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WordPress For Musicians: Getting Started With Hosts, Themes and Plugins

Wordpress-logoWordPress, especially the open source software available via WordPress.org, is an incredible world of its own. It's also a popular option for music websites, from music bloggers to DIY artists, and there are lots of people who can help you join the cult club. It's not necessarily the best option for musicians building a career who need a full-featured site but I'm drinking the kool-aid these days. And it's taken me a lot of work to sort out glib assumptions from solid advice. Here are some of the basic tools and resources I've found helpful for navigating the landscape.

WordPress.org gives musicians access not only to a free content management system but to a whole world of people working to further develop the open source software, building themes and plugins, many of them free or freemium, that allow for an amazing range of features and gradually developing the dominant world ecosystem for web publishing broadly defined. That makes the initial learning curve quite high, despite random chirpy claims to the contrary, though you can theoretically go from nothing to a full-featured site that looks pretty cool in less than day.

WordPress Hosting

I previously wrote about why I recommend managed hosting for WordPress installs. Basically you can bypass a lot of the headaches associated with WordPress related to security, backups, speed and uptime. Lots of well-respected WP developers like managed hosting because it gives their clients the ability to manage their own sites without needing support for relatively small issues that become costly when you hire a professional to do them.

That said, if you're working with a designer or a developer, they'll have their own approach and their reasons for taking that approach which they should be able to share with you without getting too technical. So they may recommend less expensive hosting from companies combined with various plugins and services.

There is no one best way. Your needs should be the determining factor.

But be sure to look for web discussion of a particular hosts "problems" or other negative terms that's occurred in the last 3 to 6 months. Some of the most highly respected WordPress companies have gone through periods of serious failure in either their product or their customer support or both in the last few years that I've been paying attention. Do not base your decision about any of this solely on a brand without additional confirmation.

WordPress Themes and Plugins

Paying a good designer is expensive. Given that a surprising number of people are doing crowdfunding campaigns for a few thousand bucks, I doubt they can afford good original design. Fortunately the vast array of WordPress themes gives you a lot of design options and many plugins allow you to alter design elements as well.

If you are looking for free options while you figure out what the heck is going on, don't download anything that's not on WordPress.org. They have high software standards and you're not going to be getting an awesome pirated free download with special extras like bitcoin mining for other people on your hard drive.

In fact, you shouldn't need to download anything if you're still figuring things out or have a good option on WordPress.org. You'll be able to install those directly from your WordPress dashboard.

However keep in mind that if someone's created a great plugin or theme and they charge for it, then they're more likely to stay in business, update the product and give decent customer support. I've seen very few plugins or themes that I would consider underpriced and I honestly prefer when people charge annually because that tells me they've got a chance of sticking around.

Speed Testing

You can evaluate web hosts, themes and plugins for speed both before and after installation. Since WordPress people often promote the services they use, it's easy to find examples of sites using a particular host. People selling themes and plugins usually have demos you can test with two caveats:

Not every WordPress "developer" demos their theme or plugin on a decent host. In fact, almost everything I've tested was slower on the demo site than on my current site hosted on Synthesis. But sometimes that tells you something about the product as well.

There are a number of free services that you can use to test your site's speed none of which are specific to WordPress. You can use them for any of your web projects. They include:

Keep in mind it's always good to know what Google thinks because that usually affects SEO. But also keep in mind that all these testing tools will give you a number that isn't necessarily relevant to performance but rather gives you a picture of how you stack up against certain standards.

Testing With Plugin

That said, my favorite speed testing tool is Pingdom. I primarily use the full page test feature though there are other free features worth investigating.

I've been testing the DanceLand homepage quite a bit lately. Note that you can go to "History" and see a wide range of times from the ideal of less than a second to almost 3 painful seconds. This can also be used for competitive intelligence.

You can click on any of those historical points and they'll give you an archived record of that test. That allows you to see if they were testing from Amsterdam, which tends to at least double the time, or it might show that a particular plugin was slowing down site performance.

At first that "Waterfall" may look unreadable but you can usually figure out which service, theme or plugin is being shown from the url. You can the full url by hoveriing. The colored bars show you the time it takes in various stages from connecting to receiving. You can hover over those for more info as well.

Note that I get a performance grade of 82/100 for a site that usually loads in the U.S. in less than a second. But as I add more elements to the site that load time will go down and I'll start looking at that analysis more closely and seeing what I can do.

"Page Analysis" will give you an alternate overall view that relates more closely to the current Waterfall.

Uptime and Performance

Once your site is up, there are a number of free tools to ping your site and see if's staying up. This is really important because your site can be down quite a bit and unless it gets a lot of traffic and people care you might not know.

I've been using UptimeRobot and Jetpack's Monitor feature. They get somewhat different results. I haven't closely evaluated them so I can't make a strong recommendation. I will need to do that in the future.

Something I haven't used yet but comes with good recommendations from others:
P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler)

Finding Themes And Plugins To Evaluate

One of the easiest ways to get started finding themes and plugins is to go to WordPress.org and search through their screened selections.

Looks for themes and plugins that have been updated in the last 6 to 8 months. If they haven't been and you don't code, in most cases you should treat them as abandoned and move on.

I would also avoid anything rated less than 4 stars and, honestly, that's a little low for me unless it's the only thing I can find. But if a plugin or theme does something you want but doesn't have the best rating, check the reviews and you might find that some specific issue that doesn't affect you is causing the low ratings. I try to go with the ratings on WordPress.org.

But there are a lot of themes and plugins on that site. And if you haven't learned the language used to describe things in the land of WordPress, you may have trouble searching effectively on the site.

Plus it can get kind of depressing if you're doing it while you're tired and you know you need something good but you're not quite sure of what you're doing and the search results go on for page after page.

So here are some of the tools I use to find new themes and plugins.

Theme and plugin detectors allow you to identify WP themes and plugins on other sites. So if you see something you like you can check it out. In the process you may get a list of other plugins in they're using. These services also tend to have a list of top themes/plugins that they're finding while testing.

The following two sites are doing somewhat different things but both feature lists of themes and plugins which are some of the more well-known, popular and/or respected products today.

I also keep up with new releases by following WordPress bloggers on Twitter. That's been a private list up till now but it's now public: WordPress Blogs.

As noted: "You can check it out but I built it for me!"

Though I'm always open to high quality, relatively low noise suggestions.

It Takes A Village

There are a bunch of people creating websites for musicians using WordPress. There are a number of people who've freely given me advice. There are many great WordPress-specific blogs and related resources. And there is an incredibly generous community of WordPress users, including fulltime professionals, who are open to helping others.

I want to come back to all that at a later date. Till then, if you are getting started with WordPress, look for a Meetup in your area. There are a lot of them and they can be a real inspiration to take things further.

In particular, you may find it a good thing to be in a room full of people who mostly seem to want to help each other.

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Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch) recently launched DanceLand. Send news about music tech startups and services, DIY music biz and music marketing to: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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