Beyond Homesteading: Direct-to-Fan, Americana, and the newest addition to the Topspin Family, ArtistLink

September 17 - Press Release

[The below is the text of my keynote from the Americana Music Conference, Nashville, TN, September 14th, 2012 - ian]

Hello. My name is Ian Rogers and I’m the CEO of a company called Topspin.  We build software to help you grow your fan base and make money.  I’ve been working with artists online since the early 90s both directly and via stints at Winamp, AOL, and Yahoo! Music.

I’m from Indiana and grew up listening to what we today call “Americana” — in my house it was just called “music” and was played by my parents alongside everything from Hendrix and Sam & Dave to Bob Seger and ZZ Top to Talking Heads and Husker Du.  Thankfully my parents schooled me in the fundamentals, from Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers to Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, and my love for roots american music has grown on its own.  I feel like the luckiest person on the planet to get to bring my two loves, music and technology, together professionally.  Thanks so much for listening to what I have to say.  I hope you find it interesting and useful.

Today I’d like to talk to you about:

  1. Why the Internet should, can, and with your help will grow Americana’s audience
  2. Why Direct to Fan is an important retail channel for Americana audiences
  3. A new wave of tools coming which will deliver you exposure and distribution, not just homesteads (aka “places on the web to stick your music”)

There’s no question the Internet has disrupted the music business over the past 15 years.  Let’s be honest, there is much for the greater industry to lament as the CD has been unbundled and revenue has fallen.  But there are two key innovations the Internet has brought to music and I’d argue Americana should benefit from these innovations disproportionately, in particular much more than the “mainstream commercial country” category.

Those two innovations are:

1. Increased consumer choice.

It’s no longer the case that “it’s on the radio or it doesn’t exist”.  Of course radio is a powerful medium and we all love airplay if we can get it.  But music fans in any part of the world have access to more music and information than ever without mainstream media, and that is a very powerful change.  It is an incredible innovation, impossible to overstate, that someone who lives in a small town without record stores or a touring live music scene (like I grew up in) has the same access to learn about new music someone in Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, or New York.  Bonnie Raitt’s comments at the Americana Awards on Wednesday regarding this being an exciting time for music, when the information is just a Google search away, captured the sentiment well.

2. Direct connections between artists and fans. 

Traditionally, artists have largely been reliant on someone else to get the word out; from radio to the weekly paper.  If you didn’t make it into the spotlight building awareness was difficult if not impossible.  Even if you did find your way to the spotlight, you better make it back into the spotlight on the next cycle, too, it was your communication channel.  

Today artists walk their fans through an invisible funnel, starting with capturing someone’s attention (which can happen in organic and efficient ways person-to-person), moving down the funnel to building a direct conduit to communicate with them via email, Facebook, Twitter, and more, to transactions, from giving free music to selling unique products and experiences. Artists who previously would have been completely reliant on radio and print to build awareness for a new project now have a network of direct connections they can kickstart with.  And those connections have their own connections — when it’s done right artists’ fans can be hyper-efficient at jumpstarting the process by helping artists build awareness amongst their peers.

As an observer and fan I don’t see enough Americana artists utilizing these new opportunities to their full advantage. I see sub-optimal performance in two forms:

1. Leakage of interest.

This occurs when you have people who are interested in you as an artist, but you miss opportunities to build a direct connection to them.  If you’re sending people from your web site to iTunes, you’re guilty.  If you’re giving away a free stream or a track without at least giving the fan an opportunity to connect directly with you, you’re guilty.  More subtly, if you aren’t devoting a period of time leading up to your release entirely to acquiring fan connections, you’re guilty.

2. Lost dollars due to lackluster products.

Sure, for many folks it’s “all about the music”.  But for a superfan, the connection to the artist is important.  Humans love to collect things.  They love once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  They love to show others how much they love you by wearing your shirt, hat, patch, etc; you are part of their identity.  If you’re just putting an album and maybe a t-shirt with the album cover on sale and going on tour you’re almost certainly leaving money on the table.  Particularly when fan-funding platforms can take the risk out of producing products before you know how many of your fans want them.  

Bottom line: if someone who would have bought a t-shirt comes to your Web site and you are selling them a $0.99 download at iTunes, you just made TWO mistakes: a) You made $0.70 when you could have made $17 and b) you gave that customer’s email to iTunes when you could have asked them to join your email list.  Now iTunes will email that fan every Tuesday about new releases and you have no way to let that fan know the next time you play in their neck of the woods.  Whoops.

Today I’d like to encourage you and your acts to focus on growing your Direct-to-Fan business by thinking in shorter cycles.  My guess is right now you think about the album and touring cycles.  You’re thinking about that album that comes out in early 2013 and the touring you’ll be doing over the next year.  Those are important, tent-pole events, but what have you done this week to communicate with your fans?  What are you focusing your fan base on this month?  My simple, practical advice is to keep a calendar and focus your team on one small thing a week and one big thing each month.  

