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Niche publishing brands are most powerful at intersections. For Cherie Hu, the founder of Water & Music, the intersection is music x technology x business x web3.
Water & Music was an accidental brand in many ways. Cherie was a freelance journalist in 2016, relying on writing assignments from established publications like Billboard, Forbes and industry trade publications. Freelancers were the original creator class of journalism, well practiced in juggling the actual writing with figuring out taxes, chasing down invoices and, yes, tending to their personal brands in order to get the next assignment. Cherie created an email newsletter in 2016 to distribute her latest stories and added pieces she wanted to write anyway without waiting for a publication to run them. The newsletter became a creative outlet.
It grew enough that Cherie moved it to Patreon, and by early 2019 it had attracted 5,000 free subscribers. Water & Music is now off Patreon and boasts over 2,000 members. It is also pioneering experimentation in web3 models with its own research-oriented decentralized autonomous organization and a $STREAM token.
My takeaways from our conversation:
Look for signals beyond analytics. Understanding whether you have the publishing equivalent of product-market fit requires looking for signals. Some are simple math: email subscribers, open rates, paying members, ad demand. But some are intangible, like people reaching out to you, asking how they can support your work and seeing people at conferences who are obsessed with the subject matter and want to connect to each other. “I realized that there are a lot of these readers who would have such amazing discussions with each other, but they just did not know each other.”
Autonomy is more than money. Water & Music really took shape as a brand when Cherie started treating it as a creative outlet rather than a promotional vehicle. The individual-led brand allowed her the freedom to “have the kind of career that would allow for the kind of work that I wanted to do.”
Build a team. One of the false dichotomies is this idea in the unbundling of publishing that you’re either all on your own or buried in a legacy news organization. At some point, everyone needs to build a team, even if the relationships are more flexible than a typical company. “I absolutely cannot do everything that is happening at Water & Music just by myself, especially in terms of how I want the community and the brand to grow.”
Embed in a community. Just reporting the news is a commodity product. The way out is to provide extra value in the form of analysis and insights, while positioning yourself at the center of a community that wants to connect with each other. “If you're trying to build some kind of media business, there has to be some deeper layer around it, whether it's building a community or even just providing context or analysis.”
I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve been called cynical. I suspect most journalists are often perceived that way. In truth, good journalists are skeptical, if only because that’s the job when you’re constantly being told things that are untrue or positioned in a way to benefit the interested party. If you just mindlessly parrot any development as all for the best, you’re in PR. I understand the broader point Sriram is making – it’s one Andreessen Horowitz people go on and on about – because tech journalism went from being mostly sucking up to the revolutionaries to treating them with the rigor and accountability that all powerful institutions need. And yes, after Theranos, sometimes the default is to assume the worst. I’m unclear if “optimism” is the antidote here, only because optimism can lead people to following the lead of Dr. Pangloss in believing “since everything was made for a purpose, everything is necessarily for the best purpose.” Critical thinking, curiosity, expertise and level-headed fairness aren’t as catchy as a cure-all like “optimism,” but it’s a formula that fits the bill better.
From solo to micro media
Ben Thompson is the role model for many Substack writers. Even the style of many writers that focus on business strategy mimics Stratechery. Thompson has maintained a solo endeavor, opting not to build out Stratechery with a staff. I think many successful Substack writers will veer from this playbook. Packy McCormick’s Not Boring is a breakout hit, arguably the new Stratechery with 110,000 subscribers, a fund and a killer ad product with Deep Dives. Now he’s bringing on his first employee to help manage and grow the business. This will end up the path for many: turning solo Substacks into micro-media companies with a lean model.
Independent media in Ukraine
If all goes well, next week’s podcast will feature Andrey Boborykin, executive director of Ukrayinska Pravda, a leading independent news publisher in Ukraine. Andrey and his colleagues in independent Ukrainian media are operating in incredibly difficult circumstances. Marvin Schade of Medieninsider has an interview (in English) with Daryna Shevchenko, CEO of the Kyiv Independent, which has raised nearly $1.7 million to continue operating. One option the Kyiv Independent is exploring is setting up a foundation in order to ensure long-term sustainability. The outpouring of support for Ukrainian media – there’s a separate $1 million GoFundMe for other independent media – is something of a silver lining in what will be a long effort to build sustainable business models that allow for an independent and free press. Andrey and I are going to talk about how to make that happen.
Building your own universe
Monocle has long been a brand that’s flummoxed me. It is easy to mock for its “view from nowhere” point of view that’s increasingly out of step with the real world, not to mention the oddball proclivities for “what’s flying off the shelves” at Finnish bookstores. But one thing I admire about Monocle: It makes its own universe. The political obsessions of the moment in the U.S. and UK rarely dominate as the brand goes its own twee way, harping on bike lanes in Vilnius, cozy Alpine terraces and a smattering of light geopolitical strategy. It’s not quite for me, but a lot of strong brands are that way. There is likely a group of people who see how they think of life reflected in the Monocle ethos of minimalist furniture, Mitteleuropa culture and train station architecture.
Planning for Cannes
After a couple years off, the Cannes Lions will again take place this June, assuming this latest variant doesn’t wreak havoc. I’m planning a daily newsletter and podcast series for the week. I’d love to figure out a way to have a dinner for publishers. If you have plans in Cannes and would like to discuss partnering, get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the web3 curious, crypto research publisher Delphi is rolling out yield-back memberships that covers the subscription fees from crypto gains. The obvious question: What happens when crypto goes down?
Work isn’t going back to the way it was, no matter how much the Boss Class wants to make it happen. Successful businesses will rebalance the relationship of employer to employee to provide people with more autonomy and meaning in their work.
The future of work media scramble is on. The topic is so big that there are plenty of focus areas up for grabs. My former colleague Shareen Pathak is zeroing in on an important one: making workplaces more diverse and inclusive. At Toolkits, Shareen has started a new DE&I weekly newsletter.
Podcast discovery is mostly a black box. Getting to the top of Apple’s charts is a mystery, and the best way to get distribution remains having a contact at Apple who can feature your podcast in “New and Noteworthy.” NPR used Facebook ads to gets its shows into the top charts for their respective categories. Something I suspected: Asking people to rate and review the podcast does nothing to help in distribution.
The starting is the hardest part. TRB friend Stefano Boscutti has a new newsletter, New Old Age, which explores how leading a fulfilling “final third” of life. Studies always show that satisfaction actually grows later in life. My guess is we’ll see a vast change in approaches to “retirement” being the defining aspect of being over 65.
Self-promotion alert: I gave an interview to FIPP about why newsletters and podcasts are more personal media that could, I hope, lead to smaller, sturdier media businesses. I was excited and surprised to be described as “a pioneering figure on the UK media scene.” I’ll take it. I’m also speaking at the FIPP World Congress in June.
Thanks so much for reading and listening. Hit reply with any feedback.