Fair Pay for Every Play, Ep 19: Opening Your Mind Can Open Your Opportunities with Eli Ball

Eli Ball founded Lyric Financial with the mission of helping the creator community finance more projects and enable them to make a living from their art. Once the company was acquired by Utopia, this mission was elevated and became focused on empowering the entire Music Industry to achieve its potential by understanding, managing, and maintaining incomes from music royalties. ⁣ ⁣ In the new episode of #FairPayForEveryPlay Lyric Financial founder, Eli Ball reflects on his brilliant career in music, the state of the Music Industry, and its future.⁣

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Eli: Oh, my goodness, it’s pretty eclectic. You've heard the term ear-worm?

Kristian: Yeah, I have.

Eli: Okay. I've had the song Wichita Lineman going through my head, ‘cos I love the melody, for the last three weeks and I sing everywhere in the house, and it’s driving my wife nuts!

Kristian: Let me say that I have to avoid that song at all costs!

Kristian: Welcome to Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia, a podcast about music technology for music industry professionals. My name is Kristian Luoma and on this episode, I'm joined by the founder of Lyric Financial, Eli Ball. Lyric Financial are known as one of the music industry’s leading financial companies, and have recently partnered with Utopia Music to help us along our journey in achieving fair royalties for artists and rights holders.

In this episode, I was keen to ask Eli about how he started Lyric Financial, his past career as a music producer, and where he thinks the industry needs to go to improve fair pay in the music industry. Who are Lyric Financial and what is the solution for fair royalty payments in the music industry?

Eli, could you give us a short rundown of who you are and what you do?

Eli: I've had a long, fruitful, productive journey! It literally started with managing bands, moved to being a producer - which basically means white boy with an opinion, in my case - Iearned the technical side of it and had a good run. I did A&R for CBS, before it was Sony and started a recording studio in Memphis that was funded by PolyGram. Supposedly for the purpose of finding the next Al Green or Lynyrd Skynyrd, since we were in the South!

It ended up being that I gave them Al Capone, Skinny Pimp, Three Six Mafia, and 8Ball & MJG, because that’s what the street was offering. So we got a good run - but the studio itself really was ground zero for the Memphis Rap scene, partially from being in the right place at the right time.

I distinctly remember people saying, well, how did you get into Rap? Like, I've always been known as a Rock guy. And I said, well, my tastes are pretty eclectic. Um, they go from Grandmaster Flash and the early days of Rap, right up through Gospel, and Speed Metal.

So, in this case, I was literally going into what was then called a stereo shop where you’d get subwoofers to put in your car or stereo system and they weren't sophisticated at all. They were just a big wooden box with a speaker and separate amplifier. I wanted one put in my truck and I'm sitting there and this happened to be in the ‘hood in Memphis.

And while I'm standing there waiting and I'm working on my truck, these kids keep going in and out of the shop, not to buy stereo gear, but they're buying these generic white cassettes with handwriting on them. The shop was Mr. Z's. And I went up to Mr Z, who is Iranian, and said, “Mr. Z what's on those tapes that you're selling?” He says, “I have no idea!”

“Well, it seems like you sell a few of them!”

“Yeah. We sell three or 400 a week.”

And I said, “Seriously? Who's the artist?”

He says, “I don't know. They call them mixtapes.”

And I said, “Well, three or 400 a week's pretty impressive!”

He had half a dozen numbers from different DJs, DJ Squeeky, you name it. And that was the start of it. And it was, it was so strong. The underground of it. You would drive to a former supermarket in south Memphis, or a skating rink called Crystal Palace and you had the PA on a Friday or Saturday night and the parking lot would be full.

Everybody would be bumping things out of their car and their trunk and selling things out of the trunk. And I'm like, “Oh hell yes! Any guy worth his salt is going to go. I want in, I want in on this. So that's where it started!

Kristian: You’ve been working with, uh, all kinds of big name artists throughout your career as well. Like Ray Charles, Santana, Herbie Hancock, and so forth. Any interesting stories from those experiences?

Eli: So, my producing career is both in the studio and for live events. I have to say working with Herbie was one of the coolest things. He went out on a tour with Roy Hargrove. It was the Miles Davis Quintet revisited, and it was all a one-time tour.

