Consultancy: Bringing a Beautiful Voice into Internet View

Over a year ago I wrote about my friend Neva:

I wasn’t living in Long Beach when Melissa Etheridge made her breakthrough playing locally at a club called Que Sera on 7th Street (funny that her wikipedia article doesn’t mention Que Sera), but every time I come out and watch Neva I think I’m seeing the beginning of the same thing.neva rocks taco beach! *video* – May 4, 2008

I don’t remember how long I’d been going to my favorite watering hole, Taco Beach, when I happened to be there on a night when Neva was performing. Nothing formal or flashy, just an acoustic guitar and amazing voice playing over the bar PA, taking the passing attention of the audience between their conversations and drinking. Doing a solo acoustic set in that setting was not for the faint of heart. The audience wasn’t overly obnoxious or disruptive, but I’ve seen pretty talented musicians stare down at the floor, reduced to mumbling through their songs because they couldn’t break through the conversational sound-barrier. Sometimes it seemed to take a whole band to grab the audience’s attention, or at least something electric and loud. Neva had a backing-band a couple of times, but most of the time it was just her and her guitar and she was able to get the whole place rockin’ in her direction.

Neva's original MySpace webpage
Neva’s original MySpace webpage

Wanting to be a supportive fan I checked out her MySpace page and was met by the typical unappealing sprawl of a page where she’d post a poster for an upcoming gig that broke the pages frame and left one scrolling in all directions because one couldn’t see the whole poster at once (NOTE: I’ve shrunk the example page so that the viewer can see the whole poster at once. Notice that the list of gig dates along the right column are entirely illegible and the multi-spacing added to the confusion). Of course almost all MySpace pages are noted for their amateur quality. Regardless of the visual quality of her MySpace, between her MySpace and Facebook accounts she’s been able to muster up an online following of more than 800 folks. It’s difficult to figure out how many fans she has who are not online, but I’d guess that the online number is only a third of the folks who come out to see her shows (this guess is entirely based on the wide variety of folks who attend the shows I’ve seen, from college kids to retirees). Anyway, over the years I started taking pictures of her gigs and posted the results on my Flickr account. Then I started to shoot some video. I’ve only managed to edit and post one “performance” video and one “slide show” video (the latter video being mostly about my moving away from So Cal, Taco Beach & neva concerts). We talked on occasion about her website, but nothing came of it. Then she moved from Southern California to Lake Tahoe and I moved to Florida.

Just before I left So Cal I heard that she was working on a studio recording and eagerly bought the six-song set when it came out last February.We talked a couple times and she was doing pretty good with the CD but wanted to sell a lot more and joked that she’d sold a copy to all of her friends and family and still had a lot to sell before she would get to the point of having paid for the studio time and CD manufacturing. One of my first thoughts was that she’s not exactly living in a music mecca, living near Lake Tahoe. But then over the past few years I’d been following the careers of a few successful independent artists and part of the key to their successes was generating Internet buzz and gathering a much bigger following than they ever could with just public performances.

Lessons Learned From Those Who Went Before

joco-websiteThe first on the list is a former software writer who decided to celebrate the birth of his first child by quitting his job and going full-time with his music career. Jonathan Coulton built a strong following with the technorati in part because he spoke their language and found a way to be quirky, funny and touching usually all at the same time. Coulton produced and released two CDs, Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow and Smoking Monkey by 2004. Podcasting was just then taking off and Coulton offered to help his friends who were experimenting with the medium. But what really seemed to help Coulton was that he offered every song from the two CDs as a free download on his website. He understood that the free music would help generate a lot of interest and buzz and that at the same time those who became real fans would willingly buy his CDs (which were just one click away on the CD Baby website). The combination of speaking fluent geek and free-to-buy worked perfectly. But that alone does not a successful career make. Coulton kept interest up by deciding that the following year he would record and release one song a week for the whole year, and following the success of the last releases, he offered the recordings on his website for free, with the understanding that there would be CD collections made following the end of the year. Thus, the incredibly successful “Thing a Week” project was born, which resulted in a four-part Thing-a-Week CD collection. This past month Coulton released a follow-up CD/DVD project, BEST. CONCERT. EVER., recorded from concerts performed over the previous year, which includes fan-video, internet personalities and various interviews.

Looking at Coulton’s website one would not assume that this is the work of a genius, or wunderkind self-promoter. It’s basically an old-school un-glitzy blog, low on graphics, big on text, with a tiny header and row of tiny buttons/links along the right column. It’s definitely the kind of thing that a former software writer turned successful musician might produce. But if one digs a bit below the text, one will discover that Coulton does two things right. One: everything a fan might want to know about him and his music, including the lyric, guitar song-sheets and the downloadable songs are all just a click away. Two: he welcomes fan music videos, fan concert videos and fan involvement with his wiki and forums. And maybe this is the biggest key to his success, he came from and is still part of the community that now supports him. There’s no cult of personality or detached stardom. There a genuineness that bands and artists from major labels can’t hope to pull off. There’s no promotion machine trying to convince us that we want to listen to him. Just the craziness of his songs and simplicity of his performances are enough to general real interest and fun.

