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Digital music pioneer looks for new frontiers

Finding Google's plan a yawn, Ian Rogers indulges his precocious streak as CEO of a start-up that helps bands market themselves online.

September 14, 2010|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times

Pakman invested in Rogers' company and its vision of letting people access the music collection stored on their home computers via any other computer with an Internet connection. It was a radical idea at the time and it caught the ear of Yahoo's then-chief executive, Terry Semel, who bought Mediacode from Rogers in 2003 for an undisclosed sum.

Rogers went to work for Semel, eventually becoming general manager of Yahoo's music business. He launched a service in 2005 that let people download as many songs as they wanted for $5 a month. But it failed to tempt enough customers, largely because its songs could not be played on Apple Inc.'s iPods, which did not support Yahoo's piracy prevention software. The service ceased in 2008.

That year, Rogers left Yahoo to become CEO of Topspin.

For record labels, Topspin straddles a delicate balance between disruptive and constructive.

Artists can use Topspin's tools to bypass record labels. Bands can build their own online fan base and sell music, merchandise and even concert tickets directly to consumers. In return, Topspin gets a cut of the sales. As musicians become more established, they can hire managers and, eventually, labels to take over those tasks. Whoever ends up with the job still would use the tools provided by Topspin.

"What's interesting about Topspin is that they have users from every level in the ecosystem," said Ryan McIntyre, a managing director with the Foundry Group, a venture firm that invested in Topspin. "However the industry shakes out, everyone will have a use for them."

Topspin's clients include Arcade Fire, Beck, Eminem, David Byrne, Brian Eno and more than 2,000 other artists, many of whom don't have label contracts.

Still, the company is not yet profitable. Rogers regards that fact with the same optimism he had as a teenage father heading off to college.

"There are fewer than 50,000 artists whose main gig is their music," Rogers said. "My belief is that number will grow. If we work hard as a company to make it possible for artists to make a living we can grow that number to 100,000. Music is a $60-billion business. If half of that is generated by that middle class of 100,000 artists, that's a sizable market."

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