SonX Founder, Lee Gray: How New Content Platform can Change the Music Landscape
21 Jun 2022
In an age where we are glutted with quick fixes of content from our favourite artists, it’s sometimes easy to overlook their journey and the totality in their body of work. There’s no denying there’s an appetite for this. This is shown time and time again through the power of the artist-fan relationship where pockets of community are built; from Nicki Minaj’s “Barbz” to Rihanna’s “Navy”. SonX is taking this to the next level where fans can have a more personalised experience with their favourite artists.
Lee Gray, former Head of Talent and Creative Strategy at Sony Music Entertainment, founded SonX on the idea that artists can build a more personalised experience with their fans so they can truly be immersed in each other’s worlds. Through the use of innovative tech, the intrinsic value of NFT’s (which Gray explains in a way that allows all of us to understand what the hell they are) and exclusive content from top and upcoming musicians alike, SonX is looking to change the musical landscape for the better and empower artists to take the reins and have more control over their own narrative on and off the stage – bringing them closer to their fans while doing so.
We sat down with founder, Lee, for a candid talk about his journey so far, the keys to starting your own business, the current landscape of the music industry and where it’s heading.
You had a pretty good gig with Sony Music Entertainment. What made you decide to take the plunge and start your own business?
The idea for SonX originally came during the pandemic. I saw a lot of signed artists saying they had no money on social media and I couldn’t really understand why as I had never worked in music before Sony, only fashion and entertainment. I knew live performances had gone away but I still couldn’t fully understand how artists with 500,000 streams had no money – streams must mean something. After doing research, I realised that 500,000 streams is only £2,000 and if you are signed to a label, you’re giving 85% of that away, and the 15% that you keep, you’re paying your band, manager, make up artists etc. and then when you look at your hands you’re only looking at £5, so I felt like there could be something that can be created that’s a little bit sexier and artists can get what they deserve. I feel like some of the options that were out there didn’t solve many of the issues that musicians were having and I’m the kind of person that is quite impulsive so I was like “why don’t I just go for it” and that is how I started SonX.
Did you feel there was an injustice, almost?
Yeah, but not even just that. I think what was happening subconsciously was me sitting in meetings and feeling like the artists that really care about a body of work were being overlooked. If you think about that Beyonce meme where she says “nobody cares about a body of work any more”, it’s so true, and being in the industry you can really feel that. People are just putting out single after single and being dictated by things like TikTok. So if you’re an artist that really cares about a body of work, it’s like… where does that sit now? It’s not just about the fact that I thought they should make more money, but I was like if an artist is able to make a sustainable stream of money, then they will have more time to be able to focus on that music and create for the people that really care the most, which will hopefully be the community on SonX.
Allowing the artist to make more authentic bodies of work.
Exactly, because I remember sitting down in meetings and before we even heard the music, we were already talking about the TikTok campaign which I thought was really really strange (laughs).
I’ve seen a lot of videos lately of artists complaining about having to make TikToks. What is your opinion on that?
I totally get it. Because you decide to become an artist because of the music. You don’t decide to become an artist because you want to be an influencer. Don’t get me wrong, TikTok has worked for a lot of artists and thank God because now we have artists like Lil Nas X and Santana that might not have had an opportunity. But that doesn’t work for everyone and I think for some of the artists that we care about the most, we have been fans from childhood and they obviously weren’t on those platforms. Those artists still only have like 5 albums and I think it’s a shame that we don’t give those artists a different way of being able to market themselves without the need of a platform like TikTok.
So you want to celebrate and showcase artists that have a back catalogue as well as current and upcoming artists?
Yeah, and I think SonX will be an opportunity for you to be able to create content that is more authentic to you. There is no denying that content is king. We’ve known that since artists were making music videos. We always knew that content would have to be part of an artist’s music campaign. However, I don’t think they should be dictated to on what their content should look like to this current extent.
Was there a certain turning point when you were working at Sony Music Entertainment that made you realise that, and made you want to do something that was more in favour of an artist’s full body of work?
