Does Direct-to-Fan Marketing Really Work?

topspin-logoThe knock on direct-to-fan music marketing toolkit developer Topspin Media has always been that its tools work better for major label refugees and other established acts than for developing artists seeking to build an audience. The company, which offers “CRM-for-bands” tools that help sell deluxe editions and unique digital releases for the likes of Eminem, David Byrne and the Beastie Boys, has signed up more than 250 acts since launching last year. But now Topspin can point to Britain’s Fanfarlo as a case study of how it helped a band win over new listeners, garner it a growing international fan base, and ultimately earn it a major label record release. It’s a compelling example of how a worthwhile artist can use technology to get new fans, but only time will tell whether Fanfarlo’s story is a fluke — or an example of a path that independent bands looking to catch a break need to follow.

Topspin revealed some numbers recently that show Fanfarlo’s growth over a short period last spring, when the band offered its new album “Reservoir” as a $1 download in exchange for an email address. Fanfarlo and its fans spread the word using Topspin’s widgets and related social media tools, and got a push from its admirers in Icelandic band Sigur Ros, which has a much larger audience. In a matter of a few weeks, the band’s digital sales jumped to 13,000 from less than 850, mostly at the ultra-cheap price point. Sold-out club dates in major American cities followed, and Fanfarlo inked a deal with Canvasback Records, whose new relationship with Warner Music Group-owned Atlantic Records resulted in a reissue of “Reservoir” this week.

Fanfarlo hasn’t sold a ton of records, but it has engaged an audience of early adopters. Topspin estimates that 30 percent of album buyers came via Sigur Ros’s introduction, and acknowledges that Fanfarlo’s publicity organization helped boost its popularity, too. But the unique campaign conducted with Topspin’s tools certainly deserves a large share of the credit for the multifold growth in its U.S. audience, creating the buzz that led to concert ticket and merchandise sales, and ultimately making labels interested enough to forge a deal with the band. Given the bleak album sales numbers floating around recently, Fanfarlo’s album could end up being among the top 1 percent bestsellers of 2009.

How repeatable is Fanfarlo’s story? Topspin says another band is already doing something similar with its toolbox, and the idea of pricing developing artists’ records well below the typical iTunes album rate is clearly catching on. What’s more, the things Fanfarlo did right are characteristic of what many growing startups do: create something good, establish relationships, make it easy to spread the word and stay in front of people so that they pay for something later. Innovative marketing aside, however, “Reservoir” is artistically worthwhile, which differentiates the band from most of what else is floating around out there. The sales model itself surely wouldn’t have worked without the record being good. (Topspin’s No. 1 rule remains “Don’t suck.”)

In the end, though, Topspin’s model still might be best-suited to the Eminems and Beasties of the world. The company’s planned self-serve product for artists was due awhile ago, but has been put off until next year, and there’s reason to doubt that it will have as much revenue impact as originally anticipated. And for Fanfarlo, the story has only just begun; a record contract can bring a handsome payday, but it can also create new expectations that few bands can fulfill. At the very least, they’ll get their shot.