Shaping Music’s Technological Disruption
BY CHERIE HU MAY 12, 2016
By founding a startup that helps both independent artists and mainstream celebrities monetize their careers, Ryan Leslie combines his creative prowess and business acumen to build his own bridge between technology and the music industry.
“Hi, could we actually push our call back 30 minutes? I totally lost track of time—I’m in the middle of closing a really important deal with some investors.”
On an otherwise ordinary Friday afternoon, my interview with hip-hop artist, entrepreneur and Harvard alum Ryan Leslie starts off on this unexpected note. As I respond “no problem” and hang up the phone, I realize firsthand just how prolific, diverse and ambitious Leslie has become.
This is the same man who, only a few weeks earlier, collaborated with rapper Rich Homie Quan and shot a music video at the luxurious Geejam Studios in Jamaica, the same villa that previously hosted Drake, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg. This is also the same man who believes in breaking down the barriers to his celebrity, freely giving out his personal phone number (1-646-887-6978—try texting him!) and inviting his own fans to New Year’s Eve parties and private jet rides. This is also the same man who concentrated in Government at Harvard, spoke as the male Harvard Orator at his graduation ceremony, and received his diploma when he was only 19 years old. Now here he is on this particular afternoon, not recording an album, texting his fans or studying for a test, but interfacing with venture capitalists as the CEO of his own startup, Disruptive Multimedia.
In a fragmented entertainment world that seems to prize hyperspecialization, Leslie is a rare breed, balancing multiple industries and identities in a single, wholesome career. Much of his success, however, stems from the possibility that these identities—musician, businessman, technologist—are not that different at all.
FROM ARTIST TO ENTREPRENEUR
As a young music professional, Leslie was navigating the mainstream hip-hop circuit, producing and recording under Universal Music Group both as a solo artist and in collaboration with singers like Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Cassie. Over time, however, Universal’s record contracts were getting increasingly stringent, while Leslie was observing disruptive technologies and innovative music business models emerge beyond the mainstream scene. Hence, he parted ways with Universal in mid-2010 in pursuit of more artistic and financial freedom and experimentation.
While building his career independently, Leslie discovered a pervasive problem among entertainers that many people actually did not consider to be a problem at all: staying in touch with one’s social network. The issue lay not in maintaining thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers—that was easy enough—but in fostering genuine interaction with those followers, and in understanding their true motivations, needs and behaviors beyond simple vanity metrics such as page views and likes.
“I had over 200,000 followers on Instagram and over 500 connections on LinkedIn, but I didn’t have any of their phone numbers and had no way to reach them more directly,” Leslie explains. He saw this observation as an opportunity to disrupt customer relationship management (CRM) in the creative world. In 2014, with the vocal support of Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Ben Horowitz, Leslie founded Disruptive Multimedia and launched its flagship product, a CRM system for artists called the SuperPhone.
An online social analytics tool that comes with a phone number unique to the owner, the SuperPhone enables artists not only to engage in direct SMS exchange with tens of thousands of fans (Leslie has 41,000 contacts in his own SuperPhone), but also to segment these contacts into “VIPs” versus more casual followers, and deliver targeted SMS content accordingly. Artists can then visualize, analyze and manage the activity in their personal and professional networks in a more understandable, cost-effective manner, and can channel their energy into creating content that caters to the fans and followers who matter the most. Aside from Leslie, other current SuperPhone users include Lil Wayne and Kevin Jonas, and the company recently raised $1.5 million in funding from over two dozen investors and firms, including Andreessen Horowitz, Betaworks and Monami Entertainment.
Perhaps the strangest and most innovative feature of the SuperPhone is its preoccupation with text messaging. Indeed, entrepreneurs seem to be so focused on technologies of the future that they neglect throwback technologies like SMS that are actually ripe for innovation. “Usually when you introduce a new mobile app or startup, you force someone to download and learn an entirely new environment from the app store,” says Leslie. “In contrast, having a SuperPhone is amazing because the technology is automatically native to any mobile device that you buy.”
What is also revolutionary about the SuperPhone is that it eliminates all intermediaries between the artist and the fan, which carries significant financial implications for the music industry at large. Artists have traditionally relied on platforms like iTunes and Ticketmaster to monetize on their digital reach, but these platforms often withhold valuable customer data and purchase information as part of contractual agreements. As a result, power and influence shift away from the creators themselves and into the hands of third-party companies.
