Losing The Substance By Grasping At The Shadow

It seems as though every time you turn around people in the orchestra business are clamoring to start podcasts, begin blogging, and get on iTunes. Sure enough, more than a few orchestras have done exactly that; nevertheless, I have to wonder how many groups looking to move in this direction have really taken the time to think about what it entails to effectively implement those tools…

Over the past few weeks I’ve had several discussions with colleagues about the seemingly frantic pace at which some groups are putting together technology offerings. Often, I find myself wondering how much time they spend considering the nature of each one of those tools.

For example, is it worthwhile to have a blog if all it is used for is to regurgitate concert schedules? Are podcasts meaningful if they are little more than a “book on tape” version of program notes or an interview with the music director which rates just below the quality of a vapid morning show celebrity interview?

Instead of examining examples of the above indiscretions (oh my, there are plenty to pick from), I’ve put together a simple list of three considerations designed to help better understand the inherent value in some of the more recent technology based tools available to today’s orchestras:

  1. Ask yourself “what’s a blog?” If you said it is anything other than an online publishing platform that lists entries in chronological order then you need to take a step back and begin your thought process from scratch. Before starting up a blog think about what you’re going to say, how you want readers to respond, how often you can post, and whether or not you’ll allow or edit comments. Regurgitating PR copy is simply unacceptable, instead, you need to see blogging as a tool to help build an ongoing connection with your audience. When approached in this way, you’ll be in a better position to understand the amount of time, effort, and trust in your readership it takes to successfully wield this particular tool.
  2. While you’re asking yourself about the nature of blogging, do the same thing for podcasts. After all, podcasts aren’t much more than an audio version of blogs. The sincerity of content, who it is that you select to speak to the public, and the frequency of those efforts will determine whether or not the endeavor will be worthwhile.
  3. Where’s the value in establishing an ancillary web presence at sites such as MySpace and Facebook if the content is nothing more than what you can already find at the organization’s official website. The same perspective on developing your primary website is 100 percent applicable toward any other web based effort. For instance, if your MySpace page is nothing more than static brochureware then you probably shouldn’t bother allocating resources in that direction. Instead, you have to offer the public something that enhances what is already available at your website as well as offering something entirely unique.

In the end, blogs, podcasts, and the lot are nothing more than tools. They are no different in nature than all of the other tools developed over the years orchestras have taken advantage of to help spread awareness and fulfill their mission. The only real difference between now and then is that new tools are emerging at a faster rate.

Like most tools, it takes time to develop the necessary skill capable of wielding them with a capable hand. Furthermore, seeking out guidance and learning from those who have successfully ventured into this territory can accelerate the learning curve.

Ultimately, there needs to be substance, sincerity, poise, and dedication to make those tools worthwhile. Otherwise, you won’t realize that you are merely grasping at shadows until it is too late.

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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3 thoughts on “Losing The Substance By Grasping At The Shadow

  1. Most importantly, the creation of a blog isn’t a two-week project that shows that an organization is “utilizing technology”, but an enterprise that should be measured in years rather than months in order to be an effective vehicle for building community.

    I couldn’t agree more! ~ Drew McManus

  2. While all of this is quite true, time and time again with every person I speak with in the web orchestra world, we find that we are stuck in a rut with our wheels spinning and we can’t move forward due to the biggest set back in our industry. And what is that – it’s the music VS the musicians…

    Our biggest “sell,” our main “attribute,” our whole business is MUSIC. Yet, we are often times so bogged down with union stipulations that our industry is grasping at straws to move ahead in the technological game. Look at the process of podcasts: for a normal tech savy person, you can create every aspect in a day and have it posted on iTunes within a week. The process of a podcast for an orchestra: step one, union contracts… Um, a year later… who’s moved on… The forward thought in not only stifled due to this, but due to the fact that new and exciting things with orchestras can’t happen quickly or easily. It’s a shame because it keeps our one most important element – MUSIC – from reaching the masses.

    It is not only semi-failing because of this but also due to the lack of overall knowledge of the ever-changing tech world. You have to be quick on your feet and very forward thinking. And when you organization can barely sell tickets online, how do you expect them to implement podcasts, RSS and blogs – it’s pointless… Drew, you just did the website orchestra review, how can organizations with this many “bad” web elements expect to move forward? What’s horribly unfortunately about the whole process is it continues to feed youth views that classical music is just old and played out.

    Ultimately, if we could get the industry as a whole to embrace and understand technology, evolve with the rest of the world and amend our union contracts to get music out there and accessible, only then can we properly give adequate resources to the things which will propel us forward.

    I don’t think I would entirely agree that, overall, orchestras can barley sell tickets online. Case in point, according to the data reported by orchestras who completed the website review surveys, online ticket sales have increased every year. Organizations with greater control over their online box office have reported that they sell more than half of their single tickets online.

    Beyond that, I think blaming the union for lack of podcasting is a hollow excuse. First, the musicians in each orchestra have the ability to negotiate terms for music used in an online format via the AFM Internet Agreement from 1999. Next, I know of several orchestras who have successfully negotiated agreements using this agreement in a matter of a few weeks as opposed to a year. Finally, why would anyone want to limit themselves to merely regurgitating live concerts (all or in part) via podcasts. Although that has uses, it is a fairly static outlook on how podcasts should be used.

    I wouldn’t disagree that orchestras are all about the music but I would go another necessary step and add that it is all about the live music. Podcasts, blogs, etc. should ultimately be designed to move listeners in that direction. ~ Drew McManus

  3. To say the same thing you’re saying but from a different angle, before undertaking any new technology initiative the orchestra needs to ask two basic sets of questions:

    1. What is the nature of this medium and what are the expectations of the audience for that medium about the nature of its content. People who read blogs expect to find actual the opinions of real individuals, and that those opinions won’t always toe the party line. An orchestra blog that regurgitates PR dept. material won’t be read by anybody because it doesn’t fit the expected and desired format, so any orchestra that wants to consider starting a blog has to be willing to have the blog sometimes say “I thought last night’s performance was lousy” or “I wish we did less X and more Y.” Obviously there might be some limitations on allowable content, but you get the idea. For a myspace page, on the other hand, having the text be generic PR text is probably fine, but people on MySpace expect to be able to check in on your profile and hear what you’re up to, so the music samples need to be current, either reflecting recent concerts or previews of upcoming concerts. A generic sampler from the archives isn’t going to cut it, because that’s not what the MySpace community wants.

    2. How does the technology project further your core mission? (Or your “hedgehog concept,” to use the relevant _Good To Great_ terminology.) Being able to take credit for “using new media technology” doesn’t cut it. Your blog or myspace page or whatever it is needs to have a clear relationship to recruiting new audience members, or keeping existing audience members informed, or selling your recordings, or some other mission-related objective. If you can’t describe both what mission the project enhances AND tell a persuasive and detailed story about how it enhances that mission you’re wasting your time.

    That’s an excellent point about expectations among blog readers Galen, many thanks for putting that into such a concise statement! ~ Drew McManus

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