Nimbit’s MyStore Lets Bands Tap the Power of Facebook to Promote Music and Merchandise

9/16/09Follow @wroush

It’s not getting any easier to write and perform great music. But for up-and-coming artists, it is getting easier to build a fan base—especially if they can get their fans to do part of the work for them.

That’s the idea behind MyStore, a new Facebook application launched last week by Framingham, MA-based Nimbit. The five-year-old startup builds online tools that help artists sell and market their music directly to fans, with no need for a middleman like a recording label or a promoter. Up to now, that’s mainly taken the form of a Web-based platform that bands can plug into their websites or blogs, allowing them to do things like track fans, promote concerts, and sell digital downloads, tickets, CDs, and other merchandise. But with MyStore, Nimbit has transplanted its marketing and e-commerce engine into the world’s largest social networking site—which means every transaction a band or artist conducts can potentially be magnified many times over by the power of its fans’ social connections.

Once an artist or a band joins Nimbit and sets up a MyStore tab in their Facebook profile, Facebook’s own networking tools swing into action on their behalf. Every time a fan plays a song from the MyStore, or buys a download, or leaves a comment, that action shows up on their wall for all of their friends to see. If a Facebook member recommends a band to a friend, the recommendation will lead them back to the band’s MyStore. And nobody ever has to leave Facebook to make a purchase—the store provides a shopping cart, credit-card processing, the whole e-commerce shebang.

It’s a big step for Nimbit, whose main previous venture into the social networking world was an “online merchandise table” widget for MySpace. The 14-employee company, which has angel funding from Lexington, MA-based CommonAngels, was already growing fast, with 10,000 artists and labels signed up as users and 50 percent year-over-year revenue growth, according to co-founder and CEO Patrick Faucher, himself a professional trumpet player and vocalist. With Facebook’s population zooming past 300 million users (and MySpace’s plummeting at a similar rate) the MyStore integration could become an important new selling point for Nimbit. I talked last week with Faucher, and had a chance to ask him how the MyStore app can help artists, how social networking fits into the company’s vision, and what it was like to work with Facebook. An edited version of our conversation follows.

Xconomy: Obviously most serious bands have a MySpace presence. Is there a lot of music discovery going on through the other social networking sites?

Patrick Faucher, co-founder and CEO of NimbitPatrick Faucher: It depends on the genre and the demographic. Some might do well on MySpace, some might do well on traditional radio, and some are still basically out there doing regional touring, and that’s where they are generating exposure. But at some point in every artist’s process for marketing and promotion, there is an opportunity for a fan to interact with them online, whether that happens to be on MySpace or on their own official website or on Facebook. That is the point at which we maximize that interaction, by making sure the artists can capture their fans, engage them with product offers, and give them a rewarding way to buy directly from them.

X: If you’re an artist or a band, why go to the trouble of building a store inside Facebook—what’s wrong with iTunes?

PF: If the fan has taken the time to find you and you have them right there in front of you, why send them down the street to buy from someone else? We act as a transparent layer between the artist and the fan. Our job is to get out of the way, so that the artist can engage with the fan, and provide them with product offers. The minute they do that, the artist knows a whole lot more about the fan than if they had sent them to iTunes. All of the consumer data back to the artist, the complete contact information. They get to see what that person bought, and over time they can see that person’s total purchase history and what other products they are engaged with, even down to whether they attended a certain show. We are really giving the artists a tool set to understand their fans and to be able to create compelling offers for these fans so the fans can buy directly.

X: I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook, but as far as I know, there aren’t a lot of other examples of e-commerce apps, where you can actually buy things from inside Facebook. Is Nimbit MyStore the first?

PF: We’re definitely the first company to build a serious storefront within Facebook that operates entirely in their environment. We built it natively, using their API and markup language, but it’s driven from our catalog and our commercial backend. We’ve married the best of social networking with the best of fan commerce. And we wrote it entirely in the Facebook application development platform, and abided by all their rules and got all the approvals all the way up, so the fans could have a really great experience.

X: What kind of response are you seeing so far?

Nimbit MyStore interface for singer Chase CoyPF: We don’t have a whole lot of sales history yet, but we’re seeing some very interesting results. Fans are instantly buying and loving the fact that they can get what they want there. And the interesting part is that because of the way Facebook is designed, every fan interaction gets reported back to that fan’s network. A whole variety of things become possible that really take advantage of Facebook’s social fabric. My partner Phil [Antoniades, Nimbit's co-founder] makes a very interesting comment: You want to know why we think Facebook is ripe for emerging commerce between artists and fans? Because you don’t see anybody spending three and a half hours a day staring at their iTunes window. But they’re spending an average of that on Facebook, doing all kinds of things with their friends.

X: What was it like working with Facebook and building this application? It wasn’t so long ago that a lot of third-party developers were complaining that the documentation for Facebook’s programming interfaces was poor, and that Facebook would often change the interfaces without telling people, which would break everyone’s apps.

