Lessons from our inaugural Wavelengths Summit

A few weeks ago, Water & Music had the distinct pleasure of hosting our inaugural Wavelengths Summit, fulfilling a dream of bringing our passionate, unique URL community into IRL space.

I had the distinct honor of serving as lead producer for the Summit, alongside a hardworking and dedicated team of core staff, members, volunteers, and more. Since then, I’ve been reflecting with gratitude on the paths to Wavelengths Summit, and what we hope will lead to a longer road for our events down the line.

When I first joined the Water & Music membership and Discord server back in 2020, I could have never imagined whom I would meet since — not only thinkers, builders, creators, and innovators across music and tech, but also my co-founders, investors, and lifelong friends. From leading experts in their field to those just starting out their professional journey, there was always something that bonded us together: A hunger to learn, and a strong community ethos and culture through which to do it.

As many of us know, Water & Music has not only a distinct voice in writing, but also a distinct way in which we speak to each other, with thoughtfulness, curiosity, and kindness baked throughout. Water & Music founder Cherie Hu set this tone early on in the creation and curation of her initial newsletter, but the culture truly came to life throughout the growth of the community — being upheld day in and day out by members through knowledge-sharing, careful listening, and thoughtful critique. Open to both discussing and participating in new ways of thinking and building, our active contributors and lurkers alike came together to make the Water & Music Discord server what it was: Our own little corner of the internet throughout the pandemic.

As the pandemic’s lockdowns lessened, Water & Music started to congregate IRL. What started as casual dinners, drinks, or coffees grew to meetups at conferences and summits like SXSW, FWB Fest, Music Tectonics, NFT.NYC, and many more. Over the course of 2022, we experimented with many different iterations of what our IRL and URL virtual gatherings might look like, with our guidebook still very much in the process of being written.

One lasting experiment came about after much conversation and input with our community: Wavelengths.

Wavelengths kicked off as a traveling series of conversations at the forefront of music and tech — manifesting as panels, roundtables, or workshops that focused on encouraging candid dialogue among diverse stakeholders in the industry. After hosting Wavelengths events in New York, Miami, London, and Washington, D.C., it became clear that the time had come to see if we could take it one notch further.

The Wavelengths Summit was our own attempt at the music- and tech-industry gathering of our dreams alongside our favorite internet friends — i.e. the Water & Music extended community, including but not limited to our members (past, present, and future) and industry partners. Our mission going into the creation of the event was to foster community among the next generation of music-tech leaders and innovators through culture, conversation, and collaboration.

We had some big ideas on how to enact this mission in conference form, and once again asked our community to experiment with us in a new model. Here’s an overview of some of the principles we aimed to enforce, and a short review of how we did!

Goal #1 – No panels

After collectively attending 30+ conferences and summits this past year, we realized we had a lot of hot takes on what constitutes a good panel (in fact, I believe Cherie is sitting on an article about this). Instead of traditional, top-down panel discussions, we wanted to focus on opportunities to bring attendees into the conversations — just like what normally happens in our Discord server.

How We Did: Utilizing the tool Slido and some more intimate breakout rooms — we think we did a good job of trying to keep the varied perspectives within the audience top-of-mind in the conversation, while still allowing the voices of our experts to shine through. We look forward to refining our process and growing with our attendees throughout the coming events, and know it will always be a work in progress!

Goal #2 — Diverse speakers

We were committed to a lineup of diverse speakers — diverse not only in experience, thought, background, and expertise, but also in gender and ethnicity. As we all well know, the music-tech industry tends to lean majority male and white. We also wanted to showcase both community members with demonstrated expertise, as well as external experts across practical, technical, and philosophical viewpoints.

How we did: In the end, 43% of our featured speakers were non-males and 30% were non-white, while 36% were white males. We are proud of our diverse lineup of speakers, and intend to continue and build upon this diversity even more. We are excited as well for the opportunity to showcase more of our own community voices in the future, as we ultimately did put on Summit within a very short period of time thus limiting who was able to attend as a speaker.

Goal #3 — No shilling

At the beginning of the Summit, we asked that our attendees and those taking part in the conference refrain from “shilling.” Open Q&A times at conferences often devolve into self-promotional monologues. We support self-promotion in contexts where the products being promoted could add genuine value to audiences. For our Summit, we wanted to prioritize the integrity of the conversation and our collective effort and time first and foremost. This rule is enforced by both our team and by our communities in our Discord server (which I always find impressive for an online community), where people are directed towards self-promotional channels where that type of engagement is not only welcomed, but encouraged!

How we did: We are really grateful for all the effort that all of our attendees and participants put into remaining thoughtful of the greater conversation and focusing on relevant questions throughout the day. We look forward to continuing to improve on this, and continue setting the tone and standard for thoughtful participation for all of our events moving forward. Further to this, we may explore more specific self-promotion opportunities in the future so our attendees, speakers, and more can showcase themselves in the best light without compromising the flow of an insightful conversation.

Goal #4 — No speaker sponsors (unless dedicated workshop)

The majority of conferences simply would not happen without the help of sponsors. The same is 100% true for Wavelengths. Yet at some events, sponsored programming runs the risk of sounding like a paid commercial. Our research and journalistic roots left us wondering if we might be able to curate conversations that weren’t tied to sponsorship dollars —  to foster an environment that allows for the free flow of nuanced, critical thoughts that drive so much of the nature of our community’s conversation.

How we did: We aimed to think of other ways that our sponsors could be a part of the conversation in a way that showcases their product to our amazing community of creators, builders, and innovators, while still supporting (and not dominating) the tone of conversation. Ultimately, we settled on two ways our sponsors would get involved: Experience or education. Many of our sponsors are responsible for gifting our attendees with onsite fun or fuel (and in the case of our Happy Hours, both) that gave us time to mingle and get to know one another before, after, and during the summit. Other sponsors held a dedicated workshop or event for showcasing their products to our community of passionate music-tech enthusiasts for thoughtful conversation and feedback (and conversion), and/or educating these audiences on the critical industry context behind today’s latest tools. To this end, we cannot thank our sponsors enough for their willingness to experiment and support us in this endeavor — each and every one of them contributed to the success of this event, and it could have not happened without them. Hats off to each and every one of these already innovative companies being innovative with us!

Goals for the future: Emphasis on collaboration

One of the hard parts about conferences and summits is that it becomes so much easier to talk about the problems, and less on the solutions.

Our initial scope for our Summit had a collaborative hackathon attached to it, that focused on being a space for interested minds to collaborate on solutions to the problems discussed during the main day of programming.

We hope to bring this vision to life in future events, or at least help expand on this ethos moving forward. As I mentioned in my closing statements, “We know we’re fucked, but maybe we can do something about it.”

What’s next?

In large part, we will be taking the summer off from Wavelengths events, but look forward to returning in the fall. In the coming weeks, we will be sharing more in-depth recaps on the conversations that happened, including video and audio for our members where applicable.

While the future of the larger Wavelengths Summit comes into focus over the coming weeks and months, we truly do thank all of our attendees, partners, sponsors, speakers, volunteers, and the extended Water & Music team and community for your ongoing support for this series. We hope you had a good time, and I myself look forward to seeing you IRL in the future!
Thank you all once again for your continued support of Water & Music and those for Wavelengths!

A special thank-you to our sponsors: