Musician Websites 101
by Siobhan Kelleher
Guidelines for creating an artist website that gives you a presence in the online world.
Many professional musicians recognize the potential of the Internet to enhance their business by providing a contact point between them and a potentially vast online audience. Publicizing tour dates and CD releases, posting tour diaries and reflections, selling CDs and merchandise, and hearing from fans all can be accomplished through an effective website. While many musicians have graphic, web design, and/or programming skills, most need help in putting together a website. In this article, we'll examine some of the questions asked by musicians and others seeking to make their debut on the web.
Whether you build the site yourself or have someone build it for you, there are several essential steps you need to take to get your site live.
First, reserve a domain name (at an annual cost of between $10 and $35). Second, pick a company to host your domain (monthly costs range from free to thousands of dollars; average non-e-commerce sites can obtain hosting packages for $5-25). Third, create the HTML pages, images, sound files, etc., known as "site assets." Fourth, post the site assets on your hosting company's server. Finally, announce or publicize the launch of your site.
What's in a Name?
Businesses and artists alike put a lot of thought into selecting a name and realize that changing it will result in a loss of the brand recognition. Likewise, your web domain namethe "yournamehere" in a www.yournamehere.com url should feature your band or professional name so that fans can find you and easily remember where to find you. Try to incorporate the name of your band or your own name into the domain. If either of these is too common or already in use (see www.nissan.com, for example, the domain is not owned by the car company), you may have to get creative.
The first step is to go to a domain registering site such as www.networksolutions.com, and check if the domain name you want is available. Although there are many domain name extensions other than dot-com (such as dot-net, dot-org, and dot-biz, etc.), dot-com should be your first choice since it is the most familiar extension. Be careful to avoid selecting an alternate extension if a similar business owns the dot-com domain featuring the name you want. You may unintentionally drive business to your competitors or to some other site with which you'd prefer not to be associated. (I am reminded of a now-defunct web-design awards show with a similar domain name to that of an adult entertainment site and the tremendous embarrassment that caused.)
Note that dot-edu domains are used exclusively for educational institutions and dot-org domains are reserved for nonprofit corporations. Some newer domain extensions (such as dot-biz) may involve user restrictions that could prevent you from changing hosts in the future.
Free Hosting Companies
Web Design Software
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Picking a Hosting Company
While it is possible to host your own website if you have a computer to dedicate to that function, the complexity of the task is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, most people choose a hosting company after registering their domain. Think of the domain name as your phone number and the hosting location as the place where the phone actually rings. Just as you can in some cases change your address and keep the same phone number; similarly, you also can change your hosting company and keep the same domain name. Numerous hosting options are currently available, and choosing the best plan comes down to a balance of price, features, and customer service.
Free hosting is available from some companies, but the tradeoff for free hosting is that either the hosting company or their sponsors can advertise on your pages. Banners and pop-up ads can diminish the impact of your site for visitors. Free services usually require some amount of do-it-yourself work and/or fairly advanced HTML experience, and they offer no customer support beyond providing a list of frequently asked questions. These sites may also provide only one e-mail address on your domain.
Ad-free, low-cost hosting can be found for between $5 and $10 per month. This fee gives you essentially the same features as the free sites, minus the ads. These hosts generally provide little if any customer support, and usually include one to three e-mail addresses along with your domain.
For between $10 and $20 per month, you can get ad-free hosting, usually with phone and e-mail support as well as self-help tools and full administration access, which allows you to set up and manage several e-mail addresses on your domain and establish scripts to handle things like mailforms and message boards. Some hosts may require a one-time setup fee of around $50, but most companies have done away with setup fees. Before signing up with a hosting company, make sure that you are comfortable with the level and responsiveness of their customer service. If you don't have any experience developing a website, you'll probably want a fair amount of assistance.
