Oct 26 2014
So, you want to start a music blog… (Part II)
(You can read Part I by following this LINK)
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 covered about half of these items in Part I (last week’s column) and now here’s Part II.
Worth noting: As opposed to last week’s column, which focused on site creation and organization, today’s will focus more on navigating the field and getting yourself noticed and sourced by people in the music industry. Now, if you’re only looking to have a music blog that highlights the albums on your shelves and couldn’t care less about what’s new today, then today’s column is going to be less relevant than last week. But if you are into what’s being released every week (in any genre) and want to be a source of what’s new, then today’s column will also be helpful.
As always, I’ve embedded some of my favorite music from 2014 into the body of the column.
(“Up,” from Spacelab by Hess/AC/Hess)
Where do you start?
I got lucky with this one. I mean, you have your brand new site. You’ve picked out the theme and the format and all the little ornamental extras that enhance the aesthetic. Now what? What the hell do you write? No matter how much you tinker with the site’s design, you’re still going to be faced with that first blank page. Where do you start?
Me, I had two avenues to take, both similar in nature and, I believe, not a bad direction to take yourself. My original plan, when the idea to start up a music blog first formed in my head, was to simply write about albums on my CD shelf and iTunes library that floated my boat. Most of them would be modern jazz, but I’d hit on some under-the-radar “classics” too. But two things happened in the span of time when I first got the inkling to start a blog and when I actually flipped on the Open sign. One, I got the eMusic gig. Part of the deal with that thing is that I have the ability to reprint my eMusic (now Wondering Sound) synopses thirty days after they’ve been initially published. Well, that’s what I did. Literally. I added some links and personnel names and embedded audio when I could find it… but that’s all I changed. These were true reprints and those early posts, well, as they might say in my new hometown down here in the South… “bless his heart, he really tried, didn’t he?” But even though those early posts were sort of lame in a way, they provided a very nice source of help on what to write about.
So did Number 2 of my two-part what-changed premise… I began my site at the end of the year. As you’ll come to discover, and which I’ll address briefly later, end of the year means the Season of Lists. This is when you encapsulate everything that’s happened in the year and highlight the best of the best. Well, end of the year is when I opened my door, so I had a whole lot of summarizing to do. Much in the style of my eMusic Jazz Picks synopses, I wrote a series of columns that highlighted the best of 2012. I wrote little paragraphs for each album, about five albums per column, just briefly talking about the music and why I liked it. Nothing fancy and definitely nothing that was going to get nominated for any writing awards. But that’s kind of how many of the wrap-up columns go. You’ve probably already written plenty about the music during the year when initially covering the music when it was first released.
What both of these two types of columns (eMusic Jazz Picks synopses and Best of 2012 synopses) did for me was put out a huge volume of mini-content on my site in a short period of time. Between my use of social media and networking (addressed later in this column) and artists/labels/PR reps scouring the internet for relevant material, my site got noticed. It wasn’t long before I was getting lots of promo material from artists and labels and reps asking me to review albums, conduct interviews, etc. The question of what to write was answered for me.
I highly recommend writing a little about a lot of albums, a scatter-shot approach that is likely to get you noticed in short order.
(And some of those original column ideas? I’ve never gotten to them. I have some drafts of huge columns for Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz and Guillermo Klein just sitting there in draft form. I get to them from time to time, but until I can do this thing full time and can ditch the day job, they’ll continue to evolve slowly.)
Getting Noticed, an addendum
As I mentioned in the previous section, part of getting noticed is putting your stuff in a position of being seen. There’s some basic things you can do to get your site on the radar.
1. Go knock on Google’s door and introduce yourself.
This was one I learned a little late. You can submit your site’s URL, as well as the URL of specific content on your site and a site map, and this will trigger Google’s search engine to begin including you in search results that hit certain keywords and tags on your site. Here’s a LINK to check those options out. The option I chose was the second, “Link to a specific page…” If I remember correctly, I asked Google to just check out my site’s main page (via the vanilla birdistheworm[dot]com URL) and to stop by and visit occasionally, because that’s where I’d be posting new material. The other options are either very simplified or very complex. They make it pretty straight-forward, so don’t worry if you don’t understand it all entirely. It’ll become clear as you go through the steps.
But I couldn’t understand why my site was never showing up in most google search results. This made it happen.
