Talk to me about Dilettante

Sometimes it’s hard being Amanda. For example, when I think of lots of cool people to interview for (le) blog, and they say yes, and then I don’t have time to write the questions? Yes, at times like that it’s hard. But at long last, this week we have Juliana Farha and Chris Gruits from the recently re-launched classical music networking hub Dilettante.

Laslett_Juliana08_002.jpgJuliana Farha is the Founder and Managing Director of Dilettante Music, the online classical music hub based in London, England. She worked at CBC Radio and as a magazine editor in Toronto before leaving journalism to work for her family business in the musical instruments sector where she was responsible for two innovative, award-winning products.

After obtaining her Masters Degree in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Juliana became convinced that the Internet and especially social media were ideal tools to support classical music and musicians, and to grow the audience for the genre. Dilettante is the embodiment of those ideas.

Christopher-Gruits-(2).jpgAn American ex-pat and digital music junky, Chris is an Arts Manager with more than 10 years’ experience in the classical music sector. Arriving in London by way of the Seattle Symphony, Carnegie Hall and a MBA at Edinburgh University, Chris establishes relationships with arts organizations, record labels and business partners and manages business development for Dilettante. He lives in South London with his wife, the mezzo-soprano, Meg Bragle.

“Dilettante”. Explain the name for us. Also, the tagline: “Lead the Classical Music Uprising”. Whom are we to rise up against?

JULIANA: My reasons for naming the site Dilettante are somewhat personal. I grew up at a time when it became a commonly-held view that being a ‘generalist’ with a liberal arts education was a waste of time. Instead, to become productive in the new economy, we had to undertake increasingly specialised training for increasingly specialised work.

I disagree profoundly with that view, and I believe that teaching people to think critically and encouraging their curiosity remains intrinsically valuable. I accept that this might produce a lot of ‘dilettantes’ – which I define as people driven by a broad intellectual and emotional engagement. In that sense, there’s nothing more serious to me than a dilettante, which is how I would describe myself.

More specifically, the classical music world can be daunting because of its history, the depth of the repertoire and the complexity of the music. A certain snobbishness results from that and can stifle the fledgling efforts of new listeners, and the enthusiasm of non-professional players. [I once scandalised a boyfriend by telling him that Dvorak was one of my favourite composers. He subsequently gave me a Beethoven box set, which I read as an aesthetic ‘correction’…and things went downhill from there!]

The name Dilettante is a signal that we are finding ways to invite people into what could be a very big tent if they can find the space to listen

‘Lead the Classical Uprising’ isn’t aimed at a person, or group of people per se. It’s a challenge to the common claim that classical music is dying.

Who writes your House Blog? Can any member have a Member Blog?

JULIANA: I write the house blog, and the ‘musical uprisings’. (This started by accident when we launched a ‘user generated’ website which – at the beginning – had no users to generate content.) Yes, any member can have a member blog.

I noticed Nonesuch Records has a Member Blog. Nonesuch also has its own blog, though, off its own website. Similarly, I see my e-friend The Omniscient Mussel has a member blog that links to her personal blog off-site. Do you care if the blog posts are the same on Dilettante and the Nonesuch/Omniscient Mussel blogs, or are you ideally looking for unique content?

JULIANA: The Dilettante site is a hub which brings together music, editorial content, ideas and people. We are not especially concerned about unique content, and we would certainly not prioritise that at the expense of aggregating the most interesting and dynamic classical music content on the web. For instance, The Omniscient Mussel has developed a distinctive voice and a loyal following so creating space for her on Dilettante can only enhance our site.

Back to Nonesuch for a moment: Are you encouraging record labels without their own blogs to have Dilettante Member Blogs? How do you envision record label blogs on Dilettante actually selling records?

