The Water & Music Academy: An experiment in community-driven media education

You can also read this post on our Mirror page.

One of the most common pieces of feedback we receive from Water & Music members — both in passing and through our regular surveys — is that our community is keen for us to expand into education.

There’s no denying that the music industry is changing fast, and many professionals feel that they are struggling to keep up. In our last community-wide survey, our respondents reported feeling overwhelmed at the rapid rate of technological change, and anxious that their particular area of the industry might fall behind. Traditional methods of industry education —whether university degrees or organization-led professional development — arguably fall short of keeping pace with this dynamic environment, where the goalposts for “best practices” are constantly shifting.

In addition to the rapid rate of industry change, many of us are still feeling the effects of COVID lockdowns and widespread work-from-home initiatives. While remote work has dramatically improved conditions around accessibility, flexible schedules, and financial costs for many industry professionals, it has also made building meaningful industry connections a little more challenging. Aside from our research, one of the main benefits that a Water & Music membership offers is access to a global community of music-industry artists, founders and tastemakers. We knew that many of our community members would jump at the chance to forge deeper connections with each other, as well as the opportunity to learn.

And as anyone who has read our previous behind-the-scenes posts will know, Water & Music’s ethos is all about developing innovative, horizontal approaches to research. Translating a similar ethos to education — namely, by designing and executing on a learning experience with and for our community members — offered the perfect opportunity to bring our music/tech research to life, in a way that was even more approachable, interactive, and actionable.

We thought this method would work particularly well for Web3-related topics. Let’s be real — if there’s one area of the music and tech ecosystem that could benefit from more clarity and approachability, it’s Web3. (In fact, our previous research highlights lack of education as one of the top concerns about music and Web3 today, shared among both industry professionals and music fans.)

(Source: The New Yorker)
(Source: The New Yorker)

All of these factors led to the formation of our first Water & Music Academy pilot on building Web3-native music communities, for a small, application-based cohort of around 20 students in our membership.

Embracing emergent strategy, rapid iteration cycles, and transparent feedback loops with our community every step of the way, we went from initial ideation to full execution of our Academy pilot in just under 100 days (January 13 to April 22, 2022). Below, we outline how we did it, the opportunities and challenges we ran into along the way, and how we will apply these learnings to our future educational offerings.

The ideation process (AKA the mandatory FigJam session)

The idea of a Water & Music educational initiative had been floating around the community and the core team’s consciousness for months, particularly from our Community Ops lead Kat Rodgers. But it wasn’t until Maarten Walraven — a longtime W&M community member, with a PhD and a passion for music/tech education — created a one-page proposal outlining his vision for a W&M Academy that we began putting a plan into action.

While we had an inkling that we’d like to focus on something Web3-related for the Academy’s first iteration, we wanted to check in with our community first. So, in true DAO fashion, we asked our community members for their say on what they’d like to learn and how they’d like to learn it — and obviously we turned to FigJam to facilitate our brainstorming.

It's the truth.
It’s the truth (source: Cherie Hu)

We ran a live brainstorming session in FigJam during our weekly town hall on January 13, 2022. You can see the full results of the session here.

The key takeaways were:

We decided to hold a lazy consensus vote to decide between contracts and community management as our focus within Web3, with community management winning out by a small margin:

The problem with online learning

With our first pilot topic settled, we then turned our attention to how we were going to learn about it.

Arguably, it’s never been easier today to learn whatever topic you want. There’s been an explosion of free, self-directed online courses (often in the form of massive open online courses, or MOOCs), covering just about every subject area and level of depth you can imagine. But the success rates for these courses are woeful. An overwhelming 95% of MOOC students drop out before completion — a statistic that many attribute to the absence of hands-on feedback and direction from course tutors.

(Source: a16z)

In contrast, many of our community expressed their admiration for cohort-based executive education programs, such as the altMBA or those offered through Maven. As we researched these programs, it became clear to us that the primary appeal of these courses is how they center community and interpersonal connections — making community-building itself a key factor in the learning process, and breaking down the hierarchical structure inherent in traditional teaching dynamics.

(Source: Sustaining Community)

This format, then, ties in nicely with Water & Music’s community-driven model. One of the key benefits of a Water & Music membership is access to a vibrant community and support system of music-obsessed creators and builders. We’ve always said that we have as much to learn from each other, as you do from us, and have invested as much time building a community horizontally, as we have done creating research for you to consume vertically. In fact, our transition to a tokenized research framework has allowed us to co-produce our research alongside our community, resulting in an even tighter feedback loop between the content we produce and the community that inspires us.

(Source: publicmaxwell)

Our first iteration of the Water & Music Academy also drew inspiration from DAO models and culture more generally. Many DAOs today include Web3 educational initiatives as a key part of their growth strategies, upskilling members on using complex Web3 applications and technologies at the same time that they’re being inducted into the DAO. Some excellent examples of DAO education can be found in Forefront’s Digital Economy Canon and BanklessDAO’s Bankless Academy.

While these courses tend to be self-directed (similar to a MOOC), DAOs also tend to bolster their educational offerings with plenty of hands-on, human-centric elements, like Twitter Spaces and other online events, as well as innovative digital touchpoints and “gamification” tactics such as allowing DAO members to collect crypto, tokens, or POAPs as they learn.

At large, DAOs thrive on horizontal, community-driven dynamism and accountability. If you aren’t willing to embrace these qualities, it’s unlikely that the highly emergent (and arguably chaotic) structure of DAOs will be for you.