2. Twitter, Facebook and probably a bunch of other social media sites.
My site has a dedicated Facebook page. Every time there’s a new post on my site, I post a link to it on the Facebook page. I probably don’t use the Facebook page as effectively as I could to get the word out about my content, but I at least get something up on that Page daily. Other people (fans, musicians, labels, etc) who do use Facebook more effectively than I do, in fact, notice my posts, because my site traffic manager shows me how many people are coming to my site from Facebook posts. Even if the idea of Facebook repulses you, go create one. It’s painless.
Also, get on Twitter. Now, I use Twitter a lot. I like to hang there. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but you do need to create an account, and every time you make a post on your site, you need to send out a tweet about it and you need to include the Twitter handles of the artists and labels and PR reps in your tweet. It’ll get them to notice you and they’ll retweet your link and the people following them on twitter will start heading to your site. If you don’t want to shoot the breeze on Twitter, fine, no problem, but create a Twitter feed for your site and use it.
There are probably other social media sites you could be using. I only use the two just mentioned. None of it could hurt, so avail yourself of as much of it as you can handle. But at least do the Facebook and Twitter thing.
Also, since you’re just starting out, you might want to email the artist and/or label directly and say, hey, here’s a link to something nice I just wrote about your album. Maybe include a 1-3 sentence introduction, but I’m not even sure you need to do that… not so long as you’ve got a decent About Me page on your site. If people want to send you promo materials, they’ll jump all over finding out who you are. Most of the time. Actually, let’s take a brief detour…
(“Battle Mountain,” from Battle Mountain by Ben Flocks)
Don’t feel bad that I’ve never heard of you… I’ve never heard of myself, either.
This next bit of advice (I feel like I should put that word in quotes) is based on a trend I noticed over time in my site stats. Every now and then I see a huge spike in site traffic, and it’s gotten to where I can almost guess which review of the past handful of weeks instigated it. Usually it’s from an unknown (or relatively unknown) artist who either self-produced their album or put it out on an unknown (or relatively unknown) label. They almost certainly live in middle of nowhere Norway or middle of nowhere Poland or middle of nowhere Italy or they live in Seattle. They will typically be a younger musician (though not always) and they will be all up on all kinds of social media sites just to hang while also promoting their music. And if they see some nice words about their album on your site, they will link to it and they will get the word out like mad on all of their social media pages, letting their fans and friends and family know that, hey, look at the nice thing this person (you) said about me.
You’ll also start getting promo materials from anyone who contributed to the album. If a small label is involved, invariably you will begin receiving promo materials for everything they release. You’ll start getting followers and subscribers and your site traffic will go up and Google will notice you more because people are linking to your site on social media sites.
I bring this up only by way of anecdotal evidence that, if you’re faced with ten different albums that you feel equally strong about and can’t decide which one to write about, you might want to invest a few minutes of your time checking out the artists’ social media presence. If it’s an active one, then you might want to consider choosing an album that will get that traffic boost. It’ll help you get noticed, but even long after that stops being a consideration, it’s still pretty cool to see that spike in traffic. I don’t get too wrapped up in the stats (more on that later), but I always enjoy seeing people are getting to my site and checking out all the great music I spotlight. It makes me feel like I’m accomplishing my mission statement of spreading the word about great music… much of it obscure.
And speaking of obscure, if you start out writing about ECM Records or Blue Note releases, you’re not likely to get noticed right away. Everybody writes about those albums and they can cherry-pick the stuff that holds the most prestige. That’s probably not you. Think about writing about a few albums by artists who aren’t seriously well-known. They’re more likely to appreciate getting some print and put in the leg-work to spread the word about it.
Just something to think about.
Just say no (thanks).
Let’s jump ahead. People are learning about your site. You are getting review requests from artists and label and reps. You haven’t yet reached the level of requests to where there’s no possible way for you to get to it all. For now, it’s just dribbling in a little at a time. Resist the temptation to write about things that you don’t much care for out of fear that the music faucet will get shut off if you say ‘no thanks.’ There are more than a couple of us who have succumbed early to that fear and written up an album or two that didn’t exactly float our boat. It may not have been an effusive recommendation, but it still got a slot that, otherwise, never should’ve received the time of day. I can think of two columns on my site that fit that category (though there may be a third, now that I think upon it). But after a couple, I learned to just say ‘no thanks.’ I mean, if I’m not writing about the music that I think is truly important, then what the hell am I doing here?
But there’s no doubt that those early stages of getting noticed and receiving promo materials, etc, can be almost dizzying… a kind of intoxication in the changes of status, and it can be easy to lose sight of what’s what. Don’t let that happen to you. Write about the stuff you want to write about and write it the way that you want it to read.
