Berklee Today

Website Management

Just having a place in cyberspace is no guarantee that a website will further an artist's career. Web expert Patrick Faucher shares caveats and tips for creating a website that is a successful business tool.

Let's face it; for any serious performing artist or composer, having a website has become just as essential as having a good press kit. At this point, in fact, an effective website and successful marketing may even be one in the same. There are increasing ways to get a site up quickly and cheaply these days, but what happens after you finally launch? Many mysteries and frustrations are associated with running a successful website.

If I had a dollar for every horror story I've heard from artists with sites that do nothing for them, I'd be sipping piña coladas in Maui. Here are some of the scenarios I've heard.

"My site it's totally out of date, and I don't know what to do with it anyway." Or, "I got my buddy to help me put my site up for free, but he left town, and I hate to keep bugging him to add more stuff." Or, "The drummer's girlfriend made the site for us, but he and she broke up and now she's not talking to us, so the site is in limbo." And the classic: "I'd like to do more with my site, but I can't afford to pay my webmaster for more features or changes."

Greedy webmasters, lack of good solutions for the nontechnical user, and other factors contribute to such problems. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the artist to have a strategy for a successful website. Giving your attention to four areas - proper business practices, optimal design, a maintenance plan, and essential features - will contribute to the success of your site regardless of where you are at in your career.

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  A team workflow diagram in which a good website is the business hub for an artist.

Proper Business Practices

You've probably heard it said many times that it's not enough just to be a great artist, you have to be a smart business person too. A lack of business skills is the most common reason for a website's failure. As an artist, you are a business, and your website is a critical business tool. It is perhaps one of the most powerful promotional tools you'll ever have. Treat it as such and be sure to get all that you can from it. This requires managing your site so it's up to date and has compelling features for your fans and promoters as well as for you, the artist. Let's all recite a little creed I've written for those striving for a successful site [click on sidebar for details].

I could devote a whole article to why each of these points is critical for online success; but for now, just read the creed a few more times and take my word for it: sites that fail do so as a direct result of not following one or more of these rules. Now that we've embraced a winning philosophy, let's look at the specific practices and tools you will need to succeed.

The Web Artist's Creed

  1. It's not enough to just put up a website; I need a truly successful site.
  2. My website is a reflection of my career, my material, and my seriousness as a professional and should be cultivated as such.
  3. I will vigilantly maintain my website with new content and accurate information.
  4. I will constantly promote my website so that all who know me know my site.
  5. I will make my website useful and easy for all to use.
  6. My website is the best place online to comunicate with fans, express my art, and conduct my business.
  7. My website is my responsibility and I will carefully choose those who will be involved in managing it.

Optimal Design

Many times, an artist has come to me and said, "I want the coolest looking site ever. I want a big Flash intro with all these great animations all over. Oh yeah, I also want my new song to start playing immediately and really loudly in the background." While this approach may appeal to some visitors, it is a flagrant violation of point five of the creed. People will visit your site for various reasons at different times. Some may want to be entertained by your new video or song, but some may just want to get the correct time for your upcoming show or buy your new CD. Others may not have a high-speed connection, a fast enough machine, or the proper browser plug-in to view the animation. I guarantee those users will be annoyed rather than amused by flashy intros and heavy graphics. Here are a few rules of thumb for producing a website:

  • Simple, clean designs always work best. You'd be amazed by how effective a single photo, a few lines of text, and a white background can be. Also, be aware of "page weight," which is the total file size of all your graphics and code for a given page. Heavy pages sometimes give some users problems and they will leave your site if it takes too long to download.
  • The most important information should be front and center. Don't make those browsing have to dig for the information. Put your upcoming show on the home page along with a link to buy your CD and to be added to your mailing list.
  • Straightforward navigation is optimal. Make buttons and labels very clear. Labeling a button "Show calendar" is clearer than naming it "The spectacle."
  • Resist the black temptation. We all know that black is the favorite color of many musicians, but using it as a background can make a site hard to read. In addition, skip the twinkling stars.
  • Resist the Flash temptation. Sure, Flash is sexy, and it makes a site, well, flashy. But improper use of Macromedia's Flash technology can make a site thin in terms of content, unmanageable for updates, and inaccessible for users lacking plug-ins and high-speed connections. Don't build your entire site with Flash, rather, use it sparingly for one or two key features to get the sizzle you want without the headache.

Be brief. Avoid long, scrolling sections of content and text. Get to the point and be aware that some items may be being hidden below the viewable area of some users' browsers.

