Tighten Up That Website

I recently posted about the mistakes I see constantly on musician's websites. Young performers, established veterans, and even big commercial acts. Some of the mistakes make your website look cheap and amateurish. Others make you look faceless and corporate. 

If you read that article and were feeling guilty about not having a website up to par, there is good news. It is an easily fixed problem! You can get on this today and put together a beautiful website sooner than you think. 

I'm going to walk you through what you need to know to have a great website, without spending much money. Back in the 1990s you probably needed to hire a professional designer because the technology was more clunky. Now, there are more solutions than ever to make the process easy and painless for all. 

My proof? I get complements on EmilioGuarino.com all the time which I put together myself. And I didn't have to write a single line of code. I'm going to explain exactly how I did it. 

Web designers will occasionally hate on my website, but I didn't go to the trouble so I can make web design people happy. 

I have a website that serves a purpose for me. 

Two purposes, actually. If people are interested in working with me, they can learn about my music—read about my experience, hear me play, and get in touch with me. If you're interested in learning from me, I give away a lot of information for free and sell my book.

I want you to have the same kind of web presence. I'll never forget the response I got when I asked the New York Electroacoustic Festival how they found me: They googled for a bass player in New York City who has played electronic music and found me. They shot me an email and it led to real work

Since I want the same for you, I'm going to walk you through each crucial step in setting up a great website for yourself. I will assume you're working on a limited budget and don't have a huge amount of time to pour into working on it. 

Buy a Domain and Hosting

The first thing you need to do if you haven't already is to go buy YourName.com. The technical term for this is a domain name. If it isn't available, find the closest variation that makes sense and get that. Sometimes a variation of your name is even better. My friend Emily Davidson's site is a great example of using a compelling name variation. Her site is emilyplayscello.com. It works well because it is informative, is very easy to remember and spell, and looks good in print.

Domain names are only a few bucks per year so grab your desired name before someone else does. There are a number of websites that allow you to do this, like this one

Hosting is another service that you need to purchase in addition to your domain name. The easiest way to think of hosting is like an on-demand deliver service—your site needs a warehouse to be stored and someone to deliver it when someone types in the domain name. Hosting is exactly that, except the "warehouse" and deliveryman is a special type of computer that runs all the time, also known as a server. 

When someone types in YourName.com, the server that hosts your website sends your website to the the computer of the person who requested it when they put your domain name into their web browser. The server is also the computer that allows you to have a customized email address. Ever wonder how people have an email address like firstname@yourname.com? The hosting plan lets you set that up too.

I have used two services for domains and hosting: GoDaddy and Dreamhost.

GoDaddy is kind of like the Wal-Mart of domain names and hosting. Cheap, but you get what you pay for. Dreamhost on the other hand is fantastic. Great service, reasonable prices, a very reliable product, and highly recommended. Click the banner below to check them out. 

Doing everything yourself? This is the best hosting and domain service I know of for independent musicians. 

Doing everything yourself? This is the best hosting and domain service I know of for independent musicians. 

Select A CMS

Once you have a domain name and a hosting plan, you need to actually build a website. 

The easiest way to start designing it and adding content is to use a content management system, abbreviated as CMS. This is the software that you use to manage all your content—the pages on the website, blog articles, recordings, contact forms, etc. It is the control panel you use behind the scenes.

I recommend two CMS systems that I have used personally: Wordpress and Squarespace. 

They are both relatively easy to use, can look great, and have a relatively low monthly expense. 

Looks Matter

You are going to be busy making music so you can't spend too much time futzing around with your site, but looks matter a lot. Spend the time on making it look great.

You can't skimp on design and have a cheap looking site because people are constantly advertised to and see professionally designed sites multiple times every day. That's the standard yours has to live up to. They're going to go to Nikki Minaj's website or Amazon.com and then compare yours to those very well funded websites.

Not a problem. You can still hang with them in terms of design. You're going to buy a professionally designed template and make it your own, which doesn't cost as much as you might think

Your site needs to meet three requirements. 

  1. The site can't look look like your punched your name into a template. 
  2. It has to be easy to use and clear.
  3. It has display well on all devices (a.k.a. a "responsive" design)

Costs

Both Wordpress and Squarespace cost money to run.

With Squarespace, you pay a monthly fee for the CMS system, hosting (without email), and security. You have to design the site yourself, but once you learn their system it is very easy "drag and drop" oriented. It is totally possible to build a nice clean site with them and not write a line of code. 

