Claiming to be ‘everything about the music,’ teen retailer Hot Topic was naturally quick to jump on the potential of podcasting last fall, when it buddied up with Redmond, Washington-based music services provider PlayNetwork to launch a 20-minute Hot Topic tune podcast on iTunes. The venture has since led to three more DJ-led broadcasts featuring up-and-coming indie punk bands, and Hot Topic SVP Chris Kearns says the number of listeners has grown significantly with each release.
Indie artists tend to embrace the digital arena as a launchpad more heartily than label-signed mainstream groups, and with CD sales in a downward spiral, Hot Topic was looking for a way to position itself as a leading source for new music. ‘We’re focusing on baby bands and trying to entertain and educate our customers by introducing them to music they might not have heard,’ says Kearns.
To manage this business and expand the reach of HT’s branded music concept into new areas, the retailer has created a new chief music officer position and recruited John Kirkpatrick to fill it. Kirkpatrick comes with 17 years of experience in the music industry, starting off his career in the A&R divisions of Capitol Records and Elektra Entertainment and most recently serving as SVP of music and creative affairs at Paramount Pictures, where he was responsible for all musical aspects of the studio’s films. Kearns says hiring Kirkpatrick was a strategic move that signals the chain’s intention to expand its reach digitally, especially in relation to its dealings with music labels.
Priding itself as a resource for music and merch serving the 12- to 22-year-old punk rock set, Hot Topic has more than 690 mall-based locations in the US and an online store that sells fashion, décor and accessories reflecting teen music culture. Its foray into providing HT music compilations directly to its customer base began a little more than a year ago, when the company contracted PlayNetwork to run a closed-circuit music broadcast that entertains shoppers in-store with a specialized mix of mainstream and indie rock. The HT Radio feed also plays on www.hottopic.com, where Kearns says listeners often leave the stream playing for half an hour at a time while they surf or IM.
PlayNetwork’s SVP of promotional services, David Brewster, says that in addition to delivering the podcasts to HT’s web server and iTunes, the company also chases licenses for individual songs and advises the retailer on episode themes. But it’s Hot Topic’s savvy music team that chooses the song lineup, records the DJ bits and sequences them into the show.
Although the primary goals are to extend the Hot Topic experience into other forms of entertainment and offer customers a new way to interact with the brand, the podcasts also serve a marketing function as they feature some information about special sales and merchandise available at the chain.
For its part, PlayNetwork, which already has national brands like Starbucks, Abercrombie & Fitch and TGI Fridays in its roster of clients, has been entertaining a lot of interest based on its podcast work for Hot Topic, some of which has been from other companies operating in the tween/teen space.