It was a mix of things. I think I’ve always known that I would want to have a go at having my own business. I’ve always waited for “the big idea” to come to me. I’ve had lots of different things that I thought might be businesses but nothing that I felt as motivated by to jump off a cliff and see how it lands. This felt like “the big idea” for me. Like you just said about artists on social media, there was this underbelly of conversations happening by fans and the artists themselves on how they wanted the industry to change in some way. Also being a music fan myself and having artists that I’ve looked up to, I realised that that sort of connection that we used to have with artists has been teared away a little bit. You can absolutely get to them, but that intimacy between artists and fans has been corrupted a little. If I was gonna go for any idea, I felt like this should be the one.
From a practical perspective, did you need to get to a certain point in terms of developing your idea where you felt you could leave Sony Music Ent. and pursue this full time, or was it a gradual process?
Part of what made me confident about this idea is that I have 10 plus years experience in different industries and I’ve been quite confident in my ability to be able to execute. I always knew my future wasn’t at a major label and my intention was alway to leave at some point, so why not leave for my own idea? And I always knew that if I owned the idea, I’d probably work 3 times harder. Don’t get me wrong, there have absolutely been hurdles in the transition from employee to employer but I’m just one of those people that follows their gut.
Speaking of your idea, tell me about SonX. What exactly is it and how does it differ from other content platforms?
I’d describe SonX as a content and community platform. It’s a tool for artists to create an additional revenue stream by sharing exclusive content whether that be music, behind the scenes footage, live performances or podcasts. Essentially it’s a place where you’re able to create a community amongst your core fanbase and for them to be rewarded for their retention. SonX will also be the place where fans are able to be rewarded with crypto assets & NFT’s which will allow them to purchase tickets to shows, exclusive merch etc.
Tell me more about the Crypto assets and NFT’s. All of that confuses me!
So we’ve split our reward strategy into two different parts; NFT’s and Crypto assets. The NFT’s will equate to rewards such as merch and a Crypto asset will be an actual coin which fans can spend on exclusive tickets and product.
Traditionally, when you see musicians who have worked with NFT’s you typically see headlines about an artist making thousands of pounds on NFTs that they’ve sold. We have a different point of view on NFT’s. Artists will absolutely be able to sell them, however for the most part fans will be rewarded with them. What that allows for fans to do is to be rewarded with an asset that will increase in value over time. But it also allows the artists to learn more overtime who their fans actually are. So if you are an artist who hasn’t necessarily blown into the mainstream yet, you’re rewarding a fan with an NFT because they’ve engaged with a piece of content, bought a piece of merch etc. That is basically a data packet of when that fan joined your fanbase/community and so if you want to reward that fan for their loyalty when you do blow, you can with something like exclusive tickets to a show. That NFT suddenly has a lot of value that they wouldn’t have had without being in that community.
So fans have a lot to gain from this too?
Exactly. We know fans aren’t coming to the platform specifically for NFT’s, because nobody knows what the hell they are. But what we do is reward you with them to peak your interest and celebrate your loyalty. For example, you buy a merch hoodie and you get rewarded an NFT with that hoodie. That NFT is one of 10, and the artist is saying with that NFT you can have a golden ticket that allows you to come to any show . You can also share this NFT with your community to show what a dedicated fan you are and the artist can also show and express appreciation knowing that they’re one of the first 10 people to buy their merch because they have that data, then suddenly that NFT has a lot of value now compared to how you first received it.
How can upcoming artists use NFT’s to their advantage?
From an artist’s perspective, I think there are two ways. You can use NFTs the way we’ve seen a lot by funding your career. A lot of artists are doing this which is exciting. Another way you can use it is to have data about who the people in your fanbase actually are – which artists are currently starving for. Right now there’s only a miniscule amount of data on streaming services or you only have what your labels are willing to share, but you don’t really know who your biggest fans are. SonX gives you access to all of that information which we are more than happy to share.
Sounds like there’s a lot of transparency there!
Yes, that’s a great word for it. I think another key thing is trust. There’s not a lot of trust in the music industry or the web community either and the reason why I think it’s important for us to not only be transparent with who we are, but also educate artists on why they should be working with SonX is because we want them to trust us. Transparency and trust is massively important.
In my experience with artists and industry professionals who work with artists, I’ve noticed how important it is for the artist to know what is going on behind the scenes of their project. Even if it may not be as much of a creative aspect, it’s still key for their career sustainability.
