In a music community of any size, getting fans intimately involved with a band is a hard row to hoe. The faithful may come to shows, pick up a CD or two at the front door or even buy a T-shirt. But how connected can they really feel to the comings and goings of a group they may catch once every few months, tops -- and which, for the time in between, might mean little more to them than a fondly but ever-more-faintly recalled guitar riff?
A few years ago, the idea that reading would fill the gap would have seemed inconceivable. That was before the rise of the World Wide Web made the written word part and parcel of musical patronage, albeit by leaning a bit on the added allure of visual bells and whistles and (now) audible sweetening.
"The Internet has become a huge tool, even for local artists," testifies Cecily Kelly, one of the 14 design and marketing staffers at Trans Continental Media who handle sites for the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and the rest of the Orlando bubblegum brigade. "It's the biggest portion of what our company does. It's just become a great resource."
Trans Con has an edge; most of its artists are already-proven national entities whose high visibility ensures a built-in audience for their online homes. Where does a struggling hometown act fit in?
"Somebody that's a national artist, they've kind of already made their name," agrees Mary Cosola, managing editor of Electronic Musician magazine and the author of The Independent Working Musician (EM Books). "With a local band, it's more to build a fan base. It's a valuable and inexpensive way to market yourself."
"You're trying to sell people who have something better to do than come to a show," philosophizes Donovan Lyman, lead singer for Orlando popsters Blue Meridian. Having shepherded his own band's cyberspace forays for some four years -- putting him somewhat ahead of the music-site curve -- Lyman is an old hand at turning page views into bodies at the front of the stage.
To accomplish that end, his band's www.bluemeridian.net shares news of "as many down-the-line gigs as possible," Lyman says. But the past isn't ignored, either, as evidenced by an exhaustive and easily accessible rundown of the concert dates the band has played since 1997. Those capsules include family-tree information about other local combos who have shared bills with Lyman's crew -- the perfect capper to an Internet endeavor that's engineered to make every new rubber-necker an instant expert in Meridian lore.
The results have drawn favorable attention from such national web-watchers as mtv.com, whose glowing review is naturally posted on the Blue Meridian site. But to Cosola, the chances of turning such accolades into a career breakout are relatively slim.
"If somebody gets picked up by mtv.com, that's a hot site. That's exciting to anybody," she admits. "But I don't know of anybody who's been signed by a label for being on the Internet."
Instead, she says, the expanded ability to share sound files across modems makes it possible for unsigned artists to directly appeal to local listeners.
"If you're not getting radio airplay, they can go to your site and check out your music there," Cosola summarizes. Not that the process is always so simple: Though many of the required playback modules are available for free download at their manufacturers' own home pages, their incompatibility and temperamental nature is often likely to reduce a fan's initial zeal to an anticlimactic game of point, click, give up.
According to Logan Cayne, whose Creative Evolutions designs and maintains the Blue Meridian site, the situation will only be rectified when one format's greater prevalence makes the others outmoded.
"From what I know, it's hard for anything to go standard," he chuckles. "But it will be [down to] the popularity."
Cosola disagrees. "A standard probably won't emerge, because someone always has a better idea," she foresees.
While the audio quandary remains unsolved, most savvy bands use the visual component of their online domains to increase their standing in their area's musical hierarchy. It's image work. The online home of hard-rock freak mob Gargamel (www.spacetree.com) lends stylistic support to that group's reputation as a demonic force to be reckoned with. It's a morbid funhouse of surprises, with ghoulish icons and bouncing babies' heads leading the way to black-humored concert reports and sound clips -- as if Wednesday Addams had grown up and learned HTML code.
Occasionally, a particularly canny site can help a group transcend its humbler status. According to Pat Edge, lead singer of punk thrashers Fortitude, his group's young but tastefully designed site is a deliberate attempt to set Fortitude above the crappy-equals-legitimate malaise of hardcore style.
"We're a very work-ethic kind of band," Edge summarizes. "We wanted to make sure our website was very, very tight. We wanted it to be as impressive as it could be."
