You might know Rachael Yamagata as a performer who’s toured with The Swell Season, Sara Bareilles, Adam Cohen, and opened for David Gray solo at Madison Square Garden. You might also know her as a songwriter whose collaborated with Jason Mraz, Mandy Moore, Dan Wilson, Katherine McPhee, and sang on recordings by Rhett Miller, Bright Eyes, Dave Matthews, Ray LaMontagne and Ryan Adams. Rachael has put out three full length records both on and off major labels, and this past summer she enrolled in Berkleemusic’s Online Music Marketing with Topspin course. Berkleemusic’s fall 2012 term begins on September 24th.
Mike King: We’re ten weeks into the online course. What has your experience been like so far?
Rachael Yamagata: It’s been so good – I feel like if I had been this engaged in college I would have done much better! I’m super into it. There’s a bunch of people in the class that are coming from a tech background, and a variety of other musicians in there that provide great perspectives on marketing. It makes the weekly live discussions so interesting, and the material the students are posting is great. I’m all about it.
Before I took the class, I was trying to educate myself by watching YouTube videos of different online music marketing conferences. This course is a great master class overview on exactly what I was searching for, and it’s all super fascinating to me. I’ve had such a roller coaster ride in industry, and there have been times where I have been completely unaware of all of the new technologies or campaign ideas or where the money is going, and not really knowing the ins and outs or whys as much as I should have. I think a lot of artists are encouraged to not worry about it; they are encouraged to keep the creative and business side of the music business separate. I love the idea of looking at music as a purely creative endeavor, but I’ve had enough years in the business to know that it has ultimately been a disservice to me to not understand how the marketing and business works. It really changes fundamental business decisions. Having a team is great, but building up your own education is only going to help you.
MK: How did you find out about the course?
RY: My friend Kevin Salem. He’s my mentor and producer, and he’s been involved in music for 30 years. He’s seen me since the birth of career, and witnessed my experiences on two major labels to becoming independent. He’s seen all the transitions of my career, from playing for five people to playing for 1000 people.
He’s a DIY sort of guy when it comes to the business of music, and he was talking about Topspin as a great way to engage with fans, and was talking about the whole DTF idea, all terms I was sort of aware of, but because he suggested it I paid attention. I researched what Topspin was, and who uses it, and came upon the class in my research.
I released an indie record last year, my first one working as my own label. My team for that round was guided by management, MRI Distribution and RED. They did a fabulous job, but to extend my experience for future releases, particularly with DTF, I wanted to learn how Topspin could help. The technology associated with Topspin can be overwhelming at first, and I was concerned about whether or not I was qualified to even take the Topspin course. I have a great philosophical background and I have a lot of experience, but I was frightened of the tech part. So I reached out to the student advisors at Berkleemusic, and ultimately just took a chance, and I’m so glad I did. If I hadn’t enrolled, I’d probably still be sitting here fishing for tips on the Internet. It’s so much more of a class than I thought it would be.
MK: How so?
RY: First, it’s a great overview of the industry in general. The course bridges terms on the technology side, on the marketing side, and on the direct to fan side. It really brings it all together. Each lesson is totally focused on a particular area of marketing or business. For example – we have discussions on areas outside of DTF marketing, like third party online retail, and we talk about things like the pros and cons of Spotify. The focus areas are things all artists should think about. You also get the ability to have educated dialogue with your classmates and your instructor about the things that affect all artists. There are so many tools now to help expand your fan base. It’s huge
Every label, or manager, or advisor, in whatever way, they all have their own system for working. There is the old school way, and then there are the new Amanda Palmers of the world. There are varied options for moving forward in your career. This is an objective course, and it shows you how things are changing, and why some things have failed. It also shows you the potential options for the future, and let’s you decide what is best for your own career. The course does not have you adapt to a particular ‘one size fits all’ philosophy, as that is out dated. I find it all very empowering.
I’m working on my Spinshop online store right now, and I’m excited to have an outlet for creative releases that go beyond just the record download. With a new knowledge of things like data tracking, merch margins, and specifics about my fan base, I can create bundles of offerings that I think will be more in tune with what my fans are craving from me. To be able to turn my website into a supportive business platform in this way will offer more funding for things like touring and future releases. Also, compiling things like geographical data on my fan base allows me to get a better handle on places I should be touring that I may have missed. Again, the bird’s eye overview on your fan reach that you start to get by taking this course allows you to coordinate all sorts of campaign ideas with each other. You learn how to see what’s working and what isn’t, and get the tools to make smarter decisions all around.
MK: Can you talk about your instructor, Chandler Coyle?
RY: Chandler is so knowledgeable about technology, and how you can use technology to work for you to do something. Also, his overview on the broader campaign concepts is awesome. His insights on the assignments are super thorough, and he’s always making suggestions about things I may have missed. He does a great job of adding daily updates, and because of the articles that he is posting, I am now following some really fascinating tech folks. Coming from a place where music technology has scared me, it’s great. I am so interested in it now. He’s really good in showing you how technology is used effectively in the music business, and he does a great job of bringing it all forward. I think he’s been supportive of me too because I have been so engaged in the course. He’s always willing to expand on things.
Chandler provides a constant influx of great ideas, and I think it’s really good to have somebody acting as a moderator in the course. Having someone to tie these things together is invaluable. He’s great at bringing ideas down to earth.
MK: Can you give me a quick example of something that’s changed for you since you took the course?
RY: Sure. There was a morning a couple weeks back where I wanted to create an email for media widget. I’ve never pictured myself sitting back making widgets, but I built one pretty quickly, and I was able to get 100 new fans in an hour, on a Saturday. I couldn’t believe that I had just made something like that, and received that kind of response. The direct gratification is so important for an artist like me. I’ve always had webmasters, and I would have to wait two days to upload something. To be able to pull something off on my own is awesome. In the future, I can assign this sort of thing to someone else, if I want, but now I know the specifics about how it all works, and what can be done.