Why Topspin Jumped the Shark

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It was so elegant on paper, so delightfully buzzy.

But the model of “ProTools for Music Marketing” never made sense.  As seductive as the idea was, it turns out that modern-day music marketing is far more complicated.  Sure, any artist can learn ProTools to create a recording, across virtually any genre.  But real internet marketing requires nuanced expertise, reactions to shifting variables, experimentation, and lots of strategic thinking.

It’s beyond the reach of a distribution and marketing supermachine.  People and their brains still matter in this game.  On top of that, off-the-street bands have shown little willingness to purchase higher-end services, that is, beyond the ‘basics’ like iTunes distribution.  That’s what entrepreneurs and investors keep telling us.

Which is also what Ian Rogers had to go back and tell his investors.  Remember, Rogers didn’t start Topspin, rather, he was plucked to construct the vision, and make everyone rich.  But one of the many mantras of Silicon Valley is that models change, often many times over, and a great CEO is one that can read the climate and adjust accordingly – and quickly.

Which is what Ian did.  While everyone was waiting for a universal, everyman Topspin platform, Rogers was figuring out the specifics of a more boutique play.  And what resulted was a select service, open to a few thousand artists, invite-only, with qualifications required at the door.  Which sort of sounded like a next-generation record label, complete with a smart digital distribution platform and the brains to operate it.  “Topspin is for marketers, not artists,” Rogers said last August.

Oh, Topspin will tell you that everything’s according to plan.  But this is a u-turn, and a decision to join the crowd.  Rogers and his smart staff could have managed the Paul McCartneys of the world for years, the ex-major label refugees that kept coming ashore.  Or, from the bottom, the promising acts that gained a substantial following and needed professional help.

Sounds like a nice boutique business with lots of innovative possibilities, but that’s not why investors get involved.  They want scale, big multiples, millions of users.  Or more importantly, they want to flip something hot.  But Bandcamp’s the one burning hot, FanBridge is drawing the funding, and ReverbNation’s got the population.  Ultimately, these may not be great models, but there’s just so much euphoria surrounding DIY!  But not Topspin’s upper-crust version of DIY, rather the blue-sky version that enables bands to become famous, leapfrog the labels, and support themselves many times over – all by themselves.  You know, the digital dream.

Well, it’s a dream that Topspin’s now chasing as well.  Just like everyone else.