Web Media for Musicians – Do It Yourself
The main driver for generating and distributing your own web media is not simply sufficient competence with a computer. It is about money. You want to do address the essential components of modern communications because there is no budget for it in your creative enterprise, and you think it must be straightforward if others can do it. Similarly, a common shared experience is the feeling that paid services are no more effective than doing it by yourself.
Nevertheless, there is a cost to you in terms of time and effort, and what began as a learning curve can quickly descend into a quagmire of broken links, unresponsive web pages and disappointing outcomes. This is not your fault. You do have yourself to blame, however, if you have not researched the tasks properly and gained a decent grasp of the workings, pitfalls and problems that others have acquired through years of experience.
RESEARCHING IDENTITY AND IMAGERY
One thing that you can do without setting aside time for the purpose is thinking about your identity. Now, many, many people are very uncomfortable about that, and it is often the first, and sometimes insurmountable stumbling block when it comes to creating autobiographical web media.
It’s worth stopping here to point out the obvious. Virtually all web media is biographical in nature, it’s just that some artists squirm at the thought of writing about themselves.
Generating your own web media is not about creating an image or brand, but an opportunity to explain who you are, and in your own words. Begin by looking at the ways in which others, famous and not so famous, reveal identity through their work and conversely bring the stamp of identity to everything that they do.
A good example is David Bowie, who spoke through different personae, yet retained a consistent musical and personal identity throughout. A good way of looking at his success in this respect is to see his life and personality as an expression and celebration of individuality.
In many ways, Bowie had much in common with the flamboyant public celebrities and artistic free spirits of the 1920’s and 1930’s who preceded, and almost certainly influenced him. His sense of himself seems to have been an extension of his artistic attachments, interests and passions, which were (as we now know) very wide -ranging in scope.
At the other end of the fame spectrum, you will find people such as the profoundly thoughtful English composer Gerald Finzi whose musical identity was informed by extraordinary personal experiences and crises of faith.
He was drawn to the poetry of the 17th-Century mystic theologian Thomas Traherne, and heavily influenced by Vaughn Williams and other English pastoralists working in classical music and song. The more you learn about the man, the better you understand how his music came to be made, and what he often struggled to communicate through it.
It’s often the case that self-generated imagery is confused with projecting a false image. This is not the case. Creating imagery that is true to your identity comes from a combination of personal preferences and undiscovered tastes. It’s about the visual art that you like, the writers that your read and the poetry that moves you. Olly Murs is a projected image that tells us nothing about who he really is. Kurt Elling, on the other hand, is one of the most readily know-able personalities currently active in sophisticated jazz music.
So, read widely, visit art galleries, botanical gardens and museums, spend time in open spaces and in churches. Think about the people and places that make you feel comfortable, and why they make you feel that way. Take a camera and note book, and record things that surprised you, moved you and inspired you. Use audio to sample ambient or natural sounds, conversations or ideas. Do these things regularly, or in a concentrated period of active research because you will then be thinking much more about your own place in the world and, more importantly, how you are going to express what you think and feel to others.
CREATING WEB MEDIA
Most people who are considering self-generated web media tend to jump straight into the task of creating a website using a content management system (CMS) or website authoring platforms such as WordPress, Weebly or Wix.
In my remarks about ‘Identity and Imagery’ I have set out some of the preparatory thinking that really needs to be done even before choosing a CMS. In this section, we are going to look at some essential tasks that precede building a website and connecting up web media outlets and platforms.
Content Is King – Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a coffee shop enjoying a small latte and a wafer biscuit. Suddenly, an acquaintance appears at your side and introduces you to their friend, who happens to be a journalist that you’ve been trying to reach for the last six months. You’ve phoned, you’ve emailed and you’ve even stalked them on Twitter, but still you’ve been unable to make them see who you are and what you do.
Now’s your big chance, but you know that you only have a minute or two, at most, to introduce a bit of self-promotion into a casual conversation.
So, what on earth are you going to say?
No, I haven’t a clue either. There is no formula for a situation like this, other than trying to leave a good impression.
Now, think of the web as a coffee shop where you are alert at all times to the possibility of engagement with others in an unpredictable set of circumstances.
Think of your web media as all the clever, intelligent, well-ordered and attractive things you would say if you’d had the chance to prepare for such encounters.
Happily on the web, you don’t need to think of all the permutations of a chance encounter, nor the kinds people that you want to engage with. You just need to set out your story in a sensible way that is easy to absorb and simple to navigate around.
The adage that ‘content is king’ may no longer be fashionable, but it remains a perennial truth about information on the web. Neither has the definition of web-based multimedia content changed very much either.
