Ryan Leslie: Ben Horowitz-Backed Competitor to Beats?

A Follow-Up to “How to Make Money in Music Now”

Who: Grammy-nominated artist, producer, and founder of Disruptive Multimedia (DMM), Ryan Leslie

What: Getting to the bottom of Leslie’s game-changing data platform, DMM

Where: Wall Street, New York City

When: In the wake of DMM’s launch

Q: Since we last talked, you’ve launched an app. Can you tell us what it’s called?

A: Right now it’s called the DMM Dashboard, DMM standing for Disruptive Multimedia.

Q: And when did you launch?

A: We launched the private beta last Wednesday.

Q: Is it available to the public?

A: Yes, as long as we approve the artist.

Q: How would an artist in the middle of nowhere go about getting approved?

A: Just send me a text. My personal contact information has been publicly available on Twitter since last summer.

Q: Why did you create DMM?

A: April of 2013. I was on a tour bus after a show in San Francisco reading through a bunch of tweets from supporters saying they didn’t know I was performing the previous night. That was a telling experience. I said, “I don’t want that ever to happen again.” Every time I perform, every time I drop something — a piece of merch, an album, a video — I want the ability to press a button so that everyone who needs to know, knows. Twitter doesn’t give me that, Instagram doesn’t give me that, Facebook does not give me that. Even YouTube doesn’t give me that with my 160,000 subscribers. If they’ve turned off their email notifications, they won’t know when I’ve put a new video up. I want to be able, and I want my fans to be able, to own the relationship that we have with one another.

“This entire system is about — How does an artist model himself after Jeff Bezos as opposed to any record executive who may or may not know what’s going on?”

Q: It’s been called “a virtual little black book of every supporter.” Can you give us more specifics? When you decided to use your platform for your own career, what were some of the differences you saw immediately as compared to the traditional music business model?

A: The biggest difference is that you get paid right away. When you sell on iTunes, when do you get paid? If you’re on TuneCore, maybe once every thirty days. If you’re going through a record company, you get a statement every ninety days, and then you get paid ninety days after that. If I sell a thousand CDs on a Monday, I’m up ten thousand in my bank account on a Wednesday. And I know every single one of those thousand people.

Q: When you say you know them, what specific information do you have access to via the app?

A : I have the information that people share with me by way of a legal online transaction. So, for example, if I’m Jeff Bezos at Amazon or Tim Cook at Apple, I can login at any given time and see everyone’s purchase history, billing address, email, telephone number (if they share it), birthday (if they share it). This entire system is about — How does an artist model himself after Jeff Bezos as opposed to any record executive who may or may not know what’s going on?

Q: Please explain more.

A: There are so many platforms that exist — StageBloc, Bandcamp, BubbleUP, PledgeMusic, indiegogo. The issue I have is, all of those platforms are segregated. They might as well be Twitter in my opinion, because you can only get your data if you’re on that platform. I need a solution that allows me to sell anywhere I want to on the internet and have one centralized address book of every single person, whether they’ve supported me through PayPal, Stripe, Gumroad or Venmo. As artists, all of our money is all over the place.

Q: So you’ve consolidated all of it?

A: Yes. That’s what we’ve done. You want to have a dashboard of all the money that you’re receiving? The first thing to do is to control the distribution channel. You can choose any platform you want to control the distribution channel.

Q: The most talked about deal in music on the planet right now is Apple’s acquisition of Beats by Dre. Jimmy Iovine, once again, is being heralded as a genius. Is your platform and his departure indicative of similar philosophy about what’s needed to succeed in music and technology right now?

A: It’s simple. It’s about data and Apple has all of the data. If we go back to February 2013, Iovine gave an interview to D: Dive Into Media. He said,

“But there’s something else going on with our service that doesn’t go on anywhere. We have to make it user-friendly to the artist. They have to be able to build businesses on it. They have to be able to have the information . . . who is using their music, where they are . . . That has to become a business for the artist as much as communicating with their fans. Right now, they (music services) have all the information and the artist has no information. No one knows . . . I don’t know. I own a record company. I would die to know who bought my records on iTunes or bought my tickets on TicketMaster.”