And I had, along with my wife, created this outdoor event called Live at The Garden, which is still going 22, 23 years later! Anyway, he comes in and he's real chill and I had been a fan of his since I was in college. I saw him play when I was in college, on his own. He's very, very Zen. A very demanding player, but a Zen guy - it's really interesting how he interacts with people. I don't know if you saw the documentary that came out on Miles. That was Miles Davis and Herbie, just a kid in the studio and he's asking Miles, “Well, where are we going with this?” And Miles looks at them, very matter of fact, not yelling or anything, not calling them names. He just says, “Well, if I told you that, it would spoil it!”

Meaning, you’ve got to improvise!

They just knocked it out of the park. Outdoors is a very intimate setting, white table cloths out on the lawn, ironically for Memphis, especially at the time. I got a lot of criticism for booking some Black acts. Isaac Hayes with the Symphony.

We wrote a score for him for Shaft, which had never been done before. Then, when Herbie came in, it was like you’d booked a Jazz act, and, you know, it's just Memphis, right? That audience was 50/50 and it was mesmerizing. They just laid it down. So, Herbie's very smart, intuitive. He probably picked up on that real quickly when he got there to Memphis. And it's just a personal thing for him. I said, “Would you like to go and meditate?” And he goes, “Yeah, I would love that!” And so before the performance, I got Wayne Vick, our sound man, to take him over to a temple, or a place to meditate.

And he just came back and was just like, “Let's do it.” And they rocked that…

Kristian: House! Do you still have time to produce artists?

Eli: Uh, no. I purposely walked away from it. Producing records for me was the love of my life. You know, it's just, I never got more satisfaction than creating those events or creating new things in the studio.

It's almost like being addicted to gambling. You know, there's no clocks or windows in the studios and they pump us oxygen! I mean, the casinos pump  us oxygen! And so you stay alert, so you can keep gambling, but there's no greater satisfaction or thrill. Yeah. Being in a room with somebody creating something with that energy is just crazy.

So seductive.

Kristian: I can totally understand that. Through those years you conceived the idea for founding Lyric Financial, though. Could you speak a bit on that? What was that made you start Lyric?. And how did you get onto that route of building one of the leading financial service companies in music?

Eli: Is it The Godfather where he says, “You think you're getting away and it pulls you back in”? I literally had separated. I'd had a really good run. I had two boys that needed a father, not somebody running around the country, blowing up speakers. So when, when the oldest one was 13, I decided it was time to come home.

I had been living in LA, working there, so I thought, I gotta do something different. You know, I'm not a young guy anymore. I'm in my mid forties. I was fortunate. To have had that long a run, you know, almost 15, 20 years and been able to make a living in the music business. Which was pretty difficult back then.

So, I came home and I literally gave away my gear. It was a way to kind of separate myself. So, I mean, a ‘57 Telecaster, you name it! They went to friends, but friends that I knew that would use them well and I just made a decision to do something different. I literally went back to school at the age of 48 and ended up with a finance degree, mainly because I was too old to be an attorney!

When I came out, I went to work for a bond firm and I was studying to be a chartered financial planner. And to make a long story short, the more that I got into structured finance and saw the tools that were being used, my first language was the music industry. You know, just in a sense that when, as a producer, you hear a song, your mind just kind of starts playing the arrangement in your head. Exactly how you hear it.

The same thing started happening. I read a book called The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman and he was pointing out - and this was very prescient at the time - that the world was shifting from bricks and mortar to connectivity and digital data. Intellectual property was going to be the new foundation.

Once I read that it was like listening to Hendrix on your headphones and being stoned for the first time! Your mind just started expanding immediately, riffing off of it. I hadn't even finished the book and I just got. I got it. Yep. This is what we need.

If you take, let's say five different producers, the same artist, the same song, it'll come out sounding five different ways, right? The point is how they use the combination, how they create their uniqueness. In the same way that a player has drawn influences from all kinds of players and melded into his style.

In my case, I looked at banking or finance as literally being an artist in the studio with an artist playing me a demo for the first time. My approach is literally the same. I would bite my tongue, but I would not come in, even if he asked me, “Well, what do you think? Tell me what you see.”

And from a banking standpoint, it was okay, I've got all these tools to manage risk. Now let's find out what they're trying to solve. So rather than trying to prescribe something for the artist, I would get them to literally tell me what they're trying to solve. What's their challenge?

