TopSpin – A Review from Berklee to Implementation

Wed, Feb 23, 2011

Reviews, Technology

berkleeThis past Fall I signed up for the Berklee TopSpin Course. Before I signed up, I looked for all kinds of feedback or reviews on theTopSpin 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.

The Basics

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.

Mike King recently spoke at MIDEM.

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
  • Engagement
  • Distribution
  • 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.

TopSpin

topspin

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).

Open Platform

All of which makes the latest TopSpin development a bit bewildering.

rogersJust 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.


Watch BandCamp’s Ethan Diamond talk about the platform (courtesy of HypeBot)


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.

2011-2-16 New Music Seminar rev2.008

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.

CASH Graphic

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.

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This post was written by:

Charles Alexander - who has written 45 posts on Outside The Box Music.

Charles Alexander is a performing songwriter, music entrepreneur and digital media marketing strategist. He was born in Malaysia and lives in Nashville. He recently bought a shinier, new vocabulary. He can also be bribed with "gulab jamuns" and an insulin chaser.

Contact the author

11 comments
Mike King
Mike King

Hi Charles,

Great piece, and excellent feedback I can use to make the course better. I wouldn't say I'm the "course director" though. I wrote the course with input from Topspin, and am constantly updating the material so the course is as up to date as possible. The course is limited to 20 students per section, and Jason and I split up the teaching duties currently.

I'm really happy that you felt the best practices in the course were valuable. The way that I went about creating the course was to have as complete an overview as possible in regards to online marketing techniques, and then present how you could use these techniques specifically with the Topspin platform. That being said, I'm a fan of Mail Chimp as well, and I think that there are many options for musicians in terms of tools that can complement what is in Topspin. For example, I'm a big fan of what Bandzoogle is doing to make website creation easier, and I really like what Root Music is doing to help with greater music visibility on Facebook. I think Topspin is one part of the way forward with online music marketing, and I really do think that they have a tool set that is more advanced in many ways than anyone else. They're constantly updating their tool kit, and I am really looking forward to the updates that will be announced around sxsw.

There is no magic bullet of course, and every path to success is different. It was interesting to read the Fitz and the Tantrums story on Lefsetz, and their success with non-comm radio. Really brings it back to the point that online music marketing is just one part of the complete integrated music marketing plan, you know? Some of the same stuff I was talking about in the MIDEM presentation.

Anyway - thanks for taking the time to write this up. I loved reading it. Drop me a line if you have any additional feedback for the course.

Mike

Paul Schatzkin
Paul Schatzkin

I gotta hand it to Charles, he has very comprehensively summed up all the strengths and weaknesses of what we might call "the Topspin Complex." With emphasis on the "complex" part.

Starting with his assessment of the Berklee Topspin course -- which I happened to take at the same time as Charles -- he correctly illustrates that the Topspin platform is so arcane that it takes a college-level course to even begin to work its magic. To say that "the software package and interface has a steep learning curve" greatly understates the case. Unless you've got a trained professional by your side, or have countless hours to devote to sorting it all out yourself, the Topspin platform borders on impenetrable. The Berklee course is at least slightly helpful in that regard.

I don't have quite the quarrel that Charles has with either the actual implementation of the course. Nor do I take any exception to the anticipated release of a more "public" version of what until now has been a closed (i.e. "in beta") platform. I think the instructor (Jason Kadlec) did an adequate job of walking us through the byzantine intricacies of implementing the Topspin platform. But more than anything, he demonstrated the importance of having a trained professional holding your hand as you try to navigate the Topspin environment.

