Connection and Perfection: Social Media in Classical Music

How well have classical music organisations responded to the rise of social media?

profile pic            By Annabelle Lee

With over a decade since the launch of many of today’s mainstream social media sites, and around 2.22 billion social network users worldwide this year, the impact the social media industry has had – and is continuing to have – on classical music cannot be ignored. As professional classical music performance is becoming ever more of an overcrowded market, platforms like YouTube can give artists an additional boost of income and a growing number of musicians are implementing public crowdsourcing sites, such as Kickstarter and Patreon, to fund their artistic visions; take the success stories of concert pianist Emmanuel Vass and Baroque cellist Emily Davidson. In conjunction with traditional marketing materials, artist agencies are fully aware of integrating social media as a free or low-cost form of promotions for an overall PR kit, and now there are agencies dedicated to digital marketing of classical music, such as 21C Media Group in New York.

Against a media-generated backdrop of a ‘classical music crisis’, classical music presenters have also been able to attract wider audiences. In June 2014, the Facebook Insights of the Metropolitan Opera indicated that its most ‘Engaged Users’ were aged 25 to 34 years old, while London’s Wigmore Hall has become renowned for its inimitable, quirky, and boundary-pushing style of tweeting, increasing its follower count by 400% within two years as a result. What is more, Twitter and Tumblr are being used by people of all different ages, generations, backgrounds, and countries as a way to form like-minded communities or fandoms, daily and passionately messaging each other about their favourite art form, performers, and composers. I would like to think that the resources for such interactions may have been somewhat limited forty, thirty, or even twenty years ago, as many individuals with a deep love of classical music are rejected or bullied by their peers during their childhood, school, and teenage years.

But as social media has gained effectiveness, popularity, and momentum within the classical music industry, it seems that within the last few years or so there has been a striking irony to this social media optimism. Technology is now so much part of our everyday lives that it is all too easy to take what we see on the computer screen, phone, or tablet for granted, real life, or at face value. Yet the mechanics of social media explicitly motivate a culture of what the website Millennial Rules has termed ‘social perfection’.

In social media land, everything is always meant to be positive, interesting, and ‘perfect’. Combined with today’s Internet-savvy culture, people are, more than often, posting up all the ‘best bits’ of their lives and carefully thinking about what to say and show in their messages. Social media have become the online equivalent of a glossy fashion magazine, and photo sharing network Instagram, along with Facebook (their corporate owner), have latched onto this aspect, deliberately encouraging users to put filters on their selfies ‘to make them prettier. . . [and] brighten their reality so as not to “drag down” those around them’.

Social networks can, too, feel more like a popularity contest as the online metric systems influence users and organisations to strive for more likes, shares, followers, and comments than they already have. Indeed, it appears that Wigmore Hall has been able to additionally augment its follower count by following lots of Twitter accounts that would likely take an interest in the concert hall’s activities – it currently follows 46,700 and has 47,600 followers. Add into the mix the art of classical music, where the standard is usually perfection (e.g., in performance), and it is no surprise that all of this digital noise can be too much and make us feel inadequate compared with the superstar music virtuosos and other types of people within the classical music world. In fact, a recent study from Anxiety UK reports that over half of respondents regularly using social networking sites saw a negative change in behaviour, and there were further factors at hand, including negative self-comparison with other people, and trouble disconnecting and relaxing.

Why then are artists, organisations, and audience members issuing their social media messages and what is actually happening behind the corporate marketing, shameless self-promotion, reblogged five star concert review, glamorous yet filtered Instagram selfie, post from the classical musician’s practice sessions, night at the opera, post-concert party, or digitally extroverted thread among classical music tweeps, i.e., the façade or persona of social media? Is the regular classical concert-goer tweeting about all the wonderful performances he/she has seen a critic who is actually being paid to review the events or, alternatively, an artist agent who is seeing one of his/her clients on stage? Has a company told the performers to take an orchestrated backstage selfie with their musical celebrity colleagues – something which tends to say a lot about the artists themselves, their status within the industry, and their bank of personal connections as characteristic of the inner workings of classical music performance?

In fact, celebrity brand endorsements on social media have become something of a lucrative market – and, no less, in classical music – so there could be other reasons why our favourite artists frequently post out a casual product placement. Concert pianist Stephen Hough has tweeted about his promotions of the Chicago-based hat seller Optimo Hats, subsequently giving him and the business more reputation and influence.

Social media can offer many distinct advantages in a classical context, for instance as a new business model for musicians and companies, and there are people regularly using these sites who are aware yet genuine and authentic about what they put up in the face of ‘social perfection’. For now, I cannot envisage a sudden shutdown of the social media landscape, although who could have predicted the closure of Bebo in 2010 and reports of stunted growth in Twitter usage earlier this year?

Social media are neither the ‘be-all and end-all’ and nor are they for everyone. According to John Gilhooly, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Wigmore Hall, there are classical music audiences in London who do not use a computer. Of course, there are plenty of ways to experience, appreciate, and enjoy classical music without relying on digital technology – like walk-in visits to a concert hall, booking in person, and taking away a copy of the shiny print brochure of event listings. Personally, I am someone who needs to limit the amount of screen time that I have but I do not feel that I am completely missing out on the latest news, promotions, or indeed, what a particular concert artist had for breakfast this morning before preparing for the big performance ahead.

Annabelle Lee is approaching her final year of a PhD in Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, where her studies have been funded by an AHRC Doctoral studentship. Her thesis is about social media marketing of classical music. Prior to her PhD research, she read an honours degree in Music at Durham University and an MSt in Music (Musicology) at the University of Oxford, where her Master’s thesis focused on the Facebook and Twitter marketing of Wigmore Hall.