I noticed an interesting trend at the MusicTech Summit in San Francisco this week: A lot of the talk over lunch and during hallway conversations wasn’t about the next big thing, about fancy Spotify apps or sexy mashups. Instead, people were busy talking about CRMs, CMS platforms and e-commerce.
Some of the companies that I ran across at the event included Official.fm, which helps artists to manage, publish and track their music online; Bandzoogle, which powers websites for musicians; and Cash Music, which wants to become a kind of WordPress-like open source CMS for bands. There was also lots of talk about licensing solutions, e-commerce apps and platforms that help bands to establish a more direct connection to their fans. You know, the nuts and bolts stuff. Much of it wouldn’t really be a very exciting story to tell on its own. But to me, it seemed like there was something bigger going on here.
To learn more, I sat down with Ian Rogers, who may be the perfect example for this new B2B focus. In a former life, Rogers managed the Beastie Boys. He went on to work for Nullsoft, the software company whose Winamp player was a key player in enabling the MP3 revolution. Rogers also worked as a GM of Yahoo Music some years back. He left the company in 2008 to start Topspin, which does marketing and retail for bands like Linkin Park and Sigur Rós and a whole bunch of other acts, many of which you’ll immediately recognize. If you ever see a band selling its T-Shirts on YouTube, chances are that those transactions are powered by Topspin.
Rogers told me that he decided to go into this space because of a huge untapped opportunity. “30,000 to 50,000 artists are making a living in the world,” he said, adding: “But there are millions of people who shop at Guitar Center.” Opening your very own online store may have seemed like a waste of time for the average bedroom musician just a few years ago, but then something interesting happened. A combination of online video and social media opened up new avenues to find a fan base around the world without investing a dime in traditional promotion. That’s huge, because it removed a key bottleneck: “Now you have people building businesses without radio,” explained Rogers.
Of course, an audience alone doesn’t guarantee that you can make a living, and new research from the Future of Music Coalition that was unveiled at the event showed that the majority of artists never see any money from services like Spotify. So is it really sustainable if every singer with a few thousand fans on YouTube wants to be a working musician? Rogers countered my question by asking: “Has it ever been sustainable?”
The good news is that there are more and more success stories, like the one of Nataly Dawn, who found fame on YouTube as part of the indie duo Pomplamoose. Dawn recently turned to Kickstarter to finance her solo album. She asked her fans for $20,000 – and got more than $100,000 instead. Dawn is not alone, but only one example for a new generation of bedroom musicians who use the Internet to connect with their audience. As they become more successful, these artists are starting to look for tools that help them make a living with music. That’s much less flashy than any story about disruptive streaming services, piracy or major labels clashing with their artists. But for music lovers, it points to a very exciting future.