Oct 032011
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The “direct to fan” connection has existed in various forms since the earliest days of the Web.

When the Pixies, the reunited stars of 1980s alt-rock, decided recently to play a special show in Los Angeles, they wanted to make sure their biggest local followers were invited first.

So last Thursday morning, the band sent e-mail messages to 8,031 fans with Southern California ZIP codes, announcing the show and alerting them that “tickets are on sale RIGHT NOW.”

All 1,200 tickets for the show, at the Music Box on Nov. 19, were sold in about an hour, said Richard Jones, the band’s manager.

The rush was a testimony to the loyalty of Pixies fans. But to manage the whole process online — including reaching out to a small subset of its mailing list and selling the tickets itself — the group turned to Topspin Media, one of a handful of technology companies that are transforming the way musicians do business by letting them market directly to their audiences.

The “direct to fan” connection has existed in various forms since the earliest days of the Web. But musicians and managers say that only in recent years, with the rise of companies like Topspin and its competitors — among them Bandcamp, FanBridge and ReverbNation — have the tools become sophisticated enough to run all aspects of a band’s online business. Among the services are selling tracks, running fan clubs and calculating royalty payments.

Ian Rogers, Topspin’s chief executive, says the ability of artists to efficiently market themselves online represents the next major phase of the digital music revolution, after programs like Pro Tools made it possible to record an album on a laptop and iTunes made download sales viable.

“The fundamental premise of the company is, if the production and distribution of music have already been disrupted by the Internet, how is technology going to serve marketing and retail?” said Mr. Rogers, who rides a skateboard and has a tattoo of the logo for NeXT Computer, the company Steven P. Jobs founded after being fired from Apple in the 1980s.

Topspin, which was founded in 2007 and operated by invitation until it opened to wide membership in March, offers bands customizable Web widgets to sell recordings, tickets and merchandise, as well as a detailed back-end accounting system. In July it also began working with the Sundance Institute to distribute independent films. Topspin charges 15 percent of sales plus an annual fee, and has signed up 15,000 acts, fewer than most of its competitors.

But Topspin, whose office in Santa Monica, Calif., is crammed with client memorabilia — a heavy Paul McCartney box set over here, a rack of custom-painted skateboards over there — is said to offer the most technologically advanced direct-to-fan system. And it has developed a specialty of bundling physical goods with downloads.

The company encourages bands to give songs away, wagering that curious fans will come back to buy more lucrative products like T-shirts or deluxe editions that can be combined at various price levels.

The company’s sales data seem to support that philosophy. Even with plenty of $2 videos and $10 posters for sale, the average transaction on Topspin brings in $26; when tickets are involved, the average is $88.

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