Pounding the Virtual Pavement

Getting yourself online is perhaps the best boost you can give to your career. In almost every industry, being accessible over the Internet is as commonplace
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FIG. 1: In addition to being a place to sell CDs, the artist pages in CDBaby.com offer musicians the chance to display press blurbs, background information, various listening options and links to other artists.

Getting yourself online is perhaps the best boost you can give to your career. In almost every industry, being accessible over the Internet is as commonplace as having a business card. With 700 million users at the end of 2003 and a projection of twice that many by 2010 (according to a 2004 Bear Sterns report), the benefits of online promotion are immeasurable. Furthermore, rapid technological developments make the platform ideal for music businesses and will likely serve as the basis for the future music-industry model.

The only aspect of music business that's not yet dominated by the Internet is live performance. Many vital live-performance details, however, such as booking, promoting, and postperformance sales can be maximized online. If you aren't online, you will be left behind.

KNOCK, KNOCK

Email is the most common and the least intrusive form of business-related communication today. Musicians lacking an email address aren't taking advantage of using the preferred method of making contact, and are therefore potentially losing gigs. Email coming from fellow musicians can give you a wealth of information, including venues, festivals, and places to sell your music.

Replace your mailing list with an email database, and eliminate the need for paper, ink, staples, stamps, and the time it takes to compile them. Get an address from everyone you encounter. Have sign-up sheets at gigs and provide incentives to join. Hold random drawings from the list during set breaks and buy the winner a drink. Many club-goers would gladly give up an email address for a chance to win a cocktail.

Automated services, such as Topica and Lyris, compile addresses from those subscribing to your email list, which enables you to compose and distribute mass emails at the click of a mouse (see the sidebar “Recommended Resources” for the services mentioned in this article). These services send instant email confirmations requiring a response from the prospective member. That works well for those joining your email list online, because they can immediately confirm. The downside is that when you add names from gig sign-up sheets, intended members may not respond to the confirmation request.

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FIG. 2: The online press kits at Sonicbids provide the information that journalists are looking for, in an easy-to-access and easy-to-use format.

Alternatively, you can build your list in a database program such as Microsoft Excel and paste the list into a standard email. Enclose the entire list in parentheses or blind copy (bcc), protecting the privacy of each recipient. To guard against outgoing spam, some Internet service providers such as AOL limit the number of outgoing emails in a given time frame. Check your provider's terms and inquire about possible exceptions.

Countless online forums, message boards, and chat rooms are dedicated to exactly what you do. You can also create your own forum through a number of free services (AOL, Yahoo, Google, MSN, and so on). However, given the effort involved in trying to drive users to your forum, you may find it more advantageous to join a service that has an existing membership. Promote gigs, merchandise, and your Web site (if you have one, and you should) in these targeted online marketplaces.

Many online businesses exist to serve independent musicians and are changing the way that the industry does business. CDBaby is the most popular place to sell independent music, providing access to many unsigned artists (see Fig. 1). JamBase promotes concert information for free from any band wishing to post gigs. Sonicbids is changing the traditional method of mailed bulky press kits to a postage- and paper-free electronic format (EPK). Using its template to create a streamlined online presentation, you can email the main page of your press kit to anyone (see Fig. 2). Once recipients click to view additional pages, they are automatically taken to your press kit at Sonicbids.com.

PLANTING CYBER ROOTS

Having your own Web site enables the world to check in with you. It is a window into your art and business, viewable from anywhere in the world regardless of where you are at any given moment.

Your domain name is the unique identity that follows “www” in a Web address, technically referred to as a URL (Uniform Resource Locator). It should be used as a branding tool for your band name. Use your band name assuming that it is unique and not already taken. Otherwise, choose something memorable and reflective of you or your band. Avoid names that have more than one possible spelling or are not phonetically spelled. You will be promoting your URL from the stage, at parties, and on the street. Keep it simple and catchy.

