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?
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