Getting Over Our Bad Selves

Are you obsessed with dominating every last bit of news about your orchestra? Would you prefer no news over positive news mixed in with indifferent or negative coverage about your orchestra? Do you call your local newspaper editors and complain when they don’t present your orchestra in 100% positive light? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then you’re probably an Orchestra Control Freak

I had several fascinating conversations with a variety of individuals over the past several weeks about the state of cultural reporting in this country. Although each conversation focused on different points, they all had one similar component; newspapers don’t write enough about classical music (thankfully, the online community has stepped up to the challenge and help fill that void left by traditional print media).

Not being content to simply bitch about the problem, I always asked my conversation partners why they thought classical music, orchestras in particular, continue to see the short end of the stick when it comes to newspaper white space. A number of reasons popped up, but the predominant cause centered on a lack of incentive among editors.

A great deal of the trouble behind limited editorial support for classical music commentary is the mixed messages they receive from external sources; in essence, there isn’t a good environment for most editors to support increased classical music coverage. Although there are some issues which are internal by nature, there are a number of external issues which contribute to this poor environment.

To begin with, the lack of positive feedback for publishing articles outside of the benign concert review is a sincere issue. When people take the time to write to an editor about these articles it’s usually with a complaint. They receive complaints from readers who don’t like the particular subject material covered when there are other “important” issues out there. For example, the classical music enthusiasts who write in to complain that reporter “X” took the time to write about composer “Y” when they should have been writing about composer “Z” and how dare they do that.

To make matters worse, classical music professionals contribute to the problem by hitting the editors from the other direction. I can’t tell you how many reporters and editors I’ve talked to who tell me about instances when the executive and/or board leaders from their respective orchestras have taken the time to show up at the newspaper offices or called them to complain about a “negative” piece the paper published. Unfortunately, these perceived transgressions are the result of the attitude adopted by most orchestral organizations that if it’s not a 100% good news puff-piece then it must be an “attack”.

As a result, many orchestra professionals don’t realize the damage they do when complaining about this “negative” coverage; all they’re doing is showing editors why it isn’t worth their time to support expanded classical music coverage in the first place. These executives may think they are applying some pressure to get what they want but more often than not their efforts boomerang by resulting in less overall coverage. This happens because when the majority of feedback directed toward editors is complaints from readers about how bad their existing articles are and complaints from orchestra executives they determine that it’s better to simply cut back on coverage to the point where most non-concert review classical music articles are coming across like CNN news crawlers.

Instead, orchestra professionals should work on creating an environment which focuses on what they do by taking some advice routinely dispersed from one of my sight-singing professors when I was in conservatory: there’s no such thing as a bad picture and there’s no such thing as bad press. The orchestra business could benefit by taking that advice to heart.

In a day and age where orchestras are far removed from the mainstream cultural consciousness any press which places what we do in the minds of the general population is good press. Instead of waging war against editors and reporters, they should bend over backwards in their attempts to provide as much information as possible and replace spin with sincerity.

If orchestra professionals would stop being such control freaks by encouraging reporters to write articles, beyond PR laden puff-pieces, which engage the readers and draw them into the world of classical music, they’ll soon begin to experience the benefits. Simply put, they need to get over their bad selves.

Everyone else out there can help create a positive environment in the media by taking the time to contact the editors (and the reporters) at media outlets which publish articles you enjoy. It doesn’t matter if it’s your hometown media outlet or not; the internet has blurred those lines enough that the term “local coverage” is subjective at best. You might have to do a little digging to find the email addresses but it will be well worth your time. Here’s a tip: keep a special list in your email address book of editors and reporters so you can easily contact them when they publish something you enjoy.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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