How does somebody who wants to write about the arts get an audience? In the old days you found a small local publication to write for while you learned your craft, and graduated to bigger publications and larger readership. Readership, and often influence, depended on the reach of your venue.
Now, theoretically, since anyone can start a blog or write on Facebook and Twitter, an unlimited readership can appear without the middleman publisher. Do a search on Technorati for arts related blogs and you come up with some 300,000 of them. In the age of sharing there is an explosion of discussion about culture. Great thing too, because while discussion of culture in the traditional press could be excellent in the hands of good critics, coverage of the arts had been shrinking for years, and was confined to a smaller and smaller number of voices.
But how to get readership for blogs? The readership for most is pretty small. Canadian journalist Colin Eatock has compiled a list of 530 classical music blogs alone. How do you sort through them? And if you’re one of the 530 how do you stand out or speak to a larger audience?
One of the organizations I do some work for is the new orchestra festival Spring For Music, which had its debut last May in Carnegie Hall. The premise for S4M is simple – celebrate good programming and bring orchestras from around North America that are doing it to New York for six or seven concerts during a week in May. S4M sells all its seats for $25, democratizing ticket-buying by location. Last year was a big success, and all of the orchestras brought legions of hometown fans to Carnegie with them, where the fans showed their support in the hall for their orchestra. The Toledo Symphony brought 1,400 people. This year’s S4M takes place May 7-12.
Spring For Music is a new organization and needs to find its own audience, which it has to build from scratch (it performs in Carnegie Hall but is not a production of Carnegie). Rather than appealing to only a music audience, S4M wants to find connections to a larger culture. One of its goals is to encourage more conversations about culture in general, music more specifically, and orchestras and great programming most specifically. So S4M put the programs of orchestras applying to be included in S4M online and asked people to comment. There were more than 60,000 visits to see programs submitted last fall for the 2014 edition. And last year S4M launched a “Fantasy Program” contest, inviting visitors to submit their own programs. There were thousands of votes.
And, because the places where conversations about culture are happening are changing, this month, S4M announced a “Great Arts Blogger Challenge,” a competition intended to give some exposure to some of those 300,000 culture blogs. There’s a small prize: $2,500 and tickets to all six S4M concerts this May.
Why a competition? Because as reductive as they sometimes are, they also help shine attention. There are a zillion book prizes because prize-givers want to celebrate the best children’s writer or science fiction book or first novel. Pulitzers celebrate good journalism, but there’s only one critic prize. And there’s nothing specifically for culture blogs.
So how to design such a thing? We needed to make it up as we went along. There are as many ways to write a blog as there are people who write them. It’s difficult to compare them in a useful way. And yet you have to make distinctions somehow. So we came up with the idea for a contest. Ask bloggers to write about a common topic and see what they come up with. Think of it as a kind of organized meme in which bloggers weigh in on their version of a common idea. It’s a kind of Project Runway meets March Madness. (you can see details for the contest here. Entry deadline is Wednesday midnight).
How to pick questions? The best questions, in my experience, are those that provoke, those that make you mad or want to push back and express a strong belief, argue. That’s what the first question is intended for: “New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?”
There are so many ways you could answer this. A rant on how ridiculous the whole idea of a “cultural capital is”. A muse on how culture has become globalized or nichefied in the digital age. An argument about how access to culture is changing. A case for LA as movie capital or visual art capital or pop culture capital and what – if anything – that means. The way you answer this question might say something about how you view culture in this country and how it is changing.
Then there’s the judging. Deciding this on a popular vote makes it merely a popularity contest. Yet simply appointing judges seems contrary to the populist spirit of the times. So Spring For Music decided on a hybrid model– three judges who would account for two-thirds of the decision and an audience vote which will account for one third. I was asked to be one of the judges. Composer Nico Muhly is the second and Katrine Ames, former senior culture editor at Newsweek is the third. While all the participating blogs will be listed on the Spring For Music website and voting will take place there, bloggers’ posts will be made on their own blogs so traffic is directed to the blogs themselves. The point, after all, is to promote participating blogs, so they should get the contest traffic.
So will Spring For Music find “America’s Best Arts Blogger” from this exercise? Of course not. Just as the Pulitzers don’t definitively decide the best journalism, the Oscars don’t really pick the best movies and the Grammys don’t award the best music, except by narrow definitions. What these awards do is declare some criteria, make some choices, and give people something to debate. Above all, they’re a celebration of their artforms. They draw attention to movies, music and journalism. That’s what Spring For Music is trying to do with culture blogs.
Two last things – why make this contest for “culture” blogs rather than limiting it to music blogs? And why make a distinction between bloggers and critics at traditional publications? Certainly opening the contest to all culture blogs makes it messier. How do you compare food bloggers with music bloggers and theatre bloggers etc? The answer is you don’t. Having a common question and opening it to all bloggers is an opportunity to include perspectives from across different art forms and cultures. Though Spring For Music is a music organization, organizers want to find connections beyond the traditional music community.
As for making this a “blogger” contest rather than a broader “critic” contest, some have suggested that this ghetto-izes bloggers, thereby dissing them or dismissing them as second-class citizens – amateurs versus professionals. Not at all. Critics at traditional publications have built-in audiences and are paid for their work, and our hope is to give some attention to bloggers who ought to get more attention, and to award a little money and recognition to someone who probably isn’t making a salary from their blog. Though there’s only one cash prize, I expect to discover some bloggers whose work I don’t know. I’m betting that readers looking at the contest will too. Deadline for entering is tomorrow – midnight Wednesday March 21. Contest begins Monday March 26.
Other posts about The Great Arts Blogger Challenge:
Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette: “The ‘best blogs,’ in my own view, are the ones that offer the most personal expression, the quirkiest points of view, the most entertainment. I’ll be curious to see what writing on an assigned topic, over four rounds, may or may not bring out. It would certainly be fun to see what some of the abovementioned bloggers might make of it — but like any competition, it offers the pros not much incentive to enter, since the gain of winning is relatively small and the risk of losing, geometrically worse.”
Lisa Hirsch at Iron Tongue of Midnight is unimpressed by the idea: “Bloggers get credibility by posting intelligently and with some kind of consistency over a period of months or years. I’ve been at this for seven years; my blog postings have ranged from one sentence to almost-essay-length. I don’t write on a schedule, and because I am a full-time professional writer – not in the arts – I value the freedom to write or not write, as time and energy allow. Entering your contest, and even winning it, wouldn’t do much for my credibility.”
Patrick J. Vaz of Reverberate Hills rejects the premise: “I assume one of the reasons this topic was chosen for bloggers is so that we can make the obvious points about the digital world breaking down these geographic barriers etc etc. But I think maybe what it’s done is just create new power structures, ones which are perhaps less easy to figure out than the old “go to New York and work for the Times” sort of power structure. I’m not so sure this is such a good thing, at least for people like me who always have trouble figuring out power structures, which is why I don’t like things that obscure the already shadowy structures even further from view.”
Brian at OutWest Arts is suspicious: “As a member of the likely target audience for this endeavor, I wasn’t particularly taken with the idea for several reasons. Chief among these was the first writing prompt. To wit: “New York has long been considered the cultural capital of America. Is it still? If not, where?” This strikes me as a proposition so preposterous that not even the most myopic Park Slope hipster would take it seriously. It smells like bait to me; the kind of thing intended to inspire vigorous debate but instead almost automatically squelches it.”