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“Right now, I feel overwhelmed,” Joe Kay tells me over the phone, the anxiety in his voice striking a contrast with the soothing tones that fans of his radio show know and love. “I’m stressed the fuck out, if we’re keeping it 100. But to be stressed about something that I love and to be lucky enough to have multiple things happening simultaneously is a blessing.”

The SoCal native has a lot to be stressed about: Joe Kay is the founder of Soulection Radio, which started as a compilation-style show as an ode to a traditional mixtape. The show celebrates two milestones this year. January marked Soulection’s tenth anniversary, and Beats 1 will be airing a live nine hour event for its 500th episode this weekend. There is a fine line between Joe Kay’s life and his title as a founder. Not only is he tasked with hosting the show this weekend, but he’s also in the thick of launching two merch lines, one for his personal brand Timeless Classics and another for Soulection’s capsule collection for its 500th episode. The pressure for things to go off seamlessly, in addition to maintaining a personal life and fatherhood, is enough to worry anyone.

Technological developments over the last 10 years have changed how we consume new music, but Soulection’s core mission has remained largely constant since the days when Joe Kay was still dreaming it up in his family’s garage. It’s still a platform championing new voices, as was at the start with its early endorsements of artists like Brent Faiyaz, Bryson Tiller, GoldLink, and Anderson .Paak. With the relaunch of Soulection Records, an independent label Kay hoped would help level the playing field for artists, the brand is continuing its legacy in intentional music discovery. He’s no longer the wide-eyed college student embarking on a passion project. Soulection is now a lifestyle brand that transformed Joe Kay from a radio host into a businessman.

There isn’t much about Soulection that has been by happenstance. It’s a result of calculated moves that set the brand up as a breeding place for emerging talent. In 2011, Joe Kay transferred to California State and took a meeting with the program director and general manager of KBeach Radio, the college’s radio station, during his orientation. The two believed in him so much that they put him on air the same day. Two weeks later, he recorded Soulection’s first episode, a concept he thought of with two friends, Andre Power and Guillaume Bonte (Bonte has since departed from the company), who helped with the art direction. “What’s up world?” he asks in the inaugural episode. “Today is the first official show of Soulection Radio. Happy to be bringing you the futuristic beats, eclectic sounds, and soulful music—quality music.”

Instagram was relatively new, so he promoted the show on a custom splash page and released the music via zip file. Taken together, the 500 episodes of Soulection Radio function as a musical archive, with Joe Kay operating as a genreless A&R of emerging talent in hip-hop, R&B, house, and jazz. After producer Ta-ku approached the show about doing a release to raise money for people affected by the 2011 tsunami, it set the tone for Soulection to be much more than a radio show.

Once it became clear that Soulection Radio could also function as an independent label, Joe Kay knew the show shouldn’t just be an echo chamber of their artists but a melting pot of singers, producers, and DJs from anywhere in the world. It was curation and tastemaking on a broader scale—emerging at a time before people professed themselves to be “vibe curators.”

What began as a grassroots movement on a college campus quickly grew legs. Eventually, Joe Kay put the show on SoundCloud—and when the platform gave users the ability to repost uploads, Soulection expanded. The show was picked up by London’s Rinse FM, which helped with international eyes but lacked funding. Eventually, Red Bull Music Academy granted him unlimited access to a studio. With each move, the quality of the show and the output of its associated label increased.

By 2013, Soulection had released nearly 30 albums with producers like Ta-ku, Atu, Esta, and Sango. Other successful releases featured collaborations like “Middle of Things, Beautiful Wife” with Sango and Xavier Omär (formerly SPZRKT) and later Monte Booker and Smino’s “Kolors,” were testaments to the brand’s ear for talent. It wasn’t long before the years of self-funding and self-promotion paid off, and his homegrown radio show had landed in the smartphones of millions: In 2015, he secured a partnership with Beats 1 and Apple Music. With that major co-sign behind him, Soulection Radio was becoming synonymous with music discovery. But Joe Kay had already landed on a formula for making the brand ubiquitous.

“If you don’t listen to the record we just put out, we’re going to hit you with the radio show,” he says. “If you don’t listen to the radio show, you might see our messaging on the merch.” So when Soulection says it’s a lifestyle brand, it actually is one. And in an era where a brand is only as good as a shareable phrase, Joe Kay isn’t afraid to let go of what doesn’t work. “There were times where we’ve outgrown messages, or certain things got played out,” he says, recalling a time where his catchphrase was “Do what you love,” which ended up feeling too ubiquitous as seen in other startups. “We aren’t afraid to put slogans to rest, because it does get saturated and can feel redundant. In Soulection’s case, less is more.”

Part of the beauty of Soulection is the show’s long track record of catching artists on the cusp of their break. But if you spend enough time with the show, you begin to also fall in love with the ethos behind it: Not just listening to to new artists, but really listening. So for someone like the Seattle-born Sango, whose adventurous funk productions have transported us to Brazil and back, it’s no surprise that his collaborative merch with Soulection Supply, “Be Patient, Grow Daily,” immortalizes his personal mantra to embrace change. This is just one example of how the brand turns the music into an experience beyond a song.

