Topspin and the Kindie Artist

ts_rgb_363x80.jpgI think the first time I became aware of the Topspin media widget was a couple years ago when David Bryne and Brian Eno promoted their new album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today using it. As someone who writes a website, the content-filled nature of the widget appealed to me, but it appealed to me as a fan as well. Sure, from a listener perspective, it's just a way to give an e-mail address to get an mp3, but it did it in such an elegant and well-designed way that it typically was the only type of widget that I'd actually respond to.

In time I realized that kids musicians were starting to use the widget, too. At this point enough of them are using the platform that I thought it'd be worth asking the users what they thought of it and its good (and bad) points. Among the artists who responded were Debbie Cavalier, Jeremy Toback, and Kevin Salem from Little Monster Records, along with one of his artists, Key Wilde. I also talked some with Mike King from Berkleemusic -- if you need an overview of Topspin, you could do far worse than checking out the videos King made with Topspin CEO Ian Rogers.

What made you interested in working with Topspin?
Most artists came to Topspin via some personal connection -- Debbie Cavalier first heard about Topspin nearly two years ago when, as the Dean of Continuing Education at Berklee, they started to plan the development of the “Marketing Music with Topsin” course. Jeremy Tobck knew Topspin cofounder Shamal Ranasinghe when he was developing the idea for Topspin, and was "super intrigued" by his idea of deepening the direct relationship between artists and fans. Toback says that Ranasinghe, dug Renee & Jeremy, wanted then to be beta users, and "helped convince us that we had built enough on our own to benefit" from the platform.

As for Kevin Salem, he says that Robert Schneider’s manager told him about it, though he "was slow to respond." (Robert Schneider is another Topspin artist, both for the Apples in Stereo as well as his Little Monster Robbert Bobbert project.) But the Topspin representative was an "old acquaintance" from Salem's time as a solo artist after giving him a quick tutorial, Salem thought it could "help plug the considerable holes in [his] physical distribution network." He also says he thought it could help create "unique products" for the fans and "shift the ratio of physical-to-digital sales in our genre." [I'd note that at Kindiefest, Salem noted that the next Little Monster release, a compilation, will be entirely digitally distributed.]
They have restrictions on who can participate -- was it easy for you to qualify?
Unfortunately for some folks who want to participate, Topspin doesn't serve everyone -- you need to have a minimum level of sales and popularity. Unless you're on a label or marketing group that already works with Topspin (or take the Berkleemusic course), you need to meet 2 of the 4 requirements below to be considered:

1. Do you make more than $5,000 annually selling music?
2. Do you have at least 2,500 emails in your email database?
3. Does your web site get at least 10,000 unique visitors per month?
4. Do you have at least 15,000 fans on Facebook?

I suspect that the $5K music sales threshold is the easy one for kids musicians to meet -- it's the others that are harder. (Fifteen fans? Oof -- Laurie Berkner just barely qualifies.) Both Toback and Salem say they feel lucky they got in early, before restrictions were tight. Says, Toback, "I have lots of musician friends I'd love to hook up with Topspin, but can't yet because of the requirements." Salem also thinks they were looking for a partner who worked in family music when they signed up, because in terms of fan base and network size, "no way" would they qualify.

Is your goal to sell more music (or videos) with the widget or just to expand your audience through streaming/free mp3s/videos?
Yes and yes. Key Wilde says he's "interested in anything we can do to expand [his] audience... if we can just get it out there people will really enjoy and appreciate it." At his label, Salem says that they're doing both -- "the widgets can be great free advertising and point people to our website"; once they get to his website, "the purchase flow is easy to deal with, and [they] get a higher percentage of people buying than [they] normally would have."

Cavalier and Toback are also in the "both" camp -- Cavalier for direct-to-fan sales and marketing along with expanding her audience and staying "connected" with fan families, Toback for e-mails (he says they've tripled their e-mail list with the "media for e-mail" widget) and selling bundles (music plus video plus art plus lyrics and chords). They both have other particular interests. Cavalier cites the "elaborate" analytics tools as helping her to "understand what’s working and what’s not, on a daily basis." Toback notes that it's a good promotional tool -- he says it "addresses that otherwise elusive moment where the music has attracted someone's passing fancy, but they may not be ready to buy it." Toback also says selling stuff direct is "win-win," but he doesn't expect his direct digital sales to beat their iTunes sales.

Did you take any courses related to the software?
Cavalier, of course, read the 12-week course as it was in development along the way, and being in the same office, asks the course author, Mike King, questions "all the time." Toback took a "great mini course" on the platform which he says "majorly influenced [their] thinking" about their website and the way they use e-mail. He says can actually talk to their web guy, which made a "big difference" in creating a site that works for them and uses Topspin well. Salem took a 2-day Topspin training course and described it as (his capitalization), "AWESOME!"

How much did it cost upfront / on an ongoing basis?
For those of you wondering, both Toback and Salem noted that their financial agreements with Topspin require no upfront costs -- there are "minimal" bandwidth costs and Topspin takes a percentage of the sale. Salem notes, however, that there is an upfront investment of time -- "lots of it. It is a big job to upload and organize a catalog and to explain it to all the players on the team."