The most common URL suffixes are “.com” and “.net.” Most people automatically type “.com,” making it the better choice. If you are John Doe and johndoe.com is already taken, think carefully before registering johndoe.net. Johndoerocks.com may be a better alternative. On the other hand, if your name is “Brett,” brett.net may ring better than brett.com. Test-drive several options with friends and family before committing. Because you can purchase multiple domain names and forward them to a single site, buy “.com” regardless, assuming it is available. VeriSign is one of several domain registration services where you can check availability and register (fees range from approximately $15 to $35 annually).

Hosting companies offer packages in all shapes and sizes. Some include email accounts, while others only serve the site. You can also have email addresses incorporating your domain name forwarded to existing email accounts (for example, mail sent to ravi@heyravi.com arrives at heyravi@aol.com). Free hosting is also available, but it plagues your site with banner and pop-up ads that may annoy and confuse visitors. Something in the range of $10 to $30 per month should suffice. Shop around for the most storage capacity, highest bandwidth, and best customer support — when your site goes down, you want it back up before anyone else notices. Alex Kremer, CEO of Web site host Interplug.com, advises asking for an “up-time guarantee.” “The better the guarantee,” says Kremer, “the more you can be sure that the provider has its act together and is serious about keeping your Web site up and running all the time.”

DRESSING THE WINDOWS

Web-site design is usually the most expensive and time-consuming element. If you dabble in Pro Tools or are creative enough to write or play music, you can develop your own reasonably sophisticated site using desktop design software and Web-design programs such as Adobe's GoLive or Macromedia's Dreamweaver.

Whether you outsource your Web page design or do it yourself, keep it personable. “It can be a cold, mechanical world online,” writes Bob Baker, author of Poor Richard's Branding Yourself Online and Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook. “The challenge is to make the experience warm and inviting — to create the feeling that a real human is on the other end of that product, service, article, newsletter, or Web site.”

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FIG. 3: The photos and pull quotes on the author's Web site press page disseminate important information in a graphically pleasing way.

Organize your site from the first-time viewer's perspective. Advancing from page to page (and back) should flow easily, and the design must be visually uniform and appealing. Schedule, merchandise, and contact information should be obvious. Browse other sites and evaluate what makes one more enjoyable than another.

Include your biography, schedule, “join mailing list” link (pointing to a list management service or opening a blank email addressed to you), audio samples of your work, and contact information. A direct email link to the artist makes fans feel more connected to you. A separate address for booking and publicity will keep your inbox organized.

Offer multiple music-file formats. Creating MP3s or RealAudio is not rocket science. Programs such as Musicmatch Jukebox or RealAudio Producer walk you through the entire process, offering downloadable or streaming files. Decide whether to post snippets or full songs, keeping in mind what best represents your artistry. Free downloading concerns many of us. You should consider the exposure, however, when calculating the risk. With today's limited radio access, offering full song downloads might be a welcomed alternative to paying high prices for possible spins on the airwaves.

Restrict the number of graphics and large files on your site. Visitors, particularly those using dial-up connections, will be frustrated by lengthy downloads and may exit your site prematurely. Frames will keep uniformity throughout the site and reduce loading time.

Add a press page with reviews, interviews, profiles, and other published news about your career (obtain publisher's permission or place a link to the story on the publication's site). Nice portraits and pictures from live shows will also create interest. Java script and dynamic HTML will give movement to your pages, making them more captivating.

Guest books permit fans to post messages. They will feel more involved when their thoughts are imprinted on your site. You can also respond, developing a more interactive communication. Incorporate a chat room for fans to talk among themselves, creating a real-time online community revolving around you.

Once uploaded, you have the key ingredients for an online press kit. However, journalists and talent buyers have less time and tolerance for page loading than your fans do. Create a streamlined presentation using a separate cover page that directly links to the most relevant content. For example, instead of visiting www.HeyRavi.com, these time-taxed people can cut to the chase by visiting www.HeyRavi.com/presskit (see Fig. 3).