And while I saw it being automated from the beginning, um, actually the first product I worked on was called a Royalty Equity line of credit, which seems passé now, but in 2006, never heard of it before! Basically, what I wanted was to be able to provide financing to them based on their catalog. I wasn't a technologist.

I mean, technology in 2006! Spotify didn't exist. YouTube was new. That forced me to look at the ecosystem and say, “Go back and revisit that whole automated idea.” And now their API is becoming more and more prominent, because of that. It was that way that Lyric was created, to develop innovative new products.

I didn't see it as a retail mechanism. I saw more that there needed to be products where the risk was managed appropriately. So you can charge a fair price. That's what we ended up with. And then the team came out of that.

Kristian: Now we are part of the same family and Lyric Financial has joined Utopia Music. How do you see that? Like, what's the opportunity for you within the partnership?

Eli: I was interested in changing my role from being a manager or administrator or CEO to going back to being creative. Because that's where I get my satisfaction from - when I can solve a problem for an artist or for a client that nobody else can solve.

That's me going into the studio and doing the same thing with an artist’s song. I would've never in a million years have thought that anything could come close to the tracking session where you knew you had nailed it. But in fact, that's the case when I can put something together that everybody else has just said is hopeless!

That's really cool. So with Utopia, it's a big mission and that resonated with me. It's been tried at least half dozen times that I know of from people I really respect in the industry. Putting together a global database, which starts with consumption tracking.

I don't want to say this, but I was never about money. I didn't give a shit. Right! You didn't work with an artist because it was paid. I was lucky. I had the luxury of always being able to create things or work with people that I wanted to work with. And didn't have to be a mercenary about it.

A lot of people do. And in this case, it was that Utopia, if I would have drawn it on a piece of paper, I would have done exactly the same thing. I didn't come up with the idea, but the whole idea of tracking the consumption and then working with the industry to create a global database? That's game changing.

And so that combined with the personalities of the people that were really passionate, same way I was and still am about it? Creators getting treated fairly and like human beings instead of some weird, “Go get a job day job!” kind of thing? That really resonated with me.

Kristian: Absolutely! Eli, in closing, how do you see the future of the Music Industry from your perspective? You've obviously been at the heart of the industry for years and years. Are you optimistic?

Eli: About the future? There are two things that I think… No, there's one thing fundamentally that gives me hope that there can actually be a true middle class where you can make a living as a musician or creator in the music industry.

That is - there are no barriers to entry anymore for creatives. Not from the creation standpoint of how you record the music, or create it. No limitations in terms of no gatekeepers in terms of getting your music up on the internet. You know, it’s overwhelming, the amount of choices that you have, how you can promote it on your own.

And so you see platforms like SoundCloud that allowed a whole genre of music, genres of music, actually, to multiply and to gain audiences. Just by pushing a button, you know, that in and of itself shifted the paradigm. So, the real question is can companies, I said this the other day, when somebody asks me about Utopia, I don't know if they'll succeed or not.

This is a huge mission, but what I do know is that, like Elon Musk, Utopia has the brainpower. They have the passion and they have the access to capital and they have the focus to take a good run at it. I saw, for instance, Musk started deciding that he was going to write his own software internally. He was going to source his own components internally.

And this was in 2012, 2014 and then, when the pandemic hit and all of these guys, you know, the big companies, are scrambling, because they couldn't get a key computer chip because they had outsourced it to a third party? It takes guys like Elon Musk or like Mattias and Thomas and you to come in from the outside and basically say, “We can do this better.”

But it's not a short thing! It's an intense amount of risk-taking and you know, I'm just grateful to be part of that journey.

Kristian: I'm excited to call myself a colleague. Eli. It's been an absolute pleasure to get to know you. You had the war stories and I'm sure there will be a lot more to come.

Eli: Thank you so much for the interview!

Kristian: Thank you for listening to this episode of Fair Pay For Every Play by Utopia. Utopia Music is dedicated to giving fair pay for every play - we provide the solutions to make royalty payments transparent, efficient, and fair. The artists who hold the rights for the music featured on this podcast have been correctly paid for their contribution. As always, please remember to subscribe on Apple Music, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. To find out more about what we do and the mission we're on, please go to utopia music.com.