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Social Media and Audience Building for Classical Music and Opera

It’s been a bit depressing of late to see so many singers and musicians who ran charming, rather eccentric Facebook pages going over to the professional social media presence management thing. Of course, I know people are busy and social media can be a real time sink, but I think it’s quite a misreading of how to manage one’s social media identity in the world of classical music and opera. Professional presence management of a blog, sure – great! Especially if you can keep the schedule information up to date – a lot of the audience make holiday and travel arrangements around performances so good up to date scheduling information is critical. But FB and Twitter are about being there yourself, connecting with fans to build community around your music, not simply promoting oneself.

Ultimately in small performing arts worlds like opera and classical music that is what will sustain the majority of careers because in creating that community you help the audience learn and grow with you. This is particularly important since as studies repeatedly show the people who build the audience for classical music and opera are not musicians but the fans, the audience. Getting a new audience member through the concert hall door is the easy bit, the tough bit is what Bezencry calls “the nurture stage”, and Brown calls “getting past first date”. That stage relies heavily on the existing core audience bringing the new audience member into the fold.

Social media management is great for getting information out there but it’s dreadful for helping build real community. People like Cecilia Bartoli and Anna Netrebko for example are known primarily to their audience as carefully stage managed ciphers of themselves filtered through their PR firms. This might be OK for a singer at that level of mass audience – a good chunk of that audience is buying into the brand not the musician. But for those new on the scene, or with smaller audiences, or in more niche areas of the business, this is a dangerous ploy. You exist in the audience’s mind as a product, not a person with a passion for music and for communicating that passion, for sharing it. Even for the mass appeal singer, there are dangers with outsourcing your identity to others – as Netrebko found in the recent furore around Russia and its anti-gay laws. When things like that blow up, how do you get the audience to believe it is you talking now and not your PR folks? Alternatively, the professional social media flunkies may lure you into rather costly and ill advised “experiments” with the medium – I’m thinking of the “playful” (i.e. naff) interactive narratives that were used to promote Bartoli’s Sacrificium CD recently.

Fortunately there are still great role models around, like Ann Hallenberg and Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. They have built a large, dynamic, vibrant community of Baroque music lovers around their FB pages, a community that educates each other, enthuses each other, and passes around info about upcoming releases/productions etc. No bland ‘clearly written by a flunky’ posts, no third person speak, no air brushed beyond belief “head shots”, just lots of great insights into the music and generous sharing of views and ideas. Perhaps those going over to the sterile professional social media world believe that they can’t post enough, that it is too time consuming. But as Ann and Holger, demonstrate it is not the quantity, but the quality and the authenticity that matters. There are problems of course – managing the inevitable trolls and policing the boundaries between private life and professional life in particular. But the benefits I believe are worth the effort to manage those issues – at the end of the day what the Internet does that is so amazing for classical music and opera is that allows the audience to find each other. In that one act, the sustainability of that audience is significantly improved. In a challenging era for all the performing arts, that surely is a good thing!

References

Benzecry, C. E. (2000). Becoming a Fan: On the Seductions of Opera in Qualitative Sociology, 32, pp131 – 151.

Baker, T. (no date) A guide to developing audiences for classical music. Association of British Orchestras. available from: http://culturehive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Stop-Reinventing-the-Wheel-Guide-to-Classical-Music-Audiences.pdf (Last Checked October 3rd 2013)

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