It can be tough to pinpoint what has contributed to the brand’s longevity and respect among artists and fans, but singer Xavier Omär has his ideas. “[Soulection is an] authentic music lovers’ community beyond the radio or Billboard Hot 100,” says Omär. When I ask what he thinks keeps fans engaged, he reiterates what Joe Kay told me weeks prior: “How music can influence someone’s entire lifestyle and be more than just a song.”

He said he met Joe Kay after the host reposted his collaboration with Sango to Soulection’s SoundCloud. Still, the if you feel singer says it wasn’t until he performed at his first Soulection show that he understood the true value of the community. “It’s the first time I felt like I had family in music.”

That tight-knit community congregates a little differently now than it did pre-pandemic—especially now that events like the Soulection Experience, a series of tours and festivals, have been put on hold. Instead, fans have willingly pivoted to Soulection’s roots on the internet.

“Creating the Discord last year is probably one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Joe Kay tells me.  The channel has over 7,000 members, most of whom found out about it through word of mouth. There, they share new music, great outfits, and even pet photos.  “Our community is the music lover, but also an army swiss knife,” Joe Kay says. “Those are the core audience and sample crew that we’re getting feedback from. It’s people who care, who every time we announce merch we’re talking to them and getting real feedback.”

On the day that I joined, there is much buzz about the show’s upcoming 500th episode. It’s not only a celebration for Joe Kay and his team; it’s a moment that fans are proud of, too.

Like other DJs and artists, they also learned to livestream. “We always wanted to livestream and learn how to do that without depending on Boiler Room or other platforms and investing in our own space and our equipment allowed us to have the capabilities to do our own streams at any point.”

There are other ways the pandemic has forced Soulection to pivot. “Touring is gone, so how do we keep the lights on?” Joe Kay says, recalling the moment he realized he needed to adapt his business model to the new socially distant time. “How do we as an indie label and platform make up for that funding?” The answer, he learned, was by focusing on its roots: incubating talent through releases.

These days, the label is focused on a new crop of talent, including producers Ari PenSmith and Jonah Christian, and nostalgic offerings of R&B from Rose Gold and Phabo. For Phabo—whose new single “Slippery” is a sultry teaser to a highly-anticipated EP—Soulection has always felt like the rare outlet that speaks to his myriad interests. “Soulection found a way to merge streetwear, hip-hop, and R&B nostalgia seamlessly,” he says. “It’s always been a comfy fit for me.” Four years ago, he still found himself in the brand’s orbit, even if he wasn’t sure how he’d be a part of the equation. “I remember being at their six-year anniversary show and seeing so many dope artists like VanJess and Brent [Faiyaz] backstage and having imposter syndrome because I felt I hadn’t dropped any body of work that would warrant me the opportunity to be in that arena. Looking back now, I see it was all aligned.”

Joe Kay has built his brand on being The Sound of Tomorrow, and after a decade of music discovery, the music he championed early on—like that of Omär, Smino, and ESTA—has become the sound of today. “Kolors” is now certified Gold by the RIAA and Kaytranada, who was championed by the show early on, is now a Grammy-winning artist. But when it comes to the next ten years, does the original Sound of Tomorrow, as Joe Kay envisioned it— “futuristic beats, eclectic sounds, and soulful music”—still hold staying power?

“The Sound of Tomorrow is always going to be relevant with us,” he says. “It’s something that’s in Soulection’s DNA.” Despite their traditional producer-first motto, Joe Kay realizes that sometimes it takes the right voice to captivate an audience. “Lyrics are what people connect with,” he says.

One of Joe Kay’s gifts is his ability to forecast the voices of a generation. “When I meet somebody, and I see potential in them, I’ve always had this thing for seeing the light in someone before they even see it in themselves,” he says. “We really want Soulection to be a one-stop-shop for the artist. Not just something where it’s like, Let me drop this single with Soulection so I can get recognized and then sign a deal with a major label.”

Ten years ago, Joe Kay was 21 with no idea of what he was getting himself into. Now, weeks away from Soulection’s most significant milestone, he can sit back and process the moment with the wisdom of 499 shows behind him. “I would’ve told myself to be extra selective with who you let into the backend of the company,” he starts. “To not expect yourself in others. I would tell myself to put money aside for taxes. I would tell myself to get an attorney and trademark everything. I would tell myself to sign paperwork even if it’s friends, especially if it’s friends—no handshake deals.” Joe Kay has a way of rattling off the things he’s learned since 2011 with ease, but they don’t come off as regrets, just lessons.

So how does Soulection continue to stand out at a time when self-described “curators” (both human and digital) are practically ubiquitous, lifestyle brands are a dime a dozen, and the Internet abounds with music discovery pages of all stripes? People are still certainly flocking to the show for 120 minutes every week. “The reason why [Soulection] is still so in demand is because of the exclusiveness of the show,” he says. “There are a lot of songs heard on there that you can’t get on [digital streaming platforms] or anywhere else. Sometimes they’re not uploaded for weeks, months, or even years. Other times, they never come out. That’s always been my way to keep people locked: They know the only way to hear it is to tune into the show.”

Kristin Corry via (https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5gxy3/ten-years-later-soulection-is-still-the-standard-for-music-discovery)

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