Digital musicians in an isolated world

Some tips for classical musicians about how to maximise their digital presence during COVID19

Picture credit: Fenella Humphreys

Nearly four weeks after lockdown in the UK, classical music in the digital space has taken on a range of different appearances, and prompted a range of responses about its success, its value, and its pitfalls.

I’m of the mind that this period of time is a useful opportunity for individual performers, small-scale organisations and ensembles, and sundry other creatives.

This is not to downplay the catastrophic impact COVID19 lockdown has had on the livelihoods of musicians. Nor is it to suggest that everyone should now be being using this time to be creative. Different people respond in different ways.

But multiple conversations with different people have reminded me of something I had overlooked – something me and a pal laughed about earlier on: how classical musicians choose to explore this moment in time in the digital space is something I have an opinion on (and its one based on some professional experience too – always a boon).

So with that, and the fact that ACE are currently inviting applications for its Emergency Fund both in mind (and without wishing to limit my own chances for future consultancy work), I figured it might be worth sharing some observations, thoughts and insights about the digital musician in an isolated world.

Note, if you’re looking for technical assistance, be sure to read over David Taylor’s blog posts on kit.

Digital endeavours are good for purpose, brand awareness, and building a network

I’ve seen a lot of negative talk about musicians and organisations giving away content for free right now. I’ve even seen one defend their decision to provide live streams. This seems contrary to what this period really represents to people like me and to the musicians and their output I celebrate and advocate.

At this challenging time we need a sense of purpose. That purpose may necessarily come without a revenue stream. In freelance terms that’s the equivalent of a marketing opportunity. Traditionally, marketing has sucked all the figures out of budgets, and its been phenomenally difficult to measure a tangible return on that investment.

The reason for producing digital content right now is to maintain brand awareness of yourself or your ensemble, build a network (which might in time be something you can monetise). The happy(ish) consequence of that is to provide the individual with purpose and therefore motivation.

None of it is easy. And there’s no quick-way to a revenue stream in the digital space. But if you look at it as a marketing strategy, then that should be enough to justify dabbling at the very least.

Isolated musicians need to think of themselves as content producers

Not only is a performer providing the core content (ie the music), they’re making the entire package – presence ‘on stage’, curator, presenter, performer and self-publisher.

If you’re a performer embarking on a digital strategy for the first time, you’re best thinking of yourself like a blogger (see below). You’re no longer the talent who just turns up to play. You’re responsible for all of it – from having the idea to, realising it, and getting the finished product distributed to as far and wide as you can.

(Well, in truth there are some of us who can help with most stages of that creative workflow. Do get in touch if so at thoroughlygood@gmail.com).

Isolated musicians need think of themselves like bloggers

Any blogger worth their salt – the ones who’ve done it for years – will tell you that they don’t create for traffic nor money. They aren’t bothered by the number of likes. They create because it provides them with a sense of purpose.

And, contrary to what you might think, blogging isn’t an overnight thing. It’s a very slow burn. It’s the same with creating video content. Creating video content is no different from writing a regular blog. You need to be consistent, regular, reasonably frequent. Keep plugging away.

This is a marathon not a sprint.

Be distinctive

There’s a lot of solo performances at the moment – that’s not in itself a bad thing, but it does put a greater emphasis on making something distinctive. Being distinctive makes it more possible to gain cut-through in a very noisy digital space.

And as digital is a visual medium first, one way to be distinctive is to look for ways to make the view in your video distinctive – an outdoor location perhaps, a strong backdrop with shelves, ornaments or plants etc. Or it might be about making sure your content is carefully curated, themed, or topical content which builds over time.

By aligning your name or your ensembles name with something distinctive, you’ll gain cut through, raise awareness and build a network.

Worth stressing again: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

Editorial decisions about what to play need to come from the self

Don’t play something on camera because someone else has told you to. It will be obvious (because digital exposes contrivance) to all that your heart’s not in it just as a live performance sometimes doesn’t connect with the audience.

So, curate your digital programme according to your emotional need at that moment in time. Something you’ve agreed with a digital marketer on a Tuesday may not feel quite right for a Wednesday. We live in moments in time which shift at an alarming rate. So play what feels right for you. That connection with the self in the moment will make any introduction, you give for it and the subsequent performance of it, all the more authentic and compelling.

Tell a story about the music you play that is authentic

Now is not the time to regurgitate programme notes – tell us why this music is important to you and pull in any personal stories you can in order to do so. Put this music in your own personal context.

Digital is a medium that enhances personal authenticity. Be genuine, sincere and authentic.

Be confident on camera

This is a biggy because viewers see before they hear.

Confident doesn’t mean being a TV host with an auto-cue. It means presence.

Playing (and speaking) on camera is phenomenally unnatural because it’s calling on the person in front of the camera to create a persona. This comes from practise and from a sense of self-belief (even if you’re standing in your kitchen and thinking you look like an idiot).

The quicker you become more comfortable with this bizarre set up the quicker the audience will believe in you too.

The audience is adjusting too

We’re all collectively in a process of adjusting to a new visual grammar. That’s why the likes of Have I Got News For You produced in isolation, or the Graham Norton Show appear clunky right now but will in a few weeks time appear quite normal. We’re all adjusting to a new way of consuming our favourite things. That means that in addition to getting comfortable ourselves with a lack of quality in the way we present ourselves, so too the audience is adjusting too. In time those two worlds will meet in the middle just as they do in the concert hall. Once the audience gets accustomed to your way of presenting your content, they’ll feel more at ease and will keep coming back. That’s why consistency in content production is really valuable.

