In sports, and most recently in the NBA, organizations have used analytics to help them succeed. The mathematical data that teams collect lets them know which players or matchups will give them the best opportunities to win. Ryan Leslie is neither an NBA general manager or even a mathematician, but he's bringing those same ideas to the music industry like nobody really has before. He uses data in a way to best reach his fanbase, and to this point, his success could potentially indicate a major shift in the industry.
Last month, I wrote a story on Leslie and his unique use of social media, where he encourages fans to contact him personally on his phone rather than through Twitter or Facebook. From the outside looking in, the process is worrisome, as the program requests personal information that some might not want to give to a stranger. Soon after the post went live, Leslie contacted me and requested that we do an interview together to further clarify exactly how he uses the program and for what purposes.
Right off the bat, Leslie showed me his cell phone and the program he runs, which currently stores more than 37,000 contacts on his personal device. That number includes every single person who follows him on Twitter and decides to go through the process of texting the number that his account automatically sends out. One thing that quickly became apparent was that Leslie isn't shy when it comes to talking about his ventures. He described the service as if I were a potential investor for his company rather than a journalist looking for a hole in his plan.
"So it’s really as real as it could possibly can get," Leslie said. "But I can’t actually physically give my phone to everybody so that they can add their details to it, so I created a technological way so that people can add their info to my phone if they want to be in it." After going through it a little bit, the basic gist of Leslie's plan is to replace all of the middle men in the music industry and do it all with his own team. "So the 16,000 people who got my last record and gave me half a million dollars in direct revenue, no iTunes, no Amazon, no nothing, I know every single one of these 16,000 people," Leslie said.
This is ambitious to say the least, but it is not all that surprising for someone who attended Harvard. Leslie, who is an independent artist, wants to interact directly with his consumers rather than with labels. His program, titled SuperPhone, allows him to do that in a way where he knows which people have spent the most amount of money with him. He's able to filter his 37,000 contacts based on which people have spent the most amount of money with him.
For an artist, this is an extremely beneficial tool where they can directly communicate with the fans who support them the most. Imagine the likes of a Drake or Kanye West having this type of system or access. It would be absolutely insane. For Ryan Leslie though, it's a viable way that he can compete in the cutthroat music industry. "I’m currently managing 31,358 conversations from this guy to this guy. This girl right here spent over a $100 with me, this guy spent under a $100 with me, I know this guy spent under $100 with me," Leslie explained.
Again, like any artist, the end game for Leslie here is to get his music to his fans in the most direct way possible. He also wants to make money because at the end of the day, it's a business and he's selling a product. While one of the main questions of Leslie's methods is his gathering and use of people's personal information, he doesn't really see an issue. "Yeah I would say that if we were getting a bunch of fall off, but I’ll tell you like this: 40,000 people have texted my number, 37,594 of those people actually filled out that form," Leslie said. He added that they would consider adding more of an explanation behind collecting personal data if it's seen as too intrusive.
He also compared the gathering of personal data to what the likes of Facebook and Twitter do on a much larger scale. "Apple is selling them iPhones off of my music. So that’s why I was like, man, this is terrible for artists in general. So I built a platform so that I can actually give that level of relationship, give that level of access to artists with their supporters," he said. This platform isn't just used by Leslie, but it was also behind Nipsey Hussle's Mailbox Money campaign, where he sold 60 copies of a project for $1,000 each.
So, while the SuperPhone program is what brought me in contact with Ryan Leslie, I also learned about his method of putting out his music. Leslie has basically set up a membership program for his fans where they can receive perks that go way past his music. Depending on which level they're signed up for, a person can go from getting sent a new Ryan Leslie song to their phone every month, to jumping on a private jet with him. Of course, the jet-level status of Leslie's "MZRT.Life" program is $1,000 in itself, but if at least one person is willing to pay, who are we to tell him not to do it?
There are also more manageable levels to the program, where someone could pay say $25 for a new song a month, but they also have more access to Leslie than a normal fan would. Again, imagine Drake or Kanye doing this kind of thing. Would you pay $1 for a new Drake song every month?
While it remains to be seen if this independent platform will truly take off in the industry, it's almost impossible to ignore what Leslie is doing. The full impact of his reach probably won't be seen for quite awhile, but in the meantime, it's worth noting that Leslie is opening a door to potentially change the independent game.
Leslie himself left labels behind a few years ago and since removed all of the music he owns off of iTunes because he wasn't getting back the returns that he expected. His remaining albums on iTunes are currently owned by Universal Records, but he doesn't expect to see a check from them anytime soon. "Those records are still making money for Universal, and I’ll probably guarantee you they’re not recouped, so that’s why on 180,000 records, they still not recouped ’cause I definitely haven’t been seeing no royalty checks from those."
But what Leslie is getting from his fans instead, thanks to his own methods, might be more valuable in the long run anyway.
"You got all my information?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said, "I do.