PF: We became somewhat familiar with their app development platform a couple of years back, and I’ll be quite honest with you, we made the decision not to develop back then because what we saw was rather undeveloped and unstable. But it’s definitely evolved, and this time around we were fortunate enough to have some expert developers who really knew what they were doing and spent the time to understand the Facebook platform. I think we had a bit of an advantage because we have been building storefront tools for five years. So we know how to adapt our catalog and or commerce engine to a place like MySpace, because we did that last year.

X: Does the MyStore app in Facebook go beyond what you build for MySpace?

PF: It definitely goes beyond that. The implementation on MySpace simply allows artists to take our self-contained music widget, the Nimbit OMT, for Online Merchandising Table, and embed it wherever they want in their MySpace profile. There really isn’t any direct linking into the social networking aspects of MySpace. It just runs there as an application that fans interact with on our system. On Facebook, the fan is really interacting with the Facebook platform itself—so Facebook is aware of what that fan is doing, and we have all these hooks that go out to make sure the viral opportunities are realized. It’s a deeper integration into the social graph, as Facebook would say.

X: There are signs, here and there, of a backlash against Facebook, or the beginning of an exodus—people quitting Facebook for various reasons, whether it’s that they’re sick of the viral apps, or they just aren’t interested in getting back in touch with all their high school classmates. As you contemplated this project, did you ever worry that maybe Facebook has jumped the shark?

PF: We have seen the Facebook platform just mushroom and start to really cross a lot of demographics. When we saw that the 35- to 50-year-old group was the fastest-growing [segment] on Facebook, that’s when we said, ‘Okay, there’s really something going on here.’ Sure, there are going to be ups and downs, but overall the trend at Facebook is not slowing down. It’s very sticky. Once you have set up shop there you are not likely to reinvent your profile with all of your pictures and your social interactions somewhere else. There is a barrier to exit. There might be some pockets of the younger demographic where maybe Facebok is not hip enough for them anymore, and they’ve got disposable time to set up on other platforms. But we are not concerned that Facebook is a passing fad.

That said, all of our eggs are not in the Facebook basket. Facebook is one node on a network of venues where we allow artists to publish and do commerce. Our whole platform is based on the fact that you are going to have fans in a lot of different places. So if another Facebook comes along and has a platform for us to plug into, we’ll plug into it.

X: In your position, you must have a pretty good take on the music scene. I’ve read that there is some outrageous number of garage bands in the United States—like 2 or 3 million. Do you believe those numbers? And is that a market for you?

PF: It’s hard to pinpoint, because bands don’t typically go and register with Dun & Bradstreet, and they’re not on Lexis-Nexis. But from the research we’ve done, there are probably 4 million active bands or artists in the United States. The vast majority of those are garage-band level. But we do see a growing middle class of artists, because of the lowered barriers to entry. Theoretically, anyone can get together and record an album and have it come out fairly decent. The question is whether they are going to take it to the next level and go out there and gig and promote and cultivate a fan base that could possibly sustain a career for them.

And what we’re seeing is that there are quite a few more bands dipping their toes into that pond. There have been 100,000 new releases reported in the last year, and that’s up significantly over the last two years. This ‘upwardly mobile middle class,’ if you will, probably numbers around 500,000 artists. The other thing is that there is a drop-down from the established acts and the major-label acts. They are actually coming down off the labels and looking for a business platform to operate on. So that is also inflating the middle tier. We think that this growing middle segment, at some point in the next five years, is going to be producing and selling the majority of music. And our platform is something that lets them try that out in a scalable way for very little up-front cost.

X: So, let’s say I have a band. What’s the minimum amount of music I need to have recorded, or the minimum number of fans I need, in order to set up a credible Nimbit MyStore on Facebook?

PF: If you’re asking me what defines a successful act, that’s a broader question. But if you’re asking what constitutes a viable install of the Nimbit MyStore, it can be at a very low level. If you have an album of material that you’ve recorded that people are into, and you have some type of a following—it doesn’t have to be thousands of fans, but if you have a few hundred fans who would come out to see you on a Friday night—then you can definitely leverage Facebook and expand that community. The cost of entry is so low that it’s very easy for an artist to try that out and to generate some revenue. The question is are they going to sustain it and continue to actively produce products that fans are interested in and give them compelling reasons to buy.

X: So it sounds like the quest for musical fame on Facebook is like everything else—you only get as much out of it as you put into it.

PF: Absolutely. We say to every one of our clients that it doesn’t matter who you are or what level of success you’re at, if you just put up a store and you don’t do anything more, then you aren’t going to get great results. You definitely have to engage the fan and remind them that you’re there and give them new and interesting things to check out. And if you do that and if you’ve got some level of talent and quality, then the fans are going to respond, and they’re going to tell their friends, too.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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