Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Interview Ian Rogers, TopSpin Media
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Ian Rogers is the CEO of Topspin Media (www.topspinmedia.com), a venture backed, Santa Monica-based startup developing web applications for the music industry. Topspin is backed by Redpoint Ventures and The Foundry Group. Rogers is the former GM of Yahoo Music, and sat down with us to talk about the company and his view of the music business and where it is going.
What's the idea behind Topspin Media?
Ian Rogers: The company was founded by Peter Gotcher, who founded DigiDesign in the 1980's, which really changed the face and revolutionized digital production. DigiDesign created Pro Tools, which most albums are recorded these days, and made it so that instead of having to produce music in a handful of studios, you literally could do it on any computer. What we're trying to do with Topspin, is to do for digital marketing what Pro Tools did for digital production. We're building a toolset that allows artists to build their own businesses. Future artists are really much more in charge of their own businesses, and instead of giving up control to something like a record label or another company, they are going to need a tool set to manage their relationship with fans, find new fans, and measure what they're doing as a business--to figure out if it's working, zero in on what they need to do. As such, we're focused on what we call the "middle class" of artists--artists who can earn a decent living from their art--and to try to give them the toolset that can make that work. It's a fairly large group of artists. They may not be interesting to the traditional labels, because they don't get enough radio airplay, but they still have fans, and a passion about art, music, and what they do. We really want to help those artists earn a living.
By toolset, what do you mean?
Ian Rogers: What we're really building is three different products. We're not talking about all of them publicly yet, but generally speaking, the first is a fan relationship management and direct marketing tool. That's the one you see when you go to Everythingthathappens (www.everythingthathappens.com), the album that David Byrne and Brian Eno just released using our technology. If you go to Topspinmedia.com you can see other releases, which include The Dandy Warhols , Futureheads, Jubilee, a new soundtrack from Lionsgate, plus plenty of other stuff. Everythingthathappens.com is the best showcase of what someone can do with technology. That's really the first product. The second attacks the holy grail, and we're not talking too much about it yet, since we're still in the lab and it's yet not released. However, everyone in the industry agrees the hard part of the future is getting above the noise, and reaching people who might like the music you're putting out. Both big and small artists have this issue, which is how do you get in front of everybody to let them know about what you are offering. The third piece is really getting arms around the business from an analytics perspective, and having the tools to measure what you care about as an artist, and zero in on what is and isn't working.
You've gotten quite a bit of attention given your prior position at Yahoo -- why'd you leave Yahoo for a startup, and why Topspin?
Ian Rogers: To be clear, I started a year ago in June, and had left Yahoo in April. The company had a good head start on me. The reason I joined is I saw a really high quality team I could learn a lot from. In terms of the market, and what I saw, and why I left Yahoo--which is very consumer facing--and didn't take a position at another consumer facing company instead, is I look at the other end of the value chain, where media is being created. For me, I see a very different position from being at Yahoo, and dealing with major music industry labels, who are in tremendous flux right now. They're trying to figure out what their business is going forward, and how to license their content. It's very difficult. It's no secret that it's very difficult to get and maintain rights to a large catalog of audio. At Yahoo we had a subscription service, digital downloads, and a radio business we fought and fought and fought over. We ended up in court, and in more ways than one--not just with lawsuits but in rate court. We had a music video business, where rates were going up, but there was less product, and the product was available in more places. It was a very tough business, and it was only getting tougher. From the consumer side, I think there is a lot of turmoil yet to come as business models get sorted out. On the other end of the spectrum, you actually have a constituency of people, artists who want your help, who want options and a software solution. Personally, life is short, and I want to work with people who want my help, rather than the other way around. It was a relatively easy decision for me personally. I also was coming full circle. I started out of college, working with artists and artist managers. I worked with a manager in LA, John Silva, and many of his artists. I spent most of my time with the Beastie Boys, but also worked with others, and it was full circle for me. I really enjoy working with artists and managers. We also do a lot of work with labels, and we have many artists who are on labels and have a great relationship with labels here. We just had lunch with a friend at Universal, and it's not at all a tenuous relation with labels--we don't see that we're competing with labels, but it's much different working on a particular project with one artist, than trying to get to terms to license an entire catalog of millions of songs. It's a different business.
