We are living in an era where fame has nothing to do with artistic quality (therefore JB is more associated with Justin Bieber instead of Johann (Sebastian) Bach), and everybody has our 15-minutes of fame through the social media. Let's start with the numbers. I am not including the "crossover" musicians here, only the ones who work exclusively in classical music.
We could be sure that the most famous classical musician alive today is Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist. His twitter has 276K followers, oh so far from Bieber's 70M. He is followed by violinist Sarah Chang with 138K followers. Surprisingly, very popular figures in classical music have less than 100K, and since I don't have the complete data, I will just take the samples from my favorites such as soprano Renee Fleming (42K) and baritone Thomas Hampson (15K).
Fan club twitter accounts do not have huge followers, but they never have anyway, since they totally miss the point of tweeting, which is that the fans could feel they could connect directly with the artists they highly adore. What I would like to pinpoint here is that classical musicians are not celebrities, and we should have a different perspective (and manners) of how we connect with our fans. What the classical music fans really need is our product, not the beauty of our physical appearance or our provocative tweets, so tweeting about what we eat for lunch does not affect their (un)willingness to buy our recordings or attend our concerts.
The main problem (apart from the others which I will elaborate in the next paragraphs) of the love - hate relationship between classical music and social media is that in classical music, there are only very few people who are doing our job professionally, but EVERYONE is an "expert" on it, and they share their "expertise" on social media.
What we post on social media can make or break us. Not only us, but people around us, and to a bigger extent, the field that we represent. Let's go through them one by one. Until now, I still laugh at that question to be overwritten as our facebook status: "What's on your mind?" . Dear Facebook, if I write what is on my mind, I would end up in jail everyday.
Youtube has its deceptive aspect to it. We musicians always want to be unbearably impeccable in our recordings. When a note is just slightly off, we would repeat the whole phrase and even edit it in the studio. We are so obsessed with precision, artistry and minute details. But on youtube, there are so many live performances recorded just with a smartphone. And most artists are ok with that. More than that, there are performances which are below the usual standard but nevertheless get so many views.
Well, sometimes I don't feel ok, but through the years I have learned how to tolerate with it. The most epic of all this is even documented, and it's as easy as searching "Bolero trombone disaster" on youtube. And that was played by no less than Vienna Philharmonic conducted by the late genius, Lorin Maazel. For your information non-classical music lovers, Bolero is the most famous music by French composer Maurice Ravel, a 20-minute orchestral work consisting of the same beautifully haunting melody played and repeated 18 times by different instruments, so if one of them is (a bit) off, one would very much notice it. One fact should be added. It was a performance in Madrid, so perhaps one should consider the amount of Spanish alcohol consumed by the trombonist.... and as a musician living in Spain, it has become the no. 1 topic among musical late night drinks up to now .
Like everything else in life, social media is not good or bad. In fact, one US orchestra actually credits a social media campaign for saving them from complete shutdown. In the fall and winter of 2013, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was in true danger of collapse. Their remarkable journey to solvency was chronicled in detail on the Milwaukee Symphony Musicians Facebook page.
On October 15, 2013, MSO posted a photo captioned: “Great art, great artists. Milwaukee is rich in both”. The following day, they posted a link to a disturbing article titled, “Milwaukee Symphony in crisis - again: The MSO is playing brilliantly but struggling financially; what to do?” with a photo of their chief conductor, Maestro Edo de Waart and a link to a recent article in the local Journal Sentinel. A quote from Edo de Waart that they tweeted was crucial for the fundraising to save this orchestra: "An orchestra is one of the organizations in a city that can serve as a catalyst for the rest of the arts". MSO themselves posted a few days later: "Love classical music? Right now is the time to show it. Save the MSO!" Those posts went viral across the US and generated sympathy from classical music lovers and the story had a happy ending.
Many classical musicians buy their followers, "likes" on Facebook and views on youtube. While it looks like they have huge amount of followers, there is one big difference between their followers and those of a rockstar: when you buy followers, they are fake. In other words, they are machines, so the number of followers doesn't automatically translate itself into the number of people who buy the tickets of the concerts. You might look cool, having so many "fans" but the fact just stops there.
Even in the best case scenario, social media marketing alone isn’t going to create legions of fans out of thin air. Especially because the majority of people that interact with their adored artists on the social web are already familiar with those names.
What successful (classical) musicians share in their online presence is a lack of ego: they do not “magnify” themselves up – they come across as genuine and “normal”, and this is a crucial aspect of using social media. Social media should be used to promote our (artistic) product, not our ego. How do you know if your ego is not involved, and that you are objective enough? Well, if postingis like asking the world – do you “like” me? Am I funny enough, deep enough, smart enough, loveable enough, special enough? How much do you like my opinion about this and that? Even if we’re looking to people we love for these answers we’re entering dangerous territory – let alone if we constantly ask a cyberworld full of strangers if we’re worthy! Not everyone we run across wants to be a fan. We're ok with that. And fans are there for our artistic product, not for our ego.
Part of what makes social media work (or not) is more the "social" than the "media" of it. On the other side, social media isn't just publicity (although there are plenty of organizations and people that do nothing but); it's about making connections albeit superficially. When fans feel connected, they share that connection with all the people they know. But here starts the danger.
Social media is also not what it appears to be. When you don't get the approval you desperately crave in real life, those "likes" will give it to you. How do you acquire them? By posting something controversial, sensational, provocative. But wait. Those things look great because people either love it or hate it. You will lose half of your audience -- and it will make you look cool and daring, which is ok in the pop world, but do we need haters in the classical music world, where sometimes our existence is like the "p" in "Pterodactyl" ?
And now, everyone can listen to you free of charge, because you yourself provide it in youtube or soundcloud. OK, young musicians need "exposure" and money comes later, they say. OK, so pianists want "exposure" of them playing a Beethoven sonata which is already "exposed", impeccably by thousands of pianists.Will they get that "exposure"? I seriously doubt it. If no one pays the concert, your video, or audio recording, in the future no one can ever live from the arts.
I know no supermarket that give rice and bread in exchange of "exposure". Be not deceived, those who believe that doing so will generate a future benefit is entering a death trap. Believing that your Facebook post generates thousands of likes is a success only satisfies a digital vanity. Approvals on social media are as big a trap as money. Nobody needs money, what we in fact need is what money can buy. Facebook "likes" and retweets, no matter how many you have them, means nothing if you cannot do anything with them. It is more of a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Everyone has 3 lives: the public, the private and the secret ones. Do not let the social media erase the lines that separated those three lives. When you let it happen, then you have pushed the self-destruction button. And, not only you will be destroyed, but the whole ship that travels with you.