So here’s a test case, derived from something my wife Anne Midgette and I encountered during a university residency a few years ago.
We were asked to meet with a faculty chamber ensemble, made up of terrific musicians, who were scheduled to make their New York debut. And they had a simple question to ask us. How could they get a review in the Times?
The answer, unfortunately, was equally simple. Almost certainly, they couldn’t get a Times review. There’s too much competition. Too many concerts. Yes, they’d have a better chance if they’d scheduled their debut for early September, or July, when there aren’t so many other events, but even then their chances are slim. And their debut, as it happened, would happen in May.
We asked them some questions. Who did they think would come to their event? Alumni of their university, they said. So then, we asked them, why not build independent support among these alumni? And, of course, among current students and faculty.
We outlined a plan. It depended on streaming their concert live on the web, and we didn’t know if the venue they were playing at would allow them to do that. But many people do do it, and my purpose here is to outline a new kind of promotional plan, which will work in other places, even if it couldn’t work for this group.
So you stream your concert live on the web — a video stream, preferably. And you organize a listening party at your school, where your friends, students, and colleagues will come together to support you. You also contact alumni, the ones you think would want to come to your concert. Some of them won’t be in New York. Maybe they, too, will organize listening parties. I imagine a dozen people in a living room, with four or five laptops. Or you could put the video on your TV.
Now you might have more audience than you’d get at the concert! (A small secret. Often those debut recitals don’t come close to selling out. If you hire a publicist for them, one job the publicist might take for granted, as part of the deal, is papering the house — giving tickets away free.)
But the plan could go further than this. Who else, we wondered, supported the group? Faculty at other music schools, the musicians told us, colleagues who, among other things, could be depended on to book the group for concerts at their schools.
This gave us an idea. Contact those faculty colleagues at other schools, and see if they, too, will organize listening parties. Now your attendance, live and online, might shoot up quite a bit.
And that’s not all. These faculty colleagues have students. Some of them play the repertoire for your ensemble. So why not set up a blog, months before the concert, and talk about your rehearsals? Make it a blog about rehearsing the repertoire for your kind of ensemble. Maybe nothing like that exists on the Web. And even if it does, you have people who might be especially interested in you.
Keep the blog active. Post videos of your rehearsals. Discuss particular problems that come up in the music you’re playing. Post audio and video samples, showing how you deal with the problems. Get people commenting. Get a discussion happening.
The discussion might also talk about promoting your playing. Everyone can join in. Promote the blog to the alumni, too. The blog, of course, now becomes promotion both for your concert, and for the listening parties you and your friends and colleagues have organized. Now you’ve got an event — and now, paradoxically, you also have something to sell to the mainstream media. The Times now might — if your publicist played the cards right — do an advance piece on your concert, the news now being not that you were playing (which in itself isn’t remarkable, given the number of chamber groups that play in New York during any given year), but that you had such a large online following, and that you were using your concert to teach performance of your repertoire. That’s news.
So there’s the outline of a principle. Do your own promotion. Then, if it succeeds, contact the gatekeepers. You don’t need them — but why leave them out?
Footnote. Some will say, and not untruthfully, that without a Times review you’re missing something you really need, a quote from a critic that can help your or your manager book future gigs.
But, first — you weren’t going to get the Times review! So the promotion I’ve outlined is far from pointless. It gets you more than you had — an essential principle, when you’re just starting out. You may not become a huge star overnight, but self-promotion, with no gatekeepers in sight, can still get you more than you have. Then you build on that.
And how long will the old system — where reviewers’ quotes seem important — last? Seems to me if you promote your own following, you might be even more bookable, especially if you can show an established chamber music booker that you’ve already got a following in her area. The key is not to accept old assumptions uncritically. The world is changing, and the people who’ll benefit are those who know how to do something new.