Has social media turned music’s back to the audience?

“Social media.”

It’s a phrase we use so often that it’s easy to forget how uneasily the words “social” and “media” sit together.

When I see the word “social,” I think of friends and family, of person-to-person contact. I think of the people with whom I share interests, beliefs or background.

When I see the word “media,” I think of large-scale technological systems for disseminating ideas, information and entertainment to the general public.

The social media revolution was supposed to give individuals a voice in shaping the content of the media, and in the early years of the blogging revolution, that did happen. Where major news organizations capitulated to political and economic power structures in the post 9/11 era, individuals used blogging and social media to speak truth to power. I’ve written before about big companies and governments managed to declaw blogging and return the real power of the media in all it’s forms to ever-larger organizations.

Today, I want to speak specifically to the role of social media in the classical music industry.

There are a lot of reasons one might start a blog. I had thought through a lot of them for a long time before I finally launched Vftp in earnest. In the end, I started the blog for a simple reason- I hoped it would help my orchestra at the time (the Oregon East Symphony) sell more tickets. 

After nine years and 1400+ blog posts, if I were to measure the success of this blog in terms of what it has done to sell tickets and build audiences, I would have to reluctantly conclude that it has been an abject failure.

Fortunately, it has been successful and rewarding beyond my wildest dreams in other ways, and I’m grateful that the fear of empty seats back then gave me the push I needed. I may have started blogging to sell tickets, but I kept blogging because I found it (and still find it) empowering to have a forum in which I can say some of what I believe about life and music without needing to ask permission, seek consensus or pay for the privilege. Here I have only my professional judgement to stop me writing or saying anything. I don’t have to worry about how may copies a magazine might sell or whether a publisher likes me. I can write about what interests me and let the chips fall where they may. This explains why I don’t think a conductor’s blog is going to sell many concert tickets- someone in town who is keen enough on Schumann’s orchestral music to read a blog about his use of Klangfarbenmelodie is almost certainly already coming to my next Schumann concert.

These days, blogging is on the wane, but just about every orchestra, conductor and soloist seems to have a Facebook profile and a Twitter feed. For several years, now, we’ve all been trying to build audiences using social media. Social media may have its rewards, but as an audience building tool, I fear it basically stinks.

The band played on, but who was listening?

The band played on, but who was listening?

The reason it stinks is to be found in the uneasy pairing of those two words- “social” and “media.” Concerts are very social things. Where else in life do people come together in so potent a way as at an event where the performers and the audience are all breathing the same air, living the same moment, in the pursuit of a transcendent artistic experience? It stands to reason that people who want to come to such a social event must want that sense of shared occasion. They must crave not only music but human contact. Given that, is it a bit odd that we put so much stock in the idea of building audiences for concerts by reaching out not to people whose actions demonstrate that they want to engage with other people and with music (if only we knew where to find them), but by reaching out to people who, in their engagement with social media (rather than society) seem to want to engage with a computer screen? I read an essay from an orchestral marketing expert last year that made a simple point- that the essence of good marketing is finding out what people want and convincing them you’ve got it. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that people who spend enough time on Twitter to track the tweets of all the various orchestras out there are really more interested in Twitter than in going to concerts. They want to be on their computers. I can give them more tweets, but I probably can’t sell them a concert ticket.

Of course, people do engage with musicians through social media, and some of them do come to concerts, but this brings me back to my example of Bobby’s Klangfarbenmelodie– most of those folks re-tweeting your gig were coming to it already, or….. worse yet…..

Also in the industry.

Let’s go back to where we started.

Social: “people with whom I share interests, beliefs or background. “My friends, colleagues and buddies. People I am connected to

Media: “large-scale technological systems for disseminating ideas, information and entertainment to the general public.”

