Another year, another reason to lose yourself in music instead of the news or social media, or the news on social media. Perhaps it was the pervasive effect of the internet on my life, and some profound desire to push away from it when I had the chance, that shaped my preferences this year. This is a list filled with folkiness, jazz and orchestral expanse. Now more than ever, we should hastily embrace the chance to slow down and breathe and think. I did so, or at least tried to, with these records. You should too.
1. War On Drugs — A Deeper Understanding (Atlantic)
Leslie used his SuperPhone service to run an SMS campaign for his new album, connecting directly to his fanbase and making over $2 million in revenue with sales to just 15,000 people.
Ryan Leslie joined us for a talk at NewCo Shift Forum last month, NewCo’s new executive conference covering “Capitalism at a Crossroads.” He discussed his journey from Salvation Army brat (both his parents worked there) through Harvard to a career as a grammy nominated musician and entrepreneur. His new SuperPhone service connects artists directly to their fans, bypassing the limitations (and obstacles) of traditional social media marketing.
My name is Ryan, and unless you’re a fan of mid 2000s hip‑hop or R&B, this might be the first time you’re ever hearing about me. Fans of mid 2000s of hip‑hop and R&B (out there)? OK, some of you guys, all right. Good. I got some friends out there.
Want to get in touch with Grammy-nominated artist and producer Ryan Leslie? He’d prefer that you text him. Leslie gives every fan his phone number (it’s 646 887 6978, by the way) and he now has over 40,000 fans in his address book. For Leslie, this is all part of the plan: every text goes into the platform he built, SuperPhone, and it makes it easy for him to connect directly with his fans and sell albums.
Leslie has produced songs for artists like Madonna, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Kanye West. He’s also an serial entrepreneur and technologist with a BA in Governmment from Harvard — which he entered at age 15, with a perfect 1600 on his SAT.
2016 was a year to forget … but also to remember. We lost at least a dozen of the most important artists we will ever hear. As much as the music business is still adjusting to the new frontier, great music seems to pour out of every corner of the world, no longer hostage to major labels, walled garden distribution, and a handful of gatekeepers. This list, my 20th, is filled with as many truly incredible records as ever. They cross every thematic genre I can think of, and pay tribute to everything that has come before. I don’t buy that the “album” is dead. Great artists still make albums, that is why they are great. Try to listen to them that way, playlists can be great, but they only tell part of the story.
NewCo lost a colleague and a friend last week, and our team is still reeling from the news. Jimmy Guterman was our Executive Editor, but he was also our staff conscience, our questioning cynic, and our artful wit. Every day we’d wake up to his cheery puns and collegial encouragements on Slack — he worked on the East coast, most of us work in California. Jimmy wrote our Daily newsletter, which has grown by the thousands since he took it over. Each morning I’d be greeted by a cheery message from Jimmy: The Daily is in, with a link to the draft. And every day I’d begin to edit it, then find it needing nothing more than a quick check for typos — and even those were rare. Jimmy had found his voice in the Daily, and readers were responding.
But rather than eulogize him here, which others will do far better than we could later this week (he was a fixture amongst not only technology and business journalism, but also music criticism and production), we thought we’d publish some of the thoughts our team posted upon hearing of his passing. We’ll miss you Jimmy. You left too soon, and our world is diminished. We wish peace to your family and your loved ones.
Jack White’s Cass Corridor storefront plugs into a growing maker movement in Detroit.
Jack White’s Third Man Records is a perfect example of a business deeply embedded in its community. Even though the record company’s first retail store opened in Nashville in March 2009, the business began in 2001 in Detroit, where White was born, raised, and formed his most famous band, The White Stripes. Last year Third Man opened a flagship location next to Shinola in Detroit’s Cass Corridor section, site of much rock’n’roll history in the Motor City. It’s quite the multipurpose site: record store, novelties lounge, performance stage, old-fashioned recording booth, and – coming soon – a vinyl pressing plant.
Once upon a time, I’d read the yearly lists of “best albums” from folks like Rick Webb or Marc Ruxin, and immediately head over to the iTunes store for a music-buying binge. Afterwards, I’d listen happily to my new music for days on end, forging new connections between the bands my pals had suggested and my own life experiences. It usually took three to four full album plays to appreciate the new band and set its meanings inside my head, but once there, I could call those bands up in context and apply them to the right mood or circumstance. Over years of this, I built a web of musical taste that’s pretty intricate, if difficult to outwardly describe.
About two years ago, I started paying for Spotify. Because I’d paid for “all you can eat” music, I never had to pay for a particular band’s work. Ever since, my musical experience has become…far less satisfying.