This past Fall I signed up for the Berklee TopSpin Course. Before I signed up, I looked for all kinds of feedback or reviews on the course, the only comprehensive one I could find was on Hypebot by Brian Coughlin of the band, Kinch. There were some short paragraphs in various Google Group and web related postings – but that was about it.
So here’s my take on the course and the TopSpin platform itself from my perspective as a songwriter, artist, musician but also as a digital media marketing strategist and artist manager/advocate.
Let’s start with the basics.
1) The Berklee online course costs around $1000. I believe they raised the cost about 10% since then. You can still get a 10% discount with some online coupons you can find from PROs and such on the net.
2) The course runs 12 weeks and is taught online via web based materials/curriculum/media.
3) You meet in a group setting at a pre-determined time once a week for about an hour online via WebEx, a web based conferencing tool.
4) There are assignments and discussions due once a week.
5) Questions are answered in a forum at the instructors convenience. One on one emails are also answered. But by far, most questions were encouraged in the forum or during the once a week online meetup.
6) When I was thinking about signing up for the course, I spoke to Mike King – who is the course director. However, at no time did we actually interact with Mr. King during the 12 week period. The actual course instruction was ably handled by Jason Kadlec who owns his own Direct To Fan (DTF) marketing company, DTFWorks.
From my perspective, the course actually covers two things:
1) How to use and optimize TopSpin.
The software package and interface has a steep learning curve. This course helps alleviate some of that.
2) Best practices of music marketing.
To me, this is the real value of the course. I’ll start with the best practices segment.
If nothing else, the final week of the course when you have to build a campaign for a band or artist, is worth the entire price of admission (or maybe half the admission). You get to put together all the stuff you learned and worked on over the previous 12 weeks. You also have to be realistic about goals and expectations based on your current reach.
Topics covered were:
- Building Your Online Presence
- Fan Acquisition
- "Brand" Awareness
- Tools to Measure Metrics
- Social Media and so on.
It is incredibly comprehensive and there are also relevant case studies. I think every musician could benefit from just this information alone.
Next up, the software platform itself. To maximize the benefits of TopSpin, you would ideally have to be part WordPress or CMS ninja, part marketing pro and part PR or social media maven. Not to mention musician – if you are the artist. You really are better off working with a TopSpin marketing partner to optimize the platform. But once optimized, the returns can be astounding.
TopSpin is one mamma jamma of a marketing platform. It can handle everything from fan acquisition to ticketing. Some functions better than others but certainly most everything you could imagine. There are odd omissions such as variable pricing for products. One would think that would be an easy addition, but as of yet there is nothing imminent on that front.
Everything in TopSpin works in Flash/HTML5 interaction widget modules called "Spins." You need a good understanding of how they work in order to customize and optimize for different environments. You will learn a lot of that in this course, but you’re also gonna a learn a lot on the fly and in the support forums.
Some things on the platform are really easy to implement – like an email for media (E4M) widget. Others like setting up your store catalog and then connecting it to an offer page and your Facebook fan page are bit more involved.
The Facebook for Media (F4M) spin is another great fan acquisition and engagement widget. It allows a prospective fan to "Like" the band or artist in exchange for a download or product bundle. It also allows the fan to share said download with their friends on Facebook.
You can also install a TopSpin store within your Facebook fan page with the help of a TopSpin spin and WordPress TopSpin plugin. This is just an incredible way to leverage your Facebook reach and "funnel" folks back to your own web site.The TopSpin and Facebook commerce connection is a little kludgy to implement but works really well.
The Twitter spin has been disabled since late last year because it was buggy and wasn’t reliable.
Where I think TopSpin shines though is that you can get data, metrics and analytics on each one of those spins and can fine tune your marketing to optimize all your digital touch points.
At some point however, if you are to maximize the potential of the platform, you will probably need a web marketing guru/developer or TopSpin platform music marketing expert . That is if you yourself are not one already.
It’s obvious that Jason Kadlec is one such expert. It’s also obvious that this course is not his No.1 priority. Although he was always professional, occasionally our weekly online interactions seemed hurried and distracted. He has his own business to run and maintain. I got the feeling that when push came to shove, the course was relegated to second place when there was a paying client that needed his attention. I don’t fault him for it. I would do the same thing. But it’s something that prospective students should be aware of in weighing the pros and cons of signing up.
There was still a lot of TopSpin "ninja" stuff that I wouldn’t have learned if not for Kadlec and this course, such as the best format in which to upload music (it’s Apple Lossless). But it was also obvious that Kadlec was vested in the TopSpin company line. One example is the TopSpin email tool. It is downright prehistoric & cryptic compared to things like MailChimp and even Reverbnation’s Fan Reach Pro. When I brought it up in discussions, Kadlec said it was sufficient. Compared to MailChimp, Reverbnation or even FanBridge? I don’t think so.
To their credit they’re exploring a MailChimp API. But when a platform can do ticketing and VIP access – but then drops the ball on email. It makes you wonder. They obviously can monetize ticketing and VIP access, but can’t justify that investment in a better email tool since the ROI would be minimal.