When I get on “social media” these days (and that same anxiety about audience building that got me blogging keeps me on FB and Twitter way too much of the time), I’m more and more struck that the social media universe is an amazingly small group of people. Look at the comments on Norman Lebrecht’s blog- for all the huge readership he seems to have, 99% of the comments on that blog seem to come from a pretty consistent group of less than 50 different people. You see the same names and pseudonym’s in other blogs, forums, chat rooms and even Amazon reviews. Mahler may still be the most popular classical composer in terms of average ticket sales, but if one looks at who is on the Mahlerlist email list, the FB Mahler pages and who has commented and read my Mahler series here, it’s a tiny number of people who are really that interested. It’s friends, colleagues and buddies. “Social media” is too “social” to be effective as “media.” We end up just talking to our friends, colleagues and buddies, preaching to the choir, facing inward. I often find myself at musically wonderful concerts absolutely shocked by the incredibly high percentage of the audience who are also musicians. I did a fantastic concert in New York (population c. 7 million) last year that was well publicized but drew only about 70 people (that’s a 1 in 100,000 success rate) and a good 50 % of the attendees were musicians. I’m all for supporting each other, and I love going to concerts, but the social media era seems to have turned the music business into a giant metaphorical…. well, I’d rather not say. It’s a fine line between playing for ourselves and playing with ourselves.

We reach for social media as a way of connecting with our audience because the media have largely let us down. I’ve been pretty lucky with the MSM considering I’ve had a rather modest career- my work has made it into the New York Times, been on All Things Considered (NPR’s evening news programme for a general audience), the BBC and several of the London papers. Millions of people will have at least had the chance to see my name and hear nice things about what I do.

So why am I still wasting time blogging, tweeting and FB’ing? Why am I not famous? And rich? Especially rich?!?! Surely a bit of favourable coverage in the actual “media media” should give one enough name recognition to sell out concerts everywhere you go for the next ten years? Sadly, the media has the capacity to reach beyond our circle of friends, family and buddies to huge, huge, huge numbers of people, but it doesn’t seem to have the power to make those numerous strangers care very much about what we do. Why?

Allow me a bit of self-quotation: “Concerts are very social things… Given that, is it a bit odd that we put so much stock in the idea of building audiences for concerts by reaching out not to people whose actions demonstrate that they want to engage with other people and with music, but by reaching out to people who, by their engagement with social media (rather than society) seem to want to engage with…” Whether it’s a computer screen, a newspaper or a TV… people engage with the media because they want “ideas, information and entertainment.” The media is not where you any sane person goes looking for “an event where the performers and the audience are all breathing the same air, living the same moment in the pursuit of a transcendent artistic experience?”

It’s been said many times that the key to audience building is education. That was the hope behind the origin of this blog. It’s no accident that the most popular recreational activity in society (sports) is supported by the most astounding educational infrastructure in the history of humanity. We think of sports broadcasting as entertainment, but the watching a game on television with all the color commentary, instant replay and telestrating can be an incredible education in the technical minutiae of a sport. I would bet that by the age of 10, 90% of boys (and a huge proportion of girls) in the USA know the incredibly technical rules for pass interference, holding and intentional grounding in American football. A football novice who askes just about any random chap on Main Street, USA “what the deal was with Franco Harris and the “Immaculate Reception,”” (a single play lasting about three seconds that took place over 42 years ago) will get a five minute lecture on what constitutes possession of the football, how long possession must be maintained for it to be established, and so on. Any particularly exciting or controversial moment in sport will be repeated, slowed down, freeze-framed, isolated, diagrammed, explained, argued over and over and over. Imagine watching the Proms on TV taking a moment from that night’s concert and subjecting it to that kind of technical and analytical scrutiny. In fact, a blog post like this one about a single chord in a Mahler symphony grows very much out of the kind of fascination with technical minutiae that is the lifeblood of sports journalism. A short review (or preview) in a mainstream newspaper is a wonderful thing, but when you think of the scale of investment that is made in educating people to be engaged audiences for sport, it’s a bit optimistic to hope that 100,000 Londoners will run out and buy a Hans Gál CD just because they paged past a 100-word review of it in the Sunday paper (much as we appreciate the coverage!!!!). That review presumes the same level of cozy pre-existing interest in classical as one of my blog posts, where every week, broadcasters and newspapers are spending millions and millions to educate and engage sports fans.

To the extent that we make “media” “social” by re-tweeting the MSM stories we find interesting, we’re making it more inward facing. An orchestra can take something printed in a paper with circulation of 500,000 and Re-Tweet it but all that does is take something available to the general public and try to make it the topic of conversation for your friends, colleagues and buddies. It seems to me that to make the media work for the arts, we would need it to be MORE “media media” and less “social media.” We need more space, more detail, more “ideas, information and entertainment” about music to reach “the general public.” Frankly, I have no idea how we make this happen.

