Thursday, August 15, 2013

Classical music needs great stories not kick arse tweets


In a perceptive post marking the tenth anniversary of The Rambler, senior blogger Tim Rutherford-Johnson laments how "Back in 2003 ...there actually was a community (or communities) of bloggers talking to one another... now, all those conversations have migrated to Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter". Elsewhere another senior blogger Elaine Fine muses that "The kinds of musical discussions that used to be on blogs seem to have migrated to Facebook, but they occur in miniature". While a well received Overgrown Path post explains how medical research shows that "Instead of targeting the short-term working memory by eliminating meta content, classical music should be making its content richer, deeper and more attractive to long-term memory."

So how long before the classical music establishment realises that Twitter and the other micro-media that have become not only the dominant platform for classical music debate but also the channel of choice for classical music promotion, do no more than populate short term working memory? And how long before it is understood that, to quote Nicholas Carr, "the information [in short-term memory] lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge - a few seconds at best... then it's gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind." And how long before it is realised that the prized social media metrics of 'friends' and 'followers' do not answer the vitally important question of how much promotional content - if any - passed into the target audience's crucial long-term memory?

At this point let's head off the comments that this is another anti-Twitter rant. It is not, and there is no doubt that social media can be a powerful promotional tool for classical music if used as a means and not an end. The problem is that, in most cases, it is being used as an end, not a means. Classical music is a form of storytelling and the role of Twitter and other micro-media should be to provide the opening line of a great story. So where is the compelling narrative behind tweets such as the one above from a major classical music PR agency? There is no compelling narrative, because lazy tweeting has turned the art of classical music promotion into the art of titillating short-term memory. Now, thanks to the toxic influence of the new generation of embedded cultural commentators, the lazy virus has spread to blogging, and the devaluing of blog posts to no more than inflated tweets is one of the main reasons why blog readership is declining.

All of which we unquestioningly accept because received wisdom tells us we live in an age of micro-media and micro-attention spans. Well, if that is the case can someone explain how one of the most successful examples of classical music promotion in recent years is Alex Ross' book The Rest is Noise? - a book that contains 212,000 words compared with 15 words in an average tweet. And can someone explain how one of the most successful recent classical musical events was the Barenboim Ring at the 2013 BBC Proms? - an operatic cycle that lasts for sixteen hours compared with the average time spent on a web page of less than a minute. Yes, both The Rest is Noise and the Barenboim Ring benefited from social media promotion, but that is not why they succeeded. They succeeded because, in different ways, they both tell compelling stories. The classical music establishment needs to understand that it is the rich and deep meta content in those stories that endures in long-term memory, whereas the impact of kick arse tweets lasts a few seconds at best.

I must confess to a degree of embedding in this post. Alex very kindly sent me a copy of The Rest is Noise when it was first published. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Inevitably also on Facebook and Twitter.

3 comments:

Elaine Fine said...

I think that you have made a perfect synthesis of the problem marketers of "classical music" have created in this post. The referrer has become a shallow substitute for the "thing" someone makes reference to, and is easily dismissed and forgotten. The experience of twitter in regards to classical music is kind of like spending a day at a library simply looking at the titles of books, only without the library, and without the books. Musicians do more than just tell stories: we energize time, and sometimes we energize a lot of it. There is no real way to summarize a piece of music. You can hear an excerpt from it, but actually hearing a whole piece and experiencing it as a full work of art has to be done in real time.

Dave MacD said...

I'm really glad to hear you say all this. I started making a Web show about new music and classical music a couple of years ago, and we had a lot of discussions about how long it should be. That’s perhaps even more important for video and audio because of the inherent time commitment to consume it. We settled on an hour(ish) in part because we wanted to get past the McNuggetization of cultural commentary. I love Twitter and Tumblr, but they don't mean the same thing as a thoughtful blog post.

Scott said...

I suggest that there's another underlying issue - clear and unambiguous written communication is difficult, and the length restriction in Twitter isn't helping.

"Joyce DiDonato is a bit kick arse isnt she"

What does this mean? Does it actually mean anything? It's just sticking on a somewhat fashionable label. And it's a label which can have both positive and negative connotations.

Clear and unambiguous communication? I fear that this sort of use of Twitter is moving away from such a goal.