How to Make Money in Music Now
According to wunderkind producer and performer Ryan Leslie, it’s as simple as saying “thank you”
Who: Grammy-nominated artist, producer, and techie, Ryan Leslie
What: Old friends discuss how to be a successful independent artist in 2013
Where: The Engine Room, a music studio in downtown Manhattan
When: A break in a recording session for Leslie’s upcoming album, Black Mozart
ME: Let’s jump right in. How do you do business in 2013?
RL: As crazy as it might sound, I run my entire business off of my iPhone, meaning that my audience can reach me directly by e-mail, text, and phone. I believe that that level of direct interaction is far more valuable than interaction on what I consider to be passive social-media channels like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
When did you come to that realization?
Two months ago.
So, up until two months ago, you believed in the power of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to reach your fans?
Up until two months ago, I did not believe in them. I wasn’t getting the results I wanted from any of them. I was looking at my numbers. I had 550,000 Twitter followers and eight retweets. Or if I had something pseudo profound to say, a hundred-plus retweets. And I’m like, “There’s no way that this is engaging. There’s no way that this is effective. There’s no way that this is a good use of my time. It was valuable to Twitter.”
If you were to advise someone about how to get value out of Twitter or how to monetize Twitter for that person and his or her career, would you tell them to stop tweeting?
I would tell her to pursue a deeper connection with her followers by taking advantage of the ability to message them directly. That’s what I would say. And at that point, the conversion rate becomes greater. As opposed to one blanket tweet going out and reaching 1 percent of your base, you have a fifty-fifty chance of actually reaching every single person you directly message. Inside of that direct message, you should have a call to action that says, “Here’s how you can support me” or “here’s how you can engage me.”
To what extent are you using Facebook at this point?
Facebook is extremely restrictive to me. I have 373,000 likes on Facebook. If I want to see who likes my page, I’m only allowed to see the last two hundred people or so. So how do I reach those people? When I post my phone number on Facebook, I get hundreds of responses. I was able to respond to every single person who had the guts or the nerve to send me a text message or call my phone.
Relatively speaking, you’re not deluged with phone calls?
I’m not getting anywhere near 300,000 calls from Facebook or 500,000 calls from Twitter. But different fan bases react differently. There’s a kid I’m working with. His name is Charlie Puth. He has 20,000 Twitter followers, but his audience is skewed younger. When he posted his phone number he got nine hundred text messages. I found another artist, Jeni Suk, on SoundCloud. I had no way of actually getting in touch with her on SoundCloud, so I tweeted and the twittersphere responded. I was able to have the same conversation with her about engagement. It turned out to be very beneficial for her, because the amount of money she had made in three years from trying to monetize her online audience — in 24 hours she reached 50 percent of that same amount using the ideology that I shared with her.
Is your new stuff on iTunes?
Les is More is on iTunes. Black Mozart will not be available for sale on iTunes, but I’m sure that it will make its way into people’s iTunes playlists.
Why wouldn’t you choose to put your next album on iTunes?
I chose to take myself off of iTunes because there was too much anonymity happening in my career. Let’s say 7,000 records were sold digitally in the last three months, and if I want to reach out and just say, “Hey guys, because you bought my album, I’m actually able to tour this year,” I can’t even do that. So my goal around the Black Mozart project is…. First of all, people are going to bootleg this record. The minute it’s digital, it’s free.
Folks that still support it, despite the fact that they can get it for free, those are the people I’m concerned with, those are the people who are enabling and empowering me to continue to create. I think more artists should be thanking the people who support them. They’d probably have longer careers.
Is that a spiritual thought? Or a business thought?
I think if you look at Apple and the idea of, “Hey, let’s make the world better” — Is that spiritual, or is that business? I think the bottom line is that it becomes profitable if you are actually providing value. What’s money, anyway? I would still thank someone who bootlegged my album, loved it, told her friends and converted three people into fans, if I knew who that person was.
So you don’t care about money?
If I cared about money, I wouldn’t write a song like “Swiss Francs.”
To what extent do you think of yourself as a thought leader?
I don’t think we need those titles, and I don’t think I’ve come up with any original thoughts.
One might get the impression that you’re not challenging yourself musically at this point, that you’re just challenging yourself to connect to your fans. How do you respond to that?