Conversely, if you’re an artist or label or a rep who is having trouble getting print on a particular album, go find someone new to the scene. You can probably jostle them into writing something up before they wise up to the just say ‘no thanks’ advice.
(“A Journey Through Hope,” from Sad & Beautiful by Emler/Tchamitchian/Echampard)
Where are all of you people coming from?
So, site traffic and stats. Depending on your theme and platform, there are going to be a number of different tracking methods and tools available to you. Depending on how much you want to focus on this aspect will guide you to which tools to use. I haven’t delved much into this, so I don’t have a lot of advice for you here. I have one site that uses the Jetpack stat tool (a basic free WordPress plugin; way simple to install and use). I have another site that uses Google Analytics. It’s way better and more detailed and because I just never really got into my site stats, I almost never take the trouble to analyze it.
What I do enjoy seeing (and Jetpack takes care of this) are the sections that tell me where my visitors are coming from and where they’re going when they leave the site. I like seeing how many people are finding my site via Facebook and Twitter and which artist and label sites are linking to my site and sending people over. I especially like seeing when people leave my site and go to retail links to buy the album or when they go to artist sites I’ve linked to, to learn more about that artist and maybe see if they’re touring anywhere nearby.
The thing about site traffic… don’t get too emotionally invested in it. In the beginning, you’ll probably be checking your stats daily. It’s understandable. You want to see if anybody out there knows you’re there. But once you’ve been around for a little while and have established yourself, that’s where the danger of stats becomes more evident. You’ll have gone through a period (or three) of burnout. You’ll come to see how much of your time the site takes and how much like a real job that it is, and it’s easy to become bitter when you look at your stats and think, WHY DON’T THEY APPRECIATE ME MORE?! This is when it’s good to have a well-honed sense of humor. I laughed that moment off, had a stiff drink, and moved on with things. You should consider a similar approach. Substitute where necessary, but definitely get laughter in there somewhere.
The thing of it is, I do want to get high traffic numbers, because that means people are checking out the music that I think they should be hearing. I love discovering great new music and I am extremely gratified when I’m able to help do the same for others. And I want these artists to succeed, and if people are reading about them on my site, then that increases their chances. But you just have to stay patient and keep plodding on. I can’t remember where, but music writer Marc Myers talks about a tipping point, where the slow accumulation of followers/readers/Likers/etc that comprise the concept of site traffic suddenly reaches a peak and one new reader a day becomes a hundred a day and the traffic numbers reach a level where the actual number becomes irrelevant. It kind of reminds me of how professional poker players talk about how once the chip stacks become so high, the concept of $750,000 in chips versus $2 million in chips is irrelevant.. they’re just chips.
I guess where I’m going with that is don’t get too wrapped up in site traffic. It’s one thing if you get off on analyzing the numbers because that’s kind of your thing, but don’t let emotions creep into it. That’s a toxic situation.
About that site traffic…
If you think, eventually, you’d like to get some custom advertising on your site, start thinking about it early. I touched upon this briefly in last week’s column in the section about site design. If you like the idea of a musician or label buying some ad space, like a banner image for a new album or a sidebar box offering a free download, consider early on how you want to make that happen. Think about the types of advertising you want to offer, how you’d package it and how much to charge. The last part is the touchiest of the topics, but you can get guidance based on what current sites are doing. Many of them post what they’re charging and have nice PDFs about the different options.
The other stuff, just get out in front of that early. I regret that I didn’t. I’ve had several offers to advertise on my site, but because I didn’t plan it out early: can my theme fit advertising in and, if so, where? What kind of packages do I want to offer? What do I need to do to make those packages a reality? Do I need to have my own Bandcamp or SoundCloud Pro account?
Because now, my site is pretty much how my site is going to be, and my time is pretty much dominated by just getting up new content… figuring out how to take on advertising requests just doesn’t get made a priority. It’s something that I should have addressed back in the day, when I was first starting the site up and had more options and time available to me.
Oh, and if you do plan on having advertising on your site, you’ll want to find a statistics tool that gives you the most perspectives on your site traffic. Advertisers are going to want to know that stuff.
Something to consider. It’s not something of great importance to my site specifically, but I do regret not investing some brainstorming time on it back on Day One.
Okay, I think that about covers it.
I hope you find some of this helpful. Doubtlessly, I’ll pick up a few new things along the way and return with another column.