Well I guess he’s gonna know who bought his albums on iTunes now.

So Jimmy Iovine, who is arguably touted as one of the smartest record executives, would die to have that information. Why wouldn’t anyone who has any aspirations of being successful in the music business take a page out of that book, post it on their proverbial whiteboard and say, I’m not going to be that guy starting in 2014? Those are the artists I’m looking for.

Q: Who’s on your platform right now?

A: Talib Kweli, 50 Cent, others.

Q: How easy was it to convince people to come on board?

A: Guys like that are independent and they’re hustlers. So if you’re a hustler and you’re smart, you know exactly what this means for you. It means that you’re going to do better, more efficient business, and you’re going to get paid faster.

Q: And they immediately understood that?

A: Yes.

Q: Were there people who you approached who you expected to understand it, but didn’t?

A: When I built this platform, I could see immediately how much it revolutionized my business. And, of course, being a producer and collaborator with so many artists, I wanted to share that level of success and consumer insight with everyone. So there was not a studio session that went by — Fab, Meek, Travis Scott, Troy Ave — that I did not show that artist how this app could change their lives and change their business. Maybe they were meeting with resistance from their record company, maybe they just care about being hot and don’t care about having their business straight. For whatever reason, they chose to continue along a more traditional distribution pathway. Anyone that’s really about being successful in 2014, anyone that’s looking at being top five on the Forbes list has to change their business practices. The people who are at the top of the Forbes list now have been at this for twenty-five years. It’s like, c’mon.

“My crusade currently is increasing the number of professional musicians by a thousand percent. I want to take them from 39,000 to 390,000. I believe it’s possible, I can show you the blueprint.”

Q: I always assumed the people you mentioned were so good at getting money. What do you think is getting lost in translation?

A: I don’t think they’re exceptionally good at getting money. I think they have been able to extract whatever they can extract. That’s already more than the 39,000 people last year who, according to the census, said they were professional musicians. There’s a huge disparity between those 39,000 people and the 800,000 albums that were released last year. So, who’s really good at getting money? My crusade currently is increasing the number of professional musicians by a thousand percent. I want to take them from 39,000 to 390,000. I believe it’s possible, I can show you the blueprint.

Q: Do you care to give specifics in terms of any conversations that didn’t go as expected?

A: Troy Ave is somebody I actually worked with. He was signed to an imprint that was distributed by Def Jam. I think Butch Lewis was running the imprint and somebody asked me to make a record for him on the strength. So when I saw that he was releasing a project top of the year (2014), I made it my priority to reach out to him. I said, “Look, we gotta talk, I got a platform for you. You’re independent. You’re doing some great collaborations. You’re on a mission to bring back New York rap. Let’s do it the right way.” We had a nice, long conversation about what it would mean for him to know all of his customers. As someone who’s talked about his ability to find success as a hustler in the streets . . . I made an analogy that if you were just a local weed dealer and you could give away dime bags, you set up a table and it was all legal so that people came back over and over again, why wouldn’t you take their information so that on the first and fifteenth, when they got paid, you could reach out to those people first? Those are your best customers, you should know them.

When his record was coming out on iTunes, he sent me the cover and said “Yo, can you Instagram this cover?” I hit him back and I said “Yo man, I told you, doing it this way, you’re not going to know who your customers are.” He hit me and said, “Can you just post the cover man? I didn’t ask you for a lecture. And if you don’t post the cover, we know what it is.” Being someone who supports art, I sent out a tweet with his album cover. I haven’t had a chance to take a look at his Soundscan numbers.

Troy’s album has sold 3,800 copies total to date. Rumor has it that the rapper who claims to be bringing New York back will be signing with Miami-based Maybach Music Group eminently. And there’s this which led to this.

