So, you want to start a music blog… (Part I)
I’ve only been at this three years, which in terms of internet music blogs, that’s a pretty long time. As far as figuring out how to best run an internet music blog… well, I’m not sure exactly how much time that takes, but I can tell you from experience that three years doesn’t get you far.
Here’s some things I regret not thinking of when I first began my site. It will cover subjects of set-up, content structure and formatting, content organization, content frequency, social media, website traffic, advertising, promotional materials, artist/label/PR rep relationships, networking, time management and You.
I’m probably forgetting a couple of important topics. Perhaps I’ll cover those in my “Year Four” article. I’ll cover half of these items in Part I (today’s column) and Part II will publish next Sunday.
As always, I’ve embedded some of my favorite music from 2014 into the body of the column.
(“Night Potier,” from Love for Snail by Peter Rosendal)
I’m going to assume that most of you will be going with a WordPress theme… either with an actual WordPress blog or on your own platform. It’s a smart route to take and pretty much the entire universe is making the move to a WordPress environment. There are a number of different themes you can use. Some of them are free, others you have to pay for. Here are some considerations to take into account when choosing your site’s “skeletal system.”
Think about what you want your site to look like. Not from day one, but on Day 1,000. Look way into the future and go with the assumption that all the crazy ideas and hopes you have for your site will come true. Sketch out how your site will need to look and function in order to accommodate all of those crazy ideas and hopes. What is the first thing you want readers to see when they walk through your site’s front door? How do you want your content presented? Do you want them to see the most recent article first or do you want them to see a table of contents?
What about the stuff that fits around the main content? Do you want to be able to customize multiple columns will bells and whistles (ie, plug-ins and menus) or do you want it to be clean of clutter (“it’s all about the stories, man”)? What about advertising? Is there a way to feature advertisers with the WordPress theme you’re considering? Does it allow you to add extra room to feature a banner image? Are there one or multiple columns on the page and how many menus and plug-ins will it fit in case you want to add more functionality (or ad space)? Brainstorm like mad. Consider every angle.
Wander the internet and visit other music blogs. Hell, visit non-music blogs. Find some that have features that you’d like on your own site. You might even choose the same theme as one of these sites.
A nice thing about these WordPress themes is that you can preview what your site will look like even after you’ve gone live. Because let’s be real, unless you’re already super-famous, nobody other than your grandparents and (maybe) your spouse is going to visit your site in the first month of its existence. If you’ve got a solid plan of what you want your site to look like and the characteristics and formatting you wish to incorporate into it, as long as you’ve got your WordPress theme choices whittled down to a small handful, you can just pick one, post your first couple of entries of content, and then just see how it all shakes out. If suddenly you become unsure if you picked the right one, don’t worry, it’s no problem. WordPress theme functionality allows you to go in and choose a different theme and preview it live… it will show you what those first, new posts will look like with different themes. And if you like a different theme than the one you initially chose, it’s easy as pie to switch them out.
And it’s not like there’s a drop-dead date on when you can switch themes out. But what I’ve discovered from experience is that once you get pretty deep into posting content with very specific formats, it gets a lot tougher to switch themes out. On my own site, I like the clean, crisp design. I’ve formatted my posts to fit that design. When I poke around different themes and do a live preview, many of those posts lose their nice formatting and become a bit muddled and messy. It would be an easy enough exercise to reformat a handful of them to fit the new theme, but as it stands, I’m three years into this site and that’s a whole lot of existing posts… there’s no way I could reformat all of that content to fit a new theme. I’d have to let things stand as-is. Now, some themes will mess with my existing formats more than others, but that right there limits my options on a new theme. Just something to consider. I regret I didn’t spend more time shopping around the different theme options after I was up and running a couple weeks in. I might not have changed anything, and I do like my simple theme, but “simple” does tend to limit your options as you try to grow your site.
I don’t have any comment on free vs. pay themes. I think it’s best to find the theme that is most likely to fit your plans for Day 1,000 and go with that, whether it’s no cost to you or you have to pay a little bit out of pocket to obtain that theme. The best theme for Day 1,000 will save you lots and lots of time throughout the process of running your site, and you’ll come to learn that time is often a scarcer resource than cash, and one that you’d happily trade cash to obtain more of.
