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Rock ‘n’ Roll Numbers – Classical Music Content During the Pandemic
Episode 84

Rock ‘n’ Roll Numbers – Classical Music Content During the Pandemic

CI to Eye with Anastasia Boudanoque

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Anastasia and Erik discuss how online views of classical music content have skyrocketed during the pandemic. This data suggests a much larger interest than previously assumed and a much higher potential for engagement with the art form.

Erik Gensler: Anastasia, welcome to CI to Eye. Thank you so much for being here.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Thank you for inviting me. It’s wonderful to have this platform to talk about things that seem very important to a lot of people. I wrote an article about the classical music world post-COVID and I was surprised by the number of people who read it and the quality of discussion that it inspired. I put it up on Medium and the article got so much traction that I realized that somehow, inadvertently, I must have hit a nerve. And so, for me to have this opportunity to speak on this podcast today is quite valuable.

Erik Gensler: I’m really excited to talk to you and I want to speak to that article. One of the lines that really struck me was this: you said, “Online views of classical music content are in the hundreds of thousands. Some are in the millions. Those are rock ‘n’ roll numbers, suggesting a much larger interest than was previously assumed and a much greater potential for engagement with the art form.”

Anastasia Boudanoque: To my own surprise, I was looking at the numbers from a series of concerts that the Moscow Philharmonic Society put on because, as you probably know, Russia was a little bit … it was affected later than Europe and the United States by COVID epidemic and they were able to go on when most of the world was already in lockdown. They were able to go on with these concerts without a live audience, for, you know, having musicians perform onstage and that material was broadcast on their own website and then, subsequently, uploaded to YouTube. And we just sort of assumed, you know … because some of our artists are based in Moscow and we sort of assumed that, you know, some people will watch it, mostly Russian audiences. And then, we looked at the statistics and we were blown away because they … there were, in fact, tens of thousands, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of people tuning in from all over the world. Now, that comment, that line, in the article was actually criticized by a few of my colleagues, saying, “Don’t get your hopes up too high. This is only because people are at home with nothing to do and that’s why they’re looking at things they wouldn’t normally be looking at and, you know, when life gets back to usual, you know, people will move on and they won’t be so interested.” I don’t know if that’s true. We’ll have to wait and see what happens and we’ll definitely monitor the statistics going forward with the same type of concerts.

Erik Gensler: There’s something there about what classical music, I think, like, the calming, the connection, the sense of comfort, perhaps, it provides. I want to quote something else you shared the Medium post. You quoted a national study by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the UK that found that 51% of adults had listened to orchestral music at home during isolation. That’s staggering!

Anastasia Boudanoque: I think you’re right about that because classical music provokes the kind of large-scale and intense emotions that, I think, resonate with people who are going through this epic and intense time. I’m … Personally, I listened to all other genres of music for pleasure but classical music seems to have that scale that is appropriate to what we’re going through as a human civilization. I think, you know, all of these newscasts of unprecedented development, all of that puts people in the frame of mind that is perhaps more open to having the kind of experience that classical music offers, probably more than some of the other genres. I don’t know if that has something to do with that, but anecdotal evidence from my friends suggest that that’s the case. You know, the people who would normally feel, may be a little intimidated by classical music, particularly the experience of classical music in the concert hall, where you have to sit still for long periods of time and you’re not quite sure what the protocol is, you’re afraid of clamping in the wrong place or wearing the wrong outfit. If you were able to connect with that art form in the comfort of your home, you know, in your pajamas, with no judgment at all, you … I think people are more prone to discovering the benefits that classical music has to offer, which is exactly that very powerful, emotional connection. So, my personal hope is that this curiosity that may have been awakened now would maybe inspire them to go into the concert hall when they’re able to. We’ll have to see.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely, and I think during this pandemic, you know, we follow a lot of arts organizations. We work with a lot of arts organizations and we have data around the social media engagement for a lot of arts organizations and looking at our data of, you know, hundreds of arts organizations, it was really interesting to see the engagement, particularly in classical music did really grow. And also, the way that classical music organizations and orchestras were posting really changed. For example, when you looked at the couple first months of quarantine of, they said the years of …. in 2020 versus 2019, in the past, about 16% of posts were video and this last year, we saw that move to 40%. So, of all the orchestras we were looking at, they moved from 16% of posted video last year to 40% video because, you know, the, the musicians were at home. They were creating these really incredible videos that were getting tons of traction. So, we definitely saw data to support what you’re saying.

