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How Middle Class Musicians Navigate the Nodes on the Network: Topspin Media's CEO Ian Rogers Says "It Just Takes a Long Time"


I recently asked Ian Rogers, CEO of TopSpin Media, about the role of the press in music careers in the new era of the music industry. Topspin Media is a direct-to-fan marketing and retail service, so Ian observes a lot of bands stepping through the stages of development from unknown to known. Here’s what he had to say:

There is something massive going on, not just in the music business, but in all content creation. For a long time, we’ve been saying there’s a power shift from the label to the artist. Similarly, there is a power shift from the manufacturer to the publisher. And by publisher I mean Corey Doctorow’s definition: connecting content to an audience.

Downstream of that the cost of production has come down. You should have seen what my four-year- old daughter was doing on Garage Band this weekend. And the cost of distribution has come down; so my kid could put out her music with Topspin or TuneCore, using the same tools Trent Reznor is using. But the cost of marketing has gone up. You have consumers with infinite choices and reaching them is really challenging. The great part about the new world is there are fewer gatekeepers.
The flip side is that a lot of these publishers are not very powerful. So if all these things are true, then what you have is an increasing reliance on trusted sources by customers. That is the key element. That means that we as an audience are going to be more reliant on publishers. There is a huge opportunity there that is unrealized. After radio, Pitchfork is the most powerful player and there is a gigantic gap between trusted sources.

There are four classes of artists: the long tail that is emerging (sometimes emerging forever), the middle class, mainstream artists, and heritage artists, who were mainstream and now have built-in marketing. I think the middle class is the most exciting segment; those that don’t care about radio airplay but oftentimes are still successful, like Yeasayer and Beach House. There are countless people in that realm who are “successful” at 75,000-100,000 units. To get from middle class to mainstream, you have to make it over the hump in the mainstream media. There are a lot of interesting stories that have moved there; Phoenix and Mumford & Sons both started out as successful emerging artists. The Black Keys is a great example. They spent something like ten years in the middle class and then managed to get over that wall, mainly onto radio.

The point is that from a PR perspective you have to be practical in answering the question: what are you destined for? The one thing I have learned is IT JUST TAKES A LONG TIME. It never happens overnight. You want to be Metric? Are you prepared to starve and take a mortgage on your home for 5-6 years plus? Because you are not doing it in the next 12 months. You have to come to terms with the fact that it will take three to four records to get from where you are. People dismiss the first four years or so that it took Bon Iver to break. Even the Mumford & Sons record; that thing came out in 2009 and really only broke here in the U.S. in the beginning of this year. A lot of people think they will release a record and it’s going to be huge. I don’t think that ever happens. Not anymore.

Here’s my mental mode for this now: we’re all just nodes on a network. Some nodes are more valuable than others. I write about John Grant multiple times on my blog and the guy still can’t tour in the US. So clearly my blog node’s not that strong. If John Grant was written up as a top album on Pitchfork, he probably would be able to tour. And that John Grant record is better than a lot of the things that make the Pitchfork top list. But not everything can be there. There are only so many hours and so many writers. We are limited by our humanness.

Good music will find its high water mark. I asked Darius at Jagjaguwar what they did to make the Bon Iver record so successful. He said that record would have been successful on any record label; it’s a great record! But I think at the same time if they tried to release it on Warner Brothers and it hadn’t emerged the way it did, I don’t think it would have had the same resonance.

If all the publishers are nodes in this network, the order that you pass through in the network matters. You want to get to the right people first. The order in which you are introduced to the public matters.

The above excerpt is from my new book titled “Amplify Your Story: Getting More Press Through the Art of the Pitch,” which you can download for free here. The book includes Q&As with leaders from Fanbridge, Bandcamp, ReverbNation, CD Baby, Artist Data, and New Rockstar Philosophy as well as the method I developed for crystallizing the most compelling press angles for your band and music. Read Ian Rogers’ blog entry on the shifting meaning of being a “publisher” here. And watch his new web television show This Week in Music here.


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Reader Comments (3)

I was just listening to an interview with The Swell Season from 2008, thinking about Glen Hansard and his band The Frames. They spent 15 years in the emerging- and middle-class, and managed to build a loyal and sustainable (but small and limited) fan base among fans of literate, emotional songwriting, mostly in the UK. Then the movie "Once" came along, Glen's song won an Oscar, he formed The Swell Season & started selling out 3000-seat theaters all across the USA and headlining the Hollywood Bowl. He calls himself "a fifteen-year overnight success". The best part about the interview was that Glen (and his co-star Marketa Irglova) retained such a great sense of humility & perspective on their success. They were surprised by it, and they vowed not to take it for granted, but to make the most of this golden opportunity to keep growing & succeeding on their own terms.

The bands that Ian mentioned, Phoenix and Mumford & Sons, seem to also grasp this need for humility and perspective. Maybe their years paying dues in the trenches infused them with it. I think any band that gets a shot at "breaking big" and going from middle-class to mainstream needs to remember this, to keep their head on straight and keep their long-term best interests at heart. Doing so will help turn that "big break" into an opportunity for next-level sustainable growth.

August 15 | Unregistered CommenterJason Spitz

What a wonderful article. I've been a node of sorts (small blog) but I agree with most if not all of what has been written here. I think the main problem is that you still have a great amount of artist who are "emerging" or brand new who do not see this in a positive light. They want that "Major Deal" thinking it's the best option. Maybe as the process matures and the nodes get better they will see that having talent but no audience to share it with is the wrong way to approach your craft. Great post though I'm looking forward to reading the ebook.


August 16 | Registered CommenterSteve Lee

One aspect which irritates me in the US digital DIY discussion is that many artists who are being referred as DIY successes such as Mumford and Sons or Phoenix are as a matter of fact been enjoying major label support for years outside the US.

They've been marketed by major labels and only signed independent stateside. Yeasayer is EMI in the UK and Arcade Fire is marketed by Universal Music in the UK.

Felt the need to say because the likes of Bob Lefsetz like to think that Mumford was born out of the left rib of 'DIY'. Just setting some facts straight as often the most successful DIY acts are not that DIY after all.

August 17 | Unregistered CommenterNikke Osterback

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