Why violinist.com is music to my ears

More than a few times over the past few years, people at technology conferences or seminars walk up to me and ask how they can start their own websites. "Is there any site that I can use as a model?" is one of their frequently asked questions.

"Yes, one in particular," is my response. "Violinist.com."

Violinist.com is a site for, well, people who play the violin. If all you can do is toot a kazoo, this site may not be for you. But if you happen to play the violin, what a site!

Violinist.com features a listing of thousands of violinists who have registered on the site, links to shops from around the world that sell stuff that violinists need, a list of frequently asked questions, "wikis" about violins that can be edited and updated by registered members, personal blogs (again, you need to be a registered user), and a discussion forum about issues that concern this community. (A peek earlier this week showed some pretty lively debates, for instance, about "Modern violins and old violins," and "How important is a [music] degree?")

The site's growth has been remarkable, says Laurie Niles, the violinist who created the site along with her husband, Robert, who is also the editor of the Online Journalism Review, published by the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"There has been a lot of growth in the listing of violinists on the site," Ms. Niles says in a telephone interview. "And a lot more people are creating personal blogs. All the sites that are so good with social networking [such as MySpace and Facebook] – we've seen that trend. So a lot more people 'get it' now. They can come to the site and have their own page where they can put up their picture, a sound clip of their work, a link to their blog."

Niles says that about six to 12 people register every day – who knew there were so many violinists in the world? Recently registered members asked Niles to print T-shirts so that they could promote that they are members of the site. Since then, shirts have been sent to every continent but Antarctica, Niles says.

The site's growth has also attracted the attention of advertisers. While Niles did not actively seek out ads for the site, she says, businesses that provide services for violinists realized that the site would put their products in front of their most important customers.

The site now has between 6,000 and 7,000 registered users and receives about 5,000 visits a day – pretty good for a website about such a specific topic.

But that's also the secret to violinist.com's success, and why I frequently recommend it as a model for other website ventures. It's not trying to be everything to everybody in the music world – just violinists. "Mission creep" (to borrow a military term) has been the downfall of more than a few good ideas on the Web that started with a specific purpose but then wanted to expand into other areas outside their main focus.

This situation held particularly true in the late '90s as some websites, often desperate to find a way to stay in business, strove to find new audiences. Remember the search engine Magellan, or ventures like Excite@Home? Both were good ideas to start with that later became too fuzzy because of their technological or financial shortcomings.

Violinist.com's other key to success is that it is very interactive, allowing members to interact with each other and contribute to the site's overall quality through wikis and blogs.

The one place where mission creep has happened has been in Niles's life. A couple of years ago, when I first spoke to her, she told me that she didn't want her website to become her main occupation. She is a violinist herself, after all, and playing music makes her happy. But the success of her site has changed that attitude a bit.

"Yes, it has taken over more of my time," she says with a laugh. "But I'm OK with that, because I really think the site has a higher purpose. I really want to promote violins and classical music in the world. It was [cellist] Pablo Casals who said, 'Maybe it's music that will save the world.' I think there is something to that."

There are other music-oriented sites on the Internet, although none of them quite matches the offerings of violinist.com. Niles herself recommends the Cello Society's site (www.cello.org). There is the International Horn Society (www.hornsociety.org), and The Percussive Arts Society (www.pas.org) – which also has a page on MySpace (www.myspace.com/percussiveartssociety) and offers a podcast.

If you're looking for a similar site in your neck of the  woods, search engines are the best place to start.

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