5 Online Tools to Help Indie Musicians

Here’s a quick review of 5 online services and tools I’ve made use of and felt most helpful to me as an independent online musician, during the past year or so:

1. WordPress

As if you hadn’t already noticed, my site’s based on the excellent open source blog/CMS platform, WordPress, which continues to impress me with every update. It runs on PHP with a MySQL database, which allows me, as a non-programmer, to get a fairly complex site up and running without having to know much about the actual programming-side of things. Yet, it’s flexible enough that if you want to change the look of your site, you can do so without much more than a rudimentary knowledge of CSS---simply tweak your theme however you see fit, blissfully ignorant of the more complex inner workings going on behind the curtain. Even if you can’t be fussed editing your own theme, there are plenty of ready-made themes available to download and activate, from within the WP admin area itself.

Another great aspect to WordPress is its extensibility---there exists a veritable plethora of handy plugins written by charitable geeks, provided for free, affording your site some very handy bolt-on features. As with the themes, you can browse and install plugins from within the admin area---no tedious download/install needed.

Here’s a quick list of key plugins I’m currently running:

Akismet: This comes with WP by default and offers mean anti-spam measures, by comparing spam comments with a central database of comments. Essential, and very effective.

All in One SEO Pack: Provides a simple means of getting the most Google-friendly titles and descriptions on each post/page on your site, so search results come up with meaningful titles and descriptions. (SEO = Search Engine Optimisation.)

Contact Form 7: A simple but flexible contact form, so folks can get in touch with you without having to fire up their own email client. Also features built-in Akismet link to check for spammy email addresses and URLs. Does what it says on the tin.

Gigs Calendar: Well, I’m not actually running this at the moment as I’m not currently gigging, but it is one of the most thorough calendars actually catering specifically to the gigging musician that I’ve found, so if you’re running WP and haven’t checked this out yet, then give it a shot.

PHPlist: Simply adds a field somewhere on your site allowing folks to easily join your PHPlist-based mailing list while on your site. Simple and handy!

There are about eight gazillion more plugins out there, some no doubt handier and more frequently updated than others, but such is the nature of open-source---it’s always a moving project, and is sometimes a challenge keeping up with updates, solving the odd incompatibility between plugins and the latest WP version. The good thing about such a popular platform is that if you do encounter problems, chances are someone somewhere has also encountered the same problem, and can offer a solution---WP has a huge help community.

2. Bandcamp

Every indie artist should get their music up at Bandcamp, pronto. Not only is it a stellar music hosting service, but it also provides the means to share Flash player widgets of your music, allowing fans to embed your music on their own sites and blogs. You can also sell downloads directly from Bandcamp in an assortment of relevant formats, from lossless FLAC to iPod-friendly AAC and open-source OGG (provide a PayPal micropayments address and you’ll save on PayPal fees too!). All the format conversion is completely automated, handled by Bandcamp’s servers---simply upload a FLAC and sit back while it’s transcoded.

Other extremely handy features include the ability to collect email addresses in return for giving away music (to be added to your mailing list), create download codes (which I’ve been including with vinyl sales as a value-added extra), and even have sales logged and passed on to SoundScan for charting purposes (though you do need a UPC/barcode, and optionally ISRC codes for each track). I don’t expect the last option to be of much use to me, but still, it’s an inventive feature few music services have implemented so far.

Bandcamp does seem to be getting more and more popular, and justifiably so, so it will be interesting to see how it copes with this sustained growth. At present the transcoding queues do seem to be growing a little longer, but it’s still a very snappy and reliable host for your back-catalogue. In my opinion, it deserves to eclipse MySpace as the premier destination for sampling artists’ work; it’s certainly leaps and bounds ahead of MySpace in ideology, for functionality and usability.

3. SoundCloud

Like Bandcamp, SoundCloud is another stellar indie music host, with one of the sleekest and most innovative interfaces I’ve seen. Unlike Bandcamp, SoundCloud brings a whole host of networking tools to the table, with the usual befriending, messaging and commenting facilities. As such, it seems to be emerging as the de facto platform for hosting remix competitions and other such community-oriented projects. It has a free component to it, in addition to pay-only packages that up the amount of storage you have etc. A handy dropbox is also implemented for every member, allowing you to easily send and receive music (I’ve been testing this for my mastering service, for instance, as an alternative to FTP, though I found it handiest for sending/receiving the odd single track rather than whole albums).