Use a pro. If you're not a designer or have never written HTML before, don't pretend. You've probably got better things to do. Designing the site yourself will take five times longer than you expect and usually yields questionable results. Spend a little money on a qualified web designer. For half the cost of a new amplifier you can usually purchase a great design job. Spend time with the designer sketching out a few concepts and make sure that he or she understands the overall tone that you want for the site.

Maintenance Plan

Once your site is built, you must manage it. This is easily the most important logistical aspect of a successful site. Unfortunately, it's the most overlooked one and leads to the demise of 95 percent of sites that fail. Develop a workable plan that maps out who will update specific content, how often, and by what means. A site that constantly posts new content not only encourages return visits, it indicates that your act is "happening." A good website can create a buzz on its own. Conversely, a site that is poorly designed, has weak content, and never changes tells visitors that you are not happening.

The components of a successful maintenance plan are accessibility, service partners, logistics, and tools. Without these resources, maintaining a site up can be very frustrating and sometimes impossible. Let's look at each item in detail and explore some options.

Accessibility

Make sure that you provide direct log-in access to all the services that run your website. This includes your hosting provider, domain registrar (the company from which you bought your domain), and any add-on services that tie in to your site (including third-party services that sell your CD online or serve your MP3 files). If you have a webmaster helping you manage these things, great, but have the webmaster give you all the access codes. If your situation changes or relations with your website designers go south, you will immediately want to change your passwords and secure your online assets from possible attack. Also, be sure that you have access to all of your digital content (i.e. photos, web pages, scripts, video, audio, or other materials used to create the site). You should maintain copies of all files. If a webmaster refuses you access to any of these items, hire a new one right away.

Service Partners

Service partners include all the people and services mentioned above that help support your site. Choose them wisely and hold each to a high standard. Ensure that you get what you pay for. As a rule, if you rely on too many free services or favors from friends, you will most certainly get what you paid for. I foresee problems when I hear established artists tell me they that got a buddy to host the site on a free account or worse yet, on a server in this friend's basement and that this friend claims to have the fastest DSL connection on the planet.

Your website is your "business portal," a critical vehicle for your career and your hosting service is like the engine. Make sure your host is a pro who provides reasonable rates on such basics as bandwidth, file storage, e-mail boxes, etc. You should be able to get a good service for $20 or less a month. However, it is more important to know the kind of support package that is included and how good the support is. There are inexpensive hosts out there, but you may find that with these services you may encounter difficulty trying to get help at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night when you can't post your site to the server. Make sure that the service you choose is well established, not a flash in the pan.

Thousands of hosting business are cropping up all over the place. Consequently, over the next two years, there will be a great deal of shakeout and consolidation with the cheapest providers getting eaten up the quickest. Make sure you know who you are hosting with. In addition, make sure your host knows you and your business and provides tools to make things easier. Today, a few providers out there are focused on the needs of entertainers. Seek, shop, and compare.

Carefully select partners for MP3 serving, web merchandising, online press kits, promotion, and distribution services. Choose them wisely, keeping in mind that all will require upkeep to be truly valuable. If you use these additional services, pay special attention to how they integrate with your existing website. This is important because your objective is to draw users into your website and give them incentive to return. You want to focus users' attention on you rather than have them lured from your site to others where service vendors might have another agenda.

Logistics

This is where it either all comes together or falls apart. Some sites may involve several people in posting and upkeep, while others are entirely a solo effort. Either way, a plan must be in place for who does what, how it happens, and how often. In many cases your webmaster will be in a different location from yours, so you must have a way to capture new content, pass along assets such as photos, get them processed for the Web, and then update the site. Always discuss a schedule and set expectations for updates with a designer or webmaster.

If you are the primary site maintainer, make sure you can post updates while you're on the road as well as at home. If you're on tour and something changes with the show schedule, you need a way to post that update on your website to inform your fans. In addition, you might want to send an e-mail out to your list of fans about the change.

If others are helping out with your site - people taking photos, or your manager who posts news and shows for example - you'll need to coordinate how these folks access the web pages to update them and submit the content. Many people use a central webmaster, designer, or service to coordinate submission and posting. The ideal is to have only one "file keeper" so that version control, file compatibility, and quality assurance are properly managed. You may even want to use an automated system that allows different people to post items securely to a central server that updates only pertinent aspects of the site.

If you have a message board or online mailing list, you need someone in place to manage and moderate those features. The same goes for offering an online store. Who will post new products, process orders, and handle the inevitable customer-support issues that come along with selling merchandise? Whether you or a small army is managing your site, a workflow plan is essential. See the illustration above for an illustration of how a successful touring act and its constituents might use the band's website for various functions.

