What I am going through in my attempt to get The Panache Orchestra’s website in a functional state! 

The third chapter of Music Success in Nine Weeks by Ariel Hyatt was about maximizing our web presence, and ours inarguably needed some major work.

I knew I was in waaaaaay over my head when I finally bought a “real” website with a domain name over Chi’s strenuous objections just over a year ago. Myspace had already completely overtaxed my capacity in web mastering and hoovered an inordinate amount of my very limited time into its own black hole a couple years ago when I finally got around to making one, so I certainly did not consider myself to be up to this particular task.  When The Panache Orchestra was moved to the front burner a little over a year ago from where it had been quietly simmering away in total obscurity as a “pet” side project for the past 10 years, it became apparent to me that I was going to have to find a way to create a professional-looking impression with our presentation materials both on- and offline that effectively conveyed the image and skill level of our band on a zero budget with zero web and graphic design skills.  MAY DAY!

I at least had half a clue about how to create “hard copy” stuff, and was aided and abetted with the graphic design issues by a relative providing me with a bootleg copy of a somewhat recent version of Photoshop and a couple friends/fans from various day jobs teaching me some simple design techniques here and there.  I also bought the Photoshop idiot guide and have made sporadic attempts to wade through portions of it, but the web stuff was the most overwhelming and baffling of all.  I bought that idiot guide too, but have made very little progress with it, and the one I bought surely must be outdated by now.

The “main” website overhaul was something I could not see any way around having to outsource to a professional, and I happened to know one (who happened to be a contractor/bandleader and close friend that I had done a lot of work with in San Diego where I am from), and a close mutual friend/fellow musician did some recording work in exchange for several hours of the webmaster’s tech support time, which he donated to me!  I really hate imposing on my friends who are busy professionals and begging them to do stuff for me for free that they do to earn their livelihood, so it was a tremendous blessing to have our other friend step in (unbeknownst to me at the time!) and pony up some collateral.  Thank goodness for great friends!!

However, when I started to compose the email to my newly acquired webmaster (he lives in San Diego and I am in L.A.), I got totally overwhelmed at the realization that I was going to have to rethink our web presence altogether based on the large amount of new information I had recently been inundated with (Taxi Road Rally, Ariel’s panel, Music Success in Nine Weeks, etc.), so it was back to the drawing board…AGAIN!

Nevertheless, I soldiered on and once I dug my way out from under the rubble and tried to have another go at it myself just to see if I could get some of my ideas “on paper” and thence easier to communicate and refine, I made the amazing discovery that Network Solutions had made several improvements to their Do-It Yourself template since the last time I had tinkered with the site, and I was able to at least make it look slightly less like it had been cobbled together by a musician with no web design skills or experience, so I could now focus the outside help on the more esoteric stuff I absolutely cannot figure out on my own.

The main guidelines offered in Music Success in Nine Weeks were to put a mailing list sign up widget front and center on our website(s); get our page(s) to load in under 3.5 seconds with no fancy-schmancy flash intros that are not readable by search engines (I don’t have the sophistication to do that, so that wasn’t an issue, and I’m glad to have been headed off from it one by asking my newfound tech support team to do me one!); and having a consistent look and feel to our entire presence across the web.  Another key point was to get us out of the mindset of having one static “silo” of information that visitors go to and read/listen to, and instead venturing into the realm of “Web 2.0” by building a platform that will enable a two-way conversation with our fans by establishing a presence across an array of social networking sites (Ugh!  Another convoluted process with extensive learning curves for every single one!), and having everything interlinked so fans can readily interact with us in whatever manner they are most comfortable using.  Not mentioned in the book but also worth noting are matters of simple common sense, such as having an aesthetically pleasing look that matches the personality of your music, and an uncluttered design scheme that is readily navigable.

There is also plenty of other advice on how to design an effective website, some of it specific to musicians, composers and bands, readily available for free on the ‘net to get some more ideas and details – just ask the magic box!

Anyway, the easy part was adding the pitch I created in Chapter 2 (although creating it was not entirely straightforward – see “The Perfect Pitch” post), and embedding the mailing list sign-up widget (which again was quite a time consuming endeavor to create – see “The Great Mailing List Set-up Operation” post.).  Making the page load in under 3.5 seconds or less was a little more challenging, but still fairly straightforward: I studied my front page carefully to see what might be making it bog down when loading, and upon identifying the prime suspect, replaced the photo album imported from Photobucket (free photo hosting service) with thumbnails of photos I uploaded and stored in the image dbase on my hosting service (Network Solutions), et voilà: it loaded in a snap!  SUCCESS!!  (At least for the top page.)