Wordpress is free to install on your hosting server but you'll need to pay for a professionally designed template so you don't have a "canned" looking website. Free templates can be buggy and even contain viruses, so steer clear of them. Wordpress is also a little harder to use so you may need some technical help if you don't have time to figure it out yourself. You gain some flexibility in terms of the design and functionality though. Wordpress is easier to customize. 

I have yet to find a good, flexible, and free CMS that requires no technical knowledge. You'll have to pay for a good CMS, but it's very cheap. 

Security doesn't matter, until it does

I switched to Squarespace in 2015 because my former Wordpress site got hacked right before I submitted an application to present at The International Society of Bassists Convention. Keeping your website secure isn't interesting, until you get hacked. I recommend making it a priority long before that happens and I'll tell you why. 

One of my buddies sent me a screen shot and to my horror I saw that some crook put a button next to the Instagram badge that said "anal pound fever". I had to break my own website as fast as possible so nobody important saw that. I was in the middle of a rehearsal and excused myself so I could open up the Wordpress app on my phone and frantically delete code until my friend could verify that the site wouldn't load, then deal with it later. I eventually was invited to present at the conference, but it was a close call. This just isn't a situation I want anyone else to ever be in. 

Wordpress can be very secure, don't get me wrong. I just didn't have the technical knowledge to do it myself and paying someone to keep it secure is more expensive that just using Squarespace who includes that with their monthly fee. 

There are also other services that people have had success with, like Weebly, but I'm not going to comment on them because the bulk of my personal experience is with these two CMS systems. 

Squarespace or Wordpress? It really depends on your needs, time, budget, and expertise. 

Squarespace or Wordpress? It really depends on your needs, time, budget, and expertise. 

If you will be doing everything yourself, Squarespace is likely the cheaper, easier to use option. 

If you will have some technical help or have the knowledge to keep things secure yourself, Wordpress has clear advantages. 

Some people argue that Squarespace sucks because the lack of flexibility makes it look "canned". There is some truth to this. Once you build a Squarespace site, you'll be able to spot them a mile away. I would argue that it looks not canned enough to keep most people happy. It is less flexible but it looks good enough and saves a TON of time, so Squarespace it is. If 80-90% of my visitors think the site looks good and 10-20% are grumbling for whatever reason, that's fine. You can't make everybody happy. 

Design

Both Squarespace and Wordpress use customizable themes. Themes are the basic look and layout of your site. Pick a theme that is close enough to what you want and customize it. Don't just roll with the canned theme because then other people out there will have a website that looks exactly like yours. Change enough to make it different, but not so much that you have to go to web design school to get it done

Change the fonts to something that fits the image of yourself you want in the world. I can be a very blunt, direct person who plays a very chunky instrument so I tend to go for very chunky, bold, san-serif fonts. I love Helvetica and Futura PT and similar fonts. I'm all about high contrast and lots of sharp geometry. 

My website is primarily black and white because when I had photos taken, the best shots were in black and white. My strategy was to get the photos done first, then do the site design around them so the whole vibe of the site is tight and well composed. 

Having a flowery, frilly, purple-themed website wouldn't make sense for me because it doesn't reflect my personality or my playing very well. I have friends who do the super frilly thing and it looks awesome because it is congruent with their personalities. Here's an example.

You might want to change the layout of the theme a bit, but don't get too creative here. If your menu is confusing to navigate or doesn't show up clearly against the background image, you're doing your visitors a disservice and representing yourself poorly.

Keep the menu simple, not too crowded, and put it at the top of the site or the left side. Don't use a sidebar on the right side unless you have something that will look good and add to the design. Some people put their Instagram feed, ads for their products, or something else entirely. There aren't any rules for your sidebar as long as it looks good. But, when it doubt leave it out. 

Content

Once you have a domain name, hosting, a CMS service, and a good design up and running you have most of the unsexy technical fuss over with. Now you need to make the site engaging with great content. The first things you should do are get a few great pictures of yourself up there. Hire a photographer, I promise it's worth it. I used this guy. It was expensive, but worth the price since he saved me so much time and gave me polished, timeless photos. 

Integrate the photos into the design of the site instead of making a photos page. If people want downloadable photos of you, they'll ask. Better yet, make a little press kit package with a PDF of your bio and photos, then place a link in your biography page. Use your photos as backgrounds or sprinkle them in your content to break up large blocks of text.

