You reached out, and nobody came…

No, this isn’t going to be a downer post. It’s actually a step toward solutions, but incorporating some  necessary doses of reality.

Here are two — very similar — promotional things that students recently have tried. First: As part of the project I’m doing at the University of Maryland, members of the school’s symphony orchestra went out to the student union, and started practicing their parts for Strauss’s Heldenleben, the big piece on their upcoming concert.

And let me be very clear about giving credit for this idea, and for other things the students did that I’ll talk about in another post! I say this is a project I’m doing, but it’s bloomed into a wonderfully collaborative thing, with the students taking terrific initiatives, completely on their own. This venture into the student union was one of them.

So now it’s reasonable to wonder how successful doing this turned out to be. Did the other students at the Student Union get more interested in the  orchestra? Did any of them come to the concert?

I’m not making any assumptions about this, pro or con. It simply leads me to the second thing that I’ll report here/ During my visit to the Yale School of Music last week, a student told me about something very like what the students did in Maryland. This was part of my streaming session with students, which at some point soon will be available on demand on the YSM website, so you’ll be able to hear what the student described, and where the discussion went after that. (And I’ll post a full report on my visit shortly. Wonderful things in my life are running far ahead of my blog posts!)

Here’s what was tried at Yale. Some undergraduates started an orchestra, and held rehearsals in some public place on campus, to develop interest, and of course an audience. And in fact a lot of the other students who encountered the rehearsals seemed very interested.

And then what happened? Hardly anybody came to the performance! I’m not at all saying this also happened in Maryland. I’m making no assumptions. But it was a problem at Yale, and from this it seems reasonable — especially bringing in what I know from many other efforts, of various kinds — to suggest a principle. It might not be enough to do guerrilla promos for an event. You have to follow up.

What would the followups be? Here are things we talked about in the Yale discussion, plus some things that none of us thought to say.

Probably you need to talk to people who watch you rehearse/practice/whatever unexpectedly in public. Make some friends. Get some names! Put these people on an email list. Make them your Facebook friends. Get them following you on Twitter.

You might also try what Peter Gregson did so successfully on the BBC Proms website last summer. Bring a video camera when you show up guerrilla-style in public, and film conversations with people hearing you who seem interested. And, maybe, with some who aren’t interested! Then put these conversations on a website, or a Facebook page. The idea is to get these people to send their friends to your page, to watch the video. And, of course, to find out about your project, as inevitably will happen.

Then you might keep in touch with the people you’ve met. You have their email addresses, their FB data, their Twitter IDs. Send them bulletins about the concert, as it’s getting closer. Make these fun and personal. And also seriously artistic. Convey whatever is important to you about the music and the performance. Create a FB page inviting people to the concert (as one of the Maryland students in the project there has just done for an event we’re having; more on this in tomorrow’s post).

Offer promotional deals. People you met at the student union, or wherever, get to buy a half-price ticket. Or they get to bring a friend for free.

Put up videos of your public rehearsal. Then put up more videos of later rehearsals, which very likely won’t be public. Talk about particular passages in the piece. Document your progress, as you learn to play them better. Give people a reason to come to the performance — to see how much better you’ll get, even better than your best rehearsals. Or not! Maybe you’ll do better at rehearsals. But now you’ve got people involved with you. A good thing.

(A guitar student I met at Yale talked wryly of putting every recording he has of his playing online, including bad ones. Why not admit you’re human? Why not get people laughing wryly at your failures, as well as cheering your successes?)

Send out personal invitations to your concert. Invite people by name. That’s a lot of work, but may well pay off. Then, when these people come to the concert, say hello to them. Greet them in the lobby, at intermission, or from the stage. Say you’re glad they’re there, as certainly you should be.

Let a few of them sit in the middle of your orchestra (thinking now of the Yale students),. when you play. This is something the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston does, with great success.

Finally, recruit some people — either from your own ranks, from among your friends, or from the people you meet in your guerrilla marketing — who’ll work actively to spread the word about your concert. Who’ll create their own FB pages, who’ll tweet about it, who’ll email their friends. This is the key to viral marketing. It might happen on its own, but there’s no guarantee of that. You need to prime the pump. Make sure people are working actively to contact everyone they know.

The goal is for other people to spread your message. Once that happens, you know you’ve taken off.

And the larger lesson here — promotion takes a lot of work. You need to make contact with people, and keep the contact up. Whatever impact you make by showing up unexpectedly somewhere, you’ll magnify it if you try the things that I’ve described here. And, of course, make up things I’ve never even imagined.

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  1. Cathy Campbell says

    One reason that people might not show is that they’ve already enjoyed the rehearsal and don’t see the need to go to the concert.

    Maybe the students can change their thinking and consider that the rehearsal IS the performance. Why do only the people showing up to the concert count as audience?

  2. says

    As a conservatory student, I’ve been thinking of a number of ways in which our music school (at Northwestern) can better integrate itself into the larger campus. We’ve organized informal classical and jazz performances at our student union to some success. One of my big projects last year and this year was our Music Marathon, a 26 hour concert raising money for The People’s Music School. Greg, if you’re interested at all, you can learn more at my blog post about it

    and at our website,

  3. Janis says

    Cathy, you took the words right out of my mouth. Promoting light bulbs didn’t make gaslamps sell any better. They obviated the old way.