On the flip side- we need social engagement to be more social and less dependent on technology. This has been very much on my mind since joining the ESO. My last principal conductorship, at the Oregon East Symphony, lasted nine years, and started with me teaching at the nearby university. When I gave my last concert there, I looked out in the audience knew about 90% of the people I saw. Some I knew well, some I’d just seen around town, but there was recognition. That’s not something one can cultivate on Facebook. Joining the ESO, based in Worcester and performing across the Midlands and in London, while I live in Cardiff, I’ve felt an urgent need to get to know who the actual people in these communities are.  How can I be “reaching out not to people whose actions demonstrate that they want to engage with other people and with music” when the pressure is to spend my whole life facing inward, “talking” via social media to those who, “in their engagement with social media (rather than society) seem to want to engage with a computer screen?” Frankly, we depend on social media in large part because we’ve lost faith in the very existence of society and community. Our towns and cities have become atomized and anonym-ized. My work situation is not unusual- tonight I travelled 3+ hours from Cardiff to Manchester (then back) for rehearsal, and the chap who took me to the train station afterwards had spent his day working in Cambridge- 3 + hours in the other direction. These days, many of us travel or commute for work, which is where we see most of the people we encounter, then we come home to the comfort of our screens. Many of us don’t know our neighbors, so we seek a sense of belonging online. “Social media” is to “society” as “fast food” is to “food.” It is a substitute, not a replacement. The more time we spend on social media, the more we worry that society may no longer exist, the more we fear we’ve sleep-walked into a dystopian world of screens and strangers. What place does music have in such a world?

I’m convinced that at this moment in our history, it is a matter of existential urgency for this art form, and our culture, that we start facing outward, start re-weaving the fabric of society and community. We must start engaging with real people in the real world.

Now, if I could just find some.



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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

12 comments on “Has social media turned music’s back to the audience?”

  1. ComposerBastard

    Now Ken, while I applaud your attempt at the critique of social media as a surrogate for real world interaction, and a down right long one, IMHO you failed in your understanding how marketers view social media as a tool. I will explain:

    Firstly, social media is engaged to provide your *KEY customers (not ALL) a place to interact and learn from each other in the context of you or your organization. In some ways, it’s akin to a standard online Forum. Here, your KEYs can exchange and present their opinions, become experts in topics and support each other when they have questions. It is not a general place for organic traffic to land.
    * e.g. also known as recurrent; also known as groupies, or in your case “Kennites”.

    Because so many of your key customers are spread apart, it is not so easy for them to gather at one corner of the “real world” such as the lobby of a concert hall. I know you mentioned this but I still think you are insane.

    By keeping them engaged, you are preventing “churn”, churn meaning they will leave and subscriptions either stay level with new Kennites coming on board or you loose subscriptions and have negative subscription base.

    Secondly, because they engage, and they become knowledgable, they become experts. Because the become experts, they feel “important”. And because they feel important, they feel the product is THEIRS. And since they OWN the product, they have a voice in IMPROVING IT. Hopefully, they also want to get more of their friends aboard and spread the Gospel. You want your customers to OWN your product, and you want them to spread the good news by feeling they OWN it. You want VICustomers. Your product is not about YOU and YOUR ORGANIZATION. Its about THEM and THEIR ORGANIZATION.

    Thirdly, social media is a good advertising tool for deals and discounts. You want the word getting out? These are the people who can make it happen. It fuels the VIC with additional knowledge that others do not know about and increases their importance. Sign up and get one free? Two for one?

    To sum up social media in business context:
    * Its about fueling expertise with your KEY customers and allowing them to feel important.
    * Its about reducing churn.
    * It’s about allowing your KEY customers to OWN the product.
    * It’s about allowing your KEY customers to IMPROVE your product.
    * It’s an advertising medium to grow virality.

    Now that we have this out of the way, it seems to me you are somehow thinking Social Media is some unused tool for outbound education. It is not an outbound tool. As explained, it is an inbound tool.

