Trailblazers is an MBW interview series that turns the spotlight on music entrepreneurs with the potential to become the global business’s power players of tomorrow. This time, we speak to Daouda Leonard, manager of Grimes and founder of Los Angeles-based AI development studio CreateSafe, which specializes in digital asset management software and protocols for the music industry. Trailblazers is supported by TuneCore.
Voice-mimicking AI tech has caused a big stir in the music business this year due to incidents of superstars’ voices being cloned without their consent – and then going viral.
Amid the furor surrounding one such incident, the ‘Fake Drake’ AI controversy, real-life artist Grimes got the whole music business talking when she launched an AI project called Elf.tech, which permits other artists to make songs using her voice in exchange for a 50% share of the master recording royalties.
Founded in January 2018 by tech entrepreneur, music executive, and Grimes’ manager Daouda Leonard, CreateSafe’s previous products include the ‘Record Deal Simulator’ and Droplink. Leonard has previously worked with artists including DJ Snake, Lady Gaga, Lil Nas X, Take a Daytrip, and Dom McLennon.
Leonard explains that CreateSafe started developing Elf.tech in February 2023 and intended for it to be an application for Grimes to engage with her audience using emrging tech like Augmented Reality, blockchain and AI.
Launched in March at the Ultra Music Festival, Grimes’ fans could use the mobile app to capture the show using spatial visuals that could only be seen using AR. Fans could also buy digital merch in the form of an avatar to unlock access to exclusive content.
“We upgraded Elf.Tech in April with the ability for users to create with GrimesAI and distribute music to DSPs, coinciding with a lot of the controversy around AI voice deep fakes,” explains Leonard.
“We worked to show people that AI could be a value add when you have the guard rails of ethical training, consent, and payment infrastructure to support fair remuneration.”
He adds: “Elf.tech is like a decentralized virtual record label powered by an artist, AI, and smart contracts,” he says. Since April, following a partnership with DIY distributor TuneCore, and NFT platform Zora, Leonard says that Elf.tech has been a “huge” success.
“Through a partnership with Zora, we sold over 78,000 avatars and we now have hundreds of songs being distributed to DSPs every day under the GrimesAI moniker,” Leonard notes. CreateSafe and Grimes are hoping to have 10,000 records released by the end of the year.
Taking us way back to before CreateSafe came to exist, Leonard explains that he “always had a passion for music” while growing up in Brooklyn and was “deeply inspired” by hip hop and the culture surrounding the genre.
“Hip hop shaped how I lived, dressed, talked and thought,” remembers Leonard. “When I went to college in Boston, I would travel back to New York to buy CDs before they were released, and bring them back to school.”
He adds that hip hop and music taught him how to “maximize the power of cultural currency early”. He explains: “Being the source of music allowed me to make new connections and forge lifelong bonds through moments of shared passions.”
His sophomore college year coincided with the rise of Napster and other online services, and armed with a “powerful” computer and high-speed internet, Leonard started exploring early online culture and digital music scenes emerging from the nascent layers of the world wide web.
“That curiosity made me interested in learning how to build web experiences and combine my love of music with these internet communities that were still taking shape,” he recalls.
In 1999, Leonard started a career as a web developer and quickly merged his love for music with his development skills. “I started building websites for artists, opening a door to the entertainment industry. The first artist in music I worked with was Clinton Sparks.”
Working with Clinton Sparks, Leonard handled everything from graphic design and web development to producing songs and mixtapes. “Together we built a production and publishing company, signing DJ Snake as our first act.”
Then, as Leonard explains in our wide-ranging interview below, his big break arrived in 2011 when Lady Gaga released Born This Way…
What were some of your biggest highlights/ pivotal moments along the way in your career?
Most of my biggest highlights and pivotal moments in my career have come from helping make records with friends and clients. My big break came in 2011. Lady Gaga released Born This Way, featuring production and songwriting from five of the producers I managed or published across nine songs, including the lead single Born This Way.
After that hit, I negotiated a life-changing admin deal for DJ White Shadow with UMPG, and we received a Grammy nomination. These accolades blossomed from a summer spent every day working on ideas for a new sound for Lady Gaga. At times, we were so unsure any of that music would make it on the album. Once the album came out and really worked, it was one of the first moments I thought, “Ok, I don’t have to give up on working in the music industry.” It’s so cool to see Bloody Mary have a lasting impact and go viral this year. My college friend Kamau does the backing vocals saying “GAA GAA” throughout the track and on the bridge.
After Born This Way, things began to take off. I focused on DJ Snake’s career, which exploded off a string of hits: Turn Down For What, You Know You Like It, Lean On, Middle, and Let Me Love You. Lean On, specifically, was one of the first billion stream songs on Spotify. During that time, I was his co-manager, publisher, and the executive producer of his first album, Encore. That experience taught me about what it takes to make a globally successful superstar artist signed to a major record label. It was all about team building and collaboration. Working with multiple managers, publishers, producers, songwriters alongside local, regional, and international record label execs showed me that one of the core technologies of the music industry is relationship management. If you can master it, you’ll almost always win the game.