In that sense, I suppose, the whole class could be construed as a $1K promotion for Jason's business, because by the time you're done with the class, your most compelling take away is that "I need to hire Jason" (or somebody like him). But therein lies the perhaps the greatest potential of the class: By offering the class, Berklee and Topspin are seeding the landscape with the next generation of little Jasons (insert "Friday the 13th" theme music here…)

I do not concur with Charles' "bait and switch" assertion. I did not feel burned when Topspin announced it was going to throw its doors open for $9.99/mo, in part because I did not take the course primarily as a way to open a Topspin account. To the contrary, anybody who has taken the course should see a great opportunity in the impending public release. The vast legion of new users who will soon buy into the Topspin hype and pile on to the platform will find they need "professional help" -- a Topspin enabled therapist, of sorts. Those people who have been through the course (and paid closer attention to the particulars, like Charles did) will find a business opportunity as the platform is opened to the musical public.

The greatest benefit of the course is indeed the "best practices" component, none of which is contingent on using Topspin. Those practices can be put to use using any of the platforms that are available now, or a combination of them, as Charles describes.

From my own experience - and, again, as Charles attests - where Topspin really goes off the rails is with its e-mail module. I have spent a fair amount of time investigating many e-mail services, and I have to say, I find the Topspin module to be the lamest of the bunch. There are no templates, and worst of all, there is no way to save either a template or a campaign-in-progress. That is unfathomable to me. You have to either finish the project when you start it, or start over. For a platform that puts such tremendous emphasis on gathering e-mail addresses and utilizing them for "direct to fan" marketing, that the actual e-mail component is so nearly unusable is inexplicable.

I also found it confounding that Topspin stresses the use of the Apple Lossless file format. The one time I tried to set up an "Email4Stream" widget, the attempt failed because the platform would not let me stream from an MP3 file. Huh, what? I don't care that Topspin wants to advocate higher-end audio quality, that requirement strikes me as totally unnecessary. We're not in any kind of audiophile environment here, so a universal format seems much more utilitarian. This is just one more way that Topspin complicates something that should be easy and straightforward.

Beyond the specifics of the platform, the real weakness embodied in the whole Topspin approach is that it replicates the now obsolete, industrial-era conventions of the 20th Century record business: it's mostly about selling products. Yes, the "best practices" models stress "building relationships." But once those relationships are formed, there's not a whole lot that Topspin offers to "monetize" (god, how I hate that word) those relationships other than selling units of "stuff - some physical, some digital - in various bundled configurations. For example, there's no subscription model, nor long-term patronage mechanism, no "crowd funding" component other than the "pre-sale." Ultimately, all you can do is sell stuff. So it's a very elaborate approach to what remains essentially a dying model.

I heartily commend Charles for the effort he has taken to provide an objective, down-in-the-trenches assessment of a very powerful, but very complex, platform. I hope that anybody who is considering climbing on the the shiny new Topspin train as it gets ready to leave the station can find their way to this post.

Jason Kadlec
Jason Kadlec

Charles:

I also appreciate the honest review of the course. I'm glad you got some good ninja tips, but I'm sorry to read that you have the impression that the course was not my number one priority.

If you will allow me a moment to respond to that / explain why I think the course is a good investment, even after Topspin goes self serve --

Most of the feedback I've received from students who have taken the course has been very positive. I believe this is because I do put a lot of time and effort into giving every student specific feedback on each assignment turned in. I try to give feedback that can be directly applied to improving results.

Those who take the course benefit not only from specific feedback on their assignments, but also benefit from being able to see the responses and feedback to other students.

Every student has open access to post any and all questions to the course forum and I answer every question posted there or sent to me directly.

Chats are one hour long - though most go over that time allotted as I'll generally keep chats open as long as there are questions that need to be answered.

Of course I do work with clients as well, so I'm not able to go past the hour each and every time.

The fact that I'm always working with clients means that the advice and feedback I'm giving is based on current experience.

As for my towing the company line...It's no secret that I'm a fan of the platform, and of the people who build it. I worked with many of the people there both as an employee and as an Ecosystem partner, so perhaps I am biased.

That said, I don't disagree that MailChimp offers a more fully featured email program.

I've also made a few requests in http://getsatisfaction.com/topspin for some additional email functionality that I'd like to see.

In our discussion, I only wanted to make the point that I've run very successful email campaigns using Topspin's email system and others have as well, and in that regard I maintain it is sufficient.