This means that at a minimum the raw materials you need in order to create coherent content on the web are:
- Well-written text
- Excellent images
- Examples of your work
This might seem obvious until you realise that ‘well-written’ text observes writing rules that DIY content frequently ignores; ‘excellent images’ means an abundance of hi-res photography executed by someone who understands simple but long-established photographic principles; and an example of your work means something embedded or downloadable on your site that is the highest quality you have at your disposal.
You should work on the text by creating notes around the salient points that you want to make. Make as many points about you and your work as you can, but order, or re-order them into a coherent chronology.
It is your story. It has, like all stories, a beginning, a middle, and an end; and it’s made up of a preface, and introduction, chapters and often an epilogue. Be brief in your preamble, and elaborate in the body of your text.
Avoid tedious digressions, extensive lists and sharp shifts of tone and expression within the body text.
Organise all of this in a word document, edit it together and get others to read it and comment on coherence and understanding. Use the grammar and spell checker frequently, and use Grammarly in conjunction with the Word spell and grammar checker.
Print your copy and physically proof read it before adding it to your website and/or promotional materials.
Keep reading your own online copy, or anything others have written for you from time to time, in case embarrassing typos have crept in as a result of last minute edits or updates.
I always recommend organising, gathering and, if necessary, commissioning photographs into a portfolio of images that are uniformly sized, primarily in landscape orientation, and visually engaging. The images should also help to say something about who you are and what you do. And you need lots of them.
If you are doing the photographs yourself or a friend is helping you out, then familiarise yourself with the basics of photography. John Hedgecoe wrote several seminal books and countless others have followed his example. The photographic devices have changed, but the basics have not.
The most important things to think about are the subject’s relationship with the camera, clarity, exposure, composition and quantity.
If you are the subject you have to engage with the camera to get the outcomes that you want. If you are not engaged with the activity, then you will only get images that make you look disengaged. No one will want to use them, and you will have wasted your time.
Some out of focus badly exposed images can be arty, but most of them are not. They are just out of focus and badly exposed, and of no use to you for the purposes of web media. The platforms you want to reach want sharp, clean hi-res images that make their sites look as good as you want yours to look.
Get organised before thinking about the light, the camera, the shutter speed and so on. Decide long beforehand the where, the when and the how. Choose the shooting environment carefully; think about what is going to be in the background, and how the subjects will be arranged. There are rules about creating a satisfying composition. Find out what they are and apply them.
Take as many pictures as you can. The web is image hungry. If you hire a photographer, make sure that you are satisfied either from their pitch or their portfolio that they understand these basics. If they don’t then they are not a photographer. They are just someone with a camera.
EXAMPLES OF YOUR WORK
The examples that you choose to provide will in part be dictated by the usability of the media and/or the links and platforms you use to connect your portfolio to your web media.
Of these, a few downloadable tracks as part of an electronic press kit offer an effective way to give journalists and broadcasters a complete picture of who you are and what you do. They can be free to use by anyone, or it can be gated via a sign-up form. Use radio-friendly tracks that are under four minutes long in CLEARLY LABELLED mp3 AND wav. formats.
After that, YouTube, for good or ill, is the most biddable platform when it comes to embedding links with thumbnails into a very wide range of web platforms. It is relatively easy to put together a soundtracked photographic slide show on YouTube, and a number of videographers offer relatively inexpensive services.
Again, don’t test the listener’s patience with long tracks, unless they’re genre specific (i.e. jazz, classical, progressive), or you really don’t care whether the end user gets tired of waiting for the intro to end and clicks on something else instead.
Soundcloud, Bandcamp and Spotify are obviously popular platforms but be aware that they don’t always embed cleanly across all themes on all content management systems (e.g. WordPress, Wix, or play back seamlessly on each and every device). Also be aware that several audio players for websites may create unwanted downloadable links, so make sure that the settings are correct before you post.
A NOTE ABOUT VIDEO
A lot of artists commission video examples of their work and many post and upload amateur footage. In both cases, there is the potential to test the patience of new listeners and subscribers who may well be looking for at-a-glance information rather than browsing for new music.
Increasingly, video production is cheap to produce but requires a great deal more expertise than point and shoot. Video production is therefore beyond the scope of these advice notes, which are aimed primarily at newbies or those who feel intimidated by the implied workload of self-generating web media.
Having said that, the overall quality of interviews and promotional features on video is generally unimaginative and boring. You’ve seen one and you’ve seen them all. There is certainly scope for creatives to look afresh at the video format and re-invent it for the purposes of telling individual stories.
This is only an opinion, but I would suggest that massively broadening out your appreciation of the moving image before looking at making your own videos. The history of television and cinema is long, deep and rich and the sheer diversity of visual ideas it has thrown out there is dazzling.