DAO-driven curriculum design

Like many W&M projects, we built the Academy pilot in public, and in close collaboration with our community. We encouraged our members to suggest any readings or resources they had personally found useful, and asked for their input on everything from deliverables to class length and frequency. We ultimately decided on the following course structure:

While Kat (Community Lead) and Maarten (Project Lead) were ultimately responsible for driving the course forward, several community members also significantly influenced the course design. Nicolas Madoery in particular proposed approaching each topic using a triad structure — spending one session discussing the theory behind the topic, one session discussing our experience (or lack thereof) with the topic at hand, and one session to present a practical task, allowing us to put our new knowledge into action.

While co-creating a class with students may seem antithetical to how educational courses usually run, we believe it was actually one of the most successful elements of the course:

What worked?

The passionate, diverse cohort

As soon as we landed on Web3 as a topic, we knew it was essential that we gathered together as diverse and as eclectic a cohort as possible. The lack of diversity in the cryptosphere — manifesting both as a lack of racial and gender diversity, and as a lack of nuance, with online discourse polarized between toxic positivity and toxic negativity — continues to prevent productive discussions from taking place.

During our application process, we specifically designed our questions to attract a varied cohort, and hand-selected our class to reflect as wide a range of voices, backgrounds, and identities as possible. We were particularly keen to include crypto-skeptics in our cohort, to ensure that our discussions were as balanced as possible.

In fact, we received the following testimonial from a student, who had self-identified as critical of Web3:

“The academy forced me to learn both sides of the web3 arguments, but also to hear from fellow web3/music travelers and what their experiences were like. The combination of having a small group to express my ideas/concerns with made the course invaluable to me.”

Depth, nuance — and honesty

In the survey we sent out after the Academy had ended, many of our students praised the level of detail with which they were able to dive into in our discussions. This is a key element of why having a balanced, diverse range of discussions is so valuable.  As soon as we ensured students that the conversation wouldn’t fall prey to either fluffy hopium or crypto-bashing, we were able to get down to the business of discussing the practicalities of these emerging cultures and technologies.

We were also well aware that we were dealing with a handful of emerging disciplines in an even more emerging market. Music community management is still a relatively new discipline (compared to more mature marketing functions like PR or social media), and Web3 strategy and planning is even newer. During our sessions, we tried to be upfront about the fact that, for the most part, we’re in uncharted territory and are learning as we go. This expectation- and tone-setting upfront contributed to our sessions having a more relaxed, exploratory atmosphere, where we encouraged students to question perceived orthodoxies and approach case studies with a curious, critical mindset.

Balancing theory and practicalities

While there’s plenty of fascinating theory underpinning Web3 technologies, ultimately most of our course participants applied to our Academy to learn something they can apply more practically — either to their day jobs in the music industry, or to their own careers as artists. During our course planning, we were careful to strike a balance between diving into the theory behind Web3, and ensuring our students left our sessions with tangible resources and frameworks.

Our final deliverable was a customer journey spreadsheet (based on the fan journey spreadsheet created for us by previous W&M contributor Jeremie Joubert), which guided our students through each fan touchpoint while planning the logistics behind dropping a token or NFT — a resource they can take away and use to plan their own Web3 projects.

Our incredible guests

One of the most unique and refreshing features of Web3 culture is the willingness of its practitioners to share knowledge freely and democratically. That couldn’t have been better embodied by our guest speakers — we were truly blown away by their expertise, enthusiasm and generosity.

A huge thanks to Bas Grasmayer (COLORSxCOMMUNITY), BlackDave, Nicole D’Avis (Seed Club), Jeff Nicholas (WarpSound), and Andrew Hong (Dune/Mirror/OurNetwork) for their time, energy and generosity. <3

What could be improved?

Embrace chaos

In the planning stages for the Academy, we spent plenty of time researching how other digital learning projects in the past divided up roles and responsibilities. We attempted to use a framework from the Digital Learning Institute, dividing community members interested in helping out with the Academy projects into five roles: Program Manager, Project Manager, Subject Matter Expert, Instructional Designer, and eLearning Developer.

But ultimately, we decided to drop the framework. It felt like there was somewhat of a culture clash between the rigidity of preset roles and the highly emergent, task-oriented nature of labor division in DAOs. One of the key lessons we’ve learned from working on the Academy pilot is that flexibility and willingness to iterate while keeping channels of communication clear and open will always trump sticking to a plan, especially when working in a DAO.

Time zones and calendar juggling

Anyone who has done anything in a DAO will know that time zones can be a serious pain point, and this was the case with the Academy project. We had to find a time slot which worked for Eastern, Pacific, Central, BST, UTC, and TST. Serious respect has to be given to Academy participant Henry Chen, who managed to regularly attend sessions despite being based in Taiwan, meaning that most of our sessions took place between midnight and 4AM for him.

Ultimately, while messing up your sleeping patterns might be (just!) sustainable over a five week period, it obviously isn’t in the long-term. Water & Music has community members in every single continent, and we’re proud to be a global community. We want to reflect the diversity of our community in everything that we do, and ensure that a Water & Music membership benefits everyone, not just members located in a specific timezone.

Which brings us to our next point for improvement…

More async learning opportunities and evergreen resources

Ultimately, while much of the success of the course was due to the specific chemistry and connections within the cohort, there’s plenty more we can do to capture learnings and value asynchronously, and make Academy discussions accessible for those who aren’t able to join in real time. While we did make sure to provide recordings and notes for each session, in the next iteration, we’d like to invest more time in distilling our conversations into evergreen resources and learning materials. Over time, this will build up into a library of learning resources, which Water & Music members will be able to explore on their own time and use to support their pioneering work with music and technology for years to come.

In conclusion…

We’re already putting plans in action for the next iteration of the Water & Music Academy. If you’d like to join us, and hone your skills alongside fellow music industry builders and innovators, you can sign up for a Water & Music membership here.