In the long run, society will suffer if transparency is sacrificed for connectivity—and this is precisely the sacrifice that Leslie seeks to eliminate. The SuperPhone implements his vision of a world in which artists have complete control over their careers and un-gated access to their data, without the need for a label, manager or third-party distributor. The model benefits fans, too, as it enables a level of personal interaction and access to exclusive experiences with celebrities that had never before been achieved at scale.
Leslie’s passion for the music-business-technology trifecta can be traced back to his time as a Harvard undergraduate. A resident in Pforzheimer House, he spent many of his waking hours producing music in the student-run Quad Sound Studios, and also sang as a member of the Harvard Krokodiloes. Meanwhile, at nearby Northeastern University, a student named Shawn Fanning was building a platform that would hurtle the music industry into financial turmoil: an unsuspecting peer-to-peer file-sharing service called Napster.
“We were watching the music industry transform and implode,” describes Sandy Green, then the Pre-Business Tutor in Pforzheimer House and the Head Tutor for Quad Sound Studios, who was an important mentor to Leslie. “This made Ryan really thoughtful about the role that technology and the internet played in the future of music. We would often talk about where he wanted to position himself amidst all this disruption.”
Hence, Leslie was having intellectual conversations about music technology that would pave the way for Disruptive Multimedia over a decade in advance on Harvard’s campus, which ultimately made him stand out from other musicians his age. “Leadership is not just about talent, but also about knowing the business of your craft,” explains Green, who currently teaches as Professor of Strategy at California State University, Northridge. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re in entertainment or software engineering or medicine—one of the keys to success in any industry lies in understanding the business model that makes your practice possible. That is what distinguished Ryan and helped him get into Harvard and to where he is now in his career.”
Interestingly, Leslie points to passion, rather than pure business knowledge, as the cornerstone of successful leadership. “If you are fearless and passionate, you will naturally gain followers,” he says. “Then, as you gain more success independently, other artists, managers and even larger record labels will follow your lead.”
Indeed, Leslie’s fearlessness and passion, along with his insight into relationship management and the music business, has allowed him to build a cult-like following around his art. His rhetoric is powerful and unmistakable: he calls his fans #Renegades, his latest studio album is titled Black Mozart, and his current artistic project is a “lifetime concept album” in which he releases one song every month to a limited pool of 1,000 fans for the rest of his career. In 2014, he invited 200 of his top fans to a private New Year’s Eve party at the Palais Schönburg in Vienna, Austria at a price point of $220 to $1,700 per ticket. If that does not sound extravagant enough, one of Leslie’s fans, Thibault Van Renne, owned a Lamborghini dealer in Belgium and lent Leslie 30 Lamborghinis to use in one of his music videos, free of charge.
MUSIC CULTURE AS TECH CULTURE
As none of these intimate, extravagant experiences would have been possible without the power of technology, Leslie strongly believes that the music industry as a whole could learn a lesson or two from Silicon Valley culture. “Digital technology is becoming even more prevalent as an enabler for the distribution and consumption of music, so this ‘tech culture’ must naturally extend to the music industry,” explains Leslie. A significant aspect of this culture involves taking ownership over one’s future. In this vein, modern musicians must be entrepreneurs in their own right, adopting new technologies early and iterating on their art and business models in tandem with the ever-changing demands of their fans and of the overall market.
A second cultural pillar in tech industries is the open exchange of information, ideas and professional connections. “Introductions are much more free-flowing in the tech world,” claims Leslie, who was recommended to Horowitz by fellow entrepreneur Tristan Walker, founder and CEO of Walker & Company. “Relationships in music are always viewed as a best-kept secret—if you discover an artist, no one else can know about them—but everyone in Silicon Valley spreads the word about the latest technologies not just to help great products flourish, but also to benefit humanity on a grand scale.” Building relationships transparently and keeping frequent communication top-of-mind are two priorities in the tech world that Leslie hopes to transfer to entertainment with the SuperPhone.
By drawing these connections between art and technology, Leslie proves that creative passion and business acumen are complementary, not antithetical. The boundary between managerial leadership and artistic leadership—an unwavering devotion to self-expression that inspires others to act and think more creatively—continues to blur, in an era when the most successful companies veer away from formulaic blueprints and are run by the most imaginative and inventive thinkers. In taking ownership of his musical career on his own accord, and in building tools that enable other artists to do the same, Leslie has wielded the best of both leadership worlds to empower creators, and to disrupt the music industry for good.
Photos courtesy Ryan Leslie.