CHRIS: We encourage record labels to do lots of things on the site – not just creating or importing their own blogs, but setting up profiles and connecting with the Dilettante community. Nonesuch uses Dilettante in a clever way, by keeping members up-to-date about events and information related to their artists, and not just promoting upcoming releases. All of these elements contribute to selling records through the site. More generally, labels are starting to leverage social media as a vehicle for promoting their recordings and Dilettante is one outlet where they can communicate with a targeted audience in an honest and creative way.

Why ask new members to select their “relationship with music”, that is, “serious listener”, “novice listener”, etc.? If I start off as a novice and become more serious because of Dilettante, can I change my profile?

JULIANA: First, you can always change your profile type. The distinctions among musician types is primarily intended for practical reasons – for instance, if someone were looking for a trio in London to play at their wedding, they could use those criteria to hone their search.

As for listener types, this was originally conceived as a way of signaling that ‘novice listeners’ were welcome on the site. No one has raised it with us before, but if users tell us it’s not a useful or meaningful way of describing themselves, we’d certainly change it.

I must admit, I’m skeptical of niche social networking sites. I, like Anne Midgette, feel like there’s a limit to existing classical music fans, and that the point of online networking is to find people who don’t yet know they’re fans.  What do you think are the benefits of having a classically-focused site?  Also, as Anne points out in her post, a few classical networking sites have started and not really taken off: she cites Classical Lounge, Artist Nation, Classical Music Now, and Classical Connection. What makes the new version of Dilettante stand out?

JULIANA: First, it’s important to clarify that Dilettante is a hub (or portal as they used to say) and the social network was always intended to be an element of what we o
ffer, but certainly not the whole thing. Also, it’s not clear to us that Facebook or any other social utility is actually making ‘fans’ of people who weren’t already interested.

Our goal is to enable discovery of music and musicians, and to that end we believe we need to provide listeners with compelling reasons to visit Dilettante, whether it’s to find a range of ‘expert’ opinions of the best performance of Transfigured Night, or to find the best quality recording at the best price. New listeners might want advice on the Beethoven concerti but find it intimidating to walk into a record shop and ask (if there is a record shop at all!). While they’re on Dilettante, they might discover an mp3 by a trio that just graduated from Curtis, and become a fan. Ordinary social networks don’t offer this sort of 360-degree experience, and it’s reflected in our numbers. We’re now seeing more than 15,000 unique visitors per month from more than 105 countries.

CHRIS: Even so, we believe that niche social networks are the next step in the evolution of online social networking. The ability to connect in a meaningful way with people who share a particular interest or passion creates an important link and like social networks in real life, online networks are situationally relevant – there’s no “one size fits all” for every interest and social group people have.

I see you’ve used Facebook’s “Wall” platform and moniker. Are you at all concerned that classical folks who are not familiar with Facebook will be confused by this? Which brings me to the broader question of, how easy is Dilettante to use if someone is not so tech-savvy?
JULIANA: Quite the opposite, actually. On the first version of the site we used ‘small talk’ to designate a public message (the call to action was ‘talk to me’). Many users found this confusing because Facebook’s ‘wall’ had become widely accepted as a standard term for this type of message in the social networking environment.

Regarding less tech-savvy users, we have done usability tests on the new site and addressed areas that we felt were unclear. We plan to do another, more involved set of tests in the next couple of months or so, and this will undoubtedly uncover more questions about whether the user journey is as intuitive as it could be.

There are two important points here, though:
a)    the Members area of the Dilettante site is a social network in the accepted sense, and social networking functionality has become very sophisticated very quickly. For that reason, it would not have made sense to work to the least tech-savvy user. The challenge was (and remains) to make complex functionality as intuitive as possible.
b)    the Dilettante Music and Events areas are designed to be used by anyone, whether or not they’re a member of the Dilettante community (or any other social network for that matter). The Music section functions like any other library-style search where you can use keywords to find information about composers and works, read reviews and discussions, and then click through to buy music or tickets. These areas are complex because of how they aggregate information, but they are not difficult to use.