SoundCloud also has arguably the prettiest player widget on offer, displaying the actual track waveform within the player, and allows you to make timed comments, referring to specific moments in the track (good for private collaborative projects to easily pinpoint areas that need work, for example, or just to say “this bit rocks, woo!”). Like Bandcamp, SoundCloud allows widget-sharing, so you can deploy your music across the net. I’ve been using SoundCloud to present demos, works in progress and live sets---the timed comments really work well for live sets and mixes in particular.

4. thesixtyone

On the face of it, thesixtyone could be just another faceless social networking site, but it’s actually rather novel. By recognising hierarchical social music listening habits (i.e. we tend to turn to the tastemakers who have an informed and varied music taste for our musical tip-offs) and by incentivising listening within the t61 community, you have a rich network of music fans eager to listen to new music. Sure, it provides charts of all the most popular artists in a particular genre, all the new submissions, the current movers and shakers, much like any other social music network site. But, it also motivates listeners to get involved by creating a levelling, RPG-like structure, whereby you have to complete a variety of tasks and challenges to increase your level, and therefore increase your subcultural capital---your respect and standing within the community.

As a listener, your aim is to discover great new music as soon as possible, and then ‘heart’ it (though you have a limited supply of hearts, so you can’t simply go round ‘hearting’ things willy-nilly and hope to thrive---spend your love wisely!). As far as I can gather, by carefully ‘discovering’ new tunes and hearting it, you will then receive points as other people listen to and also enjoy/heart it too. Your good taste stock rises, effectively. So the earlier you can find good new---and prospectively successful---music, the greater your chances of rising through the rank, gaining points and eventually subscribers (people who recognise and respect your musical taste). The extra challenges are provided to supply you with bonus hearts, as well as unlocking features on the site, such as access to individual genres, for instance.

I haven’t seen anything that works this well at motivating listeners to discover music rather than simply listen to the top of the charts (and thus only sustain the chart-topper’s hegemony) this successfully before---it really does get seem to manage to expose the majority of the music submitted. There’s much more movement, much stronger currents that reach down into the site’s murky depths of the Long Tail, dredging up new music. The only criticism I can level at the site at the moment would be the classification of the music---the genres tend to be rather hit and miss, relying on the artists to correctly classify the music, which perhaps seems strange for a site that relies on so much community action. Perhaps Last FM-style tagging should play a greater role in dividing music accurately into genres.

But what about artists, I hear you ask? There’s little information on the site about how artists level-up, but I’ve discovered that it’s very much a simple case of earning hearts to progress up a level and thereby unlock more upload slots (you’re stuck with just three track uploads by default---so choose your best tracks!). It’s been quite an eye-opener for me, discovering which tracks work and which don’t. Bluebottles didn’t do so well, it seems, which suggests that tracks with a more digestible immediacy to them will work best, while the slow burners will reflect that in their heart count.

5. FatFreeCart

After using E-Junkie for selling downloads for a short while, I since transferred downloads to Bandcamp, and moved over to E-Junkie’s free version, the FatFreeCart, for selling physical music formats in my site’s shop. There are a countless options available when considering site stores, but I settled on FFC as it uses the same cool cart as the non-free version, complete with support for both PayPal and Google Checkout, wrapped up in a neat, minimal and customisable interface. The downside to using this is that the core javascript running the cart is still hosted by E-Junkie, so if that goes down for any reason, your shop does too. Still, it’s worked well for me so far, so I see no need to change this any time soon.

A few WordPress store plugins also exist, but for my purposes, selling just a single release or two, they tend to be overkill, packed with too many unnecessary options.

Anyway, hope that sheds light on some of the tools I’ve made use of---please feel free to fire away with any questions or requests for other topics, or share/retweet if you’ve found this useful.