Getting Musicians Involved

Following the Canadian Orchestra Website Review, Calgary Philharmonic Bassist (and TAFTO 2008 contributor), Matt Heller, posted an article at his blog the other week which questioned the value of posting contact information for musicians. Based on the parameters Matt approached the topic I would agree with his conclusions, especially with regard to obligating musicians to provide personal information. I’m glad Matt posted his article as it sums up the frustrations I hear from orchestra managers working on a project that requires requesting information from musicians for the organizational website…

Matt and I enjoyed a productive comment exchange at his blog and I wanted to elaborate on this more by offering some tips on how to make the process as productive, positive, and inclusive as possible.

Setting up musician mail accounts should be done through the existing email client.
Setting up musician email accounts should be done through the existing email client.

The project should be divided into two primary components: gathering data about musicians and establishing an efficient form of communication between website visitor and musician. As the latter is typically less time consuming, we’ll focus on that issue here while saving the former topic for another article.

The most basic form of communication through a website should be email. One of the most straightforward methods managers approach musicians on this topic is to simply request an email address from a musician that will then be used on the website. Unfortunately, this raises all sorts of privacy hackles among many musicians and frankly, private email addresses should only be used if that is something a musician requests.

A more productive approach is to establish an email address for each musician based on the organization’s existing email client. Afterward, you can either set up a direct email link or establish a form based email page. Form based methods help marginalize spam but you can go one step more by utilizing a captcha service for either option (such as the free service used here at Adaptistration). Incoming email messages can be printed out and delivered directly to each musician or you can set up your email client to forward incoming messages to a private email address provided by the musician.

If printing out messages, per service orchestras may have to include an auto-responder notifying the sender that due to the length in time between musician services, their email message may not be received for “X” number of weeks. Regardless, all email accounts should include an auto responder notice letting senders know their message was received and it will be delivered/forwarded to the individual musician but that does not assure a response.

In order to take advantage of building better relationships with the musicians, consider approaching the musicians’ representative committee (orchestra committee, players’ committee, etc.) to explain the project and reassure them that no musician’s privacy will be compromised. Next, review the process you used to determine the best course of action and then ask them if they have any insight on how best to approach musicians to maximize involvement beyond working through normal channels.

In general, guide each stage of the process by projecting a sincere desire to the musicians that the organization wants to augment the level they are a featured in promotional platforms. Ultimately, this will help marginalize suspicions feelings among musicians that they are being asked to “do more work without being paid.”

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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10 thoughts on “Getting Musicians Involved”

  1. One factor of concern in posting email addresses are privacy issues, especially when it comes to spambots. For years I had a unique email associated with my website domain and posted it openly on my site.

    Before long it got picked up by a “spider” and the merciless waves of constant spam began. Hundreds of junks emails every day. After discontinuing that email address, the lesson I learned was that proper precautions need to be taken to mask or protect email addresses from spammers.

    While some people may use email spam filters, many others do not. I do not use them for fear of legit email getting junked. I now know that a simple front-end solution like JavaScripting can do the trick quite nicely.

    If I am asked by an arts organization if they may post my email address on their website, this is the first question I ask – what precautions do you take to prevent my email address from being harvested by spammers? Unfortunately many do not know what to do.

    Besides the solution that Drew offers, here is another – a simple Javascript, or a linked image of the email address.

  2. Out of curiousity, when this kind of system is set up, what kind of emails to players receive? I would question the relevance of putting it up there if there was no guarantee of response. Auto-responses also get eaten by spam filters quite often, which could leave a patron wondering why they never received a response from a musician.

    If the players are up for it, why not I suppose… but I think it would be good to have some guidelines in place for what kind of replies are appropriate, etc. I can imagine the orchestra’s press department should be involved a bit as well – there is often information musicians know ahead of the general public that press departments use for leverage in getting coverage. I’m thinking of conductor appointments, new festivals, things like that. Opening up communication channels is always a balancing act. Personally, there are many more avenues I would go down before doing this, for the amount of work and organisational risk attached. But, I’m working in the UK, and it’s a different environment really, so there you are.

  3. Erin, regarding the issue of auto-responses being caught by spam filters you can still get the message to the sender by including a note on the email form page (if you use that system) or have it automatically inserted into the body of the sender’s email message via email link code.

    As far as having a player’s email response monitored, I’m not for that at all. I do agree that some written guidelines and standards should be provided but does an orchestra’s PR department have to review every email message coming in and out of the organization?

    In the end, the musicians are employees and educated professionals and are likely capable of composing a professional email message. That means they can catch some grief if they behave unprofessionally just as any employee would.

    Ultimately, orchestras are going to have to release some of the hyper-levels of control they have historically applied to patron-ensemble communication. If musicians have access to embargoed information then the PR department simply needs to make sure the players know the terms under which the info is restricted. In many cases I imagine patrons may wish to contact musicians about musical issues not even related to the ensemble (instrument geek questions, inquires about teaching, etc.).