Anastasia Boudanoque: The digital experience of connecting with classical music and the physical experience of connecting within the concert hall, they should not be compared, really, because a lot of the institutions, particularly, but also artists individually, they always say that classical music on your laptop is not the same as classical music in the concert hall, which is certainly true, but one should not be considered a replacement for the other. The pandemic situation is, of course, an exception to this because we can’t go to a concert hall right now. But what my hope is that now that we’ve discovered these new formats and we’ve discovered these new digital habits that you have just mentioned, that that would stick as something that can enhance the connection that one might make with the art form. You know, in addition to go into a concert hall and experiencing physically, to have that kind of background, that informs your interaction with it. So, for instance, the New York Philharmonic created this … a whole series of really outstanding social media posts, particularly the one about the history of Mahler in New York. These very interactive posts that showed the geography of Mahler and the city, where he went, where he lived, where the concert halls were at that time, which is not where they are today … and these sort of things make the composer and his time in New York come to life in a way that was previously never really explored. I mean, before, whenever the New York Phil did something about Mahler, there was a text or maybe a picture. At best, there was a bit of video from one of the archival recordings and it was all kind of very … It felt almost like, maybe, a teaser for what you might experience in the concert hall, with the assumption that you will go, in the end, to the concert hall. What the type of content that they’re creating now stands on its own. It’s not a teaser for anything. It’s just this very interesting, interactive wealth of information about this particular composer and his history with this orchestra, with the city, and I think that’s terrific. And I think that when we moved back into our previous life, where we’re able to go to concerts in the hall, then this type of content will be hugely helpful in keeping people engaged and giving them more dimensions to understand and to enjoy classical music.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely, the content has become interesting in and of itself and it’s not just a vehicle for promoting an in-person experience. I really hear that. And we always say, like, “Your promotional videos need to be as good as the art on your stage. They need to be their own sense of art and compelling experience to get people to watch them and not just an ad for something,” and I feel like that’s what you’re describing here, where this content can stand on its own.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Digital platforms and what people do in digital platforms should never attempt to compete with live performance. It’s really a completely separate art form in itself, almost. And as I mentioned in the article, artists now and institutions now realize that there are in fact, there are two separate stages, that one has the physical stage, the traditional stage to perform on but one also has the digital stage, which exists by its own set of rules. And the things that you can show fans there on the digital stage are sometimes those that cannot be experienced in the concert hall. For instance, I was watching a broadcast of a performance, with someone who never really goes to classical concerts and this person was noticing how the eye contact between the artists, the communication, the nonverbal communication between the players—it was a chamber music performance—was so clear and so engaging. And she said that, you know, when, when she did go to a concert hall, she never noticed that. She always felt like they were almost these perfect machines that just perform something that has been so perfectly trained and so perfectly practiced that there was no room for any kind of flexibility in the moment. And she said, “I only now realize, when I see them looking at each other and taking cues from each other, how much flexibility there is in that moment.” She said, “I was having goosebumps as I was watching this because I realized this is really something that’s being created in the moment.” But if you sit in the back of the hall and you just hear the beautiful sound and this beautiful picture and you’re too far away to see that interaction between the players, you are not a part of that conversation and you … Certainly, you can enjoy the experience, but that one particular dimension is hidden from you.

