reading text on a screen. These encounters made me more aware of the diverse ways people consume information, and of the need to make my creative output reflect those preferences.

The second reason is that the work I already do revolves naturally around conversation: interviewing industry insiders for articles, moderating panels onstage at conferences and chatting with like-minded, forward-thinking peers and friends in the industry over meals and drinks “offstage.” I found myself wanting to create a living, breathing archive of these conversations, and a podcast felt like an ideal, low-cost starting point. The podcast format in general also allows for more candid, honest dialogue with guests, whereas artists and the music industry still seem to approach traditional magazines and other outlets with more caution and scrutiny (and with many more pre-packaged press releases in tow).

My primary readership for my articles consists of people working in and around the music industry, but to my pleasant surprise many people from outside of music have started listening to the podcast as well. This was particularly the case for my first episode about Ariana Grande, a celebrity that many people recognize regardless of what industry they’re in. Overall, I’m trying to make my writing and the ideas I talk about in music and tech more accessible to a wider audience, for which I think the conversational, relatively more informal nature of podcasts is ideal.

CI: How does social media factor into your career as a creator now? Do you push yourself to be active on Twitter, Facebook, et al – i.e. are you structured about how you use social media to support your creator activities?

Cherie: Even with all the terrible stories out there now about its weaponization and dehumanization, social media has played such an important role in my career as a journalist. Thinking about creators more broadly, I treat Twitter the same way a growing number of visual artists and musicians treat Instagram: as a serious, legitimate portfolio and business card. It’s become the most essential platform for me in promoting my articles, in reaching out to sources for interviews, in building relationships with fellow writers and editors and in keeping up to speed with the latest news across industries. My relationship with Twitter is structured in the sense that I tweet out every single article I publish, and try to post commentary about the latest news or trends at least once a day.

Facebook has such a tainted reputation now, but I think its commercial incentive to downsize from broadcast-style newsfeeds to more intimate, private Groups has served journalists and entrepreneurs like myself looking to build long-term relationships within a specific niche, and particularly within specific ethnic and racial groups. For instance, one of the only reasons I use Facebook at the moment is to browse the Asian Creative Network, a private group of designers, musicians, photographers, filmmakers and other creators of Asian descent that has ballooned to over 20,400 members within fewer than four months. I’ve met many fellow creators in New York and sourced background music for a few of my podcasts from that group. I’m also part of a few journalism-focused groups, such as regional branches of the Asian American Journalists Association and Binders Full of Editors Seeking their Freelance Writers and vice versa—the latter of which helped me get feedback on my article that ultimately got published in Real Life Mag. Increasingly, I get the most value out of social-media channels that cater to more niche interests and backgrounds, instead of merely broadcasting to a wider user base.

CI: Now your niche 🙂 I loved your recent article on musicians using podcasts and “becoming their own media”. I totally agree and see the same thing across other creator industries – books, tv, etc. What I’d like to ask is how you think people like you and I fit into this new landscape, as analysts / journalists / content creators for these industries. There’s traditionally been a wall between journalists and their subjects, but now that artists can control their own narratives is there room for journalists to partner more with artists? Or should journalists (newsletter writers, bloggers, etc) continue to try and carve out their own spaces – where the artist continues to be an interviewee or subject of an article, not a partner in any way? It’s an interesting new world, where everyone can be a media brand, and so I can’t help but think artists and industry analysts will intertwine more because of things like Spotify’s push into podcasts.

Cherie: Yes, I think journalists and artists will absolutely partner more in the future. This is in part due to journalism’s precarious financial situation: as news outlets continue to lay off their staff, a growing number of writers are moving into public-relations and content roles at industry-facing companies that not only pay higher salaries, but also involve more direct work with artists.

For music specifically, several former music editors at magazines like The FADER, Complex and Vice now work on the editorial teams at streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal—either interacting with artists and labels to curate music for their playlists, or collaborating directly with them on original podcasts (e.g. Joey Bada$$ and Tidal), documentaries (e.g. Billie Eilish and Apple Music) and holistic marketing campaigns (e.g. Maggie Rogers and YouTube Music). In these situations, former journalists have definitely evolved into partners that give artists the financial resources and creative freedom to tell their own stories. And as you mention, these types of partnerships will definitely diversify further as both artists and streaming services invest in podcasts as marketing tools for music.

Of course, journalists should still continue to carve out their own independent, critical voices as well, and I don’t think it would be ideal at all for the default career of a music writer to resort to partnering with artists and serving merely as their marketing vessel. The world of which you speak in which “everyone can be a media brand” also raises all kinds of ethical and definitional questions about who is eligible to pass as a “journalist,” and whether everyone who calls themselves a “journalist” should be held to the same standards of objectivity and neutrality. As more talented storytellers enter the world of music media, I think it will be crucial for us to clarify what exactly each of our roles entails—e.g. I occasionally call myself a journalist and an analyst, but never a reporter—and to celebrate rather than discourage or devalue diverse approaches.

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