Ryan Leslie: From Grammy Nominated Recording Artist to Tech Company Owner – A Look into the Secrets of His Success

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August 23, 2016
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Ryan Leslie tells a story about how he sold 180,000 copies of his debut album Ryan Leslie, which garnered hits like Diamond Girl and Addiction. His second album Transition sold 60,000 copies. “How could this be?” thought Ryan, especially since this album earned him a Grammy nomination. Ryan went to the Marketing Department of his label asking why it wasn’t the first line of offense to email the 180,000 people who bought his first album. Surely if they reached out to the fans of the first album, the numbers could have been much better on the second album. The label’s response? “We don’t know who bought your album.” It was here that Ryan discovered that his label, like other labels, just sold through retailers and never had direct customer information. They couldn’t even get the customer info from iTunes because it was a closed environment.

In 2010, Ryan wrote a check and bought himself out of his recording contract and decided to place his destiny in his own hands. While that move would be scary, it proved to be the beginning something he had always wanted…owning his relationship with his audience. He has since had successful albums as an independent.

 I really appreciate this because to me you’re like, one of the pioneers who actually started using platforms like social media to, like, promote their brand. For today’s artists, what advice would you give in terms of growing your fanbase, for you to stand out from the crowd?

Yeah, I mean honestly, any social media strategy depends on one element and that’s content. So once you have the content together, it’s about consistency and frequency of content and a storyline that you can share that makes people engaged. And so myself and my partner, when we were working on Cassie’s first social media campaign, it was very, very much about just daily video content, which kept people engaged. A reason for them to come back, a reason for them to want to consume what we were making, and doing it at a frequency that then encouraged sharing and discovery and evangelism from viewership, and that’s what grew the audience, you know, over time to millions of people. And so there’s no rocket science to it. It’s very, very, very simple. It’s just content. That content’s got to be authentic. As many different people as there are, that’s the number of point of views that exist, and as long as your point of view’s clear and concise and it’s authentic and it is true to you, then it makes you unique already, because all of us as people are unique. But it just comes down to the messaging and strategy.

Now you said one thing that popped out at me, and that was “Storyline.” How do you come up with a storyline? Do you mean building a story around, I guess the artist’s true personality, or are you trying to create something? I mean some people might, you know, be shy or some people might be introverts or something like that. So, how do you build a story?

It could be in any format, in any narrative format. I mean, if you have unlimited resources, then potentially your palate is the silver screen in Hollywood and you write a hour-and-a-half story, and you spend $25 million writing that story, spend another $45 million promoting that story. Or, should you be on the other end of the spectrum in terms of budget, your story needs to just be real, authentic to you. What are you doing every day? I mean, look at Khaled’s (DJ Khaled) trajectory in terms of him just saying, “Hey, this is what I eat for breakfast. This is my workout. This is my garden, this is…” As long as it’s engaging, at the end of the day, it’s entertainment. It’s a distraction from whatever work people have to do. They’re not getting paid to watch your content, so that means it’s not a job. That means that it’s extra-curricular. It’s finding the story that cuts through, finding the story that is, as I said, authentic, so that when people discover what you’re creating, then there is a pathway forward to feeling as though there’s going to be a continuation of the narrative. And that narrative could be more documentary style or it could be more scripted. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. It really doesn’t matter.

Got it. Now, you wear a lot of hats – – Artist, producer, director, entrepreneur. What advice do you have when it comes to time management?
Time management is really about being focused. Time management is really about managing priorities over time. Life is extremely short and you will get out of life whatever you prioritize. So, if you want to be a great pianist, then you prioritize practicing piano. You want to be a great basketball player, then you prioritize playing basketball. I mean, the opportunity cost of a priority is that when everything is a priority, nothing’s a priority. So the opportunity cost of a priority is that you will become great at whatever you prioritize and that needs to be a consistent prioritization. You want to be great at networking? Then prioritize it. You really want to be great at building a family rapport? Then that’s what you do. You want to be great in the gym, or you want to be great at flexibility, at running, at a sport? Do you want to be great at day trading? At the end of the day, it’s really about priority management over time management. We can say that we manage time, but time keeps slipping. So it’s about managing the priorities, because the priorities will then dictate how you spend your time.

One question I constantly get from the iAmazeMusic community is, “How do I transition from making music as a part-time gig, to actually making music a full-time career?”

There’s two ways to go about it. You either decide that you want to take a moonshot on some sort of viral runaway content, in which case every piece of content you make is a lottery ticket, meaning every video, every funny video, every dance cover, every song cover, every song…, everything you release is literally a lottery ticket which could be the next viral hit. Or you could take a more methodical, rational and strategic approach, in which you build relationships one-on-one and have an active line of communication with every single person who comes across your art, and you have the ability to reach them directly and earn their support one by one. So, with 66,000 people in my phone, I’m doing a $2 million album cycle with no label…

That’s crazy…

 And that’s because I have a direct one-on-one communication channel with every single one of those 66,000 people. It’s an ecosystem that, prior to building a platform, I didn’t believe was possible. I now clearly see that it’s possible and not only possible, but it’s wildly effective. And it’s wildly effective without any sort of magic pixie dust. So, what it really just comes down to is, you can either make a career with 1000 people that each give you 5 bucks a month, or you can continue to make music for free, put it out, and go the discovery route, which means that you are printing lottery tickets with every piece of content that you create.