Erik Gensler: And they feed off each other. By seeing … I think we’ve known for years that the connection or correlation between knowledge of an art form and likelihood to attend is there. And there’s been lots of studies, you know, arts and otherwise around … that’s what content marketing essentially is. And I think one interesting question coming out of quarantine, with no performances to put on stage, every arts organization is very resource-constrained and so, I think a lot of organizations had staff that had time to really consider and think and spend time on making really great content and had some, perhaps, budget to do it that they otherwise wouldn’t. I think the real challenge is going to come when we can return to stages and making sure that the lessons from this time are really incorporated and we don’t go back to how it was before.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Right, well, a couple of thoughts here. When we started looking at … With the beginning of quarantine, we started looking at what people were doing online. We noticed that a lot of the artists and organizations, even, even among the ones who are quite prominent, their online situation, their digital stage, to continue with that metaphor, was not particularly well set because, as you said, you know, now everybody had the resources and the time to pour into this. Before, this was sort of an afterthought for most people. For your typical artists, the greatest priority is to deliver the best possible performance on stage. So, you know, however their social networks are set up, whatever they’re posting, usually, it’s something that’s done while they’re on their way to the airport or waiting at the hotel and it’s not necessarily coherent. And now, I think that that has been exposed to a lot of people. Most artists who are now keen to use this digital stage to engage with their audience and to really grow their community, they are having to learn a lot of things very quickly. It’s a completely different world for a lot of people. And from what I’m seeing, artists turn to their managers with questions and managers are sometimes themselves not very well equipped to respond because there’s a steep learning curve. So. once quarantine’s over, it would be interesting to see how many people stick with this commitment to actually, you know, do their online media right and not to, again, forget and, you know, put it off as something that just happens whenever they have a bit of time.

Erik Gensler: In our work with arts organizations, we certainly see this play out in a lot of different ways. I think with orchestras, you know, every art form has its challenges and its opportunities. For example, if you look at a ballet company, their evolution around digital media, I’d say, to take a broad statement, but the ballet companies were years ahead of, say, orchestras because A) they have dancers that are there. Their movement naturally works on video with pretty simple …. You don’t have to make a huge production. Just the beauty of dance is so apparent. And then, we saw for a lot of ballet companies, a lot of dancers have had personal interest in video, where they’ve … some of the best organizations are, have someone internally who used to be a dancer who is now creating the videos. But it really … The importance is the connection between the artistic piece of the organization and the marketing side and having those relationships and having an ongoing relationship. And I think where things sometimes get tricky in classical music, especially when you’re having guest artists or guest conductors or,you know, an organization that’s bringing in a lot of musicians that are going to present, they don’t have those relationships. And so, you’re relying on the individual performer to have some sense of social media savvy or video savvy. And then, what you’re really relying on is the negotiations that are happening, often years in advance, between the managers and the organization. And I’ve found that oftentimes, that’s not even brought up. Like, how are we going to work together to tell a story on social? And so, I’m just curious from your perspective, as someone who does these engagement negotiations, what’s going on with that and how have you seen that evolve?

Anastasia Boudanoque: That is a very good question. You’re absolutely right. A lot of the time, conversations are taking place very far in advance, and we always try to bring up social media. In fact, this is a standard part of our artists addendum. And there’s quite a … there has been, up until now, quite a bit of pushback from presenters because they … typically, you are talking to someone who’s planning the season from the artistic point of view. You were talking to an artistic administrator and the social media activity is the remnant of the marketing department. And so, the person you were talking to is not the person who will be working on the social media storytelling and it’s not always an easy transition from one part of the conversation to another and it depends very much on how much the institution, the presenting organization, is invested in the digital success of what they’re presenting. And so, I hope—and this is something that we have been discussing amongst colleagues, artists, managers, quite a bit lately—I hope that this will begin to change after quarantine and that these conversations upfront will be embraced and that marketing specialists will be brought into the loop at that stage because it’s crucial for them, also, to feel empowered in some way and not just, you know, have a program to sell and sort of play catch-up as, you know, as they go along. Typically, in, in earlier years, we would only receive a call from the presenting organization regarding social media a couple of weeks before the concert, if the sales were soft. So, you know, you, you would get a call maybe two or three weeks before the concert dates from a panicked presenter saying, “Oh, we’re not selling as much as we were hoping. Is there anything you guys can do?”

