As designers, we often look to big brands and big names for inspiration or instruction on trends and techniques.
After MTV recently produced a 24 hour free live stream on YouTube for the 2020 Video Music Awards (VMAs), I became curious what the web presence of these mega-stars was like, who made them, and what common factors we might see.
Design for music websites follows the same principles for UX and general heuristics as any website should, but begs special attention to visual style, content presentation and call to action. After all, other than just representing the artist online, a music website exists to A. give fans one place to find important information and B. generate sales for merchandise.
I expected to find jaw-dropping interactive experiences, or clean marketing portals that would allow me to listen to the latest single, find tour information and subscribe to fanclubs or social media. What I found was pretty shocking, somewhat disappointing and wholly aggravating. If you have spent hours on music case studies, or worked with an artist that truly cares about user experience, I imagine your reaction will be somewhere between “oh I’m not surprised” and “wtf why”.
First let me start with some background. This particular set of artists, while being among the top-selling and ultra-popular, are not a good representation of music websites in general. There are several amazing music and artist-related websites out there and talented desginers and agencies that make them. What sets this group apart is their attachment to the Universal Music Group.
All except three, and those three had the best looking websites.
You read that right. Just about every single VMA nominee is signed to UMusic or one of the many record labels they own which include Capitol Records, Def Jam, EMI, Virgin, Island, Fiction, Geffen, Motown, Interscope and labels you probably thought were “indie” like Young Money, Fame House and Spinefarm. This is less about which labels produce hits and more about sponsorship and money. If you were ever wondering why it is so difficult to get into designing for artists as an independednt or freelance, this is why.
This monoculture affects more than just the music. From a design perspective, it means the websites for these artists largely use the umusic platform which runs on drupal. In addition to using this horribly inefficient CMS, many of the sites had other things in common:
Even on sites running on WordPress, I found all but one to use incorrect implementation of themes (renaming in the CSS head or direct modification of themes without child-stylesheets as one example on James Blake’s website)
There did not seem to be one single factor to determine which sites were being hosted on umusic and which had their own setup, or how the design was handled. I did find only a few sites with a designer/agency credit, and a handful of hip-hop artists specifically didn’t have a website ranking on google at all, but seemed to use social media exclusively.
In searching through job boards, agency portfolios and behance, I also couldn’t locate the designers for any of these sites that didn’t have a credit, though I did find some concepts that are better than the published.
It is unclear how much the artists have to do with their websites. I have never worked with Universal or its subsidiaries so can’t weigh in on how they operate, but in my experience with other artists, the management company for the artists tends to do the scouting and hiring of designers if the artist doesn’t do it themselves. I expected Lady Gaga, for example, to have an independently hosted and designed web presence – an assumption stemming from her carefully managed “little monsters” and related projects.
However, Universal does have an in-house design and marketing department according to the job listings on their website. My conclusion is that the artist or management has the option of handling the web, otherwise it is deferred to the label’s marketing department. When comparing sites that were independently developed versus those on the label platform or without credit, it is clear that umusic and its artists need a lot of improvement with web presence and visual design. This is underscored by the difference between the Korean and Japanese artists and the rest – clearly these regions have a higher standard or consider web production a top priority.
There were some great deliveries in this list:
In conclusion, an artist’s website should be an extension of their visual style and industry goals, but not to be taken so literally (for example, “dirty and bright, for millenials” shouldn’t translate to poor typography and overly brutalist layouts devoid of good UX)