I was asked to deliver a “provocation” for this week’s League of American Orchestras annual conference with the prompt “How has Technology Changed Orchestras Forever?” Here’s a transcript of the talk, and, at the bottom of this page, the video:
Hi. I’m not sure how smart it is to attack the premise of the session you’ve been asked to be part of, but I was asked for a provocation, so here goes.
Note – the question is “How” has technology changed orchestras, not “Has” technology changed orchestras. There’s an assumption that it has. And – sticking a “Forever” on the end of the question is like planting a great big fat exclamation point on that assumption.
I’m firmly in the camp that believes that what we’ve been going through isn’t just a “pause” before we get back to what we were doing. Or that “everything” is now different and we need to do everything differently. Instead, this period has rudely put the exclamation point on the things that weren’t working so well before and accelerated a number of longterm trends. And that’s a good thing, a wakeup call, a call to action, an opportunity to catch up if we choose to take it.
Still, by however you chose to measure it, everything does seem different. For good reason. Whenever there’s a profound change or conflict in the world, the context on the other side of it is always different. The art we were making before often doesn’t feel quite right in the after. It’s one of the things I most love about the arts – the best art seems able to evolve to reveal itself in new ways as the context in which you experience them changes. After being cooped up for a year and being depressed, maybe we collectively crave something that makes us feel optimistic, happy even.
I discovered to my surprise a few years ago in researching how various festivals work around the world, that some of the biggest and most-successful were created in response to some traumatic event. Salzburg after World War I, Edinburgh after World War II, and so on. So if history is any indication, this next period in our cultural life has the potential to be extraordinarily rich.
But back to the original question – How has technology changed orchestras forever – There are two answers. Of course it has – the orchestra itself is one of the great technological achievements of all time. For example, when Heinrich Stoelzel invented the horn valve in 1814, it made possible a kind of ensemble playing that hadn’t been possible before, requiring new instruments, new music that took advantage of those instruments, and new players who could tame them. Technology has always pushed art along.
Indeed, the 19th Century orchestra was the digital revolution of its day, getting better and bigger with each decade. Each instrument is itself a cog in an ever-evolving machine – better valves, reeds, soundposts and strings – more power, more projection, more tonal stability, more players. In the 20th Century, the operators of the technology got better and better, and by the 21st Century, the orchestral machine has become – in its complexity, its variety, its nuance – a singular accomplishment in human history. Today’s musicians are astoundingly good.
So yes – the story of “changing’ the orchestra, is one largely driven by technology.
But I suspect that’s not what the framers of this session really had in mind when they put it together. I think what they mean is has the shutdown of the past 16 months changed what orchestra are, what they do and how they do it – “forever”. Have orchestras had to do things differently, think about what they do in new ways, rethink who their audiences are and how to reach them, come to new reckoning about the equity of culture, learn to operate virtually in meaningful ways, and maybe even change the definition of what constitutes an artistic musical experience. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Has the experience changed orchestras forever? Of course, in the sense that everything changes you along the way and the context of the world is different now than it was 18 months ago. But will this period have produced fundamental change that sends orchestras down a different path?
I’m not so sure. Of course, we now know how to collaborate over zoom, and that’s cool… I guess? The seemingly sudden advances in software that erases latency over the web is a game-changer that I think could over the next few years lead to some revolutionary collaborations and redefine the listening and performing space. If I had to point to one technology thing, that’s probably the thing that excites me the most at the moment.
Many orchestras acquired and honed new skills in being able to stream and make videos. Orchestras look better online than they have, certainly. And being online expanded the reach of audience for many orchestras. A recent survey of theatre companies indicated that 80 percent intend to transition to some form of hybrid performances. Indeed, “hybrid” is quickly becoming the buzzword of the day. I suspect some orchestras will at long last join the Detroit symphony in streaming their concerts as a regular thing.
But I suspect after some initial gestures at hybridding – is that a word? – that most orchestras will go back to some version of what they’ve always done. And why not? I think one of the big things coming out of our sixteen months of screen hellscapes, is the almost universal desire to be back together again physically in the same space. The live-in-person experience could be the new “organic,” the new “artisanal” Slow Food of our day.