Erik Gensler: And it’s too late at that point.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Far too late. Far too late. One thing is, if I may, just to the previous point about larger organizations, particularly dance companies and dancers, one thing I’ve noticed with institutions is, social media is something that is very … the more you control it, the less interesting it is. And if you, as an organization, approach social media from that kind of traditional power structure—you know, we have somebody in the marketing department who’s going to create all the posts—then, they’re all going to look the same to the audience and the potential audience, as well. And it may be comfortable for the organization that they may feel safe because they’re controlling the message but the message itself may not go very far because it’s just not compelling enough. The organizations that empower their artists, whether it’s members of the orchestra or members of the dance company or, in some cases, their guests, artists, to post in their own style are the ones that are getting most traction, I think. I don’t know if that’s your experience, as well, but, for instance, I’m working with a fantastic orchestra called The Orchestra Now. They’re based in upstate New York and they’re performing in New York City and they, when we started working together, one of the pieces of advice they gave them as their consultant is to turn social media over to the musicians because it’s a young orchestra. It’s a pre-professional training orchestra and everyone I met onstage were digital natives. And so, for them, to create compelling posts was nothing. They didn’t have to think about it for 10 seconds. Whereas, everybody I met at the office were very serious people who (laughing) sometimes struggled with social media. And so, as soon as they turned it over to the musicians, their numbers went up, their engagement went up, and it also gave the musicians of the orchestra this kind of a stake, a sense of ownership and the sense of agency in how their organization was being presented and was being perceived by the outside world. And that’s been a story of runaway success.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s, I mean, you brought up a lot of really interesting points. I think, I think you attended the League of American Orchestras conference in the opening by Henry Timms at Lincoln Center and his book, New Power versus old power, and old power is very top-down. It’s very tight. It’s very controlled. And new power is, you know, social media, the voice of the people, voice of many people. And we can’t keep using these old-power models to, like, power social engagement, doesn’t work. It’s the 20th-century interruption advertising model of outreach, versus the 21st century, which is about great content, human content, you know, connecting to your audiences and, and being open and flexible. I think, to your point about the artistic administrators and the social media, I would take it even one step further and say, this is about creating a culture where everyone has a stake in the artistic product and it’s not the … again, it goes to old power. I think where artistic decisions are made from on high and then, the season is passed onto the marketing team and say, “Now, go and sell it,” but the marketing folks need to have a seat at the table when those programming decisions are being made and social media and digital storytelling need to be a part of that conversation as early as possible. Otherwise, you’re going to be in those situations where it’s two weeks before and you’re going to say, “Well, we need a headshot,” and that’s makes for terrible social media.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Right.

Erik Gensler: And then, I would also say, it’s the responsibility of the artistic administrator. It is 2020. If … I don’t care what your job is, you can no longer say, “I don’t understand social media.” You’re bringing yourself to being irrelevant. The same way you can no longer say, “I don’t understand structural racism.” No, you can’t say that anymore. It is your job to educate yourself, educate yourself on how social media works. Like, you shouldn’t have a job otherwise.

Anastasia Boudanoque: That’s exactly right. And I think I’ll put an additional emphasis on the role of management, artist management, as well, because we’ve been talking quite a bit about institutions, but artists are also represented by agencies that are supposed to advise them on career development and personal development, artistic development. And they think of the 21st century for a manager to say, “I don’t understand social media,” you know, “Just go on stage and and play as well as you can and post a few things, you know, on your way back to the hotel,” is not enough. And that’s something that’s becoming more and more obvious as people are looking at the business model, as well. Because, you know, if, if most of the managerial work is, in fact, agenting, is, in fact, booking, then the current system, the current business model makes a good degree of sense, with managers being paid a certain amount of … a certain percentage of the artist’s fees. But if you now looking to management to create social media strategies together with our artists, that’s a completely different skillset. And that’s a completely different type of work and type of service that we now have to provide that has nothing to do with the booking of concerts. So, it’s a completely different service and it’s a completely different type of work that managers have to engage in. And they really have to understand how that works.