    You also fail to appreciate or mention that this is not the 19th century, and “classical” music is competing against millions of other entertainment devices, such as gaming, skateboarding, Taylor Swift, movies, TV, and Online World Poker. All these venues do not require some cognitive load of education or parsing to gain entry. They do not depend on historical retrospective. They are also much more engaging than sitting quietly in a seat and listening so some very strange dressed people on stage. They also have big advertising budgets and know how to use social media to allow their customers to own their products. Quite frankly, Taylor Swift is a genius at it, but don’t tell any oboists.

    To conclude:

    Classical music is a long tail very specialized and in most cases intellectual interest. This might be unfair, but that is the historical root and how people judge it. It’s also passive grammatic entertainment.

    Appreciate the audience you do have, and appreciate the small percentage of lift you can get in expanding to get new audience members.

  2. Joshua

    Now, if I could just find some.” Have you tried Craigslist? ^_^Kudos on a densely packed blog post; so much to respond to! Much of what you describe – the eclipse of real time by virtual “communities” via social media has of course impacted much more than classical music aficionados. I’ll refrain from my usual Neo-Luddite rants but merely note even Kate Bush (KATE BUSH!) came under criticism by requesting fans to not use mobile devices at her concerts. For a growing demographic, something “has not happened” until; they can verify they have done it with am Instagram or a tweet, or something on Snapchat if its particularly naughty.

    As for the number of active participants in any of these virtual communities, I think that unless you are mounting a campaign to recruit trolls, active participation will always be a very small margin of “followers” and members. Take this interaction for instance. I have followed you for what?… two, three years? This may be my fourth or fifth interaction, and certainly one of my most engaged. Many are quick swipes or “Likes..” Does this mean your outreach has failed? No, my lack of continual engagement has much more to do to lack of time (I have a fairly busy news-feed with hundreds of posts to sift through), as well as a JOB and FAMILY and OBLIGATIONS.

    I’m sure we read a lot of the same material and know many of the same folks in the classical music industry, and here in America, the prevailing wisdom is that without social media, you DO NOT EXIST! What’s particularly exhausting though, is that social media has now become its own justification, that is to say that the only thing WORSE than not having a Facebook page is to have a Facebook page and allow it to go moribund. What will people think? “Have they gone out of business? Has he died? Etc., etc.”

    That said, a couple of things I have learned: 1. The “Long-Tail” is a cruel joke. If it ever existed, it doesn’t any more.
    2. The reach of social media has facilitated the extreme segmentation of communities – truly an extreme case of ‘let a hundred flowers bloom,’ but this very diversity (chaos?) can also present exciting opportunities. And 3. While cluttered with a tremendous amount of flak and requiring due diligence at all times (and healthy and prudent self-censorship – just ask Valentina Lisitsa) the interwebs are an extraordinary resource and source of information and cultural discovery. What we make of these discoveries and encounters ultimately depend on who is at the other side of the display screen.

  3. Frances

    Very interesting article Ken. Coincidentally I’ve just completed an article on the benefits of using social media as a musician. Having worked in niche publishing (fine art) in the days before email and social media, when direct marketing was done by telephone and mailing flyers, I do think SM is easy, quick and free. But I don’t believe it is necessarily any more impactful than those old-fashioned paper flyers – and possibly less so….. I market my piano events and concerts entirely by SM (no paid advertising at all) and I’d be really interested to find out where and how my audience found out about my events. I believe New Dots have done some interesting research in this area

  4. Andrew G

    Very interesting blog Ken – I run Facebook and Twitter feeds for an ensemble, and often wonder who I’m really reaching! (That said, we’ve had some wonderful interaction and opportunities through it.) But I note, by way of support for your thesis, that the three current commentors on your blog also seem to be Facebook friends of yours

  5. Andrew M

    I like this Ken, because this is precisely what is happening. I have noticed particularly in the U.K. that going to a concert is a social event, but only for the people that know each other prior to the event. Concert goers in general do not speak or engage in any way with people they do not already know or have been introduced to. Also, this audience is generally over 55 years of age. Do they use FB? maybe..tweet, likely not. Mostly people hear about concerts by subscription, and what they hear on Classic Radio.

