I have been using Twitter for about two weeks now (@CCmusicblog — follow me!), and I can’t say I entirely understand how it works… or why it exists… but exist it does. And if the 125 chamber groups, orchestras, radio stations, conservatories, record labels, soloists, venues, composers, and conductors I’m currently following are any indication, the classical music world has taken full advantage of the Twitter craze.
This is, in theory, a good thing. We want classical groups to keep up with the times in order to build and maintain a broader audience. The updates provided by these groups’ tweets range from fun facts to concert plugs to retweets of audience members’ reviews of recent performances. The only issue is that, the people who would follow an orchestra on Twitter are people who are already in that orchestra’s audience, or are classical music fans in general. You would be hard-pressed to find a follower of, say, @LAPhil who clicked “follow” having never been to a classical concert before. This means that the classical music world represented on Twitter is more interconnected than ever before, but roughly the same size it’s been for years.
Social media is extremely powerful and far-reaching. We’ve seen this proven in numerous contexts, from Arab Spring to Nerdfighteria. The classical world, in harnessing this power, has the potential to reach new audiences in new ways. Social media is a great platform for fostering interaction between the audience and the performers, which makes for an engaging concert experience in which the audience members feel like participants rather than observers.
Some of the social media-driven initiatives recently implemented by orchestras are surrounded by controversy, like the “tweet seats” which invite audience members to tweet their reactions to the performance in real-time. The idea is, at first glance, a good one: get young audience members actively involved in the musical experience, and have them share their experiences on an extremely public platform. However, some people find this to be distracting from the concert experience, and rightfully so — the lighted screens and tapping thumbs don’t make for a great listening environment. Nonetheless, as more and more orchestras introduce “tweet seat” programs, the feedback from new audience members has been positive, and the programs have attracted curious concert-goers who previously had little interest in attending classical performances. As Chris Pinelo of the Cincinnati Symphony said in this article, “We’ve had some repeat visits from people who came to the tweet seats. I think they really enjoyed the process…and having that interaction with audience members.” That’s definitely a good thing, but it risks detracting from the more traditional concertgoers’ experience. Some solutions have included the University Musical Society‘s light-shielding “tweet boxes,” and the Palm Beach Opera‘s method of inviting social media use only for open rehearsals and backstage events. PBO’s marketing director, Ceci Dadisman, noted in this article, “There are very passionate people on both sides of this issue. Some say it’s degrading the art form, and the other side says we need to have as much technology as possible. It’s important for any company to look at what’s best for them….We’re not quite ready to have it going on during the actual performance.”
I personally am not a fan of the “tweet seats.” I don’t think they encourage thoughtful dialogue about the music so much as an opportunity for the technologically dependent to filter their experience of the music through their reliance on digital connection. (This staunchly anti-“tweet seat” article from the New York Times highlights some of the less intelligent musings of tweeting concertgoers.) But there’s another Twitter-based initiative that I think has incredible potential: live-tweeted program notes. Way back in 2003, the former executive director of the Kansas City Symphony (Roland Valliere, now with the Columbus Symphony, who actually has a lot of interesting experience-based ideas about revitalizing failing orchestras which you can read here) invented the Concert Companion. Though the single-function, PDA-like device quickly went by the wayside, the idea of real-time updates to go along with the music has persevered. In 2009, the National Symphony performed Beethoven 6 with tweets (written by conductor Emil de Cou) streamed to the audience at well-timed points in the score to explain the programmatic storyline of the piece. To resolve the issue of distraction in the concert hall, the tweeted program notes were only accessible to the audience members seated on the Wolf Trap Festival lawn, while the audience inside the hall was required to turn off their electronic devices. Lawn seats were less expensive and more family-friendly than the concert hall, and the addition of the tweeted program notes made it the ideal venue for younger, non-traditional concertgoers. Though NSO never attempted this program again, I really think it could be developed into an educational and accessible way to engage a new audience in classical music. (I also think there’s a lot wrong with traditional program notes, and will probably vent about this in a future post…)
There have been other social media-based projects offering interaction and accessibility to a wide audience of media users. The Metropole Orchestra‘s “Tweetphony” asked participants to compose short melodies submitted via Twitter, which were then amassed into a full-scale work. The Britten Sinfonia‘s “Listening Machine” used a computer program to translate the “sentiment” and “prosody” of participants’ Twitter activity into musical fragments as part of a multimedia installation. The Brazilian Symphony‘s YouTube campaign went viral, and increased the number of young people attending their concerts by 40%.
The New York Philharmonic has a Tumblr. The Houston Symphony has an Instagram. As social media becomes more prevalent in the classical music world, it is important that we use it wisely and innovatively — as Krystian Zimerman‘s recent outburst points out, there are some major drawbacks to the use of technology in sharing musical experiences. At the same time, social media can reach audiences that couldn’t be reached before — for example, you can watch the Berlin Philharmonic in the comfort of your own home, for free. Weird as it sounds, social media is still a new thing. I think the classical music world should keep experimenting with it, because despite the drawbacks, there is definitely an eager but untapped audience attached to social media. What do you think? Tell me in the comments!