Sell what you are

Greg Sandow by a cairn in England

Here’s a project I’d like to do, with classical soloists or ensembles. I’d like to help you brand yourselves, and then figure out a marketing strategy based on your branding.

But here’s the key to this — your branding and marketing have to be based on who you are, in your deepest core. Let’s bury forever the idea that marketing is
about bullshit, about finding some lowest-common-denominator version of yourself that you can get people to buy. That’ll just destroy you.

This is the start of something I want to stress on my blog this month: Commerce. Selling yourself. I’ll say much more about this as the month goes on, but here’s the basic principle: No more outreach. No more education. Let’s not apologize for ourselves, assume that people need special care before they’ll respond to what we do. (An approach that can quickly slide into arrogance, as we say, implicitly, that other people aren’t capable of understanding us unless they get special education.)

Instead, let’s tell the world that we love what we do. Let’s tell them why, and — because we’re talking, in the end, to people who aren’t very different from us — others will respond.

As I said, I’ll be saying much more about this as the month goes on.

This project comes out of an assignment I’ve given for years to students in my courses on the future of classical music. (The link takes you to last spring’s Juilliard version of the course; I’ve also taught it at Eastman. And I’m available to teach it elsewhere.)

The assignment — which serves as the climax of the course — seems very simple. Take a piece you yourself play or sing, and that you love. (Or, if you’re a composer, something you’ve composed.) Get up in class, and tell us why you love it, in terms anyone could understand, even if they don’t know anything about classical music.

I strongly urge students not to talk — as program notes almost always do — about the history of the piece, or its structure. Unless, of course, those things truly excite you. I want the students to talk in deeply personal terms, to say why they like the piece, not why other people like it, or why it’s historically important, or structurally interesting.

Your own reasons for liking something will be different from someone else’s. And people respond to personal contact. If you speak for yourself, from your heart, that’s the best guarantee that others will respond. Especially people who aren’t yet into classical music! And that’s our big job these days, since our audience is shrinking — to reach new people, and give them reasons to care about our music. Which means giving them reasons to care about us.

This assignment has been a huge success. We’ve been touched in class, sometimes awed, sometimes delighted to the point of gutsy laughter — so many reactions, when students say why they love the music they love. And almost everybody has something gripping to say. Even shy people, even people who think they don’t have any great ideas about their music — the mere fact of speaking personally carries so much force.

So here’s the project. Let’s do this assignment together (or a broader version of it). Talk about the music you play. Talk about yourself. Talk about why you love making music. Out of that, we’ll choose what’s most personal, most distinctive, most compelling.

Then we’ll start to figure out how to reach people with all this. That will branch in two directions:

First, we’ll look for words and images that express who you are. We’ll distill the most personal, distinctive, and compelling parts of what you say about yourself into a few simple sentences. And then we’ll look for images that convey the same thoughts, the same ideas. We’ll look for images that already exist, though eventually you’ll need to create your own, or find someone to create some for you.

These words and images can be used to brand you. Once we know what they are, we can talk about how you could use them — on your website, on your Facebook page, in flyers, in promotional texts and email, and in the way the stage looks at your performances. And more.

Which then leads to the second thing we’ll need to talk about: How you use all of this to reach people. Who you want to reach, and how you’ll reach them. Who’s your target audience? Who’s your audience now? Where can we find more people like the audience you already have?

And then who else might like you? And where can we find these new people? How can we use the words and images we’ve generated to reach the audience you want to reach?

That’s an outline of the project. Would anybody like to try it? We can talk about how we’d work together, what arrangements we might make. I’ve have to be paid for my part of this, but I’m more than willing to discuss fees that make the project possible.

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  1. says

    Hi Greg. I’ve been following you for about two years, ever since our Music Director forwarded something from your blog for me to read.

    I would LOVE to do this project, on behalf of my community orchestra. Or with it. Or however it would be structured. The first obstacle is how do we reach a consensus about what we love and why we love it? We’re a pretty big group with 42 years of history behind us. Whose voice carries, or is it possible to reach a shared voice/vision? The second problem is money, and I’m sure that’s what you’ll hear from a lot of people. Our budget for something like this is basically non-existent, so I need to find the money somehow. Maybe that’s with a grant, but I’ve yet to see one that would handle this sort of re-branding effort. Hmm. Anyhow, I’m thinking about it. Thanks. I do love your work.

    • says

      Donna, I’d love to work with you. And I’m excited that you’re interested. Let’s communicate privately, and see if we can find a way to do it. Or at least make a start. I need to be paid for my time, but I’d like to find some way to keep money from being an obstacle.

    • says

      Depends on the purpose of the class. The class is about the future of classical music, not about entrepreneurship, or developing the students’ ability to market themselves. So there’s a lot of ground to cover, starting with what I see as the basic facts — decline of classical music in our cultural life, decline of ticket sales and funding, cultural changes that classical music hasn’t kept up with. Toward the end of the semester, we start talking intensely about change in classical music, examining many examples of it. Structuring the course this way — and ending with this assignment — gives the class an arc the students have told me repeatedly that they like. We start with depressing things, and end with hope.