I still have to finish dolling up the rest of the pages, but at least we now have the mailing list sign-up widget front and center, and the “first impression” page displays our pitch in the headline and looks a fair bit better, and loads instantly!  Next, I had a go at our Myspace site.  It didn’t take too much time or effort to create a nice background out of the drawing that visitors to our main site see first, ouija it around a bit and add our pitch to it, with the end result being that it is crystal-clear that TPO’s Myspace site belongs to the same band as The Panache Orchestra’s “main” site.

Interestingly, just as I was about to get back to my San Diego web whiz friend with a laundry list of other stuff I wanted to fix and improve, another friend and TPO fan who happens to be a systems engineer/software developer/web whiz/ consultant called me to let me know he would be in L.A. the next weekend and since he is currently between contracts, he’d be happy to give me a hand with my web project!  We did a *real* consultation while he was there from which I got a great new idea for a way to redesign our site so that it has pages specifically tailored for the various types of industry personnel I market our services to.  My friend went to work identifying “off the shelf” music players that I could dress for my purposes and embed in our site, and I went to work thinking through the layout for the new section.

He also introduced me to a cloud-based data storage service that can warehouse pretty much any kind of thing you might want to put up in the sky, which solved an ongoing problem that has been dogging my efforts ever since I first began working on advancing TPO: having access to my data at whatever workstation I happen to be working from, and at the same time relieves me of the anxiety of having to keep my personal stuff on the computer I use at my day job(s) (I know, ‘naughty, naughty’!).  Best of all, it’s scalable, dirt-cheap and pay-as-you-go, so it didn’t require a service contract or sizeable chunk of cash up front.  I wanted to write and post a white paper about it, but unfortunately I don’t yet understand it well enough to be able to guide other potential users through it.  I did manage to muddle my way through opening an account, uploading a bunch of stuff, and figuring out how to get it back out again.  All I can offer at this point is the name of the service:  Amazon Web Services S3 and a link to the S3 plug-in for the Firefox internet browser that simplifies using the service: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/3247.

I decided to take this opportunity to also streamline my communications infrastructure by moving to Gmail at my computer consultant friend’s recommendation (Hooray – a fresh start) and incorporate some great suggestions I received from the Cyber PR Mastermind forum on how to manage multiple lines of communication, and I set up a Google calendar to centralize my agenda.  The Google tasks seemed like they should have been perfectly straightforward, but for some reason it took an entire afternoon for me to wade through that process.  I have the distinct impression that web stuff is much like cooking, i.e., operations that the recipe tells you are quick and easy almost always end up being mind bogglingly time consuming and frustrating!  In any event, I managed to synch our show schedule on ArtistData.com to my new Google calendar, and might see if I can import that into our main website since keeping the main site updated with performances has been an ongoing, frustrating, time-wasting nightmare.  In fact, I dread having to do that so much that it critically hinders my efforts at promoting our shows, so the sooner I nip that in the bud, the better.

Another thing that seriously jacks up my internet show is dealing with photos.  Keeping the photos up to date is a major part of providing fresh, engaging content to encourage fans to keep coming back to visit the site, and I continually run into the following SNAFU: even when we’re lucky enough to be sent photos taken by skillful photographers when we’re performing, which happens fairly often, and even when I take lots of pictures of various other things our fans might find interesting now that I have finally (sort of) figured out how to use the digital camera we bought in November of 2008 (!), I still have to download them to my computer, edit them to make them web-friendly (photos tend to digitally manifest as huge files that must be downsized to avoid stopping your internet connection in its tracks while it digests them, and the color/lighting/definition often needs to be corrected, etc., etc.), arranging them into various displays and albums complete with tags and commentary, and then finally uploading them onto our website.  And now, what with all these new social networking sites I also have to keep fresh and up to date, I have to also find the time to wade through whatever additional jackassery occurs with all the various servers, 3rd party apps, this-that-and-the-others that I have to deal with and their respective vicissitudes.  What gives (other than my sanity)?

Since the website consultation, my list of web management tasks has burgeoned to two entire pages in length, and with all the new ideas I got from the consultation, I am getting more and more disgusted with our main site and impatient to make sweeping design changes, but dreading the amount of time and frustration I will have to go through to make them.  My friend is going to work up a new version that we will park on a different hosting service (Host Monster) once my contract with NetSol is up this summer.  Host Monster is less expensive, and I hope they offer better infrastructure for managing photos, because I have had nothing but trouble with the one on NetSol.  (And don’t even get me started about the email addresses that came with that package!  I have to say it really pisses me off that I am paying so much money to have a hosting service, and yet still have to use my old spam-overrun Hotmail address since I can’t get the addresses connected to our domain name to work reliably enough to be able to use them!!!)  めんどうくせー!!!(Translation)