Erik Gensler: I mean, I think this also points out a different new-power dynamic, where the institutions had so much power, in that they have the audience’s attention. They have the audience’s email addresses. They have the audience’s social media following. In this environment under quarantine, an artist posting, you know, in their ability to like post something from their apartment and the organization’s ability to post … there was sort of this great equalizer of, like, without a stage or without a physical space, the artists can do just as good a job and in sometimes better job of engaging audiences. So, it sort of makes the organization seem like the middleman. I don’t know, there’s some sort of shift that this highlights.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Yes, I think the artists who were engaging in this type of activity for a while, they’re definitely at a great advantage because they have the … not just do they have the technical setup and the understanding of how to address people on the other side of their computer screen; they also have an audience, you know, because someone like Ray Chan, for instance, whom I represented many years ago when he was starting his career, he made a commitment to social media. And he, very consistently, over a period of 10 years, worked to … not just to put together an audience, but really to develop a community around his performances, but also around educational activities and promoting classical music as an art form, in general, really giving voice to his colleagues and giving voice to music teachers in all of the places where he went to perform. And that resulted in a really active, really warm and engaged community of people being built around the social media platforms. So, when you see the sort of content that he puts out there, it’s a masterclass in how to do this. I mean, there’s just enough humor in the tone. There’s just enough emphasis on himself, versus the work of other people that he wants to support and promote. And it’s beautifully and masterfully done. I cannot find an organization that does it quite as well as he does. And, you know, he did that over a period of 10 years, by trial and error. He did a lot of things that initially didn’t work so well and it’s only by constantly trying and adjusting and purifying your message and your methods that you get to that point. And, again, that’s not something you can do as an afterthought. It’s something that has to be … a real commitment has to be made.

Erik Gensler: I like to say in order to be good at social media, you have to be an artist and a scientist. You have to try things and look at how it resonates and then optimize and try again and keep trying and failing and opt … and getting better. And some of the really amazing social media brands that I follow, or organizations, if you scroll back to …you know, they can, they look amazing now, but you have to give yourself the space to have, like, a growth mindset and make mistakes and keep trying things. And you, you follow, if you scroll back for a lot of organizations that are really good now, you can see where they weren’t as good. And it’s really, it’s a mindset. It’s a culture. All of these things we’re talking about are really about culture, right? Like, culture within an organization, of what they’re prioritizing, how they’re having people work together, the spirit of collaboration, the spirit of embracing modern ideas. If you set the culture for this, this all can happen.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Absolutely, absolutely. And you have to really experiment with the tone, I think, whether you’re an artist or an organization, because, to quote another example, an artists that I currently represent, Dmitry Masleev, he was trying, you know, he’d decided that his Instagram was going to be his priority platform and he was posting a lot of videos that were recorded in concert halls where, you know, he was wearing his concert outfits and they were very sleek and they had very little engagement. And then he tried, you know, almost kind of throwing in the towel and saying, “Okay, forget this. I’ve I’ve, I’ve tried so hard and it doesn’t seem to work.” And then, he recorded this one little video in the tiny little dressing room on an upright piano that was barely in tune. And he recorded this one passage of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto and posted it with this sort of, you know, bewildered look on his face because it was quite a, quite a virtuosic passage. And it was a joke. And he posted it and got so much engagement from that post that suddenly he said, “Oh, I see, I think I’m taking myself and all of this too seriously.” And he went into that direction of more lighthearted, humorous posts, and, you know, now, he’s hit a stride and now, he knows exactly what to do to get that level of response from, from his audience, which is fantastic. But you know, he … no amount of instruction would have gotten him to that point. I mean, really had to be him finding that sweet spot

