(UPDATED) Over the course of the last ten weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of taking Online Music Marketing with Topspin through Berkleemusic with Mike King (@atomzooey) as my instructor. Though, to be sure, I’m likely to a biased opinion of the course — for some reasons I can account for and others that I’m not as obvious to – I have to honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the class and have thus far gained deeper understanding of online music marketing. Being that much of my work consists of exploring the more ‘theoretical constructs’ of the music industries, it has been great to gain actionable insights into the landscape before us.
I have had nothing but a positive experience with the online course, and although I do encourage you to take my perspective with as many grains of salt as you’d like, in my humble opinion Berkleemusic and Topspin have come together, synthesized a wealth of information, and made it accessible to people across various backgrounds, goals, and experience, which is no easy task. That said I do believe that the course achieves this very difficult task of both communicating this knowledge and making it so that it’s relevant and actionable to musicians, business people, and even minor media theorists like myself.
Since the semester is winding down and starting up again on April 5, and no doubt many you probably have questions regarding the course and about Topspin in general, it felt appropriate to speak with Mike King and open up the dialog on this subject. If anyone has more specific questions about the course for Mike or myself, please post them in the comments, and we’ll both do our best to respond. In the meantime though, do enjoy this interview with Mike (after the jump), and I hope, like I anticipate — that it’s of great interest to you.
For those of you who may not be familiar, Mike (@atomzooey) is Associate Director of Marketing at Berkleemusic, Berklee College of Music’s online school and author of Music Marketing: Press, Promotion, Distribution, and Retail, which you can get a free chapter of here.
Mike, one of the things we talked quite a bit about is ‘the curse of knowledge,’ which is, as brothers Chip and Dan Heath of Made to Stick have explained it, what happens when we know something, and it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. In co-authoring a course like this one, how does ‘the curse of knowledge’ come into play, why is it so easy to take for granted what we know, and how did you overcome it, without oversimplifying the course material?
Mike King: That’s a good question. I’ve been working at Berkleemusic for seven years and teaching here for the past three, and it’s been really interesting to see the change in perspective from students. Early on, I’d see a certain percentage of students that were more focused on the old business model, like how to get on commercial radio, what do they have to do to get a record deal, how do they get coverage in Rolling Stone, and so on. I do think it’s based on what folks have grown up with and what they know. Back in the day, there were limited options for visibility; it was primarily TV or radio, and the record label was the necessary vehicle for getting this visibility. In a way, from an outside perspective, I can see that it is somewhat comforting to break up music marketing in these easy to understand segments, but the reality is that the options that worked for years—such as retail visibility via a co-op campaign, a national radio campaign, and print advertising—are not really viable options for most artists.
Over the past year or so, I have seen fewer and fewer students coming into the online classes focused on moving their career forward via those old school methods. There are folks out there— like Ian Rogers, Dave Allen, Jed Carlson, Mike Masnick, Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Hugh McLeod, Dave Kusek, Patrick Faucher, Bruce Houghton, and yourself—driving home the fact that there are new and alternative ways to advance your career, which has really helped to enlighten a large subset of artists.
In terms of the Topspin course, I start off by presenting a sort of a “state of the union” of the record / music industry and let the facts speak on their own. For example, the top seven physical chain retailers accounted for 44% of music sales in 2008, and the fact is it's getting harder and harder for the labels to work with these outlets. Last year, Circuit City—which was the 9th largest music retailer in 2008—ceased operations and Virgin Megastore began closing all of their U.S. stores. Borders (the 6th largest retailer of music) has cut back in-store floor space by 30% to 7% of total floor space. Transworld has been hemorrhaging money, too. Similar changes have occurred throughout other segments of the traditional music industry, too.
I don’t assume too much in terms of what folks know or what they don’t. I’m more interested in talking about facts and data, and presenting a toolset that musicians and managers can use to acquire more fans, create an optimized Website with an effective offer page, determine what the proper offerings should be for your specific tribe, and create an overall online sales and marketing plan that works for a student’s particular situation.
Out of ignorance, or maybe just plain excitement, some people in the marketing advice business tend to write off traditional institutions, in favor of the shiny new things that the Internet has come to offer, whereas you’ve taken a stand — even written a book I hear — empathizing the importance of the roles that they still play. Why is it crucial to have a dynamic marketing mix, on- and offline, and how does a platform like Topspin play into this equation?
