The trouble with gatekeepers

On Twitter the other day, I had a running I(and of course compressed) debate with @clusterhocket, aka Ken Thomson, a clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer from Brooklyn. The subject was gatekeepers. Or, less compressed, the established gateways to developing a performing career. They’d include performance venues who’d book you to perform, their publicists and marketers, who’d spread the word about you and do all they can to sell tickets, and of course the established media, who, if you (or your publicist, or the venue’s publicist) do everything right (and have some luck), will feature you, which then helps you sell tickets.

And, of course, builds your fame, which can help you with everything — getting bookings, getting record labels to record you, raising money, even getting teaching jobs. Wouldn’t you love to send a glowing profile from the New York Times to anyone thinking of doing something for you, along with an avid review from Alex Ross?

And, you know, I forgot record labels in my gatekeeper list. They’ll record you, and sell the recordings. Of course, that track isn’t as solid as it used to be, so often you’ll have to pay for the recording yourself, and the label, with the best will in the world, won’t be able to sell many copies.

Which then gets to my side of the debate. Especially if you want to sell tickets, I’m saying forget the gatekeepers, and do it yourself. Develop a list of people who love you, and market yourself directly to them, using all the online (and offline) tools at your disposal. At everyone’s disposal, in fact. How hard is it to set up a Facebook page, to open a Twitter account?

Of course, the ideal thing would be to do both. Hit the gatekeepers hard, and also push yourself, on your own.

But here’s the argument against gatekeepers.

When do they work? They work best if you’re already famous, and if you have an older audience. If, let’s say, you’re Anna Nebtrebko. Now you get major coverage in established media, polishing your fame. You sing with major opera companies, and their publicity and marketing people also help to keep you famous. Anyone interested in these companies — and many people who follow major media — know all about you.

But now suppose you’re not that famous, but still you get a major profile of yourself in the New York Times, before a big NY performance you’re doing. It can happen. It can seem so exciting to get — lucky you — a profile in the New York Times. That’s exciting. So many readers! So much visibility!

But does it work? I’ve heard from marketing people in New York that major Times exposure might not sell tickets.The rule, I once was told, is that a profile of someone who’d sell tickets even without that extra exposure — Anna Nebtrebko, for instance, or Josh Bell — will sell still more seats. But a profile of someone who’s not an audience draw might not generate much interest.

And who will your Times profile reach? How many people under 40 read newspapers? Or act on what they might happen to see in them? I’ve seen two studies, one of people under 40, one involving all ages, that ask how people decide what to do when they want to go out. In the first one, asked how they learned about the last art and culture event they attended, 32% of respondents said “from a friend,” 12% had gotten an email promotion, and only 11% had read about it in a newspaper. If now you add the 10% who learned of their event on a website, and 9% who found out about it thanks to “alternative news,” we get well over half who weren’t influenced by newspapers.

And, yes, gatekeepers have websites, and send out email — but now the playing field is level. I have a website, I send out email, and I can compete with the Metropolitan Opera, especially if I can target (which isn’t hard) people I know care about me, and if my needs are more modest than theirs. If I had to fill 4000 seats (the Met’s approximate capacity) for a lecture, maybe I’d need some help. But if I want to get 500 people subscribing to my book updates, I can do that, just as well as the Met does what it does. My only cost will be time and energy.

There’s another problem, too, with mass exposure. It’s mass exposure. Which means it goes out scattershot, reaching everyone in general, and no one in particular. I have a composer friend, who’s releasing a CD, an important project for him. Suppose he hires a publicist, as he’s thinking of doing, to help him get the CD reviewed. Suppose that publicist hits the jackpot, and gets a review in the New York Times.

How many people see that review? Hard to say. I once was music editor of Entertainment Weekly, a large-circulation magazine, and audience surveys showed that hardly anyone read the few reviews we ran (though we did run them on a regular basis) of classical music and world music CDs. Same could be true of my friend’s review in the Times

But there’s an even more important question. How many of the people most likely to buy my friend’s CD will see the review? Not very many, I’d guess. They might not read the paper. They might not read newspapers at all. They might not have seen the paper that day. They might not have read the arts section. They might page through the arts section, get bored, and stop before the CD reviews.

My friend would do far better, I’d think, maintaining an active list of people interested in his work, and then hitting them with messages about the CD. How many CDs would he sell from a Times review? Twenty seems like a possible number, if I take as a best-case scenario Hilary Hahn, who appeared on Letterman, and rose to the top of the classical charts with, wait for it, 900 sales. Not many, in the larger scheme of things. So if Hilary sells 900, maybe my friend could sell 20.

If he promoted his CD himself, using all the usual online tools, and if he had an active mailing list (which, given his years in the business, he might easily have), he could do better than 20 sales. He could sell 40 copies. Or even 100!

And for his next album, he could build on that, and sell even more.

More in my next post.

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  1. Billy T says

    you mention 2 studies in this post, what are they can you point me to the source if it’s online?


    Hi, Billy. One study, done in Indianapolis a few years ago, is here: The other one is private, and isn’t available online.