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 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.