by Joshua Ellis
I originally wrote a long intro about how things have changed, how the Net has leveled the playing field for musicians who can’t or won’t go the traditional route of signing with a label, etc. etc. It was lucid, comprehensive and extremely informative.
And then I threw it out, because a) it sounded like a 1950s newsreel and b) you know all that stuff. You know that you can go the DIY route and sell and promote your music online and connect with existing and new fans. If you don’t know that, you’ve probably been in a coma for the past decade.
I’d rather get right into things and tell you how to use the Net as your primary tool for musical success. Or at least, I can give you advice in that direction. I can’t promise you success. Nobody can. (Well, there are people who can promise you success, but they tend to leave cloven hoof prints and a faint smell of brimstone wherever they go.) But I can point you in the right direction.
Some Things You Need To Know Up Front
First of all: this is going to take a lot of work on your part. Making music is just the first step. Maintaining an online presence requires a fairly constant level of attention. You’re going to have to wear a few different hats: promoter, manager, marketer. If you’re the kind of musician who prefers to simply create and leave the lame business stuff to other people, you’re in entirely the wrong place.
Secondly: it is very unlikely that you will become a pop star this way. This is actually a good thing. Pop stars don’t tend to have career longevity, because the tastes of the majority of music listeners are fickle. Anybody who’s ever seen an episode of Behind The Music (or been a member of the Backstreet Boys) knows this. While there are acts who maintain mass popularity and success over decades, statistical probability suggests that you probably won’t be one of them.
But you have the chance to be something better: a professional musician with a dedicated fanbase and a long-term career. The most obvious model for this kind of success is the Grateful Dead. The Dead had precisely one Top 40 single in their entire career, but they sold albums and packed stadiums consistently for thirty years.
Even if you’re not a hippie, you want to be the Grateful Dead.
A Shameless Plug
While this guide will hopefully help you as a starting point for managing your online presence, every band is different, and requires a different specific strategy. This is what I do, and I’d be more than happy to help you create an online presence tailored specifically to your band and your needs. Help me help you kick ass and take names.
1. What Does “Online Presence” Mean?
You’ll notice I keep using the term “online presence”. What, precisely, does that mean?
Think of it this way: if you want people to know about your band out there in the real world, you have to maintain a certain profile. You have to play gigs, get on the radio, put up flyers, right?
Your online presence is the virtual, Internet version of that. It means the public face you show to the online world. It’s not just a MySpace page or a website, though those are certainly aspects of your online presence. It means the sum of all of the ways in which you interact with your fans (current and potential).
You can roughly break your online presence into a few key elements:
- Your website
- Your profiles on various social networks
- Your presence on media hosting sites
- Your contact points (email/Twitter/etc.)
- Online stores
Let’s take a look at these, one by one.
You need a website. A real website, yourbandname.com, not just a MySpace or ReverbNation profile. This is the core of your online presence, the place that serves as your headquarters for publishing information and interacting with your fans and your professional contacts. You cannot go without a website.
Your website should ideally have at least the following components:
- A blog/news feed that fans can subscribe to via RSS as well as read on the site itself
- A list of upcoming gigs
- A band biography
- A downloadable press kit, most preferably in PDF format, with high-res photographs
- Samples of your music and videos
- A mailing list form that allows fans to subscribe to your mailing list
- Links to other nodes in your online presence (Facebook/MySpace page, Twitter, last.fm page, etc.)
You could also feature a message board where fans can talk to each other, a set of downloadable goodies like wallpaper or banners that fans can put on their own sites/social network profiles, links to friends and bands you like, etc. It’s up to you. The site should look cool and visually in line with your band’s style, of course. This is what people are going to see when they look for your band online, so make it count.
More importantly, you need to keep the site updated and maintained. Update your news regularly, make sure you post upcoming gigs a reasonable amount of time before they actually happen. (Posting gigs the day of is usually a really bad idea.) If you do have a forum, make sure you moderate it by kicking trolls off and closing lame threads; if you’ve decided to participate in the forum yourself, make sure to check in at least once every day or two to respond to posts.
You want people returning to your site on a regular basis (or at least subscribing to your RSS feed). This keeps you in front of their face. Also, people can tell when your website is an afterthought. That tells them that you don’t really care…and if you don’t care, why should they?
There are probably millions of words written on social networks and their relative merits for bands, so I’ll skip the intro and just say that social networks are really important keystones in your online strategy.
But which ones? As of January 2010, when I’m writing this, Facebook is the 800 lb. gorilla in the social network space. MySpace is still considered extremely important for bands, but the general consensus seems to be that MySpace’s coolness factor has dropped severely in the last couple of years. Very few people I know still use it as their primary social network; everybody’s moved on to Facebook. Outside of America, Orkut seems to do well, but I don’t know how useful it is for musicians; if you’ve got an opinion on this, let me know in the comments below.