The alternative, to my mind, is simply endless repetition of a handful of predetermined formats that threaten to lose the audience before they have even begun.
DISTRIBUTION AND ENGAGEMENT
Content Management Systems – Thoroughly research CMS platforms and understand what they offer and what their limitations are. DO NOT sign up and start building blindly. Look at the help pages by circumscribing the sign-up pages, and finding the help and guidance pages by googling for specific terms like ‘getting started’. Don’t dwell on forums or ask advice on Facebook. Instead, write a list of the things you want to see on your website and decide which platform can deliver it. Once you are ready to sign up, choose a platform and practice on a dummy site before deciding how you want it to look and feel.
Social Media – Some platforms interface with Social Media more seamlessly than others. It’s worth limiting your social media activity to a couple of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter so that you don’t end up spending all your time feeding someone else’s website. Social media for musicians is largely about visibility, and is a time- consuming activity that demands a disproportionate allocation of time and thought, for little material return. Its value lies in its potential to engage and re-engage around the narrative that you’ve attached to your work. A simple example would be a Twitter Tour Diary with images and bits of video.
These can be created on the fly and do not need to be the same quality as those generated for promotional distribution. The important thing is your willingness to share these stories about your life and work, and encourage followers to find out more about you through your website.
Newsletters – These communications are under-rated as a means of staying in touch with fans, journalists and broadcasters. It’s possible to lose heart with them by spending more time than is necessary on presentation than is really necessary. Newsletters should be periodical updates with solid information that targets the readership with things that have interested them in the past and may do so again. Your tour dates are not enough. Include quotes from reviews and quotes from fans. Talk about highlights to date, longer-term plans and, if you can, make offers to subscribers.
PDF’s – It is amazing how few artists embed PDF downloads on their sites, if they generate them at all. They are easy to create, necessary for mailing platforms and have visual impact. They can include anything and everything from press clippings to stage layouts to ‘monthly thoughts’.
Interviews – Take part in interviews when the offers come along so that you can show media awareness and can engage in conversation about your work. Both interviewers and interviewees need practice at this, and confident speaking makes people listen to what you have to say. The more you do, the better you will be at it. You will also have something substantial alongside review quotes to include in the press and media section of your website.
EPK – Create an electronic press kit (EPK) that contains hi-res images, soundfiles, bio, press release, tour dates, current line-up and comprehensive contact information with links. Convert Word documents to a PDF, but include the same comprehensive contact information at the bottom of your covering emails. Place all in a zip file and send via email, and/or via a link to the downloadable content from your website. Bear in mind that Twitter as a journalist’s hub is increasingly becoming an important platform for things like links to your website and EPK.
Podcasts – If you are already in habit of doing audio interviews and/or have observations and music you’d like to share, then why are you giving it all away in Facebook posts and Soundcloud links? Podcasts are easy to create and they are stamped with your identity. Four podcasts a year, each lasting about 40 minutes is more than enough to get started and work towards an original format that is uniquely your own. Think about storytelling, because what engages you may well engage your followers too. Don’t forget that the ability to articulate your thoughts, feelings and ideas are what interests broadcasters about you as a potential subject.
Updates – Keep the updates on your activities coming but don’t bombard your audience with trivia. The aim is to make sure that none of your media is out of date, obsolete are neglected. If you have a website with too little going on then it will look like a ghost town that has been deserted by previous inhabitants. Few things are more likely to discourage interest from reviewers and broadcasters than receiving threadbare information about recordings in poorly presented communications that point to a website that neither mentions the very album they have just been sent nor lists any upcoming events. No one wants to search all your social media timelines to work out what you’re doing or when it’s going to happen.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE
Nevertheless, it is important not to confuse sharing insights with your audience with opening the door and allowing everyone on the Internet free and unfettered admittance to your private life.
It’s important to maintain distance and boundaries, so that you don’t get sucked into a situation where complete strangers know more about you than you do!
Make sure that all your links and contact information are correct, up to date and embedded across all your media, from press releases to websites, to social media platforms.
DO NOT put important contact and I.D. information in one location only (such as a website contact page) and omit it from other important portals such as Facebook and Eventbrite.
Get all of these things right before worrying about SEO or Google Analytics.
Use the same imagery across all your media, and make sure there is consistency in tone and language in all your communications.
Lastly, do something every day; a little and often is less work in the long run than reactive maintenance, periodical media overhauls and engine room repairs on your website.
The Music Flag
The Music Flag is available for consultation and seminars on all aspects of web media for musicians. Simply, email a few lines with explaining your needs and get the conversation started.