In 2017, Jon Tanners, a music manager and former music journalist who held various A&R and marketing jobs at record labels, had been venting to his friend and mentor Daouda Leonard about the challenges he was facing getting some of his clients paid. “I didn’t know why there wasn’t a dashboard for managers,” he says. “Managers didn’t have any tools.” Leonard, who had transitioned from building websites and computers for financial firms into music management, had showed Tanners “a bunch of Google spreadsheets, some flow charts and some esoteric writing about metadata,” Tanners says. An idea was born.
Soon after, the two launched CreateSafe, a music-tech company bridging the creative and business sides of the industry that, among other things, develops products that help artists and music biz pros navigate their byzantine world.
Its most popular offering has been the Record Deal Simulator, a deceptively simple free online interface that allows anyone to input a few basic data points such as advances, marketing costs and recording costs and see exactly what the royalties will be for the artist and the label. In an industry where confusing, complex contracts are the norm, the simulator, and an accompanying one the company created for publishing deals, democratizes and simplifies the process of financial transparency and literacy for artists at all levels.
“The revelation we had was people were looking for some combination of knowledge and an ability to get something done,” says Leonard, who also manages Grimes and BloodPop. “People are consistently asking, ‘How to negotiate a record deal’ [or] ‘How does publishing work?'”
“For years and years, the complexity of legal language and length and density of these contracts has been a huge tool in the continued obfuscation of the path to profitability for artists,” adds Tanners. “You can understand intellectually what a record deal means. But until you actually see someone modeling the numbers for you, it’s not visceral … How do artists visualize their worth in various scenarios?”
The product garnered widespread acclaim both inside the industry and out, even leading one British MP to use it as a guide to question major labels during an investigation. “So many of the struggles of an emerging artist relate to financial literacy, and there are often a lot of well-meaning folks getting in the way of that,” says British singer Adam Bainbridge, who performs as Kindness. “Being able to see in very straightforward terms how a prospective deal translates into profit or loss was really a game-changer. It puts a little power back in the artist’s corner.”
“It shines a searchlight into the void of financial transparency and accountability that labels have been quietly reaping the benefits of for … years,” British electronic producer Orlando Higginbottom, who performs under the name Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, adds of the program. “Musicians have been batted around between platforms and formats, algorithms and metrics so much over the past 10 years. It’s been immeasurably disorientating. Anything that empowers the creative to confidently walk their own path gets my vote.”
The company’s range of services and products – from management to marketing to A&R to financial accounting – takes a data-heavy, transparency-focused approach whose overarching ethos is, as Tanners notes, “products that enable people to have a clear and malleable view of their business from creation to exploitation.”
The duo know that changing the music industry’s historically imbalanced deals for artists is a lofty goal, but one slightly ameliorated with each fair deal. “We’re all opting into things all the time without knowing what we’re opting into,” says Tanners. “A lot of people sign contracts and don’t understand the fundamentals or language. It’s intentionally dense. Consent around agreements is a hugely important matter because it means that artists understand what it is they’re signing.”
In contrast to fresh-out-of-college tech wunderkinds, Leonard and Tanners’ music industry experience working with artists guides every decision. The quasi-Marxist streak that runs through the company — “Marx hangs over everything,” Tanners says, pointing to far left scholars David Graeber and Shoshana Zuboff as inspirations — that aims to empower fledgling artists navigate a notoriously arcane, labyrinthine system. “Maintaining that value from the moment of creation to the moment the money hits your bank account is very challenging,” Leonard says. “People still need to skill up and educate themselves on how to best transact in this new economy that now exists. And we want to be at the forefront of that.”
“We took the stance in the beginning that we wouldn’t want to build anything that wasn’t useful to us in our daily lives,” Tanners adds. “The approach to the problems of the music business has always been trying to close Pandora’s box when it comes to collecting royalties.”
The company plans to launch Wallet, an app that allows users to organize every revenue stream and manage payments with collaborators, later this year. For Leonard and Tanners, it’s a natural outgrowth of a company that helps artists help themselves.
“It’s the desire to provide tools and foundations for opportunity that were gated for so long,” Tanners says. “We want to give the opportunities to learn and to build to that next generation of artists who don’t have any idea what they’re getting into.”