When Van Toffler looks at the music business he sees "an industry that’s hurting and lost its way." Unlike the rest of us, as president of Viacom Music and Logo Group who overseas MTV, VH1, CMT, Logo, Toffler can actually do something about it. That’s why over the past five years, Toffler’s played Johnny Appleseed, investing staff and resources in a variety of digital initiatives that aim to bring fans closer to the artists they love, on the device of their choosing.
Some, such as MTV’s POSTED which provides music fans with a one-stop hub to find social media updates, the Music Meter, a platform for fans to discover the top 100 trending bands every day, and MTV Hive another one-stop that serves up music news, interviews, exclusive live performances, original video series, and mp3s, are all still growing. Others, such as (mystifying, experimental) Virtual MTV and digital music store Urge, flopped.
Toffler’s undaunted. In fact, he’s optimistic. This is week two of a quiet public beta launch of Artists.MTV, a "digital homestead" for musicians—both established and emerging—to tap MTV’s vast network of 60 million digital fans who can listen to and buy music, concert tickets, and merchandise. Finally, says Toffler, it’s a way that MTV can put money directly into the pockets of artists.
So what took MTV so long? "With any great notion, from concept platform, you have to fail a bunch before you get there," Toffler says, "But it didn’t take me long at all," he adds with a laugh. "Our audience has all the content they can eat—without the context. We continued to apply our strong suit," he explains, a combination of "robotic algorithms with a human touch" that aids the process of discovery and now, hopefully, revenue.
Shannon Connolly, senior vice president of digital music strategy for Viacom, gave Co.Create a quick tour of the features of the site which she calls an "anchor" for the "incredible amount of programming we have that introduces artists to fans." Clicking rapidly through the site, Connolly says there are now close to 1 million dedicated artist pages featuring archived videos, news, and facts. "It’s more powerful than just an info page," she asserts, pointing out that to search for a particular thing, all you have to do is start typing anywhere on the page. What pops up is that artist’s page with a navigation bar that includes genre, hometown, and the year they began performing. Click any one of those to discover other artists with similar sounds or who emerged at the same time.
Obviously, Lady Gaga’s page is filled with archived footage and photos from MTV events and her album catalog doesn’t have a click to download tracks to listen to or buy. That’s because she hasn’t claimed her page yet, says Connolly. But the platform gives artists the ability to customize their page with a banner as well as upload their own videos, tour information, and music tracks directly to the site. Artists.MTV’s back-end architecture has a built-in feature for analytics, so musicians can measure the results of their engagement efforts.
Rather than build the platform from scratch ("We’re not a tech company, we can’t build all of this ourselves," Toffler says), MTV partnered with Topspin Media. The company already operates a site that allows artists to sell directly to fans. While Topspin’s site requires some degree of tech savvy, Artists.MTV has a simpler interface for those who prefer to stick to composing music rather than learning code.
As for how artists make bank, Toffler maintains that Topspin’s service allowed artists to keep "the lion’s share" of revenue earned. Currently, the basic Topspin service costs $99.99 a year and Topspin Plus $499.99 a year in addition to a percentage of revenue generated from sales on the platform.
MTV will subsidize the cost for artists to use its service, and they will have complete freedom to post what they want to the site, says Toffler. "If they want to stream videos via YouTube or sell a CD or T-shirts regardless of the vendor, have at it," he says. Artists can expect to pocket about 85% of revenue, he says. "We even have a tip jar," Toffler adds, where fans can donate money directly to the artist of their choice without them having to pay a cut.
"We built this with artists," Toffler says. But he’s spoken to both indie and established music label executives and managers and maintains that "their hands are firmly implanted in the process and the product."
What’s in it for MTV? Ad revenue continues to build as MTV Music Group commands a big piece of the Internet user pie (22.2% of users in June acccording to comScore), and there will be a wealth of data to be captured in this new Direct-to-Consumer/Direct-to-Fan space.
For now, Toffler’s totally committed to making Artists.MTV not be another stone in the digital graveyard. "I’m not sure if it’s wonderful for formalized business, but I believe this is great for artists to claim and control their relationship with fans," he says, "I have no doubt this is great for music but the business has to evolve."