Earlier this century, Andy Levine founded Sixthman, the travel experience company that birthed the Rock Boat and other cruises that provided fans the chance to mingle at sea with artists such as Bon Jovi, Chris Stapleton, Kiss and Brandi Carlile.
A few years ago, Norwegian Cruise Line acquired Sixthman, and Levine bowed out as CEO to become a board chairman.
But his mitigated duties in the music cruise business allowed the Atlantan to create Topeka, a “digital destination” that provides fans the opportunity to connect with artists via live, interactive video — aka a “Hang Session.”
The concept is “somewhere between MasterClass meeting Cameo,” Levine said in an interview earlier this week, referencing the celeb-driven online opportunities that offer video lessons or personalized messages.
But the difference with Topeka — we’ll get to the name — is the interaction.
Maybe you want a songwriting session with Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls or a drum clinic with the revered Kenny Aronoff. Or, as happened recently, a first-dance serenade by Joshua Radin at your now-virtual wedding.
Topeka will make these “Hang Sessions” happen — usually in 15-45 minute blocks — and facilitate it with a moderator.
Although the platform launched last fall, Levine admits that our current distance-mandated existence makes the service an even timelier consideration.
“The idea started a couple of years ago when I was trying to find a way for artists to make money from home,” he said. “I’m watching this tension they were having in leaving their families, and now that (recorded) royalty income has gone down to nothing, you have to get it done (on the road). For years I watched fans on the Rock Boat or at a concert try to have a real conversation with an artist, and there’s always so much distraction and chaos, but when they do have those interactions, it’s beautiful. So, I wanted to create a way that this could happen.”
Along with the aforementioned musicians, John Hiatt, Shawn Mullins, Edwin McCain, Marc Broussard, Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips and Anthrax’s Scott Ian are among about 50 other artists who are connecting with fans on Topeka. There is also the occasional non-musical guest, like a bourbon expert hired by a law firm for a virtual tasting session with its partners and a comedian who presided over a bingo session for a group of friends. (The lineup of available talent will soon be posted on topeka.live, the company’s website. Here are some recent session videos.)
Rates are $250 to $1,250, and the artist receives a 75/25 split with the company. (Those who participate more frequently might get an 85/15 agreement, Levine said.) Topeka handles all of the backend work — so, for example, when a fan signs up for a session with a particular artist, they’ll share what songs they’d like to hear or what occasion they’re celebrating, and Topeka’s team conveys that information to the artist in advance.
There is no limit to the number of fans who can sit in on an interaction. “We might have seven devices on the screen from people all over the world,” Levine said, noting that birthday, wedding and graduation celebrations are the most popular. But the greater the number, the less intimacy involved.
That desire to unite fans and artists in a personal manner is rooted in Topeka’s name. Levine was inspired by a scene in Cameron Crowe’s movie classic, “Almost Famous,” when the fictional Russell Hammond quits his band after a show and wanders the streets of Topeka. “The fans know everything about us, but we don’t know anything about them,” he laments to a friend. When a group of kids recognizes the singer on the street, they invite him to a house party. “We know you’re a rock star and all, but we’re just real Topeka people, man,” one tells him.
“There’s so much in the name that we like,” Levine said, recounting the movie scene. “(Topeka) is in the middle of the country, so there’s the meeting in the middle kind of thing, too.”
In addition to linking artists and fans, Topeka’s mission extends to community outreach. The company is a partner of Circles Morningside — the Atlanta branch of Circles USA — and uses money from each Hangout reservation to cover the cost of one month of empowerment coaching for a family trying to escape poverty.
“When I stepped down as CEO of Sixthman, I wanted to learn about my community. I started meeting with homeless shelters, food banks, learning about poverty and abuse, and I fell in love with this idea of identifying roadblocks to getting momentum,” Levine said. “It’s an ecosystem of support.”
Levine is also committed to a 12-week apprenticeship program within Topeka, where participants will learn skills to work at the company, which would lead to a full-time job.
It’s all part of his master plan of connecting people, and Levine is excited about the on-screen linkages Topeka has enabled.
“If we let them artists be at home and put them in front of their fans within a safe boundary,” he said, “I think it will be good for everybody.”
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