thegeoffsmith-websiteThe next role model, Geoff Smith, is a Nashville musician who splits his time performing in a piano bar that partly owns, running a successful musical ringtone business (using a free/plus-premium model), writing jingles and doing live-video-streaming concerts with and for his friends, most notibly Cali Lewis from Geek Brief TV. The first time I saw Smith was one night during the holiday season a couple years ago. He’d turned on his web-cam and was streaming live-video from his living room, sitting at the piano taking requests from the chatroom that was attached to the live stream. He spent the whole evening playing Christmas songs mixed in with a little Beatles and other pop-tunes, bouncing between his piano to acoustic guitar. His talent was obvious and his enthusiasm and playfulness made for a very fun night watching this stranger from across the country while I worked on whatever project I was working on at the time. Not too surprisingly, Smith’s website conveys a lot more personality right away, but it’s also very user-friendly and transparent for the fans. In an email correspondence I asked Smith a bit about the blogging platform he was using, because I recognized the WordPress theme as being related to the one that I’ve been using for the past few years (Revolution, which became StudioPress by Brian Gardener). Smith confessed that he didn’t know too much about the inner workings of the blog because he has a friend doing that part of the business.

Like Coulton before him, Smith connected himself to many of the A-List podcasters, offering his services as a jingle writer and performer. He also offered his fans something a little different from Coulton’s free-to-buy method. Smith recorded a CD, Ones and 0s, and if you bought it directly from his website you’d get a bonus track subscription which entitles you to download new songs/videos that he updates on an ongoing basis. He recently released the 21st upgrade track from the CD. Buzz, community, relationship and using online/new technology to connect with the community/fans.

neva-music.com version one

neva-music.com version 1 by joe bustillos
neva-music.com version 1 by joe bustillos

The website is important, but as we learned from the two examples cited above, it’s completely meaningless without the willingness of the artist to be available to the community and fans in a way that was never realized (or really possible) in the pre-Internet world. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Ustream, Stickam, these are all tools to connect artist with community/audience. Getting past the fad-ish attention these technologies are getting from the general media, these tools can revolutionize relationships for those willing to let them into their lives. Transparency, genuineness, vulnerability, real-ness.

A couple things were paramount in my mind as I was putting the website together: 1) promote the brand, 2) make the  CD easy to get, 3) make the calendar/gig schedule easy to find, 4) make the website very visual. As I noted above, Neva’s MySpace and Facebook pages were none of these things. The best part of the MySpace page was that her music started to play as soon as you landed on the site, there was usually a giant poster about her next gig or schedule of gigs for the month dominating the page and way below everything else fans could make comments. But visually it was chaotic and her name didn’t stand out all that much. It looked like everyone else’s page.

  1. So I put her name and image way up front (more in #4).
  2. More could be done to promote the CD and make purchasing it more obvious. I found a “discography” widget that was made to list the CD and  the singles with links built in to sell the CD and singles. She just has the link to sell the whole CD, It’s a work in progress. I love how Geoff Smith has icons on the footer of his page connected to all of his products/projects, and these icons are persistent across all of the pages of his blog.
  3. I wanted to put some kind of calendar on the front page that was click-able to info about where and when she’d be doing her next gig. I found a widget that did the gig thing in a list form. It’s a lot more clear than the MySpace version, with click-able links to venue information and maps. But having a calendar would have been visually more involving. I created a calendar using Google Calendar that I could embed in her website, but didn’t get it working the way I wanted.
  4. Besides being a talented writer and performer Neva is very easy on the eyes and WordPress template(s) I’ve been using have become more and more visual. Color, image, feeling, I prefer this version of a promotional website to what she previously had on MySpace and Facebook.

So, this is still version one. Supporting community/fan communication is essential and this model only allows for comments to individual posts. The other thing is that i don’t know how much or if Neva is going to want to do individual update (e.g., blog entries). Additionally, I’m considering an experiment using the SquareSpace online publishing/blogging platform because it takes the layout/visual webpage/website design up a whole level. It has the design sense of iWeb without the irritating template limitations.

Big Picture: Facilitating Community

As the technology/Internet coach, I see my part of this as the one to find a way for Neva to comfortably interact with her community using the these tools. She knows her audience. She knows the people she wants to work with, on the music end of things. My part is to help her get started using these tools to communicate her beautiful voice to an Internet audience. jbb

Sources:

Image: Neva in an Alley, http://www.myspace.com/nevamusic

Image: screen-grab by Joe Bustillos, Neva’s MySpace, retrieved on 7/27/2009

Image: screen-grab by Joe Bustillos, JonathanCoulton.com, retrieved on 7/27/2009

YouTube Video: When You Go by Jonathan Coulton, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPBsSlYYezc&feature=player_embedded, retrieved on 7/27/2009

Image: screen-grab by Joe Bustillos, theGeoffSmith.com, retrieved on 7/27/2009

YouTube: I’m a Twit by Geoff Smith, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3biEam1_GgY&feature=player_embedded, retrieved on 7/27/2009

Image: screen-grab by Joe Bustillos, neva-music.com, retrieved on 7/28/2009

Image/slideshow: nevamusic @ Taco Beach by Joe Bustillos, http://www.flickr.com/photos/joebustillos/sets/72157603250930056/, retrieved on 7/28/2009