It’s so funny, I remember seeing a clip of Kanye where he said “Artists should have CEO’s and not managers”, and it’s true! Being an artist is a business! I think sometimes management might just assume that because that person is relatively young or not experienced in business they don’t need to tell them the details and they don’t need to know how it works. And we’ve all heard many horror stories as a result.
Why the name SonX?
The inspiration for the name goes back to some of the marketing meetings that I mentioned before. I felt like the phrase “what’s next?” constantly popped up; ‘what’s the next artist?”, “what’s the next song?”, so when I was thinking about what I should name the company, that kept coming up because we’re the antithesis of the revolving door of talent. It was originally spelt S-O-N-E-X, but I thought “wait, we’re a gen-Z company, we should drop the vowel!” (laughs).
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like there’s a bit of irony in that. Because thinking constantly about what is next connotes a sense of immediacy, but I feel like your stance is celebrating a body of work in the long term and celebrating an artist’s journey rather than having an emphasis on that quick turnover.
(Laughs) Yeah, but you could look at it like: streaming services absolutely have an important part in the industry. However, people for some reason look at it as not just being the foundation, but the entire economy for the music industry. I look at it as just the beginning so I think the next thing is looking at how we can create other revenue streams to continue that growth, and I think the next thing is reestablishing the relationship between artists and fans. Comparing it to the fashion industry which I worked in previously; everyone wears clothes, right? The fashion industry is worth £350 billion which makes sense. The music industry; everybody listens to music right? It’s worth £77 billion – I think that’s wild. So I think there is an opportunity there to hopefully put more money back in the hands of artists by using artists and fans, who are the most important part of the industry.
I’m sure you know better than anyone that the music industry changes so rapidly and so often. Do you think it’s going in a positive direction?
That’s a really complicated question. A lot of the industry right now is dictated by TikTok, and that’s been incredible for artists who wouldn’t have been discovered without it. I think that platform has resonated because the industry is so focused on chart positions and week-to-week results, but there isn’t enough focus on the long term impact that some of these platforms have and so with all the positives that come with a platform like TikTok, there’s a lot of negatives, so I do think the immediate wins that it will bring are positive, but in the long term, it will be negative. Even in A&R – It used to be about going to gigs, but now it’s all about algorithmics. In the short term that’s great, but in the long term, what are you missing from not going to gigs and having those in person experiences?
Do you think it will revert back to those in person experiences?
I don’t think it will revert back unless TikTok disappears, which is unlikely. And all industries go through change. I think record labels will have to assess what they contribute to an artists career if the things that they were doing are no longer as relevant as they used to be, and artists will have to think about how much impact does a label still have on my career, there are other ways to become successful. Artists like Chance the Rapper are a prime example of that.
Do any other artists stand out to you in regards to the relationships they have built with their fanbase?
Yeah, I see that with both traditional artists and the current artists that started out as content creators. For the latter, you’re seeing it with Mimi Webb, Lil Nas X, Abbie Roberts, Cat Burns… a lot of these types of artists started out on platforms like TikTok. They understand how to use the tools at their disposal to communicate with their audience and weaponise the internet so that they can engage with their fanbase. Then you have the traditional artists that I think have created amazing fan bases because of the length of time they have had an impact and just how amazing they are with the creation of their music; artists that have more of an extensive catalogue like Nicki Minaj, Coldplay, and Palaye Royale.
What advice would you give to aspiring creatives or people starting up their own business?
Don’t underestimate the power of your network, and don’t underestimate the power of experience. There’s nothing wrong with going out there and getting experience. I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have if I wasn’t able to work in so many different industries and build up what I didn’t consider at first to be a good blackbook of people I can rely on for different things whether it’s advice, joining my advisory board, introducing me to an investor, giving me workspace etc. These are all things that I’ve obviously needed from day 1 with SonX. I also think that people sometimes have this dream of being the next Mark Zuckerburg and creating the next big thing at 19 years old, but don’t discount getting experience first. Businesses already have a high percentage of failure, but having experience brings that percentage down. Don’t discount what experience gives you. I know we all want to be on that “30 under 30” Forbes list, but value getting that experience first.
Good advice! Last question, when can we expect the launch of SonX?
We’re launching November 2022.