Let’s talk SuperPhone. I read a Forbes article on this, saying that you are actually beating Facebook to the scalable, personal messaging table. Thinking of somebody who started out as an artist, producer and you know, now has a tech company that’s beating Facebook at messaging, is actually amazing. You really connect with 66,000 people? How do you manage that?

It’s done through pretty sophisticated logic, which allows me to automate tasks that are able to be automated. So the way my phone works is simple. Anyone who sends me a text or calls me is immediately first checked against my phonebook to see whether or not I recognize that number. When the number is unrecognized, my phone automatically does the work for me to follow up with people and say, “Hey look, I don’t recognize this number. Before I pass you over to Ryan can you please add yourself to his phone?” So, that’s done automatically. So literally I could go on TV tomorrow, give out my phone number, 500,000 people could text me. Every single one of those people is going to get a response that says, “Hey look, I’m not going to talk to someone I don’t know. Now, I appreciate the text, please add yourself to my phone.”

The second piece of it is the ability to segment and prioritize people in my phone. So right now, there are different layers of prioritization. If I want the top 10 contacts in my phone to be the top 10 people in my phone who have the most followers, I can do that. I can also rank my phone in terms of amount spent in my e-commerce store, so I can rank my phone from 1 to 66,000 based on dollars that have been spent. I can also rank my phone based on time spent in my phone. I can rank my phone based on numbers sent back and forth. So, the idea here is actually really simple. Messaging is one of the dominant forms of human communication, and one of the most overlooked in terms of technological advancement. So your iMessage feed right now is completely unstructured, whereas mine is completely structured. So, if I ever wanted to filter from the 66,000 conversations to just displaying the 275 conversations I’m having with investors, this is something that I already can do and it eventually will bring to the masses.

Wow, that is amazing! So you have this great platform with SuperPhone, but it’s one thing to get the data, but what does it take to turn a customer into a fan or even a fan into like, a super fan?

Number one is just an ask. So, if I ask you right now, “Hey, would you like to come to my concert?” Without an invitation, there’s not even an opportunity to support, so the first is the ask. And then the second is the value proposition. So, when I do my concerts on New Year’s Eve, the value proposition is extremely high. Therefore, the ask is extremely high. So tickets to my New Year’s Eve party is $1700. You could do the math, 250 people at $1700, that’s one night’s earnings. And that’s only 250 people, right? So, it’s really just about A, an ask, and B, what the value proposition actually to the person that’s supporting you.

For someone who’s been in the game this long, what actually still inspires you? I’m sure there’s gotta be days where you’re like, “Uhh, do I really want to do this today?” Or you probably may not even feel like that, but what actually still inspires you today?

The inspiration for me comes from solving what I believe is a global general inefficiency challenge with communication. So to really just put it into perspective, the human brain could probably process way more than just whatever conversation we’re having now. It’s actually probably possible that, if I triggered it, you could be thinking about your family. You could be thinking about a previous relationship. You could be thinking about what the room that you’re sitting in looks like. You could be thinking about what you had for dinner yesterday, the last movie you saw. You could be thinking about all of those things simultaneously, while still listening to me and processing what I’m saying to you. And those triggers that I just gave you, all conjured up images at the same time as you listening to me, right?

So, the beauty of this is that, from a communication standpoint, texting in and of itself is just an inefficient medium, but it works well. Obviously for us to be engaged in a conversation which is live and in real-time on the phone, it only works as long as you can actually hear what I’m saying. If you were in an extremely loud environment, it’d be ridiculously challenging to hear what I’m saying, in which case you revert to text because you can read the written word even in a loud environment. So for me, moving from music to solving this challenge around what I believe is grossly inefficient communication on a protocol that’s the dominant form of connectivity in most humans, is a crusade and is the project to which I feel like I’ve devoted a great deal of time. And not only devoted a great deal of time, but derive a great deal of value for myself and also provide a great deal of value to literally every living being walking the earth.

Okay I’m kind of digressing a little bit here, but I know that I read somewhere that you kind of taught yourself to play piano? For someone like me, I mean, I produce music, but I never went to music school or anything like that. I kind of play everything by ear. What advice would you give to artists who don’t really know music theory, but still want to pursue music?

It’s actually really simple. Just do it! (laughs) That’s it. I know so many folks. I mean, I taught myself how to play the keys, I taught myself how to produce and the beauty of all of this is that anything is accessible once you prioritize it. So if you decide that you really want to be proficient at anything, whether it’s music production, live performance…, you just have to prioritize and put in the time.

My last question. You seem to have always been kinda ahead of the trend, but where do you see the music industry going in the future?

The music industry’s already going to streaming, right? There’s a discovery platform and a consumption platform, so that’s where it’s going. It’s inevitable, that transition, and in my future vision for…what I’d like the music business to be, the change that I’d really like to see made is the ownership of data, the ownership of audience data and more than just the ownership of data, but a direct, active conversation between an artist and his/her fanbase and that’s what we are building at SuperPhone. We’re building a platform to support that kind of direct, active conversation at scale with the fanbase and so that has at this point, not existed. And that’s where I’m interested in. That’s what I’m interested in pioneering. And so obviously, that’s worked on my own. We are working with, well, major and independent artists alike that are early in understanding how this could impact their ability to earn, their ability to share, their ability to distribute. And you know, every day a new artist is born and every day there’s an opportunity to educate them on the importance of A, data ownership, and B, the importance and value of active conversations versus passive social followers.

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