How to Stand Out in Your Industry

Cherie Hu on escaping competition and establishing your own voice in a crowded space

Cherie Hu, award-winning music journalist, researcher and founder of Water and Music, a newsletter and membership community, joins Stew Fortier to discuss her writing career so far, developing evergreen content, and the value of connecting the dots.

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1. You don’t need to beat the industry titans at their own game.

Sometimes finding your writing niche means accepting that it is not worth your time and energy to compete with top performers in your industry. Instead, focus on the industry intersections that are less developed. Cherie elaborates, “Billboard, Variety and Rolling Stone are definitely experts at breaking news and churning out a lot of articles on a daily basis. That's something that, at least at this point, I don't think I can compete with. I don't want to necessarily break news better than Billboard; they definitely own that. What I want to do is provide deeper analysis.” 

2. Whatever the press release says the story is probably isn't. Dig deeper.

Many of Cherie’s early articles capitalized on her collegiate statistical expertise by diving deeper on the music industry data and metrics presented in mainstream media. “A lesson that I think is par for the course in journalism reporting is that the press release is almost never the actual story, or at least it never tells the complete version of the actual story. I always like to challenge myself to dig deeper, especially when numbers are involved.” She continues, “For example, it made the news a couple of years ago that YouTube had paid out a billion dollars to artists, and that it was something to be celebrated, but I kind of critiqued that. I questioned where the lion's share of money was actually going. A lot of the articles that I wrote early on questioned those kinds of metrics.”

3. People are drowning in information. Connect the dots for them.

The average consumer interfaces with a massive amount of information on a daily basis. One of the best ways you can avoid being drowned out by all of the noise is to add well-researched context and thoughtful analysis to the everyday barrage of information. “I feel like there's just like so much going on this year. It feels especially chaotic. People are looking for guidance on how to connect the dots with everything that is happening. It's one thing to have push notifications for every single piece of breaking news, which can very quickly become an overwhelming experience. I've been in that position and think to myself, ‘How do I make sense of all of this?’ I think that should be the ultimate driving question in your writing, diving deeper into the context of an article.” 

4. Record labels make most of their money from their back catalog of classics. Writers should do the same. 

During her time researching the industry, Cherie discovered, to her surprise, that most labels secure their profits from music in their back catalog, defined as any intellectual property over 18 months old. She explains, “At a technical level, this music has reached its peak revenues and stabilized in terms of daily income and engagement. It's interesting because you'd think they would prioritize investing in new artists and releases, but it's really the Beatles, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and other really iconic artists who actually pay for the bottom line.” 

Cherie follows this profit model in the development of her own catalog of writing. “I think most major news organizations think about being as immediate and quick as possible. They just have to break this piece of news and then they go on to the next thing. I try to challenge myself to think about building a media company or a media brand where the value of a given piece of writing lasts much longer than just the news cycle. Something that I would consider a marker of success under this mindset is if people discover an article on a topic that I'd written two years ago  and email me saying ‘Oh, this is so super helpful.’ I am very motivated by writing articles that are evergreen and will still have value two, three, four or even five years from now.” 

5. Avoid the temptation to reach everybody. You win by reaching the right people. 

Cherie encourages other writers to think about targeting intentional audiences rather than writing to reach everyone with every article. “I had written something that was going deep in the weeds on ticketing in a way that I think no normal person would want to read, mostly because the ticketing industry is super complicated. Because of that angle, the article didn’t get many views but the CEO of Live Nation ended up reaching out to me on Twitter was like, ‘Hey, I saw your piece. I'd love to chat about it and give my take on it if you have time.’  I was super intimidated, but it was actually a productive and fruitful conversation. Trying to have a clear idea of who exactly you're trying to reach will naturally help with distribution of an article. I was definitely aiming to reach people who would be much more engaged with the topic because they were already working in the industry. Unless you are doing something like advertising, there's not necessarily a need to chase scale at the expense of everything else.”

You can learn about Cherie Hu on her website and by subscribing to her newsletter.  You can follow her on Twitter here.

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