What have been the benefits from using it?
All the artists were pretty enthusiastic. Toback says the most measurable benefits are the email list growth and direct sales, both of which allow them "literally to converse directly with our peeps" as opposed to Barnes & Noble or iTunes, which are great, but don't offer a way to reconnect. He also believes the platform "helps foster ongoing discovery and digital word of mouth in ways that were not happening as consistently" before Topspin; more people discovering music means "more cool unexpected opportunities."

Cavalier is very enthusiastic, saying that she's seen direct sales come in on the evening of shows from families in the towns they played and the download-for-email widgets have increased their e-mail list "significantly. "She also notes that she can see where the views, plays, and download activity for all of the widgets she creates are coming fromwhenever someone embeds one of the players on their site.

Salem is the most brutally honest of his before-and-after success, saying that the store they created on their site via Paypal in August resulted in sales of "maybe 10" units over the next few months -- he describes it as an "afterthought." Their Topspin sales started in January and they're "just about over the $1,000 line" in sales and their web traffic is "probably up 100 times." (He also cites the ability to have a "built-in way to see how... publicity expenses pay off.")

As for what Salem learned from the $1 EP offer I had on this very website, Salem says:

It was really easy to see the statistics: How many people landed on the page? How many of them played the music? How many of them clicked the call-to-action button? How many of them bought it? What, I think, can be inferred from all that data was that, because our audience is easier to define that, say, alt rock, our conversion rate was wildly higher than most marketing studies would predict. We converted about 20% of the people who followed the call-to-action. I find the same on our store page: the people who end up there tend to buy in much higher proportion than one would predict by looking at most web-based marketing standards.
Any downsides?
There were a few downsides listed, all of which the artists said were far outweighed by the benefits of the platform. Just as Salem is the most honest on the upsides, he's also clear on the downsides, of which he sees three: 1) High commission on CD sales, 20% versus a PayPal take of "a buck or so," which Salems views as justified by the traffic the program has generated and the analytics he gets that would take a few extra steps to get otherwise; 2) Salesm views the platform as really being "developed for the highly established artist who was selling one product at a time and had a lot of high-end premium content," a concept Salem believes is changing as Topspin is constantly updating and being receptive to users’ ideas; 3) "Once you see sales happening, you want to put more time into the platform."

Toback's downside is, by comparison, very minor, saying that people don't always know where to find their files once they've downloaded them, compared to the "absurdly no-brainer and seamless" iTunes model. (Toback notes that Topspin has added some features to help make it more obvious for fans, and that seems to be helping.) He says that Topspin is "also still getting its accounting act together," but it's "well worth any kinks." And Cavalier sees no downsides, saying she'd like to see some additional features over time, but noting that they're "constantly updating the platform and enhancing the feature set."

My general sense is that one of the benefits of Topspin is that it forces artists to think very clearly about what they're doing to promote or sell their music and why -- and, then, forces them to make a decision based on the results. Would you agree?
Indeed they do. Jeremy Toback notes that Topspin is "part of a direct to consumer marketing and distribution ethic that [they] needed to grock" before they could use it. They embraced a lot of that ethic, "particularly the notion that it's vital to prioritize for your fans or potential fans, so that the first action they take is the most impactful, and usually that involves hearing the music - duh." That led to a "new more action inciting approach to website, email, and even YouTube."

Debbie Cavalier cites the importance of "having an understanding of what to look for, and general best practices with online marketing" to really help musicians to use the software to the best of its ability. Kevin Salem says that with Topspin, "it’s still a learning situation" for both Topspin and the artists. "To really use it effectively," he says,

"it can take a lot of time and require you to learn a lot of things you never wanted to know. It takes some tweaking to make it fit the kids music model, even in the ‘look’ of the widgets. But, if you know who your fans are, it is a totally kick-ass way to not only reach them, but to offer them the kind of special content they want and deserve. It suits artists like Key and Richard, who are always creating and want their fans to hear and see their newest stuff.

Mike King, who teaches the Topspin course at Berklee music (and who discusses the platform way indepth in this Hypebot interview), says that, as with any kind of marketing, "you want to know that you are connecting with folks in a meaningful way before you spend time and effort marketing. If you are seeing enthusiastic folks at live events, good pickup online or in print, or other organic support, you should consider using an artist service based tool like Topspin" to "fuel the flames."

Have you noticed any differences between kids music artists (Debbie or otherwise) and other genres in terms of Topspin performance or quirks?
Jeremy Toback hadn't, but that's because he hadn't done much with his "adult" band, ONS. Mike King said he hadn't any performance "quirks" related to genre. He thinks that Topspin might even be a better option than other services for kids music artists because

"it allows these artists to sell anything they want, physical or digital -- other services are more digital sales based, or work with partners to provide options that are less customizable. From what I have seen with the success of Debbie and Friends, physical product offerings that specifically target this community (such as Debbie’s branded egg shakers) work really well for kids music, and Topspin is, in my opinion, one of the best options to support that demand."

In the end, I don't think Topspin is for every artist -- for one thing the participation requirements are likely to keep a number of artists out of the game. For another thing, the one constant theme among all the respondents here is that Topspin is work. It's work that may have a significant payoff, but it's work nonetheless. It can't just be another little widget that you throw up on your website and ignore -- you have to spend the time figuring out who responds to you and why, and then figure out how to convert listeners into fans and fans into super-fans.

Still, with musicians like Frances England joining the ranks of Topspin artists (she declined comment given how new her experience is with the platform), it doesn't seem like this is going away anytime soon...