My suggestion is to keep both MySpace and Facebook profiles, at least for now. Luckily, there are useful tools that will allow you to update both from a single interface, which will save you the tedium of copying all of your updates to each site.
There are also genre-specific networks for hip-hop or rock fans and artists. You’re probably aware of the ones that are pertinent to your genre; if not, take the time to find them.
The same rule applies to your social network profiles as your website: update them regularly! When someone addresses you — sends you a message or posts to your Facebook wall or what have you — respond to them. Let them know you’re actually there behind the profile pic, rather than some lame record label PR flack.
Media sites are useful because they aggregate a lot of content, and people tend to click around on them, discovering media they wouldn’t otherwise know about — like your music or videos. Most sites allow users to stream media without downloading it, so they can serve as a great way to let people preview your music before buying it (if you’re choosing to sell it). And they’re also a great way to save bandwidth on your own website; most web hosting providers charge you by the megabyte or gigabyte if you go over a monthly limit.
You probably don’t have to worry about keeping up on these sites as much: once you’ve put up your music or your videos, they pretty much just sit there for people to look at. Be diligent about posting new material, though; again, you want to keep people coming back.
The only downside to media sites is that you usually have to upload your media and provide metadata (like song or video titles) for every single one. But it’s probably worth your time.
Your fans need ways to interact directly with you. This can get a little tricky: the more successful you become, the more people will want to contact you. It’s not a bad problem to have, but when you wake up with a hundred (or a thousand) emails coming into your inbox overnight, you’ll find yourself with two choices: 1) filtering through it to find which ones you need to respond to and which ones you can ignore, or 2) ignoring all of them and maybe missing something important, and almost certainly looking like a jerk to your fans.
You should probably create a firstname.lastname@example.org address that you can occasionally check or forward to your “real” email address. That way, if it becomes too heavy a flow to handle, you can manage it or have someone else in the band (or the whole band) divvy it up.
Twitter is a great tool for bands. You can post short messages and fans can send you short messages in return. Unlike email, Twitter etiquette does not demand a reply to every message sent @you. It’s also a way of building a certain intimacy with your fans, if you actually twitter about the restaurant you’re eating at and your cats and funny links you’ve found around the web, just like everybody else does.
The musical queen of Twitter is @amandapalmer, former Dresden Dolls singer and solo artist, who has probably made more money and fans with Twitter than any other artist. It’s worth your time to follow her on Twitter and see how it’s done.
As far as instant messaging goes…if you really want to give fans your IM handle, have fun with that.
Until recently, selling your music online was still a fairly Byzantine affair. The big players (iTunes, Amazon MP3, eMusic) didn’t accept music from independent artists, and there were very few alternatives or online stores for indie musicians. (I used to run one of them, back in the day.)
This has changed, though, with players like CDBaby and Tunecore who serve as virtual distributors, getting your album into the big music stores for a reasonable fee. There are a lot of these distributors now and more popping up every day, and they all offer different deals and fees. My own personal experience has been with Tunecore, and I’m pretty happy with them; they got my album into iTunes and Amazon less than a month after I signed up.
Another option is to sell your music directly as a download from your website using PayPal, though this requires a bit of technical know-how, as there currently is no out-of-the-box solution for doing this that I know of. It’s worth the effort, though; out of every $9.99 I charge for my album, I keep roughly $9.50, and that’s a lot more I get from iTunes or Amazon sales.
Of course, you may choose not to sell your music online, or you may have a deal with a label that prohibits you from doing so directly. You can also release your music for free. If so, I recommend the Creative Commons‘ Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license, which dictates the following terms:
- If someone gives away your music, they have to give you credit for it;
- No one can sell your work without your permission (and presumably, you getting a cut of the action);
- Any derivative work (like a track that samples your music or a cover) must also be released under the same license.
If you’re more concerned about getting your music out in the world than making money off of it, this is a great way of making sure that everybody plays fair and nobody’s getting rich or stealing your work.
There’s a lot of other stuff you need to take into consideration when crafting an online presence, of course; these are just the basics. (I haven’t even gone into the various online tools for selling merchandise online, or dealing with MP3 blogs, or Internet radio.) But I think that all of these steps are required; without this, you probably don’t have a shot at being successful online.
As I said up front, it’s a lot of work to create and maintain your online presence; you’ll be spending at least a couple of hours every single day updating your profiles, Twittering, answering email, etc. I wish I could tell you that there’s a way to get around that, but I can’t. You’re an independent musician, which means you probably don’t have a staff to handle things for you. This is like a part-time job, maybe even a full-time job.
But it’s worth it. As new media guy Kevin Kelly points out, all it really takes is 1000 true fans; if you’ve got that, you can make a pretty decent living touring and selling music, and you can probably maintain it for a long time.
And hell, it beats working at Starbucks, right?