It's opening day for Soup Greens, a new blog oriented towards my musical life.
The goals are:
- To improve viral uptake from live shows by giving people something to take away that can bring them back again.
- To make booking gigs easier by having a comprehensive resource to show to bookers.
- To get gigs as a sideman by having a standard URL which leads to samples of my playing.
- To simplify the work of distributing music online via sites like Facebook by having a centralized distribution point that I can link back to from third party sites.
- To own the digital identity and preferred URL for my musical work rather than letting third parties like Myspace own it.
This is the end of a long bootstrapping process, but at the beginning there was only one simple requirement. I was doing gigs and needed a way for people to take home music, primarily because I needed the shows to have more viral impact. The old school way to do this kind of thing would be a CD, meaning that the new site is a replacement for a CD in a lot of ways.
The really really old school way to approach the whole thing would be to sell CDs. I'd push to get them into stores, attempt to get them onto the radio, and attempt to sell them at shows. It took about two minutes to rule this out. For the purposes of viral spread, charging money would eliminate most of the people I wanted to reach. The money I could earn was negligible. Radio is an uncrackable nut and doesn't matter anyway. Manufacturing would be a monumental pain in the ass. Distribution woul be a drag. And most of the CDs would end up in a box in my closet.
Then I figured I would low-ball the manufacturing costs with a barebones package and give the CD away for free at the shows. After I costed it out, though, that was a non-starter. The CDs would cost no less than a buck apiece and closer to $2 after you count in excess inventory. Most of these expensive freebies would end up in the trash before they got listened to. The response rate would be too low to return my costs. Free downloads have virtually no incremental costs, but free CDs certainly do, and I'd never break even with this approach.
My next idea was digital distribution at shows. I figured I would bring a USB stick and offer to let anybody make a copy who wanted one. In this end this wasn't a bad method, it just wasn't going to accomplish much. Partly that's because not a lot of people bring laptops to rock bars. But also it's because there is no way to get people to go from a raw MP3 back to my web site, where I could get them to go to future shows, book me, or invite me to sit in. You can't do an effective upsell from an MP3.
Lastly I looked into doing a good Myspace page. You can see my attempt at that on the Myspace page for Alvin and Lucille, a jazz act I did last year. One problem I had there was that I couldn't abide Myspace's technical problems; the MP3s often cut off midway through or don't load at all, the MP3 links aren't exposed, and the Flash player just doesn't work very well. The other problem is that Myspace would then own my identity and I'd have to either duplicate all that work on other social networks or stick with only Myspace.
So I started on a new web site of my own under the assumption that I could hand out cards with the URL at gigs. The card would be dirt cheap to print, cheap enough that I could afford to give them away. They would be convenient for people at the shows, who could stick one in their pocket and take it home without needing a laptop; URLs are incredibly lightweight to carry around. When they got home the card would be a reminder of what they saw, so would help with memory. And anybody who went to the site would be able to join a mailing list, send an email, or add me to their Myspace friend list.
The first problem was compelling content. Musicians' sites are usually boring, stale, vain, and link-poor.
To fix the boringness I copied BoingBoing and expanded the scope of the blog to tangential fun stuff, including a post about buying shoes from the civil war reenactment scene, a post about hoop skirts, and a post about the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
My biggest inspiration was Jon Udell's blogging about his hometown of Keane, NH. This gave me the idea to blog about my entire scene rather than just about my own music, which is why I wrote the post about a ragtime pianist I met at a show and the post with songs by Madame Pamita. Jon's witing about local life also let me feel comfortable with orienting myself towards completely meatspace goals. In the same way that nobody ever got laid on the net, nobody ever played virtual music, and in this project I didn't care in any way about getting famous on the internet. My music is about being with people in the real world.
The other inspiration was Jonathan Coulton's site for his own music, which is a lively place to hang out because it has a human presence and social tools. What I copied from him was the idea that a genuine blog would be the framework, rather than something with the brochure vibe you get from conventional musician sites. If I were marketing a hosting service for musicians I'd probably do the same, but for my own music I didn't want to end up looking like this or this.
The last and hardest problem in all of this was identity. I've been doing tech blogging for more than five years now, so when I sent people I met while playing over to my established digital persona they got a bunch of technical gobbledigook and little music. The natural answer was to come up with a band name. Over the last six months I experimented with 7-8 different ones, including "Patsy the Barber", "Slobbery Jim", "The Soup Greens", and "Alvin Pleasant." Some of these were good, but none of them really worked because my true name is the most natural handle for me. The solution was to create a dedicated name for the music blog but use my own name as the blogger. That's why the new blog is called "Soup Greens" and the tagline says "by Lucas Gonze." This is a common pattern with blogs and I think it will work.
Next up I need to get viral spread going. It has to be a lot easier to sign up, subscribe, take away a widget, whatever. Also I need to print out something to put in people's hands at shows. And the site still has plenty of usability problems. So I'm not done by a long shot. What I have accomplished is to break through all the fundamental issues; what I haven't accomplished is anything that I can tackle incrementally.
I had a lot of fun making it, and I hope you dig it.