So www.4T2D.com banners its "concert dates" page with a noirish photo of an urban skyline, an image snapped on one of the band's out-of-state tours. ("I believe that shot was taken in Cleveland -- while I was asleep," Edge remarks.) The street-level element is left for the accompanying text diaries to convey. "Tuesday night May 18, Mike, Luke & Michelle, Shane, and I catch a sneak preview of Star Wars at 12:00am Ormond Beach Regal cinemas," reads one update.
Fortitude were admittedly lucky: They were able to use a personal contact with an up-and-coming web designer to get the work done right and affordably (about $20 per month, Edge says -- the approximate amount most users spend on 30 days' worth of unlimited access to America Online). As in all areas of the music business, such networking is often the key to advancement. Blue Meridian's Lyman turned a chance meeting (at the filming of a TV commercial) into a symbiotic relationship with designer Cayne, who was in the first stages of building a mini-empire that has since grown to include corporate accounts and a gothic-art page.
Keeping things even more in the family, the animated pools of rippling water seen at www.vonra.com are the product of Emma Rhea -- wife of frontman Vaughn Rhea -- who has parlayed her early efforts in supervising the group's folksy mass e-mails into the maintenance of a well-visited online outpost.
"We get e-mails telling us the amount of people that come across our site from just surfing," Rhea says. "We get at least 30 e-mails a day, and at least 10 of them are new people."
Even foreign shores have been broached, she reports, with international visits helping to secure "a huge fan base up in Norway. When we ship CDs, they sell out within days."
Such victories garnered Rhea added computer work at different times with Sidecar and Average Joe (now known as Joseph Graye and the Average Joe Band). In the process, she says she's seen evidence that record companies are indeed using the web for research purposes.
"A lot of A&R reps don't want to call a band on the phone," Rhea confides. "It's kind of a private way for them to see if they want to pursue the band further."
When rock/reggae synthesists Bughead recently added John Gnuechtel to their musical lineup, they gained not only a trombonist/ keyboardist but a computer expert whose talents could be put to use at www.bughead.com -- that is, in the off hours from Gnuechtel's day job doing page design at Trans Con. Putting a link to his new band's web space on one of his boy-band sites, he jokes, is a tempting proposition.
But as Cosola reminds, all the skill in the world can't goose traffic on its own. "Your site is only as useful as the number of people who come to see it," she stipulates. "Why have a billboard on a road nobody drives down?"
The trick, she says, is to secure links from other sites. Friendly bands with domains of their own are the obvious targets, but stronger associations sometimes present themselves. Contributing a song to the soundtrack of "The Blair Witch Project won the Digginlilies" a link on the front page of www.haxan.com; returning the favor, their home page at www.juicytemples.com/digginlilies opens with a clever parody of the movie industry's most successful Internet tie-in.
Return visits are the key to a site's continued viability, Cosola instructs. "You have to keep them coming back," she advises. "I don't think the type of content matters as much as refreshing it regularly. Every week would be ideal" -- a schedule to which Lyman and Cayne do their best to adhere.
One issue may be overlooked in a band's rush to splash its name all over PC screens: Once it's up, how will anyone in the group know that the site is having its desired PR effect? The number of page views is the standard for measuring success in the still-unproven profit center that is cyberspace. But to Cosola, more old-fashioned methods of gauging response are still the best: chiefly, the time-tested band-to-fan inquiry, "How did you decide to come out to see our show?"
"It's something young bands might consider pretty dorky," she admits of this Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland routine. Then again, sitting in front a Mac used to be considered a sure sign of nerdiness itself, before tattooed axe-slingers started to get in on the act. Rhea says her husband is frequently greeted by new fans with the salutation "I saw you on the web!"
Such feedback is just what a designer longs to hear -- as long as her site's merit doesn't outstrip its reason for being.
"I think a band's got to have a good product," Rhea muses, summing up the still-undefined importance of Internet music marketing. "They can be a really immature band and have a great web site, and it's not going to do anything. It's just another tool to spread the buzz."
For other local band websites go to the Orlando Music Awards section which includes links to most of the 60 nominees in 22 categories for the 1999 awards.
For additional band sites the calendar offers links to any local musical act with a website and a scheduled club date in the area.
If a site is not listed, e-mail information to Orlando Weekly music editor Mark Padgett.