Mike King: I think you have to engage in all marketing activities that apply to your particular situation. I have students that are at completely different stages in their careers, students that are focused on completely different genres, and students that are touring consistently and those who are not. It’s not right to tell someone to focus exclusively on digital if that person is selling CDs consistently on the road or if that person is creating music for a genre or psychographic that still wants CDs. For example, I’ve been working with a fantastic children’s music band called Debbie and Friends, and once you look at the demographic and psychographic of her fans (and the parents of those fans!), you can see why some traditional options — like the creation of CDs — make sense for her.
Certainly touring and a solid merch plan, both traditional marketing initiatives, make sense to engage in. And there are still examples of developing bands that have emerged from indie physical retail. Physical retail and distribution are much more convoluted than online retail and distribution from a process standpoint, primarily due to co-op and the returns process. But again, I think that retail still makes sense for a subset of artists at a certain stage of their career. Of course distribution follows marketing and it does not make sense to look for a distribution deal prior to demand for your product, but if there is demand and you are not fulfilling it, I think you are leaving money on the table.
I think it comes down to the fact that the Internet has provided much more choice and an opportunity for musicians to participate in the process where in the past they might have been left out. But I don’t think it’s a best practice to completely omit physical marketing from your overall campaign strategy if you are at the right stage in your career for it, or if your psychographic dictates that you engage with them in that way.
In terms of Topspin, I think the major benefit of the software in terms of creating a dynamic mix of online and offline strategies is multifaceted. First, there’s rich data pulled in from a number of sources right into the platform. You can see in real time what folks are saying about you on blogs and on Twitter, and engage with these folks immediately. You can see spikes in activity on Last.fm, Facebook, and MySpace, and use that information in whatever way you want to help focus and direct your campaign. You can also see how your fanbase is interacting with your content, both in terms of sales from your site, as well as with any widgets that you have released in the wild. From a physical standpoint, I think the data that you gather from Topspin can help you to more effectively nurture the artist/fan relationship, too. For example, you can sort your list of fans in any number of different ways, including by geography or by rank in terms of sales. So as an example, if my band is touring in San Francisco, I can sort my fans by those that live in the area, and then cut that list into those that have purchased from me in the past. I could then provide these super fans with free tickets to the show, or any other value-add to help nurture the relationship. Also, because all of the Topspin widgets are trackable, you can also set up content sharing contests, and reward your core influencers with something of value, or encourage them to take their online support offline per market. It’s a really robust and customizable tool, and Topspin supports creativity with its use.
More importantly, what segments of an artist’s marketing strategy doesn’t Topspin replace? And, why do you think it’s important to clarify that Topspin isn’t — at least not anytime soon — the music marketing equivalent of the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie Oven, you don’t just “Set it, and forget it!!” There will be countless hours (still) spent thinking, planning, testing, succeeding, failing, and trying the process all over again — with the exception that, for the most part, your efforts will be contained under one umbrella — that’s driven by data.
Mike King: I think Topspin is not a cure-all for the industry, nor is it the only tool that you should be using to put together an effective marketing campaign. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a great tool, and will benefit artists tremendously. But I think anyone who claims that they you can use their service to “set it and forget it,” as you say, is being disingenuous. There are truly so many variables and outlets that you need to think about and keep track of when you pull off your marketing campaign. For example, one thing that Topspin doesn’t do is distribute to third party online retail outlets like iTunes. Certainly the best practice for artists is to direct fans to their own site where they can provide tiered product offerings that are specifically geared to their fanbase, but the fact is that many fans are set in their ways and will continue to only look for you on iTunes or wherever else they routinely shop for music. I interviewed Derek Sivers for my book awhile back, and he had a really succinct thought on this topic: “There are millions of people who get all of their music from Rhapsody. If they search for you on Rhapsody, and you're not there, they'll forget you and move on. Same with eMusic. Same with iTunes. Same with Napster, etc. So make sure you're available on all of these services. You are not hurting your iTunes sales by being on Rhapsody; you are only adding to your income." I think this is accurate, and extends to direct-to-fan sales as well. While an artist's sales margin can certainly be greater when selling direct to fan, the volume of sales an artist can see from established third-party outlets can outpace DTF sales, particularly for established artists. I would not recommend directing folks to a third party retailer from your site, but at the same point, you’d likely be losing sales if you do not have your music available on third party retail sites.
You also mention data in your question. Topspin is tremendous with data and analytics, but it’s not the only tool you should be using, in my opinion. Google Analytics is a fantastic tool for musicians (and Topspin integrates with it well). I also think Duncan Freeman is doing some really interesting things with Band Metrics, and there are dozens of other tools out there that help with analyzing other verticals like Twitter. I think that Topspin is a fantastic tool, but not the only tool you should consider.