I spent last week at Vallekilde, about an hour outside of Copenhagen, at an annual event called Summer Session.
It’s an intensive retreat for jazz musicians hosted by national agency Jazz Danmark. They invite world-class artists to come along and work with the musicians, do workshops, stage concerts and jam together. It’s a fantastic week for all concerned.
With my New Music Strategies hat on, my role at the event was simply to try and be helpful where possible, talk to the musicians about their own digital strategies, and help them think through what they’re doing online and how that could be refined.
I thought I’d share some of the advice I gave and my answers to the most common questions and problems I encountered.
Can you have a look at my website?
Over the course of the week, I had a bunch of informal conversations and maybe about a dozen ‘consultancies’ where I sat down and listened to what people were doing and made some suggestions. Most of these requests for consultancies were essentially “can you have a look at my website?”.
While that’s often a good starting point, it’s never the whole picture. What musicians do online is everything from their email to Facebook, their own website to the online services that they use – and, more importantly, how they manage that strategically and holistically in the service of the communication goals they have with their different constituencies.
In other words, while I was able to say “why is that bit there and not here?” – my main message was more about thinking about the way in which they communicate online, rather than about making their internet brochure a bit shinier.
The importance of what gets left out
Many of them were surprised (some horrified) that I do not have a Facebook account. I explained that while Facebook is often a really useful tool for a musician trying to get gigs, connect with fans or sell records – I had decided that it was something that was more negative than positive in my life.
There’s a reason I bring this up.
I’m really keen that musicians think about the sorts of tools that they use and what it means that they use those tools – everything from whether they’re comfortable about being used as a place to advertise things that they don’t get any veto over through to whether their site uses Flash (and many do) which often means that people with disabilities are unable to navigate their page and get to their music.
But of course, it’s also about user interface and interaction. Thinking more about what people are looking for when they come to them online, rather than what they want to simply broadcast at their audience.
The point of all this is to understand the technologies and their affordances, and then having some control over what you want to use for what purpose. This is not about ‘doing more stuff on the internet’ any more than it’s about selling t-shirts. It’s about figuring out what’s useful and what isn’t, and knowing why.
It’s worth saying that most of the websites I saw were beautiful. Really lovely design. But there were lots of things that didn’t make sense – or that got in the way of usefulness. And while I think design is important, it needs to be in the service of utility when you’re trying to do something like make a sustainable career in music, and your plan is to use the internet as part of that.
I said I’d put together a selection of the advice I gave most often to the musicians I spoke with so that Jazz Danmark can share them around the other people who didn’t get a chance (or didn’t want) to come and have a chat with me. It’s also here for anyone else who wants to read it.
So for what it’s worth, here’s a distillation of the most common advice I gave these professional jazz musicians.
Get your own website
If you’re still using Myspace as your main web profile (and I did encounter this), then you need to start again. Nobody else is on MySpace. It’s just you. It’s broken. Let it die in peace.
Apart from anything else, it screams “hobby”, it confirms that you haven’t thought about your audience in over 5 years, and it holds up a big sign that you’re not serious enough about your music to give it its own place online.
It’s poison. Shut it down and walk away. Do not link to it on your website.
Read this article (from two years ago!) if you need further convincing.
Even if you’re not using Myspace – if your account still exists, go and kill it now. If people Google your name, it will come up, they’ll go there, and they’ll think you must have died in 2007.
If your website is something like “mybandname.freehostingservice.com” then you need to get out of there and get your own web domain and hosting. For the sake of US$50 a year, give or take, you can have something that is yourname.dk or yourname.com – and you get to control what it looks like, how it works, and what goes on it.
Apart from the ads you don’t get any say over that tend to come with free hosting platforms, you also never know when the service is going to suddenly get bought out, close down, or change their terms and conditions on you.
Buy a domain. Get hosting. Get WordPress installed on it (it’s free). If you don’t have the technical skills to do that, then buy someone a couple of beers to do it for you. It’s not difficult or particularly time consuming. Once it’s done, you can probably take it from there.
If you can use Facebook, you can run your own hosted WordPress website on your own domain.
Think about who it’s for
Most people put things on their website because “that’s what you put on websites”.
In fact, I spoke to some people who had simply looked at the sites of other, similar musicians, and had simply done more or less the same thing – without considering whether it was a good thing to do or not.
The fact is that your website is a piece of communication. So as with all pieces of communication, you need to know who you are communicating with and for what purpose. And it needs to be you that’s communicating – not someone who’s a bit like you.
