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Severance Mobile
Could this be in Severance Hall’s future?
(Severance photo: Richard Scheinin; composite by the author)

Once upon a time, success in classical music, as in business, was pretty straightforward. If an orchestra played good music well, and infused it with commitment and emotional involvement, people came to their concerts.

A few ads in the newspaper, on the radio, and maybe (if the ensemble were well-heeled) on television, sufficed to remind folks of their previous good experiences in concerts, and keep them returning. Now and then the ads reminded somebody that he or she used to like concerts, say, back in college; or even persuaded a neophyte to give classical a try. The classical audience expanded. Success!

When these listeners decided that they liked the way the orchestra played most of the time, they became subscribers. Then the orchestra could assume that they’d attend most of the concerts, and count on their yearly payment as part of the budget.

Most orchestras had modest PR staffs (staves?). The folks on the artistic side of the operation spent their time between concerts researching history and interpretation, preparing the score, practicing, and rehearsing. Now and then, they took time out for an interview in the newspaper, or on the local classical radio station.

Life was pretty good.

Along came the world wide web, and soon every well-connected orchestra had to have a website.

Nearly instant information about programs surely made it easier for concertgoers to make last-minute decisions about which concerts to attend and which to skip. Online ticket sales made impulse purchases easier: you’re suddenly free tonight? Why not go to a concert? It worked that way for me, and still does. I can’t help but think that this may have had a hand in the trend away from subscriptions and toward a la carte concert attendance. (So did hectic lives and personal schedules.)

That first generation of the web brought us a flood of information. As "Web 2.0" arose in the early 2000s, the internet evolved from a chaotic public library to an equally chaotic two-way communication medium. Blogging became the thing to do, and the savvy orchestras joined in. Following the example of their kid brothers, the rock bands, they posted audio and video clips.

In this interactive, nearly-universal-access medium, orchestras’ management, and even the music director and musicians, now can be — in some cases, almost have to be — "accessible." That means at least blogging about upcoming concerts, posting on events in the music world, and responding to the inevitable comments and questions. Some have become podcasters.

Now the interactive buzz is moving from blogs to social networks. These make it even easier for "friends" to respond. The Chicago Symphony, to name just one, is on Facebook. So is the Cleveland Orchestra, though they’re not as active as Chicago. During their recent US tour, members of the London Symphony kept fans at home apprised via Twitter. British conductor Ivor Bolton "tweets" about his recording sessions.

I don’t think anybody doubts that this new, more direct involvement gives concertgoers (and potential concertgoers) a more solid connection with orchestras. But the downside is that it takes chunks of budget to pay for web development, produce audio and video, and handle rights issues. It takes orchestra staff time to do all the writing. If musicians join in the fray (and if I were an orchestra player I’d be sorely tempted), every hour they spend typing or recording is an hour they can’t spend on rehearsal, practice, program preparation, and research.

But what can the orchestras do? The media din is getting denser. They have to shout louder, and more effectively, if they want to be heard.

Are the new media really working for orchestras? Does all this activity bring in more listeners? Has it really made a significant proportion of their audiences more satisfied, more connected? Putting it in blunt economic terms, has the investment returned measurable and attributable increases in attendance, ticket sales, and subscription renewals?

I obviously don’t work in an orchestra’s office, but my impression is that trying to answer these questions isn’t easy — and like the new media effort itself, it doesn’t come free. It means yet more labor hours, more software, more surveys, and more contracted services. That represents still more resources that aren’t going to the core business of making music — but it seems to me that, even in the best of times, well-managed arts organizations have to be sure they’re using their limited resources effectively.

Meanwhile, the commmunication revolution continues apace at the other end. No longer are the consumers of all these tweets, blogs, and podcasts — the listeners, we hope — tethered to their desktop and notebook computers. Now they can interact with "content providers" anywhere, thanks to smartphones and wireless PDAs.

And here is where I get uneasy.

It used to be that listeners moved by a concert would talk about it with their companions on the way home, and with their friends the next week. But who needs friends and companions when the whole online world is hanging on your moment-by-moment responses, delivered wirelessly via Twitter as the orchestra plays?

When orchestras were merely diverting resources from making music to making PR, the most dedicated music lovers might have worried about declining musical standards (or not, depending on how well the orchestra handled the logistics). But how many are going to sit still while some cretin three seats over clicks the keys on his smartphone during a pianissimo passage?

You don’t think it will happen? It already has in rock concerts. Increasingly, bands find themselves playing to cameras, while the fans chat on their mobile phones and wirelessly tweet about the concert. Worse, this trend seems to be headed our way.

To my astonishment, our own Cleveland Orchestra is, in a sense, actually encouraging this.

They’ve just announced "Trivia Challenge." You don’t even need a smartphone or wireless PDA; an ordinary mobile phone will do. Take it to their community concert at Public Square in Cleveland on Thursday (2 July 2009) and "text" (when did that noun become a verb?) the word BLOSSOM to the phone number the orchestra provides. During the concert — yes, while the orchestra is playing — you’ll get to answer trivia questions about the orchestra via your phone. "Every participant will be a winner," they say. The prizes? Tickets to Blossom concerts, where I fervently hope they will NOT use their mobile phones.

