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Bill Diggins shuffles from music manager to mobile marketer

You could call Bill Diggins lots of things-music mogul, artists’ advocate, maybe even visionary.

Just don’t call him a ringtone salesman.

According to the founder of 2-year-old music marketer Diggit Entertainment Group, a truly successful mobile content sales campaign must go far beyond simple retailing.

“We’re not just delivering a ringtone, we’re trying to extend a brand channel,” Diggins said. “We protect the brand’s rights by working closely with artists and understanding the message they want to deliver through the mobile channel.”

He may be a bit of a newcomer to wireless, but Diggins knows the music business. During a 15-year tenure as a manager of recording artists, he helped guide the careers of such stars as Steve Winwood, Bjork, Billy Idol and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten.

His artists grossed more than $500 million in revenue, selling more than 60 million albums worldwide. And Diggins was at the helm for the R&B group TLC, “the biggest selling female group of all time,” he proudly said.

He was living in London, his music career thriving, when he imagined a nexus between music and wireless handsets. So he moved back home to America to pursue it.

“I saw WAP develop, and I realized it was a bit premature. But I also realized that one day we would be able to get content on mobile phones.”

His timing was impressive.

He was still managing TLC when he partnered with America Online and T-Mobile on his first campaign, “TLC Anywhere,” in 2002. It was a success, generating 15 percent more revenues than previous campaigns, and Diggins’ mobile career was under way.

As mobile music was just beginning to take off, the recording industry in general began a precipitous descent. In 2003, the music industry suffered a 28-percent drop, while ringtones and other downloads exploded into a $3.5 billion global market.

And Diggins stayed ahead of the curve, building relationships not only with major U.S. carriers and artists, but brands including Vibe and Spin magazines, the Grammys, UPN’s “America’s Top Model” and EMI Music Publishing.

Earlier this year, Diggit Entertainment struck a deal for exclusive mobile rights to Elvis Presley songs and images. While The King may not exactly be the kind of thing young U.S. early adopters are looking for, Diggins said it’s all about offering the right content to the right people.

“We understood how to localize our offerings,” said Diggit. “Elvis karaoke may work very well in Asia,” but it probably won’t be successful here.

To keep up with the urban U.S. market, he signed Missy Elliott and Adidas, helping to launch a clothing line based on the hip-hop star. The campaign uses text messaging to alert fans to new product lines and recordings as well as mobile content offerings.

The key, said Diggins, is to understand that the mobile phone is a marketing tool unlike any other.

“The most exciting part isn’t the fact that you’ve got a phenomenal device that can receive content,” he said. “It’s the ability to interact with consumers on a one-to-one basis, where you’re delivering to them permission-based marketing as opposed to interruption-based marketing. We have people who are looking forward to receiving an alert from Missy Elliott.”

It’s not just sending data that can be lucrative, either. Getting consumers to respond to messages not only creates revenue, it can provide invaluable data-if marketing companies are paying attention.

Still, Diggins believes any real tipping point in mobile music is more than a year away. And it may not happen at all if the music industry doesn’t address the issues of creating realistic business models and settling digital rights management issues.

After all, it makes no sense to pay as much as $4 for a 30-second ringtone when the entire song can be had for as little as 49 cents. And there’s no question that if music fans feel prices are too high, they’ll find a way to get what they want, even if it’s via illegal downloads or file transfers.

“If I were advising the music companies,” Diggins said, “I would say, `Get your pricing right.’ They are taking too long to get pricing structures right, and by the time they get all of this right, what consumers are going to want to do is have a phone that’s going to be a fully integrated entertainment package … If I were the music companies, I would not want to repeat history.”

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