If you haven’t already, please sign up for Chuck Prophet’s email list and follow him on Twitter.  Of any artist in any genre, Chuck is #1 in my book when it comes to communicating with his fans.  Sure, he tells you about what shows he has coming up or if he (or his wife or a friend) have a new album he’d like you to spend your money on.  But he almost always starts with a personal story or piece of prose.  When Alex Chilton passed away Chuck’s (decidedly plain, image and HTML-free) newsletter opened with a few words about what Alex meant to him.  Recently an appeal to fans resulted in the hunt for and ultimate return of some stolen gear with sentimental value.  You can bet we got the full report of the encounter with the bad guys in a subsequent mail.  He’s funny and personable on Twitter.  He doesn’t just self-promote, he uses it as a way to tell you what he’s interested in.  He knows sending you to the New York Times to read about a true crime book he’s excited about isn’t “too much information” or “wasted clicks that could have been sent to his store”, it’s the net positive derived from sharing something you love with people you value.  I don’t believe it’s “marketing” for Chuck.  He’s just doing what comes natural.  But there’s no question it works; his number of direct fan connections steadily grows despite the (criminal) continued neglect of Chucks (incredible) albums by “the mainstream”.  Yes, I’m a super fan, in no small part due to Chuck Prophet the hilarious person I’ve come to appreciate via his direct-to-fan communication, a lethal compliment to his excellent records.  When I read Chuck’s heartfelt emails it’s easy to hear Jim Lauderdale exclaim “Now THAT’S Americana!”  Sign up and you’ll see what I mean.

At Topspin we’ve spent the last four years building the tools to help you “go direct” to your fans.  We’ve built a powerful platform geared at helping you accomplish three primary tasks:

  1. Grow your fan base
  2. Communicate with your fans
  3. Sell digital media, physical goods, and tickets direct to your fans

We’re in the process of building an updated version of this platform, concentrating on making Topspin both easier to use and more powerful.  The first phase was released on August 15th in partnership with MTV’s new artist platform, Artists.MTV.  Why MTV as a partner?  Because it’s time toolsets like ours evolved to solving the #1 challenge every artist faces: building awareness.  

There are no shortage of tools that will help you make a Web page or set up a commerce solution.  But getting people to visit your Web page, THAT is hard.  This is why the argument that “the Internet is cluttered” is fundamentally wrong; while it’s trivial to CREATE a page on the Internet, it’s VERY HARD to get someone to visit it.  Getting a song on the radio brings guaranteed listens.  Put a song on the Internet and YOU are responsible for driving people to listen to it.

On the Internet today there is too large a gap between the places you can create a web page and the sites with traffic where fans congregate.  Think about it, you can easily create a page or post a piece of audio or video via tens if not hundreds of services.  Then the page sits there waiting for you to drive traffic to it.  At the other end of the spectrum, every large site from Yahoo! to AOL to Pandora to Live Nation have a page about you already, yet you have no control over that page.  They’re generic and lack the one thing that could give them life: a connection to the artist themselves.

It’s time to close that gap.  It’s time tools like ours don’t just give you a way to homestead online but they help you get YOUR MESSAGE to the places fans congregate, to where people naturally go for entertainment and news.  

This is why we worked hard on the partnership we announced with YouTube last October, where you can integrate your digital store offerings directly into the place the largest number of people are watching videos.  

This is also why we released the first version of the more powerful and easier-to-use Topspin platform with MTV, where more than 50M music fans visit each month.  MTV has been an inspiring partner.  Their executives care deeply about helping artists and the MTV network offers a wide range of exposure opportunities for artists big and small from the more than 200 cues (many from unsigned artists) per day in their television shows to coverage of independent music across their online properties like Hive all the way up to appearances on the VMAs.  There’s very practical convergence between broadcast and online media happening here; for the first time getting a video to MTV doesn’t require getting a physical tape to someone and sending a fax.  “Online marketing” isn’t secondary.  MTV is integrating their online outlet with their television one and doing so in a way that both scales to all artists and provides a path for growth for artists in their ecosystem.  It’s very exciting.

But Topspin isn’t stopping there.  Today we’re announcing a new product for developers called ArtistLink, an API aimed at providing information, free downloads, streaming audio and video, and commerce offers DIRECT from artists.  Think of ArtistLink as a way any app developer can easily build a beautiful music experience with accurate data, the data artists WANT fans to see, and super-distribute their music to fans where they live, whether a free download in return for a fan connection or a VIP concert ticket.  Where a label or distributor traditionally does the job of positioning your content with retailers, and independent artists use services such as Tunecore to distribute to iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify, Topspin’s ArtistLink API distributes your music to the places where your fans are hanging out and spending their time online. 

Check out this beautiful integration built by the good folks at Earbits, for example.  

We hope you’re excited about increased opportunities to make fan connections and sales via all the sites featuring your artist profile.  Plus, how many times have you wanted to update that default image or bio?  Now you can do so from one place.

So, if you’re building a music application and would like to get data direct from the artist (who else would you want it from? ;-) ) we’d like to hear from you!  We’re currently in the process of integrating all the artists we have across our two products as well as the 300,000 SKUs available via our partnership with Alliance (essentially every CD, vinyl album, and DVD available).  The artist list and feature set grows daily. Join us for the ride!

Thanks again for your time and attention.  We’ve learned a lot in our four years as a company.  We know if you have great art that people love, gather it in valuable packages, and pair it with a killer fan experience via Topspin, you will grow your fan base and make money.  We’re stoked to be taking the next natural step, finding new ways to get your music to the places where fans are via Topspin ArtistLink.  I hope this sounds exciting to you, too!

ian c rogers
Topspin 

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