Interview with IAN ROGERS, CEO of Topspin direct-to-fan platform for Metric, Interpol, Dandy Warhols - Jul 26, 2010
“Topspin enables [you] to find fans more easily, connect with those fans, super serve them with art, and eventually turn those fans into customers.”
The sheer number of different ways by which artists can market their music using the Internet has opened up a world of possibilities, but their actual effectiveness is hampered by how fragmented and confusing the web is. ‘Direct-to-fan’ platforms like Nimbit, ReverbNation and Topspin attempt to solve this problem by dispensing with third party portals, and by-passing traditional record label promotional and distribution channels, and connecting artists directly with their fans. With direct fan relationships, artists can promote and market their music, sell their various wares directly, and use those connections to expand their fan base.
Is the future of artist revenue direct-to-fan? We speak to the CEO of Topspin Ian Rogers to get the low down on the benefits of this direct-to-fan platform and how it is being used by artists like Interpol, Metric, Dandy Warhols and Pixies to turn their fans into customers ...
Who are Topspin users?
Topspin users are professional marketers, people that work in music or media marketing. It might be a label, a marketing company, the management company, even the artist himself, although in most cases a professional artist has someone to help him or her out, even if it is their cousin or brother.
Topspin enables them to find fans more easily, connect with those fans, super serve them with art, and eventually turn those fans into customers. It's built to ease the work flow in dealing with the people you market to.
Can you explain a bit more about the array of services you offer, firstly what is the content management system?
It is an inventory management that pulls together all of the various inventories you might own, whether that's digital files, vinyl, T-shirts or tickets.
As an artist in this business you have a lot of different assets. It used to be, you sold CDs over here, T-shirts over there and tickets are done by that person, now you have the opportunity to put all those products in the same place. You can take them all direct to your fan base and bundle them together in clever ways.
Just yesterday Metric released their participation in the Twilight soundtrack direct to their fans and if you purchase that you could get one of the older albums for half price. They have had really specific offers to encourage people to buy directly from Metric as a retailer.
How do you take that inventory and offer it to your audience?
The second part of it is about campaign management or offer management. You can plan a giveaway track, release it on vinyl and have it on an album. From giveaway to sale you can do everything in an integrated offer management system, where you can make those campaigns happen really simply and quickly and get all the downstream data off it.
You can give away a track for e-mail address or you let them redeem a track with a code on a vinyl release. You can sell a track digitally or you sell an album bundled with a ticket. All those things are really easy to set up - just a couple of clicks in a few seconds - and you get all the integrated data in one way.
How can you use Topspin to engage with your fans?
You can interact with fans in a number of different ways. Whether they are giving you their e-mail address when they're buying from you, or you are communicating with them via a Twitter or Facebook, you have a unified fan database. You can see all the fan activity whether they purchase or they share it on the social networking site. You see that all in one place.
And then what is the data analytics?
It is giving you the inside of the data that you need to run your business. Here is what I did and here is what it amounted to. So you make smarter marketing decisions based on what worked and what didn't.
Generally speaking it is about tying together everything. In this fragmented world we live in you are not only putting an offer out in one place - it has to go everywhere. It has to go on blogs, Pandora, your website, your MySpace, your Facebook and on and on. Topspin has really powerful tools for that.
For example if you create a 'buy button', you get an HTML code that you can put on your web page. Those offers are also available via an API, so if you're a more advanced engineer you can build it right into your offer, right in your website and build a really custom experience. It's definitely not meant to be a cookie cutter solution kind of thing. It is a very flexible and powerful tool for people that are serious marketers.
How do you help in actually acquiring new fans?
A lot of it is permission marketing one-to-one. If you give us the ability to market to you via e-mail or Facebook then we give you downloads etc.
What we always tell the artist is, start with creating awareness, then move on to build fan connections. Once you have that you can start with monetisation. I think too often people start with monetisation when really they should be growing their fan base first.
Can you give some examples of bands that used your service and how they used it?
If you talk about Metric, they didn't have major-label support. When they came to us they had about 4,000 people on an e-mail list. So the first thing we did was give them some tools so that they could start collecting more e-mail addresses. That's meaningful in a business perspective for them.
Then we gave them a Topspin widget that helped them get the full documentary about the making of their album out there.
What were the tools exactly?
It’s little widget on their website that collects e-mail addresses. We updated it to, “Hey, there is a new Metric track if you want it sign up here.” So we took them from 4,000 human addresses to 135,000. It was embeddable in social networking sites.