Beginnings and Endings

There is an exception to the rule for me. In the slightly unnatural setup we’re all getting used to, beginnings and endings are really important. They are bookends to a performance – either bookends for the actual video (eg fades up and down) or within a video (pausing between finishing talking to prepare before performing, and pausing before shifting to a non-performance state at the end of playing a piece). These contrived beginnings and endings will feel like unnecessary detail or possibly even unnatural, but they will unwittingly guide the viewer and make them feel more at ease with what they’re watching.

Audio equipment is the way to go

To my mind, a decent stereo ambient recording (by which I don’t mean a studio recording) or a live performance will more than compensate for relatively shitty iPhone video. So, invest in a digital recorder like a Zoom with a directional mic, or a TASCAM (or an Zoom attachment for your iPhone).

If you go for a separate recording device like a Zoom, record a decent stereo capture of your performance at the same time as the video, then sync the two in Adobe Premiere or Adobe Rush (for iPhone/Android).

This will transform a home-shot video in an instant. Get in contact if you’d like me to do with the syncing for you – its a quick job – at thoroughlygood [at] gmail.com.

Now is the time to bring the audience closer to the classical music performer

I’ve spent years trying to reduce the gap between audience and performer in the stuff I talk about and the stuff I write. I totally understand that this is a shitty time for musicians because of the complete lack of income. But now is the time when classical musicians are able to advocate the genre. What we’re asking of your is counter-intuitive given what you actually need most right now. But I am of the mind that it could pay dividends further down the line when some kind of normality returns (whenever that is), or when technological solutions make a collective live music experience more of a content production possibliity.

If you think I can help with your digital content during the COVID19 crisis – advice, consultancy or production – be sure to get in touch for a no-obligation conversation. Email me at thoroughlygood [ at ] gmail.com.

Be authentic, be accurate, and be forgiving

What the big challenge is for a social media producer operating in a field of expertise and what leaders have to do to support them

A well-known brand issued a tweet yesterday celebrating the 88th birthday of John Williams, conflating the lives of both a film composer and a guitarist into one glittering career.

Oops. The classical music world identified the error, some leading on ridicule, others following up close behind with empathy and forgiveness.

The tweet was deleted soon after, but the screengrab lives on.

I work in this field – (digital) content – and have done for 13 years. In that time I’ve been at the wheel during a couple of accidents: I’ve been responsible for prematurely announcing the death of a celebrity on a BBC account (it later turned out that my source – the celebrity’s wife – wasn’t a reliable one given that she was a dementia sufferer). This only came to light because it emerged the exclusive for the announcement had been given to a tabloid newspaper and the editor there was a little disappointed to discover a verbal agreement had apparently been reneged on.

And I’ve also tweeted a link on a different BBC account to my own blog believing it was directing users to a press announcement about job losses. It took the then the Head of the BBC Academy to point out the error to me.

Both of these experiences saw me experience inordinate amounts of shame to the extent that I was convinced everybody around me knew of my error and it wouldn’t take long before I was frogmarched out of the door. (That never happened, obviously.)

The John Williams tweet reminds me of those experiences and the effect they had on me as a creative. Powerful creativity comes from a place of trust. In return for trust those who delegate content creation to others rightly expect accuracy in addition to spirit, energy, and hopefully engagement. When that trust (external or internal) is damaged then confidence is given a knocking. Self-doubt creeps in. Content suffers.

Accuracy is vitally important in the classical music world. Different endeavours seem to reach out to different audience groups with differing levels of knowledge or expertise. Accuracy may not be a requirement for the target audience but it is vital for those who could endorse your product, especially if those same people (even if they’re not in that target group) could berate you in the event you get it wrong. The reality is that we’re all self-publishers. That means we’re accountable to considerably more people who have an opinion.

The JW tweet highlights a greater challenge for any content producer in the classical music world however. Knowledge, expertise and experience is of course important. Being able to articulate that in a way that connects with your target audience using a language that honours the experts at the same time as promoting curiosity and ongoing discovery is phenomenally challenging for the individual with knowledge. Being aware of what you know at the same time as knowing what your audience doesn’t know is the biggest demand placed on a social media producer. And rightly so.

There is another aspect to this which triggers the leadership coaching part of my brain: that of empathy and forgiveness. Somewhere someone who thought they’d done a good thing on Friday now thinks they’ve messed up. They think that probably because of the replies they’ve seen. Their weekend has been ruined because of a mistake. Nobody seeks to make that kind of error, but sometimes they happen.

What I always wanted in those situations was for someone in authority to seek me out face to face and check in with me. I wanted people to feel able to say, “This wasn’t great, and we know you know that, but we want you to know that it’s OK and you’re still very much valued. We’ll do better to support you in future.”

It takes a strong leader confident in their own skin to be able to say that, I know. Only two have been able. Those that don’t, can’t or won’t unwittingly reveal far more about themselves than perhaps they would like. I’ve always strived to say it to others. Done well and it can be transformative. It ensures trust is maintained and most importantly of all ensures creative aspirations aren’t extinguished.