But other lessons? Okay – I’ve got five of them:
- We learned that you can’t simply throw up video online and expect to draw an audience. Well, you can, of course, and at the beginning of the pandemic, initially, viewership was huge. The Rotterdam Philharmonic streamed a Beethoven 9 and got a couple million views – three million at latest count. But that was extraordinary, and that performance resonated and drew audience because of the context of where and when it happened. The Hollywood Squares checkerboard format quickly grew stale. As time went on, the Rotterdam online audience declined to a few hundred or a few thousand. Is that bad? Likely not. I think it’s an enormous mistake to solely measure success in things like this by viewer numbers. But here’s the lesson – actually a twofer with this one: the more context you create around an experience, the more it resonates. And by that I don’t mean more information. We were reminded during the pandemic that people don’t necessarily want more information or historical detail. What they want is what is the most important reason I should look up from what else I’m doing and pay attention to what you’re doing. The value proposition. How is this going to be meaningful to me? The technology can help with that – there are ways to learn by measuring how and what people are watching and listening to. Don’t just throw up video – use it as an opportunity to measure and learn about your community. You don’t have to ask them – you can observe it.
- The virtual experience is not the stage or video or film experience. The language of the web is different from stage or movie or video. The web audience wants to interact, wants to participate, wants agency in the experience. Again, that doesn’t mean giving them more information – they don’t necessarily want to read or learn more, they’re there for the experience. Gamer culture gets this. Orchestras less so. A simple example? The Young Vic Theatre in London offered performances on the web, but gave the audience their choice of which video feeds they watched. Viewers could choose the feed, the view they wanted, and switch between them. So close-ups on actors or parts of the set or the crowd behind them. In effect, each audience member could play cinematic director. From your seat in the audience, an orchestra is not so visual after awhile. But how about giving an online audience the ability to call their own shots and how they want to see what’s going on? And again – capturing data on how viewers watch and what they paid attention to is a priceless opportunity that will inform what you do.
- Online audiences don’t just want technology to work, they want to be delighted by it. We’re beyond being wowed by the mere fact you can see and hear a performance a continent away. Or that it’s just possible to buy your tickets online. How about making these things fun, of making them playful, of making them a delight to participate in? Addictive even. I have a smartlock at home and the way you open it with the app is tapping you finger on this big honking red button that shimmers on your phone. As it unlocks it turns green. Very satisfying and fun. I LOVE opening my garage door. If you make it hard for me to give you money, I’m probably not going to. One thing we’ve learned – nothing should be a single path – you have to build in multiple pathways – we all perceive, think, and react differently, and you can use your online audience to be constantly testing ideas to see what works. A Venmo user perceives transactions differently from someone who uses a credit card or, heaven forbid, writes checks. People who grew up playing video games, perceive cultural experiences differently than those who grew up watching TV. We have to get over this idea that technology is just a utility to facilitate functionality – it isn’t – it’s a weapon of mass delight… if you figure out how.
- This one is less about technology than it is about the culture of technology. During the shutdown a lot of talent was cut adrift. Now that things are roaring back to life, does it make sense just to recreate our old structures with their old functions? Or do we need something else? Working remotely has reinforced the idea that expertise and talent is more important than geography. Instead of hiring full-time in-office staff, figure out the essential things you want to accomplish and go out and hire pieces of people. Not consultants, but people you will have long term relationships with and who work with you. You’ll get better talent cheaper by building virtually than you could afford by hiring in-office staff. The Opera Company of Philadelphia has discovered this way of working and it expands the access they have to the best people. And now is the time to do it. One of the most difficult things about building something new is dismantling the old thing first. The things we can now learn about our audiences online demands we redefine the ways we work. For example, look to the business world – every Fortune 100 company now has a C-Suite level equivalent of a Director of User Experience – someone who works across the company’s entire operations and platforms to understand and design the interactions of its customers. Who’s your director of User Experience?
- What’s the New Local? We have spent much time in the past decade talking about being authentic, about reflecting the values and demography of our communities. And now that we’ve discovered and cultivated new audiences online – since that’s all we had over the past year, and they may not look or feel like our geographically local community – which audience are we serving? The online audience’s need for authenticity and community is no less than our geographically-advantaged folk. So what does our new “hybrid” community look like? I feel like this is an important question. Where is it you concentrate your energy, your community. What’s your identity going to be?
So to sum up – has technology changed orchestras forever? Of course. But the promise and biggest dividends are still to come. If you’re thinking about technology only in terms of functionally making your work accessible to more people, laudable a goal as that is, you’re very much behind. The promise of technology at this point is getting the culture of the THINKING about technology right. And that’s where I think we go from here. Thanks for listening.