Update your content frequently. A laptop will serve you well while you're on the road. Make changes offline in the bus and upload it in minutes at the hotel. Keep your schedule current — a list of past dates will discourage visitors from returning. Post a “song of the month” to keep fans coming back to sample the latest studio or live creation.

CA-CHING!

Your site is also a potential revenue stream. Sell CDs and T-shirts online. Companies like PayPal allow members to create online “shopping carts” and accept credit card payments. Standard merchant accounts are difficult to get, require equipment, and may cost more due to minimum charges. Do the math based on your sales projections before investing in a merchant account.

Make it easy and secure for fans to purchase your products. Graphic representations should be clear and accurate. Give a 100 percent money-back guarantee. Research shows that the increase in sales will significantly outweigh returns. Offer quick shipment and reasonable freight charges. You have an obligation to your customer and a reputation as a merchant. Sloppy customer service will quickly land you in trouble and run you out of business.

If you sell your music online exclusively through merchants like CDBaby or Amazon, place a link pointing directly to your product on their site. Set this up through a referral program if available (for example, Amazon.com Associates Program). You will receive sales commissions in addition to your wholesale price for customers that you refer.

NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

A Web site is only as valuable as its number of visitors. You are competing with millions of sites covering every interest known to man. Rarely will a prospective fan or talent buyer simply stumble across your site. Promote on message boards and in chat rooms that are related to your genre. Leave remarks including your URL on guest books of fellow musicians. Perhaps their fans will discover you. Email everyone you know asking them to email everyone they know. Clicking “send” is infectious, spreading exponentially. Use services like Google's “adwords,” in which your Web site is highlighted when others search keywords that correspond to your profile. You will be charged a nominal fee each time someone clicks through to your site.

Link exchange is a common practice and an effective promotional tool. Trade links with fellow musicians and share your fans. Connect sites with local music stores and non-music-related businesses too. Perhaps your favorite restaurant would like to cross market.

Offline site promotion is equally important. Include your URL on every piece of publicity. Squeeze it on custom-printed guitar picks. Hang a banner behind the stage with both the band name and Web address. Make a rubber stamp of your URL and ask the club bouncer/doorman to use it for paid customer reentry. Everyone will go home with a tattoo of your address! Take digital photos of your fans and announce that you will post them the next day. They will be thrilled seeing their photo on your site and likely invite friends to share in the glory.

We live in real and cyber worlds simultaneously. Success lies in weaving the two and creating a uniform identity. The next time you pound the pavement, hit every road including the “information superhighway.”

Ravi(www.ArtistConsultant.com), former guitarist of three-time Grammy Award — nominee Hanson, tours the country performing, lecturing, and consulting. He has also written an autobiography, Dancin' with Hanson (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

FURTHER READING

Poor Richard's Branding Yourself Online, by Bob Baker, (Spotlight Publications, October 2001)

ONLINE MUSICIAN SERVICES

Amazon Advantage Programwww.Amazon.com (CD sales)

CDBabywww.cdbaby.com (CD sales)

JamBasewww.jambase.com (concert dates)

Sonicbidswww.sonicbids.com (online press kits)

EMAIL LIST SERVICES

Lyriswww.lyris.com

Topicawww.topica.com

FREE NEWSGROUPS/MESSAGE BOARDS

Googlewww.google.com

Yahoowww.yahoogroups.com

WEB SITE TECHNICAL SERVICES

Apluswww.aplus.net (domain search and registration)

PayPalwww.paypal.com (online payment service)

Interplugwww.interplug.com (Web-site hosting)

VeriSignwww.verisign.com (domain search and registration)

WEB SITE DESIGN TOOLS

Adobe GoLivewww.adobe.com

Dynamic Drivewww.dynamicdrive.com (free online scripts)

Macromedia Dreamweaverwww.macromedia.com

MUSIC FILE CREATORS

RealAudio Producerwww.realaudio.com (creating RealAudio files)

Musicmatch Jukeboxwww.musicmatch.com (creating MP3 files)