If you look at Metric's website today you see that they are still using that exact video player widget. Once that was syndicated out there, they just filled it with a whole bunch of new videos. They continually update that player and every time they do, everywhere the documentary video had already been distributed it would appear again.
They are also using Topspin for the direct-to-fan sales. Like bundling the album in five different price points or, like I mentioned, with their album for half price.
With the band Interpol, for example, 50% of e-mails they collected were not collected on their own website. They were collected via the Topspin widget mainly on websites like Pitchfork, Stereogum etc. It was a really proud moment for us when we saw that fans take the widget and embed it on their websites - on blogs and their MySpace.
The Pixies ran a really interesting campaign, very different from what I just described. They had zero fans on the e-mail list when we started. They acquired hundred percent of the fans through Topspin, using Topspin to market and sell their tickets. They sold 6,000 tickets to two shows only using the Topspin platform. The Topspin ticketing software actually checked everyone in to the event as well. We have a little iPhone application that scans tickets. So everyone that came through the door was scanned with Topspin applications.
When we spoke to the singer-songwriter Josh Rouse recently he was using Topspin for a subscription model where you basically pay a monthly fee and you get a regular stream of exclusive artist material etc …
Anyway the artist can get closer to their fans and offer them more value is sort of the way of the future. Some artists have a rich catalogue of items, not only music - it can be photos, videos or memorabilia. Even the fan club ticketing is a very powerful tool, just giving fans away to get first crack at the best tickets. We also see people using the feature-set using things that aren't really called fan club or subscription.
The Dandy Warhols used our subscription functionality but never used the word subscription or fan club anywhere in their offering. They made it that when you bought their album you would get all the b-sides, live material and all that stuff from the album cycle for free by purchasing it directly from them to higher a price. I think that was really smart because they didn't set themselves up for some long-term commitment. They knew we do have some b-sides, some posters and album material.
There are a lot of artist that run very successful subscription and fan club products. Especially Nashville artists but also artists like Linkin Park or Bon Jovi. They have really great fan club offerings.
What’s the pricing for your services?
We take roughly 15% of the transaction. That's half of what iTunes takes and our revenue per transaction is about 10 times more than theirs. Most importantly, the artist owns the fan connection. You can talk to them whenever you like and you own that relationship.
Is there a monthly fee involved?
Not currently, but there will be when we release more broadly. What we will do is charge a monthly minimum against the rev share. I don't want people to pay more than they are making through Topspin. I would say if you make more than $3,500 this year on direct-to-fan sales, Topspin is the right partner for you.
So how do you find out what sale potential my band has with direct-to-fan?
We are partnering with Next Big Sound and one of the things they have as part of their premier product is a star system. It shows what size band you are. One stars to 10 stars. We want to use that to help bands to understand if we are under or over serving their potential. We could tell you that a three star band should be able to make X dollars a year direct-to-fan.
How do think Topspin compares with Nimbit or ReverbNation?
We're not competing with Nimbit (HQ interview) or ReverbNation in trying to get hundreds of thousands of artists. People are looking for us to make the turn-key, “Hey, this is really easy I just put in my band name and I'm off to the races,” but that's not the software we’re building. Our goal is to serve the professional artist that needs a professional tool. The artists we work with are normally working with someone that is responsible for the marketing.
Think of it as ProTools. ProTools's market is not artists, it’s professional engineers and producers. Are artists using Topspin? Absolutely, but we really offer a professional tool set that professional marketers use to customise and build their business, something that lets them do exactly what they want.
Take Photoshop, if you want a professional graphic job done then you and I are not going to sit in front of Photoshop and hack away with it, you hire a professional graphic designer that uses Photoshop as a tool. We would ‘love’ to help all artists but we have to focus on our core customer, the music marketer.
Are you involved in merchandising?
We definitely sell physical merchandise but we don't do the merchandise production. We have partners to take care of that.
Do you have to pay extra for that service or is that included in the roughly 15% of a sale?
The consumer pays shipping and handling and that covers the cost of it.
How do you think you should work your Twitter, Facebook contacts without coming across as an irritating salesperson?
Do you know who I think is a great example for that? An artist called Chuck Prophet. I think he has the single best style. He’s great on Twitter, his e-mails are fantastic. He does a really good job in just being generally engaging.