    I don’t see setting email addresses as a tremendous amount of work, it can be hammered out in an afternoon and most organizations already have written policies regarding electronic communication so no need to reinvent the wheel there.

    As for the environment being different in the UK, I don’t know but I’m interested to know what, if any, differences exist. Was there anything on your mind?

    All in all, these are good thoughts and addressing them head on is a good thing.

  4. Ah, bit of misunderstanding there, I wasn’t suggesting the press dept clear every email. Just that they should be involved in the launch of that project, and discuss guidelines with players. If you have never worked in a position that has dealt with press inquiries and the consequences of the that info going out, it may be less clear how something that seems innocuous can get blown out of proportion.

    I’ve been in the situation where a misstep in an informal communication (well-meaning, but inappropriate comments, and I can’t elaborate, sorry) caused at least ten very negative stories in national press, losing thousands in ticket sales and making the org look incredibly unprofessional. Because they get public funds to operate, it was a very sticky situation for a bit there with governmental bodies, etc. I’m just pointing out the risk can be quite high if you’re working with a high profile group, and that needs to be taken into consideration.

    Definitely sometimes it feels over-cautious, but it’s about looking at whether the benefits outweigh the risks. That org is still doing informal communications, blogs, social networking, etc, but with some guidelines in place and a better briefing process for content production, which is key to avoiding the kind of situation they experienced in the past.

    I think the environment in the UK is a bit different purely because there are more arts reporters who still have a job, and the incredible pressure-cooker that is the orchestra world in London and the UK in general. Lots of papers, all reporting on classical music and the arts, plus loads of orchestras in one city makes for an intensely competitive environment that can get nasty, and well-publicised, quickly.

    Anyway, none of that applies to an orchestra who has their audience in their home city pretty much to themselves I would think.

  5. That clarifies things a bit, thank you Erin. I do think that a set of written communication policies and procedures is worthwhile and should be given to musicians who maintain an organizational email address.

    As for having members of the press contact musicians directly, most traditional reporters know that doing an end run around the PR rep is not a good idea. More to the point, I don’t think musician email addresses should be geared toward members of the media at all; instead, they should be geared toward increasing interaction between musicians and patrons.

    One solution to the issue of having reporters contacting musicians is to include notices on the email contact forms letting any members of the press know that they should send inquiries to the PR department first to arrange an interview with musicians if that is what they are looking for.

    Additionally, if a member of the press is looking for information from the musicians’ official spokesperson (since most professional orchestras are unionized) that musician’s contact information should be included in the press pages. Once again, this differentiates between media and general audience members looking to contact musicians.

    All in all, these are all good topics to discuss and have very straightforward solutions.

  6. Thank you for addressing this topic! This post and the previous comments answer several of my concerns, and make me much more optimistic that this could work.

    The underlying issue, I think, is whether we want to give musicians license to speak on behalf of the orchestra — Erin gives some reasons why we might hesitate, but there are at least as many positive reasons to go forward. We musicians often have our own highly idiosyncratic, somewhat skewed perspectives, but we also can offer what every arts organization needs — personal connection, originality, a unique viewpoint. Bridging the divide between audience and orchestra members could go a long way towards a more open, inclusive art form.

    This “e-mail the oboist” idea won’t build huge new audiences overnight, but encouraging musicians to engage with audiences and speak up passionately about this music will make a difference. So you’ve already persuaded at least one musician that this is a good idea!

  7. How about coming out into the lobby after concerts and greeting patrons as an example of musicians becoming involved? (which we have had the technology to do for decades)

    E-mail addresses on the website are ok, but it pales in comparison to the power of actually taking the time to personally meet people. Patrons could care less about meeting staffers, and I doubt the typical orchestra’s website traffic would result in a lot of patrons e-mailing musicians. So many patrons I meet hold the musicians in such high regard that personally meeting a few of them would go a long way towards solidifying their love for the orchestra.

    Many patrons find it amazing that the musicians aren’t the ones involved in the day to day operations of the orchestra – they assume (especially in smaller towns) that it’s like any other band they come across, where the members are the ones doing the work to promote and advance the group. I’m not saying musicians need to be spending all their time slugging it out in the office, but what if, for example, a sub renewal letter or annual fund letter were signed by an orchestra musician as opposed to a staffer? Wouldn’t that go a long way towards incorporating the musicians into the interactions with the patrons?

  8. I agree James, face to face contact is best and that’s a topic we’ve examined here at Adaptistration in the past. Undoubtedly, email communication is not the holy grail of interaction but a single tool. combined with other tools such as meet and greets, they can build a strong final product.

    At the same time, I don’t think there is little or no value in learning about managers and staffers. Granted, I agree that there likely isn’t the same level of interest but when it comes to interaction over the [phone or in person, odds are that patrons are interacting with someone in the administrative offices.

    As such, I really like the way groups like the Nashville Symphony highlight all of the employees with head shots and bios. I think it allows local patrons to realize that these folks are their neighbors and contribute to a strong socioeconomic fabric. that might seem a bit idealist but I do believe that the path to reaching true potential includes these way points.


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