(UPDATE: The folks at the Cleveland Orchestra contacted me Thursday (2 July, the day of the concert) to say that despite what the news release said — "Fans can play the trivia game on their mobile phones throughout the Festival and Concert" — they didn’t really mean to suggest that listeners in the Public Square audience should answer these questions during the performance. However, they say they think it’s OK for folks listening live on the radio to do so. Presumably they submit the questions to the different groups at different times, though they didn’t say how that works. I’m not familiar with the system they’re using, so I emailed them for clarification. When I hear back, I’ll post it.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for anything that expands the audience for classical music. I’m all for increasing attendance at Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and for listening to listeners. (I have to admit, I was impressed at the caliber of the audience dialogue that I saw on the Chicago Symphony’s Facebook page.) And to be fair, the Public Square concert is after all a very casual setting, far removed from the elevated mood of Severance Hall.

But I wonder what their core audience will think of this. These are the folks who attend concert after concert, year after year, because they know they can expect outstanding interpretations of great music. Many ante up something close to (or in) the three-figure range for a pair of Severance Hall seats. How will they react to someone nearby clicking keys, or engrossed in a brightly glowing screen? Just as importantly, how much of the concert is that tweeter really hearing?

Maybe I’m concerned about nothing here. Maybe this experiment is a one-time deal. Maybe it won’t encourage more concert distractions. Maybe the response won’t be strong enough to make it worth pursuing.

Maybe it’ll even lead to positive uses for this technology — for example, transmitting program notes, translations of sung texts, even bar-by-bar interpretive guides, to listeners’ wireless devices. Now that would be a good use of new media.

Still, it seems to me that when the folks at the Cleveland Orchestra suggest that their listeners need to stay busy with gadgets while they perform, they’re not exactly demonstrating confidence in the power and value of the music. If they don’t, will their listeners?

Further reading:

Orchestras and New Media: A Complete Guide at Dutch Perspective

Detroit Symphony Unmasked at the League of American Orchestras

Are Cellphones Ruining the Concert Experience? at the Dallas Morning News

Horns Up, Bows Ready, Cellphones On at New York Times (registration may be required)

Chicago Symphony at Facebook

Cleveland Orchestra at Facebook

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5 Responses to “The New Media Orchestra”

  1. Marc Says:

    David, you certainly pose some interesting and important questions here. I think it’s good to be weary of too many gadgets during concerts. In my blog postings and ebook I mention that online relationships complement offline relationships. You have to know what your audience wants and then add value to their experience. Sometimes, these gadgets might not necessarily add value.

    Also, my guess is that the public relations and marketing departments are largely responsible for social media. But it is nearly always just a part of their job, so there is little focus. Perhaps their managers are not entirely sure of the return on investment. I think measuring your results is very important. Know what you want to achieve and measure if you’re achieving it. There are ways of doing this.

    But let me add that managers should perhaps not place too much value on increasing sales or other revenue. That is short-term thinking. You have to build relationships first. Also, as I explain in my last blog post (, nonprofits are not in business to make money. Social media can aid in the execution of their core mission, which for orchestras is usually “bringing classical music to a wide audience.” And that’s measurable too.

    Nonprofits, and orchestras in particular, are uniquely primed to be good at social media. They have the content and the fans. Now it’s up to them to use it in a manner that makes sense business-wise, but more importantly, that makes sense with their core mission.

  2. David Roden Says:

    Good thoughts, Marc, and thanks for the link.

    My impression has also been that the folks who are already doing PR and marketing are the ones on whose shoulders the social networking and blogging effort also often falls. It’d be interesting to hear from someone in that position for a sense of what other work he or she has had to de-emphasize (the polite word for “neglect”) so as to spend more time behind the keyboard.

    But sometimes you find musicians (or artists, or what have you, to more or less generalize this) themselves interacting directly with the audience via the web.

    I mentioned the conductor Ivor Bolton as one I’ve seen doing this quite recently. He’s one of many, and not all such efforts are recent. For example, I have a special admiration for now-retired Cleveland Orchestra percussionist Joe Adato. In the early years of the web, he maintained a rather well written Cleveland Orchestra website. I could be mistaken, but I think he had his site online before the orchestra had an official homepage.

    My hat’s off to these folks, but I have some reservations about what they do. On one hand, I appreciate the direct connection to the “troops in the trenches.” But I also don’t want them to spend time gabbing with me and others at the expense of their practice and rehearsal time. Music, not the web, not Blogger, not Facebook, is their primary mode of communication with us.

    I’m pretty well acquainted with that little problem of priorities, since I face it myself as music director here at WKSU. My main job is keeping WKSU’s music sounding good, not writing articles for the classical webpage. It’s gratifying that deeply involved listeners are reading this, but thousands of WKSU listeners don’t read these words and probably never will. I have to pace myself, keep things in perspective.

