Beats Music Rolls Out Commerce Via Topspin

Through Topspin's platform, Beats Music lets verified artists promote their merchandise. Examples include Eminem's Deluxe LP, Nine Inch Nails' T-shirt and Skrillex's Limited Edition Triple Vinyl Box Set. 

Is Shamal Ranasinghe, the press-shy co-founder of Topspin Media, streaming music's new best friend? 

Nearly 12 months ago, Jimmy Iovine made a public promise to artists -- that Beats Music, the music service he co-founded, would directly connect musicians with fans listening to their albums on his service.

“I think that’s fair play,” Iovine said at a conference in a resort hotel overlooking the ocean in tony Dana Point, Calif.

When Beats Music launched on Jan. 21, Iovine fulfilled his promise -- thanks to Ranasinghe, whose ArtistLink program lets artists promote merchandise or tickets directly to Beats Music subscribers. The program, currently used by Nine Inch Nails, Beck and Skrillex, has been live on Beats Music’s Android app and is expected to roll out on its iOS version in early February.

Ranasinghe, the soft-spoken native of Sri Lanka with a passion for audio engineering, doesn’t exactly cut a heroic figure. But these days, the 42-year-old Stanford University graduate has been the go-to guy for rescuing streaming music services such as Spotify from a recent spate of high-profile artist backlash that’s threatening to stall the growth of subscription music.

Ranasinghe’s antidote is ArtistLink, a platform that lets artists connect directly with fans online to sell merchandise or tickets. Originally conceived at the start of the company in 2007 but shelved for lack of interest, Topspin’s ArtistLink program was resurrected late last year and has been in hot demand.

The Santa Monica, Calif., company recently reorganized its business to focus on the ArtistLink platform. It laid off 44% of its staff on Jan. 30 in an effort to return back to its roots as a technology platform company.

“ArtistLink is the original vision of Topspin,” said Ranasinghe, who co-founded Topspin with Peter Gotcher in 2007. “It focuses on the most critical problem for artists in helping them promote themselves on the web and find new fans. We’re bringing the company back to its original mandate.”

So far, ArtistLink is finding a receptive audience. Spotify in December launched ArtistLink on its platform to let bands sell merchandise to Spotify’s 24 million listeners. Among the bands who took advantage of the offer: Led Zeppelin, which promoted branded clothing; Lady Antebellum, who advertised “Music City Suds a Lady” gift sets; and Chris Mann, who sold autographed copies of his Christmas CD.

Topspin also had worked with Viacom’s MTV network to create a similar program for artists last year. All three versions work in similar ways. Spotify lets artists sell as many as three items at any given time, while Beats Music lets artists promote one item. Through Topspin, promotions are woven into the artists’ profile pages. Fans who click on the items are sent to the artists’ online stores to make purchases.

Artists don’t have to use the real estate on Beats Music or Spotify to just sell merchandise. They can also send fans to their official websites, social media pages or concert listings. Beats Music, however, doesn’t allow artists to send listeners to other music services, and Spotify doesn’t allow links to YouTube.

Neither Topspin nor the music companies charges artists for the service. Instead, Topspin uses the free service to help promote its $10-a-month subscription product, ArtistLink Premium, which lets artists keep track of more fans.

It’s also helping to solve a thorny issue for on-demand music streaming companies, whose model has come under heavy fire last year from individual artists who have been unimpressed with how much they are paid by streaming services. Thom Yorke, in an interview last year with Sopitas in Mexico, called Spotify a “gatekeeper” and “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse,” alluding to its licensing contracts with major labels.

Iovine, who has always been in tune with what artists want, is betting that the way to sidestep this controversy entirely may lie in giving artists a new outlet to make money and promote their music through Beats Music’s partnership with Topspin, which is already used by 80,000 bands.

“In this initial period before they are able to scale and grow, we all know revenues received are still relatively small,” acknowledged Richard Jones, manager for the Pixies, which uses Topspin to sell merchandise on streaming services. In the meantime, “however, the ArtistLink program can help bring additional revenue and another shop window for artists.”