Social Media for the Classical Singer: An Interview with PR Guru Maura Lafferty

By  | September 2, 2011 | 0 Comments | Filed under: Features

Full of sound and fury, signifying something?

Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube; all of these social media streams offer an unprecedented level of connectivity for the budding classical singer, connecting artists to other artists, and artists to their audiences. In the Wild West days of YouTube (all of 2006…), I was the first countertenor to upload a concert video (take that Andreas Scholl!)  I had a bustling Yahoo fan group, and the very real sense was that the Internet was going to fundamentally change how the classical music industry functioned and how future stars were selected.  Fast forward a handful of years, and we seem to have taken the a step back to counter our two steps forward. Promoting your classical singing career through an online presence is now a requirement (gigs – especially when you are a last minute replacement – can be won by virtue of your website alone), but a fabulous online presence does not offer an end run around the basic “it’s all about who you know/climb the ladder” nature of the classical music world. The marketing director of an opera company I recently worked with went so far as to suggest that social media is almost more of a development tool than a public relations tool.

If you accept that premise, the next logical question is, “Ok, if everyone is doing it for moderate long-term gain at best, how can I use these tools as intelligently and efficiently as possible?” It is noisy out there in social media land; how can we best compete in this Darwinian arena, especially when the ‘level’ playing field includes wealthy corporations and legacy arts institutions? I was fortunate enough to pose these questions to an expert in this field, the San Francisco Bay Area’s online PR Guru, Maura Lafferty.

Maura Lafferty hails from a classical music background, with experience in marketing, customer service, community management, audience development, and PR. Her Twitter feed has generated a dedicated following upwards of 2,000 musicians, artists, marketers, and PR colleagues. Maura blogs at Là ci darem la mano, She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oboe Performance from the University of Maryland, and you can follow her on Twitter at @mlaffs.

IH: Can you talk a little bit about what social media really is, and what we have to understand to use it effectively?

ML: The new communication streams, commonly called “social media,” are simply tools. Success and failure on these platforms are bound by the same rules of communication, marketing, and publicity that have always been true: know the audience, offer something that the audience wants, and communicate why new consumers should want the product. Musicians and performing artists tend to forget that they are subject to the same market forces facing any entrepreneur, small business, or new product, especially since the identity of the struggling, misunderstood artist was a badge of honor for many years.

“Strategy means more than institutional size or popularity.”

The distinguishing feature of social media is that strategy means more than institutional size or popularity. Social media tools and other software (often available for free) equalize opportunities for smaller organizations, artists, and management teams to reach out, as long as they have the time to dedicate to creating and providing smart content.

IH: Speaking of smart content, how do you see Facebook and Twitter being different from an email list (such as MailChimp, Constant Contact, etc.), and different from each other?

“I don’t want to have the same content pushed to different social media platforms.”

ML: Each communication stream – be it Facebook, Twitter, email marketing, etc. – has different strengths and weaknesses, and should be used for different purposes. As a fan or friend of an artist, if I subscribe to each channel, I don’t want to have the same content pushed to me on three platforms. The fan page should provide a different incentive than the Twitter stream, and content that compels me to keep up with the brand/product. Cross-posting across platforms is an indication to me that the user doesn’t know how these channels work and is too lazy to put forth the effort to get to know the distinct users and their preferences.

Obviously, more recognized names and institutions are going to have more resources to devote to creating a footprint in this space. Marketing budgets once used for print advertising can be re-purposed to create gorgeous YouTube videos, for example. Larger staff means extra hands to maintain the constant demand for content, and to monitor Internet/social culture.

“We’ve seen several large institutions bomb their attempts at using social media… It isn’t just about your resources.”

However, there are many resources to help smaller businesses/teams simplify and streamline the workload. Free or very cheap software packages, the availability of powerful technology in accessible packages like the Flip cam, and the plethora of consultants and bloggers writing about best practices can help the enterprising artist make an impact. It isn’t just about your resources; we’ve seen several case studies of large institutions with great resources completely bomb their attempts at using social media effectively.

IH: So what sort of online content are you looking for from an artist or arts institution?

“The hook that will get attention is a compelling story.”

ML: There has been discussion of arts institutions using a personal voice to make their social media accounts more accessible. I honestly think that is less important than offering compelling content that the audience wants. Jokes are fun, but social media experts have shown that links and content are the best way to build mindshare [consumer awareness or popularity]. Just like with traditional print media, the hook that will get attention is a compelling story. Social media allows us to tell different kinds of stories, especially if we can get backstage with an artist or inside the head of someone we admire.

IH: That makes me think of Renée Fleming’s backstage segments on the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. I wonder how much easier it is for a singer to share a piece of themselves when a large and respected institution is the one asking the questions. What about a singer at the beginning of their career? How can they craft a story that is interesting without sounding like, well, they are bragging? In my own Facebook network there have even been some debates regarding whether it is appropriate to post a positive review to your personal wall?

ML: The important thing is to find a story that fits the artist, the audience, and the intended goals. Personal stories from star singers at major institutions work because everyone wants to know how to get there and what makes that singer stand apart from the others. However, there are lots of ways for any musician to stand out, whether it’s a particular interest in repertoire (Brian Thorsett has a great story about his interest in the music of Britten, and the rep to back it up), a unique perspective on a character (Brian Jagde likes to play Pinkerton as a more sympathetic character in the first act of Butterfly), or shedding new light on a less-popular instrument (Jennifer Stumm champions solo viola repertoire in chamber and orchestral settings). The story is the artist’s unique perspective, which enhances the technical and physical attributes they bring to stage.