If you anticipate that your site will have heavy traffic or will offer large files for downloading (video files, for example), you should consider the monthly traffic restrictions set up by your hosting provider. In order to run their servers efficiently, hosting companies want to ensure that your site won't use too much bandwidth, which slows down other sites hosted on the same server. So companies set limits for the amount of traffic (measured in megabytes or gigabytes) a site can have each month. If your site exceeds the limit, you will be charged according to usage. If you expect lots of traffic, opt for a larger monthly bandwidth threshold for an additional fee. Instead of exceeding the traffic limit and incurring additional fees, it's usually cheaper to pay for extra bandwidth up front. Most hosting companies will allow you to upgrade after your initial setup.
How do you find the right host? Your best bet is to look at hosting search engines and rating sites such as www.findmyhosting.com, www.hostindex.com, or www.ahostingservice.com. You can often find current users' ratings of the best hosting services to compare different plans. If you know what your priorities are (e.g., powerful administration tools, 24-hour phone support, high bandwidth), you will be able to find options that fit your needs.
Site Construction Timeline
Week 1: Draw up site map (architecture).
Weeks 2 and 3: Begin designing look of site.
Week 4: Finish designing look of site. Begin assembling pages.
Weeks 5 and 6: Finish assembling pages. Test to make sure the site looks and functions as expected.
Week 7: Post site for testing on server. Check it on various computers to find any final problems.
Week 8: Announce the site publicly.
After registering a domain name and securing hosting, you can begin to create your site. The first step is to get a grasp of your site's objectives. Consider who your audience is and how you want it to use your site. If the site is for reaching fans and audience members, site emphasis may be on selling or promoting CDs and concert tickets, announcing upcoming shows, and giving fans a place to provide feedback through a message board or an e-mail link. If you anticipate that your audience will be composed mainly of concert promoters or press, provide easy access to clips, publicity photos, quotes, and contact info. Most likely your site will combine these two objectives, and will include features such as shop talk or a tour diary.
Once you have chosen the areas you'd like to cover, start thinking of these categories as main navigation buttons on your site. Web experts recommend a maximum of seven main navigation buttons, and short, focused names (one or two words) for each button. This makes it easier for new and repeat visitors to understand and navigate through the site. If your front page is difficult to understand, with hundreds of links screaming for the user's attention, you'll lose a large portion of your audience on the first visit. Keep the front page clear and your fans will reward you by returning to your site often and recommending it to others.
Once you've figured out the basic organization or architecture of your site, begin collecting contentphotos, music clips, video, biosfor it. Two maxims for web content are (1) less is more, and (2) a quality source yields a quality result. Users will view your site on a computer screen, which has a 72-dots-per inch (dpi) resolution, unlike the average printed page resolution, which is about 1,200 dpi. Hence, clarity is reduced and eyestrain is increased on a computer screen. Screen space is valuable, so don't waste it. A small, crunchy picture cannot be edited or enlarged without compromising its quality, and sound clarity cannot be added to a muddy or scratchy recording. Start with a high-quality CD or printed photo (rather than a compressed MP3 file or a JPEG photo grabbed from an existing website). This keeps the quality of the end product high and file sizes low. Prior to posting material on your site, make sure to obtain necessary permission for any content you're using. Once your materials are collected, you're ready to begin work on the site.
Go It Alone or Hire a Pro?
If you're not a web pro and want to create a site yourself, you'll need some tools and advice. Some excellent professional web-design software, including Macromedia Dreamweaver and Adobe GoLive, can cost several hundred dollars and often contains far more features than you'd ever need. Free software includes BBEdit Lite, which is available for the Mac OS only, and Netscape's Composer. Dreamweaver, GoLive, and Composer are all WYSIWYG (pronounced "wizzywig"), which means that you can see what you're designing as you work. BBEdit Lite is a text editor that allows you to manipulate the HTML code, but is not too user-friendly for those new to web design and coding.