“My working relationship with BloodPop led to managing Grimes, which has been one of the most creatively rewarding experiences in my career.”
Another stand-out moment was managing BloodPop to help him achieve his goal of producing and writing for some of the biggest pop stars, most notably Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga. I started building CreateSafe after he’d produced Sorry and four other records on Justin’s Purpose. Some of the first financial and project management tools we built enabled us to make records like Friends by Justin Beiber a reality. Early prototypes gave us the ability to make the executive production of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica a smooth process while working with several producers and songwriters over the course of almost two years.
My working relationship with BloodPop led to managing Grimes, which has been one of the most creatively rewarding experiences in my career. Our partnership is based on collaboration across all aspects of her business.
We share a lot of similar interests in art and technology, but also have key differences that spark healthy discourse that allows us to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible. When we first started working together she told me she didn’t want to do traditional touring or sell fast fashion merchandise. Determining her business model presented a challenge but because we are both producers by nature and pedigree, we rose to this challenge, coming up with ideas around partnerships with gaming companies, touring in virtual spaces, selling digital assets and collaborating with AI, around which we’ve been able to now build a sustainable long term business.
Why did you launch CreateSafe and what was your vision for the company?
In 2015, with the launch of Apple Music and the first crop of billion streaming songs on Spotify, the music industry predominantly became a streaming industry. This ushered in the full data age in music. I recognized that if you didn’t have access and control over that data as a creator, you would ultimately always be at the mercy of someone else’s purse strings. I started looking for other people who shared some of the same philosophies and critical thinking about the challenges we faced and through a mentorship relationship with my co-founder Jon Tanners we began ideating on what we could build to solve our own problems first.
“Our goal was to build a platform that empowers creatives in the music industry to accurately assess the value of their music.”
Our goal was to build a platform that empowers creatives in the music industry to accurately assess the value of their music. We aim to assist artists and their teams in gaining control over their business, to be able to scale management, production, and publishing.
We set out to initially build a metadata management system for music IP. If we could create a system where artists and their teams could control and access the metadata for their music IP, then they could conjure new opportunities and experiences similar to what we’ve done with Grimes and Elf.Tech. She owns all of the user data generated by that application, and because she owns her music metadata she can license it to her community to use in novel ways, like letting her fans use her voice to make music.
Solving problems and doing the work is the real currency. We wanted to own both of those spaces so that artists and their teams could get back to doing what they do best; actually creating music and other futuristic art, with AI, or whatever is coming next.
Can you run us through the services you offer at CreateSafe and tell us about some of your clients?
CreateSafe provides SaaS and premium services for music artists, management companies, and record labels.
We’ve worked with companies like Hallwood Media and Mass Appeal Records, and artists like DJ Snake, BloodPop, Tchami, Grimes, Nas, Take A Daytrip, and Dom McLennon.
Our range of tools comprises a first-of-its-kind music operating system with a mission to help artists and their team take control over their business, data, and marketing: Audio Production, Distribution, Payments, CRM, Fan Engagement, Financial Modeling and Project Management. The technology stack for the modern music company.
You’ve launched the Record Deal Simulator and the Publishing Deal Simulator. Why did you launch these tools and what has the feedback been like from the artist, songwriter and management community?
Record contracts are complicated and often confusing. We wanted to give artists and managers a tool to better understand the economics behind their agreements.
With the Deal Simulators, we set out to build clear calculators that give artists unprecedented insight into record and publishing deals in the digital age. Rather than expecting creators (or anyone without a law degree, for that matter) to wrap their heads around the intentionally dense language in contracts, we built something that would allow people of all experience levels to visualize how recording and publishing economics work. It’s a playing-field leveler in a business that historically disadvantages artists, producers, and songwriters through confusing legal jargon. The Deal Simulators were the first public step towards helping set a better path for the next generations of artists in a historically extractive industry.
The feedback from artists, songwriters, and managers has been largely positive. People still use it often and we continue to get great feedback from folks who discover our work through either of the Deal Simulators. Beyond the novelty of being able to visualize record deal economics for the first time, we’ve also received lots of anecdotal feedback that these tools have been helpful in contract negotiations, on both the artist/management side and label/publisher side of the negotiations.
CreateSafe and Grimes partnered with TuneCore last month. Tell us about your ambitions for the partnership?
Distribution is a part of the technology stack of the modern music company. When we think of the operating system that we are developing we think of it as a new type of API that can connect to other music technology companies like legos, where an artist can choose which piece fits for their needs. TuneCore pioneered digital distribution for the masses, so they were a natural fit to experiment with monetizing ethical and consensual AI, in a time when fraud and piracy has begun to creep back into the music picture. What we’ve done with Elf Tech and our partnership with TuneCore is enable featured artist clearances at scale: giving users the choice to add their preferred distributor and release their song using Grimes voice, while still keeping the payment rails intact for fair remuneration.