We understand you're actually doing some picking of the artists you will work with?
Ian Rogers: Eventually, this will be self serve, but we're a long way from that. We want to be prepared to open the gate and give the same level of service to all artists. In the meantime, we are working with artists that really lend well to what they do. David Byrne is a perfect example. There are others we haven't announced yet that you'd be impressed with. We pick artists we know that can really add a lot of value, and who are going to really grow the business, and want to have a professional solution. Our goal is not be a SNOCAP and when we open the doors have 40,000 bands come in, and take up lots of disk space, and create lots of customer service volume, but not have a large number of fans. We're starting at the middle class of artists, who have a meaningful business, and will work from there. Once we have self-serve, everyone will be welcome to come, and hopefully we'll have artists who will move from having a couple of fans to hundreds of thousands on our system, but we want to make sure the system is helpful for them before we invite them in and take up their time.
Tell us a little bit about the dynamics of the music business as you see it?
Ian Rogers: That's a good question. The only thing that is really known, is the old way is not the new way. The new way hasn't presented itself yet. There are tons of ways to look at the music industry going forward. The three main tenants of the music industry were high barrier to entry-- gone; cost of production making it hard to get into the market--gone; and that distribution would be expensive--gone. By high barrier to marketing, I mean that it was hard to get into the limited space channels that were radio and MTV, and that is gone with the Internet. They're still important, but they're decreasing. The importance of people finding things through friends, and access through music blogs, discovery through music sites or Pandora and other ways is increasing. In a way, the cost of production and manufacturing and distribution is decreasing. But, marketing is getting harder and harder. Where we fit in, is we have a toolset to market to existing fans, to find new fans, and to help measure it and see if the whole thing works or not.
The trend, on the macro level with iTunes or whatnot, is we're still going to see tons of interesting products--like iTunes, Imeem, MySpace Music, and more to come. We're just at the very beginning. The new format hasn't been established yet, and I think it will continue to improve and music will become more compelling digitally, and easier to use. We've gotten rid of DRM, but also made it more fun to consume. Brian Eno just released today an iPhone application, which allows you to experience and create ambient music. To me, that's the tip of the iceberg in terms of really interesting types of creative platforms for artists. Music will become less of a commodity where you just hit play and hear music. There might be a turnkey download from iTunes, Amazon, or Internet radio, but it think that will be really basic. I think people who actually love music will figure out more and more ways to love music, and ultimately, that's a good thing for culture.
How much of an issue to you run into of people in the music business not understanding the Internet and technology? It seems like there's been a big gap between the technology folks and the music business.
Ian Rogers: It's a much different place than when I started working with John Silva. Back then, he had no computer, and the only way he could see the work I was doing was to walk down the hall to someone's office. I was in John Silva's office two days ago, and he has a technology person on staff, and while I was in his office on of his artists was on the phone, and the artist had created a video for a single released that day, and they were discussing how to get that online in just a couple of hours. It's a big difference, and big change from where we were in 1993 and 1994. We still have some distance to go, and you've nailed it--frankly, that's the value of what we're doing. The majority of our company is engineering, not marketing or services. There's a lot of people in the space, who will provide services--there are third party marketing services like On Target Media here in Los Angeles, or Wiredset in New York, or the management company themselves, or other people in the value chain like agencies, or even new companies that will step up. What we want to do, is to be the innovation and technology arm, and bridge that gap.
We have offices in San Francisco, and we are on video conferences five or six hours a day bridging the gap between the Bay Area technology and Los Angeles media. You've nailed it, that's exactly what we're trying to do--to be the bridge. We were talking with Universal Music the other day, and they told us they don't want to build technology, because they're not a technology company. It's a different company that knows how to build software, and you have to have a certain stomach for it, be in it for the long haul, and need to know how to manage engineers, manage software production, release cycles, and all that sort of stuff. That's the expertise that we want to bring and apply to the problem, and which we want to supply to the industry. We are going to amortize that effort across all the players in the space, and provide a solution for the industry, something that they wouldn't be able to invest in individually as a one-off.