(“Shhh,” from One for Miles, One for Maynard by Reggie Watkins)
About that content…
Presentation is something to consider as you make your initial post. Think about the sites you enjoy visiting (music or otherwise) and the layout of the their articles and columns and various other posts. Think about the characteristics that make a post visually appealing to read and functional in use. You want to enchant readers, and keep them on your site wanting more. God, when I look back at some of my earliest posts, I can’t believe what a knucklehead I was. I used to bludgeon my readers with embedded audio and scrunch up the text between them, poorly spaced and lacking any concept of flow or cadence. It was one play button after the other, and I can’t imagine what the load times were like with all that embedded audio. Over time, I’ve streamlined the way my posts look and operate and become more objective about the way in which I view them. When you start to make your first posts, you’re likely going to get all types of gushing proud when they go up. That’s okay, but not at the expense of an editorial eye.
It’s the kind of thing you’re going to tweak as you go along. It’s not anything you have to get right from the first try, but it is something to be aware of.
Categories & Tagging
You’re going to want to organize your content to make it easier for readers to find what they want and to guide readers who aren’t sure what they want. Simply putting a search engine box on your site isn’t enough, not nearly. Most WordPress themes give you the option for two types of guiders… categories and tags. Think of your site as a city. In your city are storefronts, each representing a piece of content… columns, reviews, videos, etc. Categories are the highways and streets of your City Site. They are the standard routes that readers will take to navigate your content. Tags, on the other hand, are the signs over the doors of every storefront. Tags are the signifiers that will inspire your readers to walk through the storefront doors of the content that most interests them.
Keep the Categories simple. You can build a hierarchy of Categories and Sub-Categories (for instance, Category = Reviews, Sub-Category = “2014 Reviews,” “2013 Reviews,” etc. Or how about, Category = Opinion Pieces, with Sub-Categories of “Trends in Jazz,” “The Business of Art,” “Current Events,” etc.). Don’t get too detailed with the Sub-Categories either. The detail is what the Tags are for. That’s where you want to offer an array of options, providing signposts that are traditional (Tag = “Sax Trio”) or imaginative (Tag = “Late-Night Music” or “Music from another planet” or “Seattle Jazz”). Having those tags will help guide readers to content, including readers who know the kinds of things they’re looking for (via a search engine box) and those that don’t (with a drop-down list).
Go through your CDs. Hold some of your favorites in your hand and think about the keywords you’d use to describe them or how you might organize them on your shelf. Label, Artist Name, Sidemen, moods, local scenes, primary instruments, recording year…
Go to retail sites. Think about how you might search for those albums. Look at how albums are tagged on those sites. Sites like CDBaby and Bandcamp give the ability to create customized tags to accompany established ones. You can have “Jazz,” “Piano Jazz” and “Rainy Day Jazz” sitting out there as fishhooks trying to bait buyers to check out an album. Browsing those sites and checking out some of the custom tags might give you some inspiration on how to organize them on your site.
If there’s one thing you’ll want to get right on the first try, it’s the Categories and Tags. Brainstorm like mad and establish both sets. You can always add categories and tags later, after your site is under way, but all of the previously posted content that those new tags and categories would be applicable to won’t be included in the new groups. The only way to bring that content into the fold is by going back and adding those new tags to the old content one by one. Believe me, you just won’t have the time or energy to do that, no matter how strong the inclination is.
I regret that I didn’t add more tags from the beginning, things like “mood” (ie, rainy day music) or “scene” (ie, “Seattle,” “Portugal,” etc… regional signifiers). If I could do it all over again, I definitely would have spent more time in this area before flipping on the Open sign.
(“81%,” from Eno Supo by Estafest)
So, got any plans today?
Post something every day. It’s an obvious thing to say, but it’s a task more formidable than you can possibly imagine. You’re going to suffer from burnout. You’re going to have things like, I dunno, life, interrupt your normal schedule. You’re going to have stretches where you re-envision what you want your site to be. Give yourself “outs” for those times when you need to post something, anything, as well as a way of fending off burnout.
I’ve got my These Are Videos That I Like series. Look, I appreciate a good video and I think it’s a fun thing to post and I know readers enjoy them based on my stats, but the biggest upside for me is that they are way simple to construct. It’s like an off-day for me. I have a handful of them sitting in draft form, too, just waiting for a day when I need something at the last minute. I have a couple album recommendation columns, too… ones that I’m not thrilled about the way I wrote them up and maybe don’t even consider the music sufficiently amazing that I’d normally post a recommendation for them on my site… but I liked the music well enough and was able to write something up on the fly, and I keep them in my back pocket in case I need something at the last minute. It’s a nice thing to have available. It’s particularly stressful to have to put a post together at the last minute. Avoid that as much as possible. Get out ahead on your schedule as much as possible. Don’t ever back yourself into a corner where you’re having to create a post on the same day you want to publish it. I’ve been there, and it sucks. That’s the fastest way to get burned out.
