Technology or culture?

Fascinating New York Times piece on college student blogs — and how colleges and universities are flaunting these blogs on their websites (with MIT in the lead), even if the students don’t always say favorable things about the schools.

Why is this happening? Because high school students trust these blogs. They want to know what various colleges are really like. That’s how they decide where they want to go. And who better to tell them, than students already there?

Some schools resist this, though. They want to control their message. They want prospective students to have the school’s own official view of itself. This, the piece seems to say, is a losing strategy. The students see through the official message, and want something more authentic, something that feels more like the truth.

So here’s a question. Do we file this story under technology, or culture? I’d say both, and that the two subject headings are largely inseparable. New technologies have helped create a new culture. With information so widely available, and with so many chances for any of us — all of us — to put ourselves, in the most personal way, out there for anyone to see, people now look for a personal view of things. That’s how, increasingly, we decide on purchases, by reading user reviews of products we’re considering. And that, says the Times, is how students are deciding where to go to college.

What does this mean for classical music?

It means that you can’t use new technologies — or at least not use them to their full potential — without embracing the new culture. If you’re on Twitter, you can’t (as I’ve said before) just send out tiny press releases, as so many classical music organizations do. Your tweets can’t be anonymous. And it’s not enough to give them a tiny bit of ersatz sparkle, by saying things (“Hey, today is Mahler’s birthday!”) that you’ve manufactured because you think they might be fetching, even though you yourself don’t even care about them much. Your tweets need to come from an actual person, and say things that this person cares about.

And what’s the lesson from the students’ blogs? Maybe classical music groups — even major institutions — should let their staff, musicians, board, and audience start talking on their websites. With critiques of performances! “Last night just wasn’t our best. The performance — from what I heard in the oboe section — just plodded along.” Disputes might develop. “Plodded along? The trombones were irresistible.”

Do that for a while, and word will spread. (Especially if you work to spread it virally.) People you’ve never heard of will start checking in, because they know that something real is going on.

Does anybody dare to try this? (Or maybe someone already has. Please let me know!)

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  1. Jason says

    Well, if you encourage too many “disputes,” there’s a danger that the orchestra’s long-simmering feuds might erupt on the blogosphere. This might be very entertaining for the public (in a “Real Housewives” sort of way), but would wreak havoc on the orchestra’s morale.

    But short of dishing the dirt, I wholeheartedly agree that musicians and staff should be more personally engaged with marketing through social media. I’d like to see more tweets and blog posts from musicians telling me why they’re looking forward to a particular piece on the next program, or a particular conductor or soloist.

    My fledgling local symphony still tries to sell concerts based on the “greatness” of the repertoire. A direct quote from a mailer I got last spring tells me that Barber is “considered by many to be America’s greatest composer.” Yikes. Of course, the real shame of this approach is that this is a musician-run orchestra, and this Barber piece (one of the essays, if I recall) had to have been chosen by one of the musicians. The orchestra had an excellent opportunity to bring this musician forward to say — on a blog post, in a podcast, whatever — WHY they picked that Barber piece, and what the piece means for them personally.

    Orchestral musicians feel very passionately (one way or another) about the music they play. When you have such a vast reservoir of feeling to draw on, why on earth would you market your orchestra the same way parents get their kids to eat their broccoli?

  2. says

    I dunno…there’s probably an unwritten law that the degree of openness fostered by an institution is in inverse proportion to the number of secrets the insitution needs to keep from the media.

  3. says

    I’ve found myself at many concerts, movies, art galleries, etc. tweeting about the performance or what I’m experiencing. I can’t be the only one doing this, so why not give those of us who are already commenting on their experiences with art a platform to talk about it directly with other fans of similar interests?

    I can understand the hesitation about allowing anyone to post comments about ensembles, performances, etc., but the groups who are successfully harnessing the power of social commentary end up with stronger ticket sales and a local community that supports the arts through thick and thin.

  4. John Shibley says


    I don’t know of any examples in the orchestra world, but, in other areas of the arts…

    SFMOMA’s excellent blog “Open Space” ( hires teams of artist/bloggers every quarter to write, and promises them an uncensored editorial space. The results are fascinating – not the kind of juicy gossip or flaming critiques one might fear, but provocative, edgy and interesting copy – in essence, a blog that has ended up being a lot like SFMOMA itself. They have created a space for artistic discourse.

    So… can you imagine an orchestra doing that?

  5. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg –

    Sorry I vanished again, I’ve been in the process of moving…or not…Anyway some musical people do try this on their websites. The trouble with so many blogs and their respondents – I am not speaking of music, here, in particular – is that the level of discussion quickly becomes all too personal, often ad homninem, and/or quite petty and intolerant. Too often it’s just a little clique snapping at each other or praising each other. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I find these things tedious and not worth reading.

    What is the value to classical music? More and more, I find myself utterly impatient with classical music for a host of historical and political reasons. Nice to listen to – sometimes. But Tweets about performances of Beethoven aren’t going to make it more vital. Classical music is what it is.

    Why would anybody want to be Tweeting about a performance DURING the performance, instead of listening to it, being fully present at the performance?

  6. Bill says

    If you’re tweeting or texting from a classical concert, please don’t do it DURING the music from your seat; it is a gross distraction to those around and above you in the hall. Those bright screens are very visible from all over the hall!

    At this year’s Cliburn piano competition they had live blogging to go along with the live broadcasts online. This is presumably done from a pressbox or balcony area out of the direct view of the audience.

  7. Janis says

    Let `em talk on their own Twitter feeds or websites, or blogs, or whatever. The institution can just pull an RSS feed of their messages onto their own website.

    They can use tags to choose only the messages that are relevant, so that orchestra fans don’t have to read about the principal horn stopping by the dry cleaners. :-)

    Although frankly, that stuff can be sort of cute in a “yes these are real people playing this stuff” kind of way. Michael Maniaci’s Twitter feed, as an example, is a nice combination of “just learned to jump through a trap door and sing at the same time!” and “gotta get to the airport.”