Erik Gensler: It’s showing your humanity and your humanity is not perfectly produced. And I think there’s … you know, RuPaul always says like to the drag queens that win RuPaul’s Drag Race, “You can’t have strength without vulnerability,” and if you try to put out something that’s perfectly produced and … it doesn’t work, it doesn’t connect. It has to be human and humans are naturally flawed and vulnerable and you have to be able to show that side, right? The untuned piano, backstage, not formal, not … It’s just an evolution of, I think, just the evolution of how arts’ consumed in the 20th versus 21st century, of this very sort of formal … you know, you would dress up to go to the symphony or you would, you know … there was this very formal, lots of rules … moving now to something that’s like … The Minnesota Orchestra put together this amazing video. I don’t know if you saw. It’s like, “What do you wear to the orchestra?” and it’s just people wearing all different kinds of things, showing how it doesn’t matter. And it’s just this very, like, informal, casual, human, you know, way of telling their audiences,”It’s okay. You don’t have to dress in a tuxedo to be here.” It’s … and if we don’t do that, if we don’t, you know, flex that sense of informality, I think it’s very hard to develop new audiences.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that storytelling and human connection are vital components of digital media activity and that’s, … it goes beyond social media. So, I think in the 21st century, that’s the way to go. It’s a very, it’s a narrow path between through becoming a little bit too exposed in your day-to-day life. You still want to keep a degree of privacy, but without showing that vulnerability and without saying, “Yes, we’re able to do things that not everybody can do, but we are essentially people. We belong to the same human race.” I think that breaches that fourth wall that has become such a challenge for classical music, the sort of impression that whatever happens onstage, normal people are so far away from it and we don’t understand it. And well, you know, “Of course, you were great. You were born with this great talent, but what does that have to do with me? Your life is probably so glamorous and mine is so not.” You know, all of that is automatically put to the side when you show that bit of humanity and humility as an artist and communicate to your audience, that you’re a part of the same human race.

Erik Gensler: What gives you hope in all of this?

Anastasia Boudanoque: The conversations that we have had in the last couple of months, since the beginning of the pandemic, have all circled around the notion of solidarity and this is something that was not there before. Before, we were always competing for the very limited resources that we have as the art form of classical music, as if our own personal individual success mattered without the success of the art form, you know? I would compete against other agents. My artists would compete against other artists. One orchestra would compete against another orchestra and it was as if we could not see the fact that we all have to work together to compete against other entertainment options, other things that people can spend their free time on. And I think that’s now changed. There was a big shift in the attitude of people who are inside the classical music field and that certainly gives me a great degree of hope.

Erik Gensler: So, we’ve come to your last question, which is your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership team, staff, and boards of over a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to help them improve their businesses?

Anastasia Boudanoque: Gosh, that’s a big one, isn’t it? (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: Yeah (laughs).

Anastasia Boudanoque: Well, I mean, it’s … Giving advice to people who run large organizations successfully is a very daunting task but one of the things that I keep hoping for and wishing for as I work representing musicians is that organizations take … Is that they give things they’re not quite sure about a fighting chance because it’s so … in our world where there’s very little room for error, very little space where you can experiment, one almost always has to make the right decision. There there’s very little flexibility. And so, I can see why decisions are sometimes made in favor of things that are foolproof, in favor of things that will always deliver. The names, the repertoire … My advice and my plea would be to be bold and to give a chance to people and ideas and content and repertoire, to things that are maybe not as well-known but that may have this potential to deliver fantastic results.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Well, Anastasia, thank you so much.

Anastasia Boudanoque: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Anastasia Boudanoque
Anastasia Boudanoque
Classical Talent Manager & Producer

Anastasia Boudanoque is a classical talent manager, producer, and impresario who has been involved in the careers of some of the most compelling performers of our time.

Read more

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