    You say that nonprofits aren’t in business to make money, but from what you’ve written in the thoughtful article you reference, I don’t think you’ll disagree when I slightly reword that to “not in business to make a profit.”

    The difference between public and commercial radio, for example, is goals. Commercial radio serves listeners to make money. In public radio, we chase down income so we can serve listeners. The distinction is important, and I think it probably applies similarly to most other nonprofits.

    Income isn’t our central objective, but without it, we’re not in business.

    So I think that nonprofits can’t ignore what new media cost, any more than they can ignore the cost of buying ads in traditional media. If the commitment of resources — and I’m not just talking money — grows large enough that it begins to nip at the quality of the operation’s main mission, it’s time to reconsider.

    And when you remember that commitments can be both financial and human, and return can be in both dollars and audience service, I think at some point we *have* to look at the return on our commitment.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. Marc Says:

    I’m not sure who took over after I left the Chicago Symphony (I believe the marketing department), but I was in the public relations department and maintained the Facebook and Twitter accounts. It took some time to set up a monitoring system, but once that was set up, the actual time spent on social media was not that much. Certainly, press releases, pitching and other public relations duties amounted to more than 95% of my time, social media maybe 5%.

    Then again, I spent a lot of time outside of work hours logging in to the CSO’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. But that was perhaps more hobby than work. And that’s perhaps what’s important. Find an advocate in your organization, find a person who is enthusiastic about social media to do it.

    While the CSO was on tour, I talked to some musicians to get inspired for Twitter updates. But the London Symphony does a great job of mixing administrative people with musicians in maintaining their Twitter, Facebook and blogging accounts. I think it’s important to have musicians participate, but besides the issues you point out (taking valuable time away from performing, teaching and practicing), there might also be politics in play (who gets to be the voice? How much opinion is the orchestra’s opinion as a whole etc.).

    On your point of taking time away, we can ask what the role of the artist or musician is in their community. Can engaging the audience and the community be considered part of their job? Performing chamber, community concerts and education activities are. Some are of course naturally more inclined than others to engage. But if yes, why not online?

    Lastly, you rightly point out that it should be profit, not money. Very important nuance that I missed. And yes, revenue is important to maintain financial stability. But I simply wanted to point out that there are many more objectives besides increasing revenue.

    And you’re right, you simply can’t engage in social media without thinking about return on investment. Not only to determine whether you’re achieving the goals set out in your strategy (increasing awareness, increasing involvement, increasing customer service, increasing reach of your art, and yes, increasing revenue to name a few), but also to determine your next steps and your future strategy and tactics.

    This is where social media gets exciting. I think we’re passed talking about how to set up a Facebook or Twitter account (or at least I hope). We’re at a stage where we need to answer the tough questions about social media. I think we’re seeing more and more answers that prove social media’s worth in some degree, realizing it’s not the answer to all your problems or wishes, but part of your overall strategy. Find out what works best for your organization and measure your outcomes, just like any other traditional marketing, public relations, education or development campaign.

  4. Phil Says:

    Very timely insights. I was just at Blossom last night for a Cleveland Orchestra concert, and I can guiltily confess that I “tweeted” from my cell phone. To my credit, though, I did this between movements (my tweet was actually about my frustration at the applause between the first and second movements of the Rachmaninoff piano concerto). It’s certainly discouraging that in order to be recognized in today’s technology-oriented society, one must learn to figuratively shout above the din of millions of blogs and tweets and texts to be heard. As an aspiring composer I wonder how it will be possible for me to achieve the same eminence in today’s world that the last generation of composers attained without such ubiquitous media outlets as we have now.

  5. David Roden Says:

    Hi Phil! Thanks for the thoughts.

    Funny you should mention Blossom. I can’t imagine anyone fussing at a person who was distracted by an electronic gadget while sitting on the lawn, as long as it wasn’t horrendously noisy (I’d draw the line at mobile phones and audio devices with speakers). I may be missing something, but quiet typing on the lawn doesn’t seem that much different from sipping wine or noshing on cheese.

    Now, I’m not so sure I’d want to encourage it in the pavilion — though I suspect some would point out that the birds there have long since set a precedent for tweeting, at least until nightfall. ;-)

    I can’t resist commenting on the applause issue too. That doesn’t bother me much any more.

    I’ve learned that NOT applauding between movements is a relatively recent custom. In the classical period and into the early romantic era, it wasn’t at all uncommon for the audience to cheer a movement they liked — and with enough of a reaction, the orchestra would encore it right then and there!

    Besides, I don’t want to discourage classical newcomers and make them feel unwelcome at concerts. I say, if you feel it was worth applauding for, go for it. I can wait another 30 seconds or so for the next movement to begin.

    Finally, about your concerns for exposure: I’m no expert, and I’ll bet there are plenty of folks who would disagree — but I think this is one of the best times in history to be an artist. Sure, there’s lots of competition, but there are also many more ways to connect with a potential audience. Better yet, some of these new media diminish or eliminate the role of the traditional gatekeepers (and starmakers), so you sink or swim on your own merits. (Support Net Neutrality!)

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