“Many artists struggle to understand what their unique perspective and distinguishing feature may be…”

Bragging is unbecoming for any artist, regardless of which stage of their career they are in. Unfortunately, many artists struggle to understand what their unique perspective and distinguishing feature may be, and turn to third-party validations (like a review) to bolster that image. Posting a review is not always a bad thing, but it’s important to do so in an appropriate context, where the message is adding value and communicating something more than just “look at me.”

IH: Has the Internet actually democratized music, or have we returned to the gate-keeper model where a well-placed person (recording company executive, manager, or conductor) is required to make a solo artist’s career?

“The democratization of success has to do with young, creative minds creating new opportunities…”

ML: The focus on the story reflects the way that the music industry itself is shifting. The Internet has driven some of these changes, enabled by technology, but the democratization of success has to do with young, creative minds, the huge talent pool we see today, and the way that energy is being channeled into creating new opportunities. The Internet’s democratization of access to media and content creation has certainly flooded the market, forcing entrepreneurs, creators, and anyone who wants to be successful to work harder and smarter.

Other factors contributing to this include the high rate of students graduating from conservatory-style programs, the struggles that traditional institutions are experiencing, and the younger generation’s refusal to wait for a gatekeeper to let them in to the “halls of power,” or settle for something lesser in the meantime. Projects that demonstrate this subversive attitude include many of the new music ensembles around the country, projects like Opera on Tap, and the many fringe, underground, and self-started theater and chamber music projects.

IH: I like that phrase, “democratization of success.”  (I wrote an article on this site that suggests how to think about the words “success” and “career,”) and it has much to do with setting smaller, realistic goals. I think that many young singers (definitely post-graduate school) flail about for a definition of the word success. I suppose that you are right that new definitions are emerging every day. There has to be something between “singing waiter” and “La Scala regular.”

ML: There has to be a balance between long-term goals and short-term goals to help anyone keep things in perspective. We don’t get a lot of guidance in conservatory about how to pursue this vocation, or what the steps to “success” look like. There are plenty of musicians who settle into a livelihood of playing regional houses, teaching, and/or playing pick-up gigs (i.e. Freeway Philharmonic). There are others who create their own projects, and take on the responsibility of seeking out donors and audience members to make the music sustainable. Others pursue the traditional track, working their way up through the ranks of local and regional houses, young artist programs, and auditions. The important thing is to have reasonable measures for success – can you spend all your time pursuing your craft? Do you have enough money to pay rent? Can you afford to take lessons on your income? Are you working with people that you like, whose presence onstage makes you a better artist? Is the work feeding you physically and emotionally? There are obviously managers, agents, and coaches who can better speak to these issues, but that’s my 2 cents.

IH: Getting back to your point about younger musicians creating their own opportunities, I suppose that there is a definite generational element to the use of social media. There are established singers of a certain age who will probably never write a blog, singers (like Joyce DiDonato) whose blogs we read specifically because they already were brilliant artists in the public eye, and younger singers who we initially get to know because of their online presence.

“Composers like Timo Andres and Dale Trumbore have used social media to build relationships that have led to new opportunities, but their work must stand on its own merit…”

ML: There are plenty of young artists who have recognized blogs and/or social media presences, but they still have to work their way up the traditional way. Robin Flynn gained plenty of buzz for her blog “The Athletic Performer,” but has still been working her way through young artist programs, and has recently killed the blog. Composers like Timo Andres and Dale Trumbore have used social media to build relationships that have led to new opportunities, but their work must stand on its own merit for the ensembles to present their music. Social media is simply a tool in the belt of these enterprising young artists, which helps to supplement their other activities. There are plenty of folks with social media presences whose careers aren’t going anywhere, and there are plenty of young artists building careers without the use of social media.

IH: Is something lost if a solo singer is “too available” to the public? I am trying to imagine what Maria Callas’ tweets would have been like.

“There is no such things as being too available to the public. Performers have nothing to fear from audiences.

ML: There is no such thing as a performer being “too available” to the public. The traditional social values on which many institutions and conservatory training programs were founded no longer apply. Performers have nothing to fear from audiences, “selling out,” or telling their story to the media. Publicity is a good thing – the more people who know about your art, are excited about your story, and talk about your work, the more tickets and CDs you will sell! Money allows you to keep making your art, which is sort of the whole point.

IH: One last question. You’re omnipotent for a day. How do you change the way that the world uses social media to promote awareness of classical music/what could we be doing better?

ML: The biggest thing I would love to see change in classical music’s use of social media is for my colleagues to get more sophisticated about their approach. Many musicians and arts organizations have rushed to get on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels without taking the time to understand the user base, their target audience, or basic principles of communication strategy. Every interaction that audiences/consumers have with our art informs how they think of us, which always makes me cringe when I see people using social media poorly. Rather than desperately posting “Tickets available now!” talk to me about the story behind the show, tell me something interesting about the performer, or demonstrate how this art ties into something modern, interesting and relevant. Consistently telling this story will produce more results than a multi-million dollar ad campaign.

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Ian Howell is a countertenor based in Boston, Massachusetts. He regularly performs as a concert and operatic soloist all across North America and writes from time to time. He was educated at Yale and Capital Universities, sang with Chanticleer from 2000-04, and is currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the New England Conservatory of Music. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.