Essential Features

Most of the thriving musician websites online today share some key elements. For one thing, a good site creates a genuine sense of community beteen the fans and the artist. People go there not just to learn where the next show is but to check in on the scene they feel a part of and to get access to the artist and the latest material. All of the functional aspects of the site work together to create this community and invite visitors to return regularly. The following are some of the features that successful websites use.

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The home page for the band John Brown's Body  

An Immediately Engaging Home Page

Keeping in mind the proper design approach, the home page not only offers the right content; it creates the experience for visitors that they have arrived somewhere special. The artist's image, the tone of the message, and the information and features presented should all work together to assure visitors they're in the right place and give them a clear path to where they want to go next. Plug new releases or appearances as well as any cool new site features for them to explore. The example at left shows the home page for the band John Brown's Body (see www.johnbrownsbody.com). It's designed to capture fan interest and lead vistors into the site.

A Mailing List and Newsletter

Always solicit the e-mail addresses of your visitors to build your mailing list. Include a sign-up form on your site that saves their info on the home page. Send out e-mail reminders for shows and announcements about releases on a regular basis.

Contacts and Booking Info

Make this information readily available, too. You can even put a simple inquiry form on your site that allows people to learn about availability and pricing. While you're at it, put up your stage plot and technical requirements.

Include an Updated Calendar

This seems obvious, but you would be amazed by the number of sites that list as "upcoming," shows dates that came and went months ago. Make sure your calendar gives contact and address information on the venues and a link to the venue website if available.

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  The message board for John Brown's Body

Include Message Boards

Put up a good message board with a few different topic forums so that users can offer feedback, ask questions, and have an exchange with other fans. Make sure someone on your end is monitoring the posts and answering concerns in a timely manner. It's nice if your message board is integrated into the design of the site as well. Also from the John Brown's Body website, example 3 is a good illustration of a message board.

Tour and Photo Journals

Many artists post regularly to an online journal that fans can read. It's a great way to keep visitors coming back for more. Photos from tours and recording sessions also make good content. If you plan to keep a tour journal, make sure you can post the content from the road. Real-time postings are far more engaging than those that are two months old.

Offer Sample Downloads

With the recent advances in home recording and the bounty of free software tools, there's no reason not to have at least a few samples of your work available for download. MP3, RealPlayer, and Windows Media Player are all standard Web formats that you can easily create once you've done some type of studio capture.

CDs, MP3s, and Merchandise for Sale

The moment everyone waited for is here. Many options for selling goods online are available, and soon enough, artists will be able to sell MP3 downloads from their website as well. Whether you opt to set up a simple PayPal account or your own commerce and inventory management system depends on how much product you move on a monthly basis. Most artists set up an accounting system with a third-party service that can process the online transaction. Some services will actually process the credit card and ship the product on your behalf. A good site offers users a seamless experience that makes it appear that the user never left the artist website even when making a credit-card transaction. Be sure to implement a plan to handle fulfillment and customer support.

Tools and Resources

For some of you, this whole proposition may sound like so much work that you don't know where to start. Relax. With a little education, a few tools, and some organization, anyone can stay on top of their online presence. There are a number of resources to help create and maintain a good site, and some are specifically geared toward musicians. I won't list all the software that a webmaster might use to build a site from scratch, but here are a few resources for do-it-yourself-ers seeking the quickest and least costly options.

Web Aid
For information on design/HMTL tools and resources, see www.webmonkey.com

To get going quickly without learning
HTML, see www.nimbit.com

To put a site up cheaply, see
www.createafreewebsite.net

Tools for maintaining an existing site, see www.xaraonline.com,
www.nimbit.com

To sell goods online, see
www.paypal.com,
www.cdfreedom.com

To learn about publishing and promoting online, see www.songscope.com,
www.sonicbids.com

To book shows online, see
www.onlinegigs.com

To the Next Level

As your career and exposure grow, the scope and functionality of your website should also grow. When your community of fans expands, you may find that there is a large demand for access to the site and to you, the artist. Entrepreneurial artists such as Dave Matthews were quick to take advantage of this momentum and create entire networks of fan communities and services. Premium fan sites that charge for membership in exchange for access to tickets and exclusive content have become additional sources of revenue for big acts.
As you develop your online presence, you need to choose the business model that is best for you and your fans. If managed correctly, your website will not only become a destination for your fans but also a vital online operations center for both the business-related and artistic aspects of your career.