The moral of the story

The moral, that is, of my critique of the Chicago Symphony’s “Sounds and Stories” online magazine. It so badly disappointed me. Great idea, for an orchestra to provide the kind of classical music coverage we don’t find these days in the media. But why make it so deadly dull? So drastically out of touch with the kind of lively media people find everywhere else?

I was being interviewed by a British journalist about “Sounds and Stories.” That’s how I happened to look at the site, though I’m sure I would have looked at it on my own, sooner or later. My interviewer asked me, very reasonably, what the obstacles were for classical music institutions doing something like this.

There are three obstacles, I said:

  • These institutions don’t know how to create this content
  • They don’t know how to get people to look at it once it’s online
  • And their old ideas about dignity of classical music will stop them from making the content lively. They’ll worry that they’re dumbing classical music down.

What advice would I give to any institution going down this road? Admit that you don’t know how to do it. And then find people who do. And do what they say. Don’t interfere.

When I passed my three points on in a conversation I had with someone in the business, he started laughing. Belly laughs, right from the heart. He’d done a media project with a big classical music institution, and all my three obstacles had really been there.

Some more advice to the Chicago Symphony, if they ever want “Sounds and Stories” to appeal to anyone outside their inner circle:

Write about more than the Chicago Symphony. Your project started with the thought that people aren’t getting classical music news and information — or interest or excitement — from standard media. So give that to them! Not just Chicago Symphony propaganda. This is the US, 2014, not North Korea. Give them a full range of news and information.

Second, devote some space to ideas and controversy. Discuss the issues facing classical music. Say what you’re going to do about those issues.

Finally, open the site to reader input. Let readers review your concerts! (And, in the spirit of my last paragraph, let them review other performances, too.) Let them review you even if the reviews are negative.

yesno blogBecause again, you shouldn’t just be offering sanitized stuff about how wonderful you are. No one — or at least no one with an active mind — will believe you. You’ll be creating a world that any alert person knows can’t possibly exist. We live in a world with light and shade, a world in which some things are good and some not so good. If you pretend that everything about the Chicago Symphony is wonderful, people will think you’re not living in the real world, and they’ll turn right off. Companies put user reviews of their products right on their websites. The Chicago Symphony should do the same.

But wait — if classical music is in trouble, shouldn’t we boost it, rather than critiquing it? Shouldn’t the message be that we’re wonderful?

Only if the message is believable. And it’s not if it’s only bright and cheery. That will put your readers right to sleep. But if you have lively, free, even contentious discussion of what you’re doing, people will flock to what you put online.

And if all your readers reviews are negative, then you’re doing something wrong, and you’d better fix it. It will catch up to you eventually, even if you suppress all word of it in everything you publish.

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  1. says

    Greg, your post reminds me of another important barrier for major classical institutions in building new audiences. It is an elephant worth talking about. I realize that the vast majority of who we call “real people” respect and support artists who take a stand on a social or even political issue. Non-profits can’t do this without risking their status or losing major donors and sponsors. Even commissioning or performing a work by an outspoken composer may potentially be viewed as a political statement. So we pass ourselves (as an industry) as being BEYOND current issues and timeless; whereas the youth see further evidence of our “softness” and “disconnectedness”. Championing hunger and homelessness, or commemorating recent or historical tragedies is one thing. But millennials want to see activism from the artists they support. Many commercial artists build their careers on it while classical artists tend to avoid controversy.
    My point is simply that we need to diplomatically acknowledge this to new audiences if we are to GET REAL.

  2. says

    The senior arts administrators who sign off on these communications (and for whose approval such communications are designed) don’t want new audiences. They want more old audiences, which is why they continue to speak a language that only old audiences understand.

    Courting new audiences would mean having to learn what marginal audiences really think about classical music and its institutions, and that’s something older arts pros will go to great lengths to avoid doing.

    I’ve come to understand that these materials are produced more to protect insecure arts leaders from reality as they are to change the reality they’re so desperately trying to escape.

  3. Ariel says

    Isn’t this all rather pointless ..dressing up the corpse so it can look more life like …….contemporary sensibilities are quite different
    from the sensibilities that gave us Mozart
    Beethoven , Chopin , Berlioz etc . To imagine that in making a magazine
    more” reader friendly ” will help solve what
    is not a crisis but an evolution is to whistle
    while passing the graveyard . Recently a
    violinist of modest repute in the concert world ran what might be called a competition for” new ” violin encore works .
    A lot of press coverage the usual baloney,with the winning works being recorded.
    If I am correct after all the hoop a-la the world wide “classical audience ” bought a
    few hundred copies, hardly enough to pay a monthly heating bill . Most music schools
    and conservatories survive mainly due to the influx of the Asian students whose
    parents view “classical music ” as a stalking
    horse to a better life for their children and themselves,once they realize not all can be
    a Lang Lang or a li, music schools will find that resource will dry up . It is not a crisis
    but an evolution and when one understands
    this, much can be done ,otherwise it will
    always be chicken little shouting the sky is falling .