There are more opportunities for bands to get their music heard than ever. Everyday it seems that there is a new software program, distribution platform, or website designed to help musicians further their careers. Social media websites like Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter help bands engage with a heavily entrenched user base, whereas elsewhere those sites geared solely for musicians and music lovers like ReverbNation, or a website and distribution platform such as Bandcamp, are fast and easy ways of creating a sizable web footprint and online marketplace (Bandcamp recently added the option of physical distribution). With all of these do-it-yourself tools out there, it can be tough to find out what works best for your band. There is no one-size-fits-all in the ever-evolving music industry, but there may be one that comes close: Topspin.
What Topspin Does
Topspin was founded by Peter Gotcher and Shamal Ranasinghe, who also co-wrote BerkleeMusic’s online course Online Music Marketing with Topspin. It is a technology-focused platform for direct-to-fan marketing, management, and distribution (1). It allows artists to market, promote, and sell their music on their website, and it provides an easy way to identify who your fans are, and sell directly to them.
From a software perspective, Topspin allows you to manage your content and fan base as well as create offers of content to that fan base. Along with the platform, Topspin runs deep in analytics, allowing you to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what you can do to improve sales and expand your fan base.
One reason Topspin may not be on every independent musician’s radar is because it has yet to go public. At the moment, the Topspin team handpicks the artists that are using the platform. Current Berklee College of Music student and soon-to-be alum Chris Carlson is using Topspin with one of the artists he’s managing, Tom Howie. When asked why Chris opted to use Topspin as the distribution platform for Tom Howie’s website, he answered, “It should be stipulated that Topspin only services the direct-to-fan channel, so it is only a part of every artist’s distribution platform. That being said, I wanted to get underneath the hood of the Topspin platform as quickly as possible and the release of Tom’s last EP was a great opportunity to jump on board. Since May of this year, it has already grown and developed so much. It just keeps getting better and better.”
One of the goals of the Topspin platform is to build up an artist’s fan base via direct-to-fan marketing and generate more income for the artist than would normally see from a traditional record label (2). Direct-to-fan marketing is the backbone of Topspin, and is the complete opposite of the way music was marketed before the Internet. Mike King makes an excellent point: “Instead of having tens of outlets affecting millions of people, you have millions of outlets affecting tens of people.” Topspin provides you with the tools to find out which niches work best for you.
By utilizing the data Topspin collects from fans, artists are able to create bundles of their products and sell them directly on their site. Every artist has a different fan base, and not every fan wants the same thing. The bundles vary from artist to artist. Some artists like Metric have several bundles ranging from a barebones digital download of their recently released CD “Fantasies,” to the “Fantasies Deluxe Edition” bundle. The Deluxe bundle includes a digital download with two bonus tracks as well as the physical CD and vinyl album, a VIP Fan Pass that “brings you early and sometimes exclusive access to unique offers from the band.” (3) Metric knows that not everyone wants just the digital download, and not everyone wants the VIP Fan Pass, so they have offers in between, all of which include the immediate digital download.
Many, if not all, artists on Topspin have a widget, i.e. a piece of software that can be installed on nearly any HTML-based website. Widgets can do virtually anything that can be done with web programming, and Topspin offers a free download of a song or an album in exchange for an email address. Email addresses are critical for any artist at any level. Mike King says: “The conversion rate is pretty consistent across the board, regardless whether or not you’re an A-level artist or not. It typically direct hits to your site and searches produce the most conversions. After that, it’s usually email.” The conversion rate is defined as the fraction of casual content views or website visits into monetized transactions. Part of Topspin’s mission statement is to “build successful businesses.” (4) Email addresses provide one of the easiest ways to directly connect artists to fans.
Topspin is home to many important people in the frontier of digital music. Peter Gotcher, its Chairman and co-founder, has spent the past 25 years developing some of the most significant innovations in music production and distribution (5). In 1984, Gotcher co-founded Digidesign, the world’s leading manufacturer of Digital Audio Workstations (6). He also accepted a GRAMMY Award in Technical Achievement in honor of Digidesign and its contributions to the recording industry (7). Peter Gotcher is also on the board of trustees at the Berklee College of Music (8).
The other co-founder of Topspin is Shamal Ranasinghe. For the past ten years, Ranasinghe has been at “the forefront of digital music product strategy and development,” and “has been responsible for defining software and service best practices for leading companies in the digital music space.” (9)
The man at the helm of Topspin is Ian Rogers, a veteran within the technology and music industry “with roots in defining the way artists and consumers promote and experience digital media online.” (10) Rogers has been involved in numerous digital music projects throughout the years. His list of credentials is extensive. Prior to joining Topspin in April of 2008, Ian Rogers was the president, CTO, and founder of Mediacode, which was acquired by Yahoo! in 2003 (11). Rogers followed Mediacode to Yahoo! where he eventually became the Vice President of Video and Media Applications among many other high-ranking jobs (12). He has been building digital media applications since 1992 (13), and founded one of the first-ever music-related websites. Rogers is fascinating; see http://www.fistfulayen.com/blog. In the blog, he discusses what it is like to co-manage an artist, his diet and exercise routine, and, of course, all things related to Topspin and the artists that use it.
In a recent interview, Ian Rogers compares the old model of the record industry with the new model. “In the past there was a lot of distance between success and failure…A lot of people working, slugging away day after day with a day job, performing their art…The old model was, ‘I gotta get signed. I gotta get signed. I gotta get signed. I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing until I get signed. Hopefully someone in one of four record companies somewhere will deem me good enough to be on the stage.’ If you’re lucky enough to make that happen, the success rate there is incredibly low as well. The way it works is you get a check, hopefully [the record company] will help you produce and release your record. And really at the end of the day, you either have a hit at radio and succeed, or you don’t and you fail…Thanks to Internet and to the fact there’s no longer limited distribution through these narrow channels of FM radio and music television, now consumers have unlimited choice and therefore people who are talented and can reach a consumer base can actually build a business without having a massive hit…” (14).
Berklee Music and Topspin
Berkleemusic’s new course, “Online Music Marketing with Topspin,” delves into the depths of the platform. The course is a twelve-week long course written by Mike King and Shamal Ranasinghe. Each week deals with a different aspect of Topspin, the digital music world, and the best practices with online music marketing. Co-author Mike King says, “What we’re doing throughout the course really is looking at all the band specs at Topspin, and how you operate the platform with all its benefits. We’re looking at the widget functionality artists have. We’re looking at what they do with emails. We’re looking at rich analytic data.”
The course is in-depth. King continues, “All of the technical stuff that comes with learning a software, we’re learning that in the course. But all of that information is surrounded with best practices of online music marketing. We talk at length about the artist website throughout the course…How to optimize it effectively for the search engines, and how to make it a compelling destination for fans.” Rogers chimed in that the other content the course covers is a “back office, intranet type of software toolset”, where the advantages of the Topspin platform to monetize revenue across many platforms are made clear. “We talk about best practices with creating email, and we talk about offer strategies. What is the best thing that you can offer your fans? And if you’re offering a variety of products, what should those products be and what should you be pricing them at? It’s a real holistic view of online marketing.”
Topspin has yet to fully set sail, but it has generated much interest already. For more information, visit http://www.berkleemusic.com.
By Amy Mantis