Anatomy of a band website

An online presence is vital for groups, but what – and how much – should a site reveal? Graeme Thomson talks to Ash, Stereophonics and others about their online artistry

In the mid-noughties, Northern Irish power-poppers Ash were signed to a major label and had the website to prove it. "We had a fancy flash site that looked great," says singer/guitarist Tim Wheeler. "It was set up to launch an album, but there was no way of maintaining it or updating it regularly ourselves. It was frustrating because we had to go through webmasters. It was one of those sites you look at once and think, 'Oh, very good, but why am I here?'"

Anyone who has ever negotiated the official site of an arena-scale rock band or micro-managed pop star will recognise Wheeler's description: behind the digital dazzle lie meagre, bland, corporate-branded pickings offering very little incentive to return. That was just about acceptable when a website was simply a box to tick on the promotional round. Now, though, the web has become the frontline not only in the battle for sales, but also ideas. Artists across the board are having to sharpen up their acts.

Ash are a test case. Dropped by Warners after their 2007 album, Twilight of the Innocents, they dreamed up the A-Z Series, 26 singles, one released every fortnight over a year. It wouldn't have worked without a fundamental reassessment of their web presence. Ditching the digital fireworks, they set to work on building something functional, clean and easy to use at both ends. "I became obsessed with the Huffington Post blog," says the band's bassist, Mark Hamilton, who was instrumental in setting up the site. "I told the designer to look at that as a template for a really interactive social networking site for the fans, and create something similar. That's what we've done, and it's been working brilliantly."

Today, the website acts as label, blog, forum, scrapbook and shop front. At its heart it's a portal to new music, offering a £13 subscription for all 26 tracks that fans can only sign up for through the website. "The internet is all about content and the constant flow of information," says Wheeler. "The site isn't fancy, but it feels quite honest."

Increasingly, it's not enough simply to have an online presence. Whether you're an established indie band, a solo troubadour or a five-piece girl-group, fresh content is king. The worst thing a fan can see when they visit a website is the same thing they saw last time, or a forum with virtual tumbleweed blowing through it. "When I set up my site I talked through it with my manager," says Sam Carter, winner of best newcomer at this year's BBC Folk awards. "We decided it was very important to have something on the home page that kept changing, so when you went back people could see there was activity rather than the same old thing."

The Saturdays attract a youthful demographic raised on reality TV and Heat magazine, demanding brief, regular dispatches from behind the pop star veil. Their site combines hard commerce with the vibe of a teen's Bebo page. Endorsed video ads for Impulse perfume sit next to chatty blogs and behind-the-scenes footage recorded by the group on flip-cams; the latest features footage from Rochelle Wiseman's 21st birthday bash at the Mayfair hotel.

"When I was younger and loved the Spice Girls, I'd have wanted to see what Baby Spice did on her 21st birthday," says Wiseman. "We look at it from our fans' perspective. The whole celebrity thing is much more accessible than it used to be, so to stay in touch with them and get them involved is very important."

Interactivity is key across the board. The Saturdays tweet and talk to fans on their message board; Carter says people are frequently surprised when he personally answers their queries, sent via his site's contact page. As well as regularly dropping into their forum, Ash take note of petitions for obscure songs and are launching a "moving poll" on their site to see which of the A-Z songs have really hit the spot.

"You could say that's cynical target marketing, but it's good to know what your core audience like," says Hamilton. "I want the fan base to feel some form of ownership with the band. They feel much more involved if they can influence how we function." Adds Wheeler with a laugh: "The thing is, you don't know who you're talking to and how much to take seriously. It could be some 14-year-old kid dictating your career." Which neatly summarises the history of popular music.

Not everyone embraces this kind of online dialogue. Stereophonics' breakthrough in 1997 predated the internet age, and they have a slightly more austere web presence. Bassist Rich Jones says their site's primary function is to give information "from the horse's mouth". Though they tweet, blog and add photos, the band rarely interact directly. "I'm one step away from it," says singer Kelly Jones. "I'll write my blog or take some pictures in the studio and send it to the office and they'll put it up, but I've never done anything direct. It makes kids following the band feel like they're part of the procedure, but I don't think it should be to the extreme of someone like Lily Allen, where you're telling everybody everything. I like the mystique of people like Prince and Bowie. I was into AC/DC as a kid and I never knew fuck all about them."

Phoenix operate a similar policy. Their website began as a means of posting songs for free, circumnavigating the "filters" of TV and radio that prevented them reaching a wider audience. Now it's designed as "a visual counterpart" to the music without intruding on their personal lives or influencing the way the band works. The site remains "super-minimal", and it deliberately leans towards the abstract. "Maybe we're a bit old school but we aren't really into being too transparent," says guitarist Laurent Brancowitz. "We have a blog but it's pictures, very few words. I have this vision of artists being a bit like magicians: if you see everything, it ruins it for the audience. Distance has a powerful aesthetical effect."

That approach can't work, however, for someone like Sam Carter, essentially a one-man cottage industry. His website cost £600 to set up. He handles PayPal orders for his album Keepsakes, "running to the post office every week with an armful of jiffy bags", and uploads site content himself. Although most of his album sales occur directly after a show, he recognises his site as a vital point of access and information. His agent receives lots of gig offers via the website's contact page.

"It's nice to have that feeling that when I'm not gigging there's still something happening," he says. "I do sometimes think, 'God, do I have to manage this myself?' On the other hand, it's good to keep control of it, and to be aware of how people are responding to what you do."

All agree, however, that the key to a successful web presence is creating something functional and fast-moving that complements the music, contains clear traces of the band's involvement and reflects their personality. This often means edging away from the record company. "When we changed to Universal they showed an interest in trying to take part in the website, but we wanted to stay in control," says Rich Jones. "A lot of times when you involve the record company it becomes a marketing tool."

If you're wondering where MySpace and Facebook fit into this landscape, they don't, according to Hamilton. "MySpace is a dead format," he says "It's a place to find bands, but when you've got your own website that works brilliantly, you're trying to direct all your traffic to that."

Maintaining a vibrant web presence has become a priority for almost every artist. "It used to be all about TV and radio, but the internet is majorly important for us now," says Wiseman. Branco says the Phoenix website "has been crucial, without it we wouldn't have reached so many people". For Ash, it's no exaggeration to say that getting their website right has helped ensure the band's survival.


Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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