However, if they could only see that a better email app would drive better conversions and traffic to the other monetizable segments, that would be a good step forward in their thinking. Email permission marketing is still the most effective tool in the world of direct to fan digital marketing.
The other thing I learned from Kadlec was that as far as ticketing goes, a "will call" list works just as fine as an iPhone scanner. Unless of course, you are The Pixies. In which case, you’ll be spending a lot of time looking for names on lists. Incidentally, the scanner software is not as of this writing available for the Android platform.
Scott Feldman from Nimbit did a head to head "smackdown" between TopSpin and Nimbit. I agree with some of his observations and disagree with some others. But he faced some of the same obstacles I predict naive users will face due to lack of preparation and education. But it was also hard to tell if he was truly a "neutral" observer in this comparison since he was on Nimbit’s payroll at the time (not clear if he still works for them).
All of which makes the latest TopSpin development a bit bewildering.
Just last week Ian Rogers – TopSpin’s CEO announced that the platform will be open to all somewhere around South by Southwest.
As I mentioned before the software has a somewhat steep learning curve. Not all of it certainly. But in order to get the best results the bits and parts need to be implemented properly and with a plan. This would require an in-depth understanding of the platform, WordPress (or some other CMS) and possibly FBML (or whatever comes next).
If not, I predict a high percentage of subscribers will abandon ship for something easier to use like BandCamp. I believe TopSpin has more premium features and is ultimately a more robust platform. But I also believe BandCamp coupled with something like MailChimp (free up to the first 1000 subscribers) has plenty of functionality for the average working class (is that the same as middle class?) musician, artist or songwriter.
Combining them with a site builder type web site like BandZoogle, Square Space or Virb – and that would be a potent enough tool set for a musician or artist with a small to mid sized following to build a career.
I’m fairly certain they can expect musicians to pay the $9.99 + 15% a month. Mostly because the marketing/PR arm of TopSpin has made it very "sexy" to be on the platform. Especially because Paul McCartney, Arcade Fire and a whole of other high profile artists have used the platform to great effect. But they had great results precisely because they are high profile artists. There will be a lot of work needed to get a working to middle class musician the same amount of return on TopSpin.
In either case, if I had known about this launch – I might have chosen to invest my $1000 elsewhere. Though the course itself had some very valuable info in terms of digital media marketing and strategy, the present economic realities would have likely dictated I spend the money elsewhere.
I signed up because TopSpin made it very clear that it was the best and only way to gain access to the platform and learn the best practices for utilizing it short of teaming up with a third party marketing partner. Now they turn around and say that it’s totally fine for a novice on the platform to sign up for $9.99 and just begin using it. Frankly I feel misled, if not by word – then by deed.
Don’t get me wrong, TopSpin is awesome…in the right hands. Nothing is gonna spontaneously happen just because you have TopSpin. TopSpin can help your brand awareness, fan engagement & fan acquisition campaigns but only if you understand how to implement and run said campaigns and if you understand your fan base.
But this still doesn’t guarantee positive results for everybody that will sign up. This is a high risk, high reward move on their part. And it’s just Ian Rogers’ style. I admire him because of it. But I believe they could have handled the whole thing better with the presently installed customer base.
For certain, there will be a lot of artists and musicians that are gonna be happy that TopSpin is now "open" to all. But I also predict that a significant number will be disillusioned fairly soon thereafter when they don’t see a significant bump in sales or don’t garner a following as large as say Arcade Fire’s. They’ll figure out that it was not the magic bullet that they thought it was gonna be when they signed up.
Ian Rogers made that very clear in his recent New Music Seminar talk. Potential customers need to watch/read this. They’re even offering $5000 to the best plan (there’s that word again). I suspect that they will then use the winner’s plan and some others that are submitted to illustrate how to use the platform properly.
But that’s different then actually knowing how to implement these best practices and run a campaign. Read my dear friend Paul Schatzkin’s thoughts on TopSpin and Ian’s talk.
And to be fair and balanced, here is a TopSpin friendly piece about the platform from a digital media marketing manager at Red Light Management.
So there’s my 2 cents on the course and the platform. I encourage you to try the platform out. Depending on what I need for whom, I dip into all the above tool sets. In fact, I’ve used a blend of Bandcamp (variable pricing), Reverbnation(email collector) and TopSpin(FB Like) tools for one site, because each particular piece did what it did extremely well.
There are also others creeping into this tech space. Nashville’s own MoonToast is touting it’s Facebook Social Commerce platform. It will be interesting to see how this year plays out for all of the above and more.
But the thing I’m most excited about and really want to see succeed is CASH Music. The open source music marketing platform and code effort run as a non profit. I think this will be the future of music marketing at least at street level.
So should you sign up for the course? I guess it depends on what resources you have available to you. Can you obtain the information necessary to run competent campaigns and gain in-depth knowledge on how to get TopSpin to do your bidding without signing up for the course? That is a question only you can answer. Hopefully, this article helps you decide.
As always, your mileage may vary. Would love to hear your thoughts.