The creator of today is mobile-first, platform or medium agnostic and looking for the easiest way to express themselves, build community and earn a living. Believe and TuneCore have a strong independent global infrastructure that can support the next-gen tools for a new music industry.
We are planning to launch new voices through the platform along with several artist development programs that will provide artists with the resources to create, build and fund their music, marketing and community development needs.
The announcement said at the time that Elf.tech is a prototype of CreateSafe’s Triniti platform. Can you tell us more about this platform?
Triniti is the control center for an artist’s creative DNA. We are building a suite of imaginative and administrative tools that allow artists, producers, and songwriters to ideate, collaborate, and share their music with protective innovations that put creators first in the ongoing digital revolution.
Triniti is a toolset that gives you new ways to create and express yourself through music. We call it Artistic Intelligence. You can think of Triniti as a collaborator, here to help you — not replace you — in the creative process.
Artistic Intelligence is a new paradigm in creativity. Moving beyond the Artificial, AI allows creators to train a personal model that represents their core values and aesthetics as an artist. These models can be used to generate infinite permutations of creative output, collaborate, and engage with external actors or other AIs.
We’re currently Alpha-testing the MVP. For now, it’s a playful no-code AI sandbox that lets you easily combine sound libraries, voice transformers, image generators, large language models and all sorts of other fun AI tools in a DAW-like design system to create music IP and marketing assets.
Triniti makes it possible for music communities to play with, shape, and share recordings, transforming passive and flat music distribution into fluid user-generated collaboration–enabling what we call Hive IP. We’re making it possible for anyone, anywhere to turn ideas into songs, earn a living, and be recognized as a creator/curator.
What are your predictions for generative AI’s impact on the music business?
The creator economy is going from a model of being paid for your creations to being paid for creating. The semantic difference between the two may not seem wide enough for people yet, but it is huge. “Paid for your creations” is/can be a one time discrete event, whereas “paid for creating” is a persistent state that also encompasses being paid for your creations. That is a huge leap that requires a new way of creating. The concept of always on, always posting, etc. is crushing artists. The only way for artists to compete will be through collaborating with AI, not being replaced by it.
Generative AI is set to revolutionize the music business, bringing about transformative changes across various facets of the industry. It offers tremendous potential for artists to explore their creativity and receive assistance from technology, while also providing valuable support to teams in their decision-making processes.
“The music industry will inevitably undergo a convergence with AI, with a similar impact to what the internet ushered in with the advent of free downloads.”
The music industry will inevitably undergo a convergence with AI, with a similar impact to what the internet ushered in with the advent of free downloads. As technological advancements continue to progress at a rapid pace, the industry will be compelled to adapt and address the challenges that arise along the way. With the rise of new technologies, unforeseen events will present themselves, urging the industry to learn from these experiences and discover the untapped possibilities that the new tech can offer. The pace of technological innovation demands that the music business keep pace, embrace change, and harness the potential of AI to navigate the evolving landscape successfully.
AI will facilitate new forms of creative partnerships and boundary-pushing music collaborations between artists, new streaming platforms will be created, and there will be a need for updated regulations and rules regarding royalty splits and sampling practices as AI-generated music becomes more prevalent.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur starting out in the music business?
Always be learning. Learn the foundations of the music business. Production, songwriting, A&R admin. The intricate details of how it all works. Creating a song from idea to finished recording on a DSP. There are many paths to how that happens, learn as many of them as you can and you will learn about so many different aspects of the industry.
I’ve had some great mentors in the industry, it’s important to seek them out and even when someone isn’t actively mentoring you, learn from them. Without people like Mr. Morgan, Lylette Pizarro, Rene Mclean, Tim Smith, Jay Brown, Jody Gerson, Josh Abraham, Chace Infinite, and Jon Platt I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I have achieved.
Start building a team and community early on. It’s the only way to survive. You can’t do anything in this industry by yourself. I love my partners!
Do the work. Do things you aren’t good at; you’ll get better, that’s how you master your craft. Embrace your community, and master your rituals. Mine are breathing, meditation and yoga. Through these rituals, I am able to stay grounded and find my purpose by listening to my inner voice, and that’s how I make decisions that bring my purpose to life. And always embrace change.
If there was one thing you could change about the music business, what would it be and why?
The music industry started out as a technology and innovation industry. Humans went from making music with only their body to creating instruments. From playing live to recorded and broadcast music. All of these evolutions involved technological innovations. I would love to change the way the industry approaches technology. It shouldn’t be the afterthought where someone comes from another industry to create the new medium of expression, we should be leading the investment and development of the new platforms, tools and experiences.
Trailblazers is supported by TuneCore. TuneCore provides self-releasing artists with technology and services across distribution, publishing administration, and a range of promotional services. TuneCore is part of Believe.Music Business Worldwide