Interview: Mike King of Berkleemusic and Online Music Marketing with Topspin (Pt. 2)
This is part two of my interview with Mike King. 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.
Now, to maintain a certain degree of objectivity here and, at the same time, address an issue that’s sure to be brought up in the comments, I have to talk about the price tag on the course. It’s rather expensive. Blah, Blah, musicians don’t have that much money. But, to frame this differently, as put forth by Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture, “Brick walls are there for a reason. They give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” Why do you think there are there brick walls, like this and others, surrounding Topspin Media? What purpose do they serve? Are they there for a reason?
Mike King: I really think the course can be considered an investment in your future. I don’t see it as all that different than an artist investing in a new guitar or amp to improve their sound, or investing in Pro Tools to produce their music themselves. Along with super-serving your existing fanbase, a big part of direct-to-fan marketing is to use certain tools and techniques to acquire new fans that you can continue to communicate with for many records down the line. I don’t think it is unrealistic to think that the course is an expense that musicians can recoup down the line.
The course is three months long, and over that period we’re doing a dozen hour-long chats covering all aspects of online marketing in near real time, on top of the extensive written content and multimedia content. To be honest, the course would make a 250 page book if I was to print it all out, and it took about a year to write. The course was written by myself and Shamal, with input from multiple people at Topspin, including Ian, Gary Brotman (who runs the artist services side of Topspin), Adam Bates (who is the director of Marketing and R&D), and many others. Also, I’m inviting many of the Topspin folks to our weekly video/audio chats, so you have the opportunity to interact on a one-on-one basis with them (and me) directly. I’ve also got a ton of media throughout the course, including exclusive videos with Ian, Adam, Peter Brambl, and Shamal covering general best marketing practices as well as presenting an in-depth view of everything you need to know about the software.
Plus, I’ve also got some top-notch instructors teaching the course, like Jason Feinberg, Jason Kadlec, and Jeff Straw, who are all living online music marketing and Topspin everyday. They are incredible resources. Lastly, there is no other course out there that teaches this stuff. I feel really proud of the content that we’ve created, and I legitimately feel it’s beneficial for all artists/managers that want to understand Topspin in-depth, and gain a professional level understanding of online marketing. In terms of the criteria that Topspin has set up for artists to use their software directly, I’m probably not the best person to ask. It’s public knowledge that Topspin’s business plan is fundamentally different than other services, which charge artists a fee, no matter how many sales they generate using their software. Topspin only makes money when the artist does.
From what I understand, part of the reason for the brick walls surrounding TopSpin Media is to ensure that “best practices” are being used. For the most part, because of how radically they are intertwined with the degree of success that one might hope for when using the service. It’s sort of a “preventative measure.” To ‘prevent’ people who don’t know ‘best practices’ from using the service, from not getting the results they were expecting, and from getting upset with the service because it didn’t work like they thought it would. Why are best practices so important? How have you integrated them into the course material? And, why do they have such an impact on results?
Mike King: Certainly with any service—be it ReverbNation, Topspin, Nimbit, Bandcamp, or any others—it’s in everyone’s best interest that folks are properly trained on using the software, as well as properly trained on overall best marketing practices. You don’t want folks out there unhappy with the service when, in reality, it was a lack of understanding of marketing principles and best practices that is the core reason they are not seeing growth in their acquisition or sales numbers. All these services are just tools, basically, and like any tool, if you are not using it properly your results will not be fantastic. The course is filled with best practices, from proper optimization techniques to help with search visibility (which along with direct traffic is usually one of the highest converting areas), to ways you can help identify your psychographic, best practices with third party social media outlets and other acquisition focused techniques. We also go in-depth on forecasting models designed to help you estimate how much income you might see from your digital touch points.
As a side note, there are real numbers and strategies presented in this course from several artists that have been kind enough to provide a look under the hood of their campaign. So when we talk about best practices with landing pages and offer pages, or when we talk about the importance of upselling, we can see exactly what other bands have done, and what the results were. I think it’s very helpful to take this information out of the theoretical and bring it all into real life, which we do in most all of the lessons throughout the course. Overall, I think the course helps to provide a road map for best practices in one of the only growth areas in marketing, and in terms of results, because Topspin has been so open with sharing their data, you can see exactly what happens when best practices are not followed, too.
This, of course, brings up another important question… How would an artist or their manager for that matter, know if they are at the point in their career where an investment like this is justifiable. When you have conversations like this, as I imagine you have—countless times—what do you tell people? How do you go about determining if they would benefit from TopSpin Media, and whether or not they are capable of taking things to the next level?
Mike King: On the core level, I think you shouldn’t be marketing yourself unless there is a demand for what you do. This also goes back to your question on integrating physical and digital marketing. Let’s look at live events as an example. If you are playing in your local area, and you are not gaining traction, folks are not blown away by your show, there is little momentum with the fans, and your permission-based sign up list is not growing, then it probably makes sense to hit the woodshed and work on your music first. Topspin will not make your music good, and without amazing music and a killer live show, it does not make sense to spend the money on a marketing campaign. There are millions of bands out there, and your your music has to connect with folks in a way that 99% of the music out there does not. Once you start generating a real following, have demand for your product, and you can effectively identify your psychographic—this is when you should start marketing yourself. So I think you have to look at what is happening with your music and the response to it. Start small with your marketing efforts and, as you grow, think how a tool like Topspin or others can help amplify your existing efforts. Marketing tools are good at amplifying your efforts, but you have to have something there to work with first.
To sort of cap this off, what has your experience been like teaching a course like this for the first time? What are some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome—beyond “the curse of knowledge”—in writing this course? And, now that you and the other teachers have seen students interact with and learn the material, what are some of the realizations you’ve had, in trying to make your insights are as actionable as possible for everyone in the course?
Mike King: Writing and teaching this course has been deeply fulfilling for me. I was just at SXSW and met up with some of my students down there, including LJ Scott, Anthony Erickson from a band called Fulton Reed, and Susie Codd. We’re in week eleven in the course, and these folks are putting the best practices to use right now, and it’s just amazing to see the stuff we have been talking about for three months being implemented in a way that positively effects these musicians. I think all of us are looking for the way forward in the new music business landscape, and I feel grateful to present real information to artists, based on data and real world examples, that actually helps musicians to navigate their careers in a positive way.
In terms of challenges, some of this stuff is not easy to grasp the first time through. I’ve created flash animations, use videos, and have some audio in the course to help explain some of the more difficult concepts we discuss, such as the product pricing and forecasting documents that we go through. It was also challenging to present everything in a way that folks who are less familiar with the concepts could easily understand it, while also presenting the material in a dynamic way for students who are more advanced. Also, Topspin is developing new initiatives so quickly, that it has been challenging to keep up with them! The great part about the online course is that I can update this information on the fly—it is a living, breathing entity that I can adjust as necessary as new features are released by Topspin, as new third party entities are unveiled, and as some of the best practices that exist today change tomorrow. It’s definitely been interesting to see how the students have interacted with the material that we have written, and I’m sure we’ll make some adjustments based on the feedback.