Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Impending Doom or Golden Opportunity?

In case you haven't heard, the classical music world is in a state of rapid change. Many of the institutions, gatekeepers, and paths to success that many of us have come to take for granted are transforming beyond recognition.

Maybe we can learn something from how non-classical artists are operating these days.

A few weeks ago I went to see a show by the rockabilly quartet The Millwinders, whose frontman James Henry happens to be our next-door neighbour. I can't say that I'm a frequenter of indie bands, but a number of things I don't notice at classical gigs were apparent right away:
  • there were t-shirts available for sale, as well as a promotion for that evening where anyone who bought a t-shirt would also receive a custom Millwinders business card, featuring cartoon portraits of band members on pop-out guitar picks
  • Numerous people in the audience recorded video and photo footage (being a polite classical musician, I asked before taking photos, but realized afterwards that they really, really wanted people to take photos during the gig)
  • drunk people can be very supportive fans
  • they used the built-up excitement of the show to promote their upcoming CD release
All this was for an unsigned but brilliant band playing for less than 100 people, without a record on the market (yet) and a targeted web presence consisting of only Facebook and MySpace Pages as well as fan-taken photos and videos. Since they know how to find and engage with their audience in the cult genre of rockabilly, they are able to develop a dedicated following and busy performing schedule, which they then leverage in order to promote next actions, such as the opportunity to buy t-shirts, see future shows, and eventually purchase their upcoming album. 

So why aren't classical musicians making a bigger effort to play in bars or clubs, as Toronto fashion designer Rosemarie Umetsu remarked a few days ago (see tweet at left)? Why are so few classical musicians encouraging people to take photos and videos of their shows? Are there interesting and unique products that classical musicians could make and sell in order to better monetize their engagements? 

Classical music, like rockabilly, is basically a cult genre consisting of a large number of cultish works and sub-genres that in large part evoke the music and instruments of the past. If approached using the right tools and methods, this field and the educational system that fuels it could be leveraged to find and tap an entirely new generation of fans. Fortunately, classical music entrepreneurship is on the rise in a big way, and I'm glad to see that more and more schools are offering courses on the art of self-promotion. 

In the coming year, look for a much larger amount of posts about new artists, approaches, and opportunities. Rather than focusing on how the sky is falling, I would like to look at ways that artists are overcoming these challenges.

In the meantime, here's a reading list recent articles that show just how rapid and acute these changes are happening and a few hints on how to succeed in the current climate.

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