Again, thanks for taking the time to write up the article - and by the way, I like the new site, major improvement over what you were using when you started the course no?

Jason

ian c rogers
ian c rogers

Hi Charles,

Really great article. Honest and fair, no hyperbole. I love seeing this. Great resource for musicians.

Sorry if you felt there was a bait/switch there. Truth is we've been planning to open more broadly since, well, since day 1. We've been trying to build the breadth of features and get operational kinks out before opening up. We definitely never meant for "get an account" to be the big carrot in the Berklee course. I feel badly you felt regretful.

We've really tried to improve the UI and add more help for folks before the self-serve launch. We've also added some new features which make it easier to get basic campaigns going. I'd love to get your eyes on these before SXSW. Please reach out to me and we'll get a demo going via Skype week after next. I'd love getting your feedback.

Thanks so much for writing this. Hope to see you soon.

ian

Charles Alexander
Charles Alexander

Hey Mike,

Thanks for being here. Yes, I felt like the course could work with any music marketing platform. I thought Jason did a great job with respect to imparting that information.

I also agree that not one thing is the answer. Having TopSpin won't make you the most buzzed about band out there on the net, anymore than me having a Stratocaster is gonna make me Clapton.

Also concur that BandZoogle is a great platform. David has really brought it up a few notches in the last year or so. I'm gonna teach a hands on workshop series using BZ as the base of operations for musician/artist types. I'm not affiliated with them in anyway, just a fan.

But I really want to see TopSpin succeed, to me it's the closest thing out there to a complete solution. It just needs some minor and not so minor modifications. Especially if it's going public.

Thanks again.

Charles Alexander
Charles Alexander

Hey Paul,

as always well thought out and far more eloquent than what I'm capable of verbalizing. Thanks.

Charles Alexander
Charles Alexander

Hey Jason,

Great to hear from you. You're always welcome here :-)

I want to make it clear here that I do like the platform as much as or perhaps even more than some others. I also want to make it clear that I learned much from you.

But I also think it's important folks completely know at least one person's personal experience with the TopSpin platform and the course in it's entirety.

A $1000 is a lot of money for most of us - I hope this post helps paint a fuller picture.

I tried very hard to present a balanced viewpoint and not to just gripe. It ended up being a long, long post - which I'm typically not a fan of. But I felt like I needed to present an appropriate context and background for my thoughts on the subject.

I'm not saying I regret spending the money. But then again, I'm not saying I'm completely satisfied with my investment either. I guess in many ways the jury is still out and it remains to be seen based on how things play out over the next few months.

What I hope this does is give people a chance to make a more informed decision.

As for the site, this is different than the artist web site. Which is pretty much still a work in progress :-) Check that out at http://www.charlesalexander.com

Charles Alexander
Charles Alexander

Hey Ian,

Thanks for the comment. To be clear, I don't this was an intentional bait and switch scam. I just wish communication was a lot more forthcoming and transparent with the present user base. That's all.

Will be in touch.

Charles

Trackbacks

  1. [...] friend Charles Alexander has just just posted this very detailed assessment of the Topspin “direct to fan” music marketing platform, and the Berklee School of [...]

  2. [...] fine tune your marketing to optimize all your digital touch points,” Alexander wrote in an extensive analysis. “Topspin is one mamma jamma of a marketing platform. It can handle everything from fan [...]

  3. [...] First presenter up is Charles Alexander, he is a performing songwriter, music entrepreneur, bioinformaticist and blogger. His session at Podcamp Nashville 2011 is Music Marketing Platforms – A Quick Hit Comparison. He recently wrote the article Musician – A Musician’s Guide to Podcamp Nashville and was quoted by HyperBot.com about his article reviewing TopSpin. [...]

  4. [...] platform has its own strengths and weaknesses. You can read in depth about his thoughts on Topspin here. The main idea was to have a plan. Create a plan and use the tools that fit it [...]