Q: What’s the nature of your relationship with Ben Horowitz? I noticed that you made it to his list in Fortune of all-time favorite rap songs back in February.

A: Yeah, Ben Horowitz is an advisor and backer of DMM.

Q: Is he your only backer?

A: No. I’m heavily invested in myself and I’ve seen an ROI already.

Q: You’re not only involved in this conceptually and financially though, you’re involved in the nuts and bolts of building the platform?

A: Yes.

Q: When did you learn to code?

A: I’ve been a tinkerer since I was at Harvard in ’96 ’97 ’98. Was there a computer lab in Pforzheimer?

Q: Yes. It was a nice one too.

A: Yes, there was. I remember sitting in that little room fascinated that I could create a website and whatever I put up was accessible to anyone in the world. So I’ve been tinkering with coding, programming, web services, and web solutions since I was at Harvard. To be able to look at API endpoints and know that Bandcamp, for example, is not going to plug into my dashboard and to be able to pick up my phone and have a conversation with a tech CEO or founder and say, “Let’s fix that. Let’s not let your platform be the one that has obstacles, especially when your vision is to empower artists.” Right now they’re just getting a CSV of emails, in many cases duplicate emails.

I let the advanced coding be done by folks that are infinitely more proficient than I am because that’s what they’ve been doing while I’ve been rapping and producing. And that’s just efficient, how it’s supposed to be. So currently my development team — one lives in England, one lives in Germany, one lives in Colorado. We’re extremely agile. We roll out new features almost daily or every other day.

Q: A lot of people are wondering about your lawsuit. I know you can’t really talk about it, but I remember you saying that had it not happened, you don’t know whether you would’ve gone this direction in your career. In retrospect, has this legal battle been a positive thing?

A: Everything is positive. Every action, every experience that I’ve had up until this point has put me in the position where I currently am, building a solution, not only for myself, but for anyone else that’s interested.

Q: Take us back to that moment when you were getting sued for a million dollars.

A: I have adopted the philosophy that any circumstance that is beyond my control — just roll, just let it ride. I saw it coming down the pike 100 miles a minute. I watched an extremely powerful, well-funded legal battle waged against me. I watched a judge — may he rest in peace, Judge Baer — sanction me so that the jury’s hands were tied in terms of making a ruling. I watched as marshals came down to my place of residence and put my trusty Escalade on the auction block. I watched all of this stuff go on, you know.

Q: How did it affect the way that you had to handle your career?

A: For some reason, the plaintiff’s legal team was resourceful enough to cut off every source of revenue — from live music revenue to publishing to royalties. And if they weren’t able to cut it off and redirect it to themselves, they were able to freeze it.

Q: And these are traditional revenue streams for recording artists?

A: Yes. And so, it was very interesting to me to see that Live Nation, ASCAP, and my distribution company, were all too scared because they weren’t really sure of the ramifications. They were too scared to pay me hundreds of thousands of dollars because they didn’t want to get in any kind of legal trouble. The way that all of this ends will be publicly played out. You can see all of the complaints that have been filed, you can see all of the allegations. It’s all interesting.

Q: What do you see as the future for DMM? And how quickly do you see that future coming?

A: I think the future’s happening now. Hands down, there is no other artist platform that was developed and built from the ground up directly as a result of an artist’s experience.

Q: So it’s like FUBU.

Leslie stares at me blankly.

Q: For Us by Us? But seriously, do you think you’ve created a better product because you’re more attuned to the needs of your clients?

A: Yes, absolutely.

We’ve moved outside where we’re interrupted by a fan who politely gets Leslie’s attention. Leslie gives him his personal contact information immediately and encourages him to get in touch.

A: He’s gonna buy my album today. That’s a 100% conversion rate.

Q: So you just made twelve bucks minimum in twenty seconds?

A: Yup.

Ryan Leslie’s next album, Renegade Nation, will be released this fall. Half of the album will be produced by members of his Black Phoenix Beat Club.

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