  6. Ben L

    Ken – by far the best piece I’ve seen from you. Very well written indeed. Having said this, the piece underscores your misinterpretation of the economic application of social media. Let me explain: GM spends millions of dollars on TV ads for their automobiles. They do so because they can, and because they don’t really know who needs a new car and when, so they “blanket” the marketplace with branding and hope for the best… Small companies cannot use the same technique since it’s cost-prohibitive. This is where social media comes to the rescue – it allows us to “be found” when someone searches. We cannot spend enough money to brand ourselves across millions of people. So, instead, we identify our potential audience, and make ourselves easily found when our audience is ready – much less expensive and yet extremely effective when done right. However, all that SM can do is help us be found when someone looks – if they don’t look, SM is useless as a marketing tool. We can make it easier to solve a problem, but they must be looking for solution, or they never notice us… The reason your social outreach failed is not because there was something wrong with it, but because people just weren’t looking – another reminder of the bleak reality that classical music solves a problem for a tiny minority of well to do people…sad, but true… Ken – truly an excellent article!

  7. David Galvani

    Great piece Ken.
    Harnessing social media instead of it handling us is a challenge for everybody. Look at couples in the restaurant. As a society and as an individual we have to deal with it.
    Your blogs and tweets remain stimulating and continue to be tetweeted to a wider community, so please continue Ken.

  8. Peter

    I think you are right Ken. The problem we all face is…who is our audience bow and what does orchestral music represent in an age of instant everything and virtual reality?

    Putting on a concert with real live musicians demands human effort, needing co-operation on a massive scale, a living tradition, an educational and training infrastructure and a willing audience. It all costs a lot of money, especially if you want to achieve professional standards. If the consensus in society is that classical music is no longer worth all this effort anymore, then we are in trouble.

    Social media is just another example of how consumerism and technology combine to remove the human element from our day to day experiences. We can access most music for free (or at least very cheaply) almost whenever and wherever we want, just like we can watch a movie or buy a book. The more we love our gadgets, the less we want to listen to real people playing real music.

    Concerts require communal attention to a live happening, but there is a danger that we are forgetting what that means. Orchestras are not in a good position to address that amnesis on their own. In some ways, people perceive them as part of the problem, because they are associated with the arrogant elitism which has made bankers so unpopular. This has been fostered by the media’s love of classifying everything into league tables, creating super-elites and celebrities, hyping some things at the expense of others. They create fads and destroy them, so that most of the time we are all playing catch-up. Orchestras have to get away from the league-table mentality and the copy-cat competitiveness it breeds. We have to create musical institutions that are appropriate to context and which justify themselves by their own measures of excellence and creativity. What is right for Berlin, London or Amsterdam, may be wrong for Manchester, Bournemouth or Cardiff. To compare one with another is to suggest that music is merely a sport, where the winners get paid more, attract the biggest stars, get more media attention and win more accolades. But you can buy hype, so the big boys get bigger and the rest are left feeling their efforts are fruitless or not worth anything.

    I have long predicted that eventually we will fall out of love with digital technology, and then live music will seem like a blessed relief. We have to rediscover just how miraculous the sound of a live performance is…something precious and remarkable. But when there is so much music everywhere, it is easy to forget that live music is something astonishing and unlikely. Professional musicians can forget that too, because making music can so easily become a matter of routine.

    You cannot blame orchestras for the wider social problems that confront them. It is really tough to manage an orchestra and juggle the interests of all the stake-holders alongside the media scrutiny and constant hunger for hype. We have consumerised classical music , under the pressures of high expectations and having to compete with other leisure activities. This has undermined the cultural value of the genre, making it little more than brand to me marketed, like all others. But like all market-phenomena, there is a danger of saturation, tiring the consumer, overwhelming them with choice, being caught up in the cycles of boom and bust that attend most businesses. It does parallel what happened to retail banks – who went from being solid, reliable institutions to casino gamblers and opportunists. And why? Because competition got out of hand, and this justifies every betrayal of the wider social interest and the personal relationship with the customer. Orchestras have not done that, but they have been sucked into the same competitive mentality and the same kind of mass-market communication.

    We need a more human culture generally – and then music would find its proper place as nourishment for the soul. We have somehow turned music into an Olympic sporting event with its superheroes and gold-medal touting stars, all of which seems so far away from why most of us came into music and why music matters. Leave competing to the sports people, and leave soul nourishment to the musicians. And Western culture badly needs some of that!

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