Are the people coming to your website going to buy your record? Give you a gig? Write about you in the newspaper? All of the above?
Chances are the piece of communication they want is not some corporate annual report. Nor are they particularly interested that you were 11 years old when you started playing the piano. Also – nobody wants to sign a guestbook. Get rid of it. You have a Facebook page they can write on (you do have a Facebook page, right? It’s not just your personal profile?).
Your bio is currently too long, and filled with stuff that may well be part of your biography, but is not helpful in the context of what your website is for. Most likely, the reason you have a bio is so that someone can write interesting things about you on their Festival programme or in their newspaper.
Write it so they can simply cut and paste it. Add a link to a high-res (300dpi) image of you. Journalists are often lazy (or too busy to bother re-writing your content for you). Indulge their laziness. Give them something they can use as-is. 50-100 words is usually plenty. If you want to include your whole life story, add a ‘click to read more’ link.
When people arrive at your site, the answers to their most common questions should be answered immediately. Front page. Usually, those questions are “What does this artist look and sound like, and will I like them?” People checking out your music on a recommendation or thinking about booking you will appreciate finding out the answers to this stuff right up front. A video is often a good way to do that.
Also, you might want to think about whether what you’ve been up to is really “News” or whether you could simply have a blog in which you talk about what you’ve been up to. That makes it far more of an ongoing conversation with your audience.
Besides — “Musician Plays Gig in Music Venue” is hardly news, is it?
Make sure I can listen, share and buy
Can I hear your music? Can I hear the whole thing? If I like it, can I buy it easily? Is there a way for me to share that on my Facebook page or Twitter so I can tell my friends to “check this out”?
Generally speaking, you need a play button, a buy button and a share button for your recordings.
Having your music on Bandcamp is a great way to do that, because they do all the difficult stuff with the e-commerce side of things and you can sell both physical and digital stuff that way. The player embeds on your website as easily as a YouTube video does – and there’s a share link as well as a buy link right under the play button.
That way, if Niels from JazzNyt decides to review your record, he can embed the album right there in the review so people can have a listen as they read, and instantly click the buy button if they agree with his evaluation that you have created a masterpiece…
Another way to share music with your audience is via Soundcloud. That’s particularly good for music that isn’t for sale – live music, new tracks, etc. Again, easily embeddable and ideal to include on your site.
However – the music on your website should never automatically start playing. Let people press the play button themselves. These days, lots of people have a whole bunch of tabs open on their browser and trying to find which of them is making the noise is incredibly irritating.
Worse, the most common immediate reaction to opening a webpage that has music playing automatically is to close the browser and never go back to that artist’s website again. You probably don’t want that.
Lots of other advice
The people I spoke with at Summer Session all had some specific questions about their career, their web presence, their social networking and how to communicate what they do in a way that helps create meaning for their audience. Hopefully I was helpful in also addressing some stuff that they may not have thought to ask about.
But the practice of going through the artist websites one at a time, step by step — asking “What’s this doing here? Do we need this? Is this the right thing to have here? Who is this for?” and so on — was a really useful process to go through. It revealed some dead links, some shortcomings and some possibilities that you might not stumble across any other way.
Perhaps you should sit down with a friend and ask those sorts of questions of your own site…
But lots of advice like this – as well as a much deeper explanation of my approach and thoughts about online music can be found in my book Music in the Digital Age, which I’d encourage you to download and have a look at. It’s free, if you’d like it to be. More if you prefer.
This is what we do
If you’d like for me, or the team from New Music Strategies, to come to your music event and sit down with artists to go through their website, their career strategy, their approach to the music business and how it works, or how they can do the things they do in a sustainable way — that’s definitely something we can help with.
And because we all have different experiences and expertise, bringing several of us at a time allows us to give a range of perspectives from technical audio production advice through to advice about dealing with media.
While we usually get asked to give speeches, host workshops, talk at conferences and talk to large groups at a time, I think there are ways to be even more effective and helpful when you talk on a one-to-one basis with people about where they’re at, what they’re struggling with or just to get an outside perspective on what they’re doing.
Everyone’s different and generalised advice will only get you so far.
If this sounds like something that would be helpful for you (or your national music agency) then by all means, get in touch.
Thanks once again to Jazz Danmark for the opportunity to meet so many great musicians, hear so much great music, and for the chance to feel helpful along the way.