I challenge myself musically, but not by anyone else’s metrics but my own. So whatever I’m challenging myself to do artistically, creatively, musically that has to do with what standards I’ve set for myself. A fan could write me and say I get it all the time, actually “Oh, Ryan, you’ve gotten away from why I fell in love with you.” Well, whatever emotional connection you have to an R&B song, like “I Choose You” or “It’s Love That I Feel,” those moments are immortalized on record, so play those records and relive those moments. And,
if you decide that it’s not valuable to you from an entertainment standpoint or inspirational standpoint to come with me on the journey I’m having as an individual, that’s a sacrifice I have to make for the progression artistically that I want to undertake.
When you interact with your fans, you’re not interacting around their opinions of your music?
You’re interacting about…?
Most of my interaction has to do with “No way, this isn’t really you, don’t you have staff doing this?” Once they come to the realization that it actually is me, then comes a level of gratitude. I don’t engage in subjective conversations of “Is this music good or is it not?” If people appreciate it, then great, but the appreciation is implicitly represented in the fact that they spent money on it. For the people who spent money on my music and don’t like it, I’ll give them a refund if they want it, honestly.
Would you ever conceive of doing a classic label deal at this point?
I believe that labels are creatively stifling; they are restrictive; they are exploitative; they are operating in a model that’s antiquated; they are the opposite of nimble and the opposite of agile in terms of being able to respond to what’s happening in the market. I believe that they are controlling…. That’s enough.
What would you say to people who say that you did some of your best music when you were on a label?
I would say that the fact that I was on a label during that time in my life had very, very little to do with the music that I was creating and the music that I was creating had everything to do with what relationship I was in at the time.
Are you in a relationship right now?
With my fans.
So your music right now has everything to do with your relationship with your fans?
No, it does not. My music right now has everything to do with my relationship with me. Back then, I was writing songs.… I mean, the entire Transition album was not written for public consumption. It was all written for one specific person who would come to the studio all the time, and every night, when she would come to the studio, I would want to be able to play her something or through some sort of musical expression convey to her what I was feeling and hopefully transport her or rearrange her reality so that she felt the same way I was feeling. It worked for those fleeting moments when we were both enraptured in the music, so to speak.
When did the shift happen from you making music for the women in your life to you making music for yourself?
I believe that realization really happened when I looked at my sales. Very clearly my sales reflected that whatever music I was creating was not connecting with or not reaching the number of people it would take to have the mainstream success I wanted to have. So, at that point I said, “Why would I invest time, energy, and money chasing that when, just as a human being, I would probably be very unhappy and these were all factors that far exceeded the reach of my control?” I can’t control if a radio DJ wants to spin my record. I can’t control if five hundred people show up at my concert.
I can’t control if people are going to like my songs. I couldn’t control any of those factors, so I focused on the things that I could control, which were: How do I feel when I make this record? Am I actually reaching as far as I want to be reaching artistically?
Am I actually layering this record with all of the instruments and arrangements that I want to have included in this expression? Did I write the best verse?
When was this happening?
All this was happening around Les is More.
When you decided to transition into rap?
I didn’t decide to transition into rap. I just decided I was going to make whatever records I wanted to make. If I wanted to sing on a record, or if I wanted to rap on a record, or however I approached the record, however I felt on the record, I did not want any confines at all to be.… I mean, famous line [his own]: “They try to put me in a box, it’s impossible.” Here I am, actually in the full glory of that statement. This is not a rap album. Come to my show. It is not a rap show. There is not a DJ and a hype man saying every other line in unison with me. There aren’t forty guys onstage. I am playing on the piano. What rapper plays the piano?
What would you call it?
It’s Ryan Leslie.
So it’s in a category totally by itself?
I just call it Ryan Leslie. That’s my expression. If people need to categorize it so they know where to put it in their iTunes playlist, be my guest.
When you say that you’re creating music for yourself and yet you’re more engaged with your fans than you ever have been, is there a conflict there?
I believe that people’s appreciation of music is subjective. When people say, “Ryan, can you listen to this?” And I say to myself, “Okay, if I listen to this, what does it really mean?” And then, “Oh, well, I really respect your opinion.” And I say, “Okay, once I give you my opinion, what does it mean for you actually in continuing along your pathway?” Unless I sign you or take it and promote it to my audience, what does me saying “Yo, I think this is great” even mean beside just a pat on the back? So I believe that
people’s opinions of music are subjective, but the way people actually feel when they receive a thank-you or feel when they feel like they know an artist, that’s not subjective. That’s a real feeling.