If you want to squeeze out an extra .1% of SEO optimization, give all those photos captions and readable filenames like "Emilio On Stage.jpg" and not "DSC89347.jpg" so they show up in Google Image Searches. 

Just because another musician has a certain kind of page or content doesn't mean it is a good idea for everybody. Take inspiration from other musician's sites you like, but don't copy if you don't have a reason. The most important part is asking what makes the most sense for you and where you are in your career. Your favorite singer might have a World Tour page—that doesn't mean you should. 

 

At the least, make the following pages:

 

About/Bio

You need to tell a little story about who you are and what you do. For a lot of people, writing about themselves is very awkward. Go on any dating app and you'll see the cliches immediately. Everyone's descriptions of themselves are either painfully boring and generic or they're trying way to hard to come off as desirable. 

If you want a biography that helps sell yourself a little more, ask your friends to write it for you. They'll have more interesting things to say about your playing that you will.

Another system: I emailed about 30 people and asked them for a quote for my website, then weaved their responses together for my biography. It came out very nicely because they said all kinds of good stuff that I would never write about myself and I had a nice variety.

Try it. This is something you can do with a three line email tonight. 

Contact

This seems like a no-brainer but I mention it because so many people leave this out. Use a Wordpress app or the built in Squarespace app to create a nice, clean contact form like this one. It forwards directly to my email, prevents spam robots from stealing my email, and looks a lot better than writing emilio (at) emilioguarino.com. This is SUPER IMPORTANT. There isn't a lot of purpose for a musician's website if there is no way to contact the musician. 

 

Here are the sections you should approach with some care:

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Linking to social media you use with some regularity is a great idea. If you're on Twitter everyday, then by all means, link to your Twitter. If you use no social media and are not trying to gather any new followers, you might want to just leave this out. What purpose does it serve to link to a Soundcloud account with no sounds and under 10 followers? I would say none, but I see musicians do this all the time. 

Calendar

If you play a lot of public gigs that you want people to come to, you should put up a calendar. If you have an empty Calendar, that doesn't look good. Leave it out. 

Another one I see a lot is the vanity calendar. People put up lots of private or fake gigs in an attempt to give the impression that they are very busy and therefore desirable performers. Maybe it worked in 1997, but people see right through that these days. 

Blog

You're reading this guide on my blog, so obviously I believe it has a place in the musician's website. It is an easy way to push your skills as a writer and make your website bigger so it will appear in more Google search results. But, for that to work, you need to make a commitment to writing often. 

I developed my book by blogging for a few months first. Having a blog can be a great thing. But, only have one if you plan on keeping it up to date with great information. If a new visitor to your site clicks the blog button and the only thing there is a four year old post about secrets you told your cat over the weekend, what are they going to think about you?

If you do the blog thing, do it right. Some of my earlier posts aren't as polished as this one, but that's OK. After a few months of doing it, I got a lot better which is what I mean by doing it right. Don't blog just because someone says you're supposed to. You should have a blog because you have something to say on a regularly basis. The technical chops will fall into place as long as you're working on it often. 

My rule with this blog is that as soon as I don't have it in me to keep it up to date, the whole thing comes down. 

Media

Your recordings are like your photos—they have to be good. There isn't any room for it to look like amatuer hour. My rule with this was always to put the best stuff out that I could. Over time, the overall quality has gotten better. Like blogging, I just try to look at wherever I am and then reach a little further. Whatever is comfortable for you, ask what is just out of your reach. That's the level you should aim for. 

If your best quality in reach is an iPhone recording, get a ZOOM recorder on eBay and use that. If you have a ZOOM recorder, make your next goal to get one piece of audio out there that you tracked in a recording studio. Same goes with video. Always reach to go a little better than you're currently capable of. 

 

AND NOW YOU have a great website

Once you have all that in place, you're basically done. Just add to it or modify as you see fit. For example, some of my friends who teach lots of private lessons post sheet music or other resources on a special page for their students. Some of my friends in the electronic music world have a downloads page where they keep Max/MSP patches. I have a special page for my book.

It's all good as long as everything serves a function and looks sharp. 

 

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If you liked this article, you're going to dig my book Make It. It breaks down the strategies and techniques a young musician needs to find work and turn their musical abilities into an income.