Classical Music

Why does classical music care about reviews instead of audiences? — David Taylor

Why does classical music care about reviews instead of audiences? — David Taylor

This year I was at a pre-concert drinks thing for an orchestra. While I was there, I overheard this conversation between a donor and the CEO of the orchestra that went something like this…

Donor: “I thought last week’s concert was amazing! I thought the orchestra were the best I’ve heard them for a long time, and the symphony is one of my favourite pieces that I’ve loved since school.”

CEO: “Oh yes, did you see the 5 star write up it got in the Times?”

I was totally blown away by this. In seconds the CEO of the orchestra dismissed the view of a loyal audience member with a heartfelt story, to validate the value of the performance by what a review said. It’s all the more striking that this was a donor, so they were ignoring someone who actually gives them money. How do you think the donor felt after this interaction?

This experience has stuck with me great example of a problem the classical music industry has. We care about reviews instead of our audience.

Now, this isn’t going to be a blog saying that reviews aren’t of value. In fact, I believe the opposite. But it is going to be a blog exploring why we as an industry value reviews disproportionally highly, and in doing so exclude our audience to our detriment.

We are obsessed with reviews. When the season is in full flow, have a flick through what orchestras post after concerts. Is it a thank you to those who attended? Or interacting with their audience? Is it valuing the people who have left their houses to attend the concert and give the orchestra money? No, it’s the review of the concert.

What I find especially odd about this is that reviews in classical music don’t usually provide people value going forwards. With a movie, if you see a review, you can read it and then decide to if you’re going to watch it. A lot of classical music concerts are single performances, so you can’t then go and watch after reading the review. Operas and albums are usually the only time this makes sense.

But it isn’t just organisations who fall into this trap, musicians are just as guilty of it. How many times do you see posts from fellow musicians saying “I am delighted that my new album has received a 4 star review in Gramophone magazine” or one line from a review of a performance they’re a part of accompanied by “#blessed #singerlife”? It’s everywhere! The result is you end up rolling your eyes so hard you fall off your chair. It is incredibly rare to see classical musicians genuinely connect with audiences in a way that could built a fan base.

We also know that people aren’t really that interested in the reviews we share from the data. As someone whose job it is to evaluate social media for those in classical music, reviews usually perform incredibly badly on social media when compared to other posts from the same account. On top of this, the number of views reviews actually get in papers and magazines etc is actually incredibly small, especially if you compare it to interviews or articles. We value and invest in reviews disproportionately highly when we think about what the actual return of investment is.

The result of investing so much in the value of reviews, is that we ignore audiences to our own detriment. We miss the opportunity to build relations, curate a following, make strong connections, and in many cases we put people off engaging with us. As organisations and musicians, we have become that annoying person at a party who only talks about themselves and humblebrags about their wonderful achievements, boring everyone they come into contact with and ultimately don’t get invited the next time.

There are very real consequences to our existing approach. When performances stopped due to the pandemic, many pop, jazz, rock etc musicians had small but loyal followings who were able to support them. Classical musicians discovered that they had been performing for years, but hadn’t actually invested in building a fanbase of any kind, and had to start from scratch pretty quickly in order to survive. We’re also seeing this now for organisations with audiences for other genres flocking back after the pandemic, but classical music audiences staying away from the concert hall.

So, what would it look like if we were to care about our audiences more, especially on social media? Well, somewhere we could look for inspiration is Gymshark.

If you’ve not come across Gymshark before, they are a fitness clothing company. Back in 2012, it was founded by student Ben Francis in his bedroom in Birmingham, creating clothes on a sewing machine. In 2020 it was valued at over $1.3 billion.

You may be wondering how a student in his bedroom managed to create successful business in an incredibly competitive marketplace which includes behemoths like Nike and Adidas. Simple answer, Gymshark focussed on its audience.

From the beginning it focussed heavily on social media. But not reviews of the products, or traditional marketing. Their social media is FULL of content created by their audience. People at the gym wearing their clothes. But not just wearing their clothes, there’s a whole range of content too. People documenting their journey, motivational posts, training tips, fashion, humour. If you’ve got a spare 5 minutes, have a scroll through their Instagram (5.8m followers!), it’s a masterclass in involving your audience to become a community.

As a result, the audience become the ambassadors. They are the words sharing the product with a wider community, advocating for it, and being valued by the company.

What would this look like for us in the classical music world? The Royal Opera House and in particular their #YoungROH campaign are a great example of empowering their audience to engage and interact on social and then make their voices the core of the story.

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