Founder and CEO of SonX, Lee Gray pioneered and birthed his vision in 2021 of a content platform that enables musicians to monetize and grow their existing fanbase via premium content subscriptions. SonX today is not a social network, but a safe space for artists to identify, engage and monetize their most active fans. Gray served as Head of Talent & Creative Strategy at Sony Music Entertainment UK.
An illustrious career, Gray boasts ten years of experience working across creative industries including music, entertainment, and fashion. Previously a broadcast and entertainment talent agent Intertalent Rights Group representing and spearheading the likes of Clara Amfo, Patricia Bright, Montana Brown and Nicola Adams. Gray’s early career saw tenures across Cosmopolitan, InStyle, Harper’s Bazaar and British Vogue, before landing five years in PR & Marketing across some of the most notable and leading fashion brands as well as matchesfashion.com and start-up Skinny Dip London.
Gray sat down with me virtually to talk about SonX, the music industry and becoming a business owner.
Describe SonX in your own words.
SonX creates a new economic model for musicians’ fans through powerful, but easy-to-use, web3 tools. Artists get a sustainable revenue stream from deeper engagement with a smaller number of fans, while fans are rewarded for their attention by tokenizing the fan experience and having a place to display their cultural capital.
How did you come up with the idea and name?
I used to sit in the marketing manager meetings and we’d quickly go through a long list of artists and then it was like, “so next and so next”. It was originally spelled s o n e x and then I didn’t like the way it looked. I felt like we were supposed to be a Gen Z brand so dropped the E. But it was inspired by those meetings, I just felt like we were always in a revolving door of talent and that’s sad.
Why did you make the pivot to tech?
Let me first of all say I never wanted to get into the music industry, it was not something that I wanted to do. I used to be a talent agent, I used to manage Clara Amfo, Patricia Bright, Nicola Adams, and Montana Brown. They were a group of women of colour and I set out to want to manage women of colour. Before I left the agency, one of the last projects I did was Clara’s podcast, The City which was in collaboration with Sony Music.
When the pandemic hit, I started to see artists that were signed to record labels on social media saying they had no money. I was like really confused, I understood that live shows went away and they couldn’t gig, but I’m looking on Spotify, and I’m seeing that they have over 500,000 streams and I thought that 500,000 streams meant something, right? When I looked into it, I realised that an artist only receives 0.004p per stream. If a song is streamed 500,000 times, they only receive £2,000 and most standard record label deals mean that the label receives 85% of that £2,000. Then the 15% that they keep, they have to pay their makeup artist, their band, their manager, etc. So at the end of the day, they might have £5 or £10 left.
I started to notice more artists using platforms like Patreon, Only Fans, and Bandcamp and I felt that there was something that could be created. Something a little bit sexier, that allowed the artists to learn more about who their fans are and to at the end of the day make revenue that they could keep themselves. That’s where the idea of SonX came from.
I can’t code so I started to speak to developers, but after a series of unsuccessful Zoom calls, I reached out to an ex-colleague and explained the concept, he was interested in the idea so joined as my Co-founder and we now have an amazing team of six.
Part of why I wanted to create SonX was because before 2020 you would’ve known me for doing Ask The Aunties, Wolves in The City, BET, etc and all of that stuff was great. However, in May 2020 when George Floyd died it had a real impact on me. People were posting quotes and videos from decades ago, I even posted a quote from James Baldwin and it was as relevant as it was then, as it is now.
I’m somebody that has enough skill and talent to be business-minded but also creative enough to be a presenter. I thought to myself, what can I build on my own? How could I create my table, because there’s always this conversation about making space or having a seat at the table. Sometimes the time is dusty, broken and the space that they’re giving us isn’t big enough. The space is sometimes only for optics, it looks nice in the window but when you look, nothing’s changed. When I’ve gone out to pitch I’ve never pitched to a person of colour or anyone queer [that I’m aware of] so hopefully, if this goes well, someone in the future will be pitching to me.
How have you integrated Blockchain into SonX?
Fans will save the ticket from their favourite concert or buy merch. But then there’s no way to show that cultural capital on the internet. Whenever you show that you’re the number one fan you’re currently on a platform that is pretty loud and you’re just one of many, but there’s no way to showcase yourself as an individual.
So what blockchain allows us to do is if you’re a fan or you buy merch, you are rewarded with a token that shows that you’ve bought that piece of merch, but the artist also has data to find out when you became a fan of their music. So, if your artist blows up in three years, they can go back and look at the fans that have been supporting them since the beginning and want to treat them to a different experience.
Blockchain allows you to prove that you own the token and got an original NFT. It proves that you’re the direct owner and creates value.
Do you think that we’ve lost the interactions between musicians and fans? People have more access via social media.
I do think some of it has been lost, the access is there but not the intimacy. Social media at times doesn’t feel like the safest place, you’re not connecting with anyone.
When I speak to some artists they are trying to create their version of intimacy with their fans, like having a closed friends group on Instagram. This is part of what we’re doing at SonX, we want to create an ecosystem where musicians and fans can interact in a safer space.
How do you see the future of music or the music industry evolving over the next, 5 to 10 years and how do you envision SonX will impact that change?
One of the saddest things that I’ve seen is this devaluing of a body of work when it comes to being a musician I used to sit in a marketing meeting and before we had even heard the track or the EP, we’re already talking about what the Tik Tok campaign is going to be and that works for some artists but it doesn’t work for all of them.
Everything is dictated by Tik Tok, the tracks that do well and also how we find new artists. A&R used to be about going to your local pub, going to a show that someone mentioned to you that they saw in Camden, now it is all algorithmic, signing someone based on what is going viral on Tiktok.
There’s a clip of Beyonce and she’s saying that nobody cares about creating a body of work anymore. They release a single and then move to the next thing. My biggest aspiration is for SonX to have an impact on the album chart. I want artists to be able to make enough revenue every month so that they can focus on creating a body of work, and also build a community for those fans who care about that work. We’ll allow them to, focus on that.
There is so much to focus on when you work at a music label, you’re focused on the results for that week. There’s no opportunity to think long-term about how to move the industry more positively.
It’s Pride Month, how will you be celebrating?
What it means to celebrate pride has changed so much for me in the last couple of years. I want to help create a path for queer people of colour, to make things easier for them to execute the dreams and ideas that they have. I want to continue sharing my experience of getting SonX off the ground, although the product is still baking to a certain degree. I also want to show that we don’t all have to be influencers, we can make an impact in other ways.
SonX will officially launch in Autumn 2022 whilst several artists currently trail and test the platform. Visit: sonx.com