And you don’t want your site to go dead, not even for a day. Having new content every day keeps readers coming back day after day and gets them in the habit of visiting your site, almost to where it makes a person feel compelled to do it. I know I do this with other sites, myself, where it’s just automatic that I visit those sites day in and day out. New daily content is the way to make that happen and develop an avid readership.
(And let me take a moment to thank all of the people who visit my site; I do genuinely appreciate that you’re finding articles on Bird is the Worm that float your boat to the point where you keep returning for more).
So, plan out your schedule, make sure you have some categories of content that are easy to throw together, and post something every day. If you get on a hot streak where you are writing your best stuff and it’s flowing out of your head and onto your computer screen with an amazing ease and fluidity, then milk that shit for as long as you can. Exploit your hot streaks for all you’ve got. Because, trust me, there will be opposite streaks where every word is flat and every thought is cliche and the very idea of listening to music (much less writing about it) is a total drag. When you’re on, don’t let anything get in your way until that surge of productivity comes to its natural conclusion.
(“Que Horas Não São?” from Invento by Juliana Cortes)
I’m going to end Part I with the thing that, perhaps, you might want to address first…
Who Are You?
This one is a bit abstract, but it’s the most essential question you can answer before you start your blog. The thing is, you might not figure it out right away. Don’t let this one hang you up, but always let it stew in the back of your head, because, ultimately, it will be the piece that allows everything else to fall into place. The best way I can explain Who Are You? is by talking about Me.
I’m not a music writer. As it turns out, I never was. I’m a novelist. I write fiction novels. That’s a far cry from being a music reviewer or critic or columnist. In the beginning, I was a bad music writer. I was trying to find my voice. I mean, I was pretty good with the 3-5 sentences of pithiness and humor for my eMusic/Wondering Sound Jazz Picks column, but for my own site, where I was looking to expand on those ideas, well, I was pretty bad in the beginning.
Don’t get discouraged if you are, too. Some things you just have to work at, and doing it in a live setting tends to speed up the learning curve.
Three years later, and I think I’ve gotten better. Every now and then, I write a great piece. Sometimes I knock one out of the park. When I suffer from burnout, sometimes my stuff is pretty bad. But after three years of perseverance and hard work, I’ve developed into something of a middling music writer. This does not disappoint me. What I found sort of discouraging, though, was that I may have reached my ceiling. My redemption (in my own eyes) was that I read the writing on that ceiling. What it said was… “Who Are You?”
Once I answered that question, everything changed.
I’m not a music writer. I’m not a reviewer. I’m not a columnist. I’m not a critic. My value to the jazz scene, the value I provide my readers is The Pursuit. Back in the day, there was somebody on the AllAboutJazz forum (I believe it was the person with the handle “Robmid”) who called me a bloodhound. He was referring to my ability to track down the great new releases, no matter how obscure they were. And he was right! I am a bloodhound.
Once I accepted that I was more tastemaker than journalist, writing for my site became easier. It’s also changing things up. What you are going to find as things progress on Bird is the Worm is that my columns will become shorter, and my analysis of albums will drop precipitously. I am going to recommend albums. I am going to write a little bit about them, just to give readers a sense of what’s what. If there’s some backstory that I think is interesting or relevant, I’ll include that. As always, there will be some embedded audio and some links to artist, label and retail sites. But that’s gonna be about it. Hopefully I will gain the reputation and trust to where I don’t have to say much more than, “Hey, this is something you should take for a spin,” and that will be enough for readers to hit the play button on the audio and follow a link or two to discover more about the recording while the music plays. Every now and then I’ll write a long-form piece, and I’m sure there will always be albums that will receive write-ups that verge on 1,000 words. But for the most part, from here on out, I’m going for brevity (this column excluded). I’m thinking 250-300 words is enough to state my case.
Who Am I? is a question you should answer before you begin your music blog and it’s a question you should pose every so often for as long as you keep the thing running.
I hope you find some of that helpful.
Part II will post next Sunday.