He is not selling anything a lot of the time - he writes it like a newsletter, just telling you what he's up to. Some of it is tour dates, but mainly it’s stuff he’s interested in. A very small percentage is, ‘Hey come buy my album!’ It is all participatory. You are equally annoyed by the person who just tweets things that a not commercial but trivial.
It’s about treating fans as human beings who have a limited amount of time and are looking for good value in return for the time that they invest. If you want people to stay tuned you have to provide them value.
If you look at LL Cool J's Twitter stream, it's basically daily information as if it’s pulled out of some book. The average LL Cool J fan doesn't get much out of that. It's almost for people that are interested in self-help books.
Are you offering help in the creative side of the marketing or are you just providing the tools to execute it?
There are three ways about it:
First, you are completely self-served. You just use the software and it is up to you to use the tools in a creative way.
The second way is, you hire someone that is that collaborate creative marketer. Companies like RocketScience or Toolshed, Radar Maker, OTMG ... etc. There's an endless number of marketing companies that do a good job. They tailor the campaign to the music and the audience. Basically they would ultimately use the tools that we offer.
We do offer in a very limited way creative services ourselves. They're a number of artists that we work with directly. We have a professional service team that helps them execute.
Do you have some examples of artists you’ve worked with internally?
Brian Eno, Pixies, Interpol, Metric, Beastie Boys and there are lots of great examples of third-party sites that use our software to great effect with artists like Drive-by Truckers, the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ...
I saw you are co-managing a hip-hop group called Get Busy Committee as well. In what ways were you involved in helping the band?
We've been doing it since October ‘09. So far we’ve made more money than we’ve spent, but no one is quitting their day jobs yet. We made roughly three times the money direct-to-fan as we have through iTunes. We sold through about 1,200 little USB Uzis that we created and we are not going to print anymore of those.
We did a successful fan funded campaign with Kickstarter that helped us fund for pressing some vinyl. We had a pretty good run of shows during and after SXSW. Now the guys have about eight new songs and we're trying to figure out what the strategy for releasing these songs is, for now till the end of the year. The lessons are, things grow slowly. You can definitely reach a core fan base and make money, but it takes a long time to build.
Were there certain Topspin tools that you could use that made a difference?
Definitely, email collection, streaming widgets, sales tools on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, digital goods and physical goods, tickets, using the e-mail tool to do marketing around the tour. We used it the whole way through. For me it was a great thing to see things from the user side.
If you had a new band now, how would you approach the market with it?
Probably a lot of the way we did it with GBC but it depends on the band. I would identify who the audience is and then try to build my campaign so I can really go after my audience. I would target that audience just by giving out content and getting some awareness about who the band is.
I wouldn't worry about making money in the beginning, what’s important is, do people actually care about this music? If I can get people to care about it then I would build up connections with those people. Get their e-mail addresses, get them follow me on Twitter and Facebook etc. If I can master a decent following then I can turn around and offer them products.
How much of a programmer do you have to be to use the Topspin services?
To do the basics, not very much at all. If you can paste a code, which MySpace proved any 15-year-old could do, you can do a lot. If you do have a digital team then you probably can get more value out of it. Our goal is that you can get what you need out of it very simply.
You were working for Yahoo before. How was working for Yahoo influential to your job right now?
It was really influential. We built a consumer service, so we were on the other side of the value chain. Instead of building for the creators, we were building for fans. What I realised building those consumer services was that the ecosystem is relatively broken. It was way too hamstrung to build compelling consumer services. Whether it was the financials around radio and video or the constriction surrounding subscription services, there just wasn't enough that you can do with the rights to actually compete with something like YouTube on the consumer side.
With the web becoming increasingly fragmented, the interesting opportunity is in connecting fans directly to the artists rather than having these portals. You have to be where the fans actually are. Because a lot of services are where the opportunity is.
There are a bunch of really great music discovery places out there, Pandora, Hype Machine, Spotify, Rhapsody, Last FM. We need filters desperately.
Where do you see Topspin going in the future?
I see us as the best tool in direct-to-fan marketing retail. I see artists managing their inventory, physical and digital merchandise, tickets etc., having a single place where they can put all that stuff together - bundle it, create offers for fans, free giveaways, streams, things for sale, fan clubs etc.
Then having a place where they can manage their fan base, wherever that fan base lives, building marketing campaigns through different Internet portals and with all of these channels right out of a single dashboard.
Interviewed by Jan Blumentrath
Next week: MIA collaborator Blaqstarr on his new "cosmic boundless" music
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