In addition to web publishing software, you may also need graphics editing software. Professional tools include Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Macromedia Fireworks and Freehand, but these programs are also expensive. Less expensive yet effective tools include Photoshop Elements and Paint Shop Pro each of which costs around $100. All these programs allow you to export your graphics in web-friendly formats (such as GIFs and JPEGs), and most allow you to compare different settings (file type, number of colors, level of compression, file size) in a preview mode prior to exporting.
If you're using audio clips on your site, you'll need software that can extract data from a CD and compress files for you, such as iTunes (Mac only), Roxio Toast, or QuickTime Pro. If you want to use video clips, you can use Quicktime Pro or Apple's iMovie. Be aware that video files can be large and require users to have extremely fast connections to view a short clip. The Webmonkey site (hotwired.lycos.com/webmonkey/) is a great place for users ranging from beginners to experienced pros to learn about creating their own site.
Many sites now use Flash animation, created using Macromedia's Flash software, to add movement and excitement. Although Flash is wonderful technology that can spice up any site, it is more complicated and expensive to use than HTML-only site design tools, and requires a fair amount of expertise to achieve satisfactory results. While it may be tempting to develop an entire website in Flash, approach this carefully because you'll want to have a full HTML or non-Flash site for those who don't have the Flash plug-in. You will likely need to expend a large amount of time and money developing this type of site. Most sites can be enhanced with touches of Flash for an intro animation, a sound-clip player, or a demonstration of how to use a product or service.
In conjunction with your newfound web skills, you'll need to put a plan in place as you develop your site. In its simplest form, this can be a schedule, which will keep you organized and keep your site on track so that you won't get bogged down. The box below features a sample schedule of tasks to be accomplished as you construct your site.
Clearly, all the steps involved in the creation of a website cannot be detailed in the course of this article; but by consulting Webmonkey and other online resources, you should be able to pull it all together.
Going with a Pro
If you want a professional designer to create your site, decide whether you want to hire a company or an individual freelancer. There are pros and cons with both options. A freelancer can often work more quickly and cheaply than a company but may not offer the range of skills needed for design, programming, and project management that companies can offer. Project-management is key to staying focused, meeting deadlines and budgets, and being informed about problems. While you may find a freelancer with project-management skills, you're more likely to find that service by hiring a company.
To find a freelancer or company to design your site, get recommendations from people you know, or contact the webmaster of a site you like and find out who created the site. Your budget may ultimately determine whether you hire a freelancer or a company. A good freelancer can create a site for a few thousand dollars, while a company usually costs $10,000 and upward.
Before you publicly launch your site, make sure that Internet search engines can find you. Some services list your site on search engines for a fee (such as Microsoft's www.submit-it.com, at a cost of $79), but if you're a do-it-yourself person, you can prepare meta tags in the HTML code of your pages with keywords and a description for your site. Then manually submit the tags to several search engines. Meta tags are important because search engines' "spiders" (automatic indexing applications) then know how to describe your site and don't give up due to a lack of information.
One of the last things you should do before you publicly launch the site is check the site's pages on a variety of computers with different operating systems, browsers, Internet connection speeds, and screen resolutions. Web design is not an exact science, and different computers and browsers will display your pages differently. Make sure that most users will see what you want them to see at your site. Checking your site on a combination of Mac and Windows operating systems, Internet Explorer and Netscape browsers, and dial-up and high-speed connections will give you a sense of what users will experience on your site.
Once your site is launched, all that's left is to let the world to know about it. Where to start? Your best, and least expensive, bet is to contact everyone on your mailing list. Send out a postcard or an e-mail announcement to your fans, colleagues, family, etc., describing the site's features and inviting them to visit.
A good website depends on solid planning, a clear vision of the end result, and a willingness to adjust the site until it works. Patience and thorough research will enable you to create a website that will give you the presence you want in the online world.
Siobhan Kelleher is a freelance web and multimedia producer and a classical double bassist in Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com.