How does Dilettante interact with actual musical activity? Are there structures to help musicians find gigs, or to find other musicians for a string quartet, for example? Is there a place where instruments are bought and sold, or where teachers in a certain area can be found? Or are the networking elements of Dilettante purely social?

CHRIS: Users have many tools to search for and interact with musical activity. First, they can use the events calendar to upload their recitals, masterclasses, performances, hold auditions and anything else they can think of. Members can post discussions on forums, and use their own blogs – which appear on the members’ homepage – to find musicians.

Members’ mp3s appear in our library on the page that describes the work they’re performing and on Dilettante Radio, so musicians can be found through the music itself, and not just through their member profiles. Also, our members search is very precise and specifically designed to find a user by instrument/skill/location etc, not just a specific person. For instance, you can look for an accompanist in Philadelphia, or a teacher in Houston…

You’ve just announced a Digital Composer-in-Residence competition wherein one of the prizes is a year-long “virtual residency”. What does a virtual residency entail?  Is this the first of its kind? Who owns the rights to any work created by that composer during that period?

CHRIS: A virtual residency offers the winning composer a digital space in which to promote their work, facilitate discussions, post podcasts and conduct online master classes, all to an established international audience. We’ll be working with the winner to develop a series of activities on the site, which will provide information about what they’re working on, the process involved, and their thoughts on new music. To my knowledge it is the first of its kind.

Dilettante is commissioning the winning composer to write a new piece for chamber ensemble over the course of the residency. They will own the rights to that work.

As with the YouTube Symphony, I continue to wonder why great web initiatives need to be validated by “real” live performances. Why will the three composer finalists have their works performed at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall, and not in a purely online setting?

BOTH: Glad you think it’s a great web initiative – we do too! But the Digital Composer-in Residence project was never intended to be a web-only initiative. It reflects the fact that the real world doesn’t exist in a parallel universe to the virtual one. For most musicians who are active online, those worlds work together and complement each other – our project does the same. [Besides, we want to have a party and we really love Wilton’s!]

Still, a key aspect is that our ‘niche’ community is built on a common activity and interest, and we are leveraging all aspects of that community to make this project happen, from soliciting entries to attracting judges and performers, and then using our web presence as a viable way for the winning composer to develop their own profile.

In fact, the project progresses work we did last summer on Blank Canvas, our classical club night in East London. The production of Blank Canvas was documented on the site, members were invited to attend at discounted ticket rates, and we produced a high-quality webcast of the event which we posted on Dilettante and YouTube. That way, we supported live performance in a non-traditional venue and we also brought the sites and sounds of London’s contemporary classical scene to users elsewhere.

Obviously, a network of any kind is dependent on the quality and/or quantity of its members. Is Dilettante looking for a select group of very active members, or is this a the-more-the-merrier situation? And in either case, how are you getting the word out about this site, and what have been the most successful ways you’ve recruited new members thus far?

CHRIS: Dilettante already has a group of super-users and this is likely to remain the case over time. Nonetheless, we currently attract members and visitors from more than 105 countries, and these run the gamut from orchestras like the London Phil to organisations like the New England Conservatory and small record labels, to individual listeners and musicians.

For us, then, if Dilettante is to continue to function as a hub it needs to grow in all of these directions – so the more-the-merrier!

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  1. Patricia Dinning says

    Really a good interview.
    I am trying to understand how social networks like Dilettante relate to me, this article answered many of my questions.

  2. Edward Smith says

    Fantastic idea for a social network! Also terrific interview, happy to see that Mr. Gruits is part of that team, his prior work and reputation in the industry is an added bonus that will boost the success of the site. Well done!

  3. Margaret Stanley says

    Great, in-depth interview. Farha seems like that relatively rare thing: an intellectual with business sense. Just what classical music needs, especially nowadays. I was at a fantastic concert last Thursday, but it couldn’t have been more than 2/3 full. Depressing…