No matter how many new platforms and social media apps come and go, one thing remains as constant as the Internet itself: websites matter.
But more often than not, artists and other creators will make an account on every social app under the sun before they create a web presence they actually own. Oh, and there are plenty of artist websites that are really, really bad. Like, some of the more notable artists in the world have websites that are little more than landing pages redirecting people to social media accounts.
(Spoiler alert: if they're on your website, that's already more valuable than having them on your social media).
But the thing is, every business (creative or otherwise) needs a clean, well-functioning website. When it comes to artists and content creators, websites really can serve as the hub for your most loyal fans.
We sat down for a chat with Stacey Bedford, CEO of Bandzoogle, a Canadian company that has been making it easier for artists to build and maintain their own websites for nearly two decades. Bedford shares some universal truths about an artist's digital presence and what she's learned in her 15 years in the space.
The idea for Bandzoogle originated in 1999, when founder Chris Vinson made a website for his alt-rock band Rubberman. After getting hired to work on more sites for some major label acts, Vinson created a "control panel" to help artists make changes themselves. In 2003 he officially launched Bandzoogle as a scalable, DIY website builder for artists. The original tagline of Bandzoogle was "So Easy Your Drummer Can Do It" (sorry, drummers).
Bedford started at Bandzoogle in the mid-2000s in the company's first support tech role. "I knew in the early days it was a good idea," she tells RootNote. "But I didn't have any visions of running the show." By 2018, her position had elevated all the way to CEO.
More than 50,000 artists use Bandzoogle, which charges a flat monthly fee based on which version of the platform you want (typically between $10 and $20 a month). The company has operated completely remotely for 17 years. And many of the company's employees are artists and musicians themselves (Bedford is a guitar player who has also been known to rock a karaoke stage or two).
"We understand our audience because we are our audience," Bedford says. "That’s allowed us to go up against big box website builders. We’ve been doing it for nearly two decades now. We don’t have nearly the budget or venture capital funding. We don’t have super bowl ads. But our team is our customer base. Fifty percent of our company growth is organic. Twenty percent is word of mouth. I would say a huge part of that is because we understand our customer base so well."
Before the pandemic, Bandzoogle had a completely different 2020 planned out. "In February 2020, we were just coming off a really big migration," Bedford says. "HostBaby had just shuttered its services and we absorbed all their customers so their websites wouldn't be shut down. We had this whole growth map around helping artists record and get gigs."
But by mid-March, the team had completely shifted. "We completely flipped our business goals to ignore our own company growth and said, 'Let’s make our sole focus to help artists make money this year,'" Bedford says. "We knew we had an old, established product that would be relevant right now."
One of the most immediate needs? Quickly integrating new virtual performance options. "We added virtual ticket sales pretty much right away, embedding things like Twitch, YouTube, Crowdcast etc. in a seamless, branded way right to our site," Bedford says. "We then added a tip jar feature so artists have the ability to either sell tickets, ask for tips, or both."
From there, the team relied on customer feedback, data, and its own employees to quickly address new opportunities in unknown territory.
What Separates A Website From Social Media
Social media takes a toll on creators. Whether it's the physical toll of posting engaging content, the emotional toll when things are hitting and when they aren't, or the mental toll from constantly comparing yourself to others and wondering how you make something "click." It's just tough.
And it's by design.
"How social media companies will monetize changes over time; I don’t want to say it’s like a drug, but they give you the first taste for free," Bedford says. "And then they build, they monetize, they change their algorithm, or like with MySpace, they’ll just disappear. I think everybody recognizes social media as a valuable tool but it’s just one of many. If you put too much weight into, over time — we’ve seen this happen — the popularity of social media is fleeting."
In other words, it's kind of a "top of the funnel" situation. It's easy to reach new people on social media (paid or organically). It's easy to be flippant. But it starts to demand more and more time and the interactions are typically more shallow.
Meanwhile, fans who end up on your website are usually further down the "funnel" and are looking for more ways to connect. (Which is why it's a real shame when your website just redirects people to social media or streaming).
It's the perfect place to be 100% yourself as opposed to trying to capture somebody with a trend. And it's where people feel comfortable paying for things, whether it's merch, fan club access, music, or anything else you can cook up.
Lean On The Data
Bedford says the majority of money flowing in through client websites still comes in the form of physical merch. That's why they made an effort to make merch offerings more front and center during virtual performances.
But that also provided its own challenges during a pandemic. "Challenges like investing in inventory, planning your sizes, and the process of physically fulfilling merch," Bedford says. "Nobody wants to go to a post office in the middle of a pandemic."
Those realizations led to the company working on an easy integration with Printful, a company that does merch dropshipping. (We've talked about dropshipping before the pandemic, along with the pros and cons).
Bandzoogle started working on including Printful in their artists sites in October. The feature launched in January 2021, and in about two months they had already seen clients process over 1,000 orders.
The lesson? Lean on the data. Even for artists with very modest followings — you've got plenty of places to look for clues when you're figuring out where to put your time and energy. And if you've got a website and start collecting email addresses, you can always just, you know, ask your fans directly.
Stay Loose and Keep It Fun
One of the hardest things for artists amid the digital explosion is figuring out where to put their time and effort. While websites may not be anywhere near as flashy as say, the short form video wars, they allow artists to fully own their output and change it up as much as they like.
"Especially in your early days, you should try many things and try them often — but have fun with it," Bedford says. "Set short term, attainable goals. In your early days you’re going to feel like you’re a deer on ice. That doesn’t mean you’re not capable of great things. My best advice would be to always look at what you’re doing in a way that provides value to your audience. You’re going to start off humbly. Just build your confidence in a way that’s gentle with yourself and use your data to your advantage."
Canadian alt rock band The Dirty Nil have found a playful (if not slightly sacrilegious) way to incorporate their fans into their web presence, cultivating a community via their website that has led to growing Patreon community of more than 200 paying fans and a weekly podcast. Jont uses his website as a subscription-based fan club and a true hub for all of his content (with a heavy focus on video). Delaney Gibson rebrands her website with every new release, keeping it fresh.
Bedford says one of the biggest silver linings about 2020 is watching artists use some of their skills in new ways to expand their business. Whether it's the 80-year-old jazz musician who built his first website to start offering virtual lessons or the talented singer-songwriter who started running virtual workshops.
"They’re just finding new ways to leverage things that they do well," Bedford says. "A year ago these artists had all of these tools available but the pandemic changed everything and forced them to experiment. It forced them out of their comfort zones, and I think when things go back to normal, people are going to have so many more tried and true ways to depend on themselves."
And that's probably the biggest lesson of all: adapt for the changing longterm tides, not the occasional wave. When you react in a way that develops your business, your effort pays off more and more.
While Bedford and Bandzoogle have built a robust platform that allows artists to create a meaningful web presence at an affordable rate, much of what Bedford espouses applies to any creator website.
Bandzoogle integrated print-on-demand shipping and fan clubs because they were directly responding to both obstacles and opportunities facing creators.
When Bedford talks about putting physical merchandise up front on your page, it's because she knows just how important physical sales can be for independent artists. When she talks about embedding livestreams on your web page, it's because she knows the power of making these experiences feel branded for fans — and the power of controlling your brand, even if you're in the very early stages of your career.
At the end of the day, it's about owning the relationship with your fan. And that's something that makes the experience better for everyone involved.
(If you don't have an artist website yet and are curious about Bandzoogle, use this link to get an additional 15% off your first year).