TAFTO 2011 Contribution: Mark Clague

Today’s contribution is fitting in light of the success following of the motion picture The Social Network as University of Michigan professor, Mark Clague, takes the “friend” from Take A Friend To The Orchestra to new places. Mark explores this territory with real and virtual friends alike and I’d be surprised if, by the end, you aren’t thinking at social networking and orchestras from some new perspectives. ~ Drew McManus

Making Friends

When times are tough is when we most need our friends.

In the concert world, we tend not to think of friends or friendship. We are professionals, whether musicians or administrators. Our audience is made up of patrons, who support the institution’s music making through ticket purchases, donations, and maybe volunteer service. Patrons are ‘friends’ of the ensemble to be sure, but in the abstract, impersonal sense.

What if our musicians and listeners were really friends? What if our orchestras had as a goal an ongoing, person-to-person relationship with their audience?

Meet Clay Shirky

The “friend” I’d like to invite to the orchestra today is Clay Shirky, guru of the social effects of Internet technologies, a consultant, teacher, author, and frequent TED speaker. If you haven’t seen his talk about the “Transformed Media Landscape,” click here. His observations go beyond tips for the next iTool fad. He explores how technological change leads to new social practices, which in turn change the way we live. He explains not how Facebook can enhance brand identity, but rather how the merging of broadcast and authorship technologies that is the Internet means that big media is now marginal media; he explains how the Internet might even foster a culture of collaborative generosity that holds the potential to solve previously intractable problems.

When Shirky explains that 21st century communication is now “many to many” and that “we like to create and we like to share,” he points to a big challenge for classical music. Our concerts are most often one-to-many events in which a single experience is shared with a group. The orchestra fuses the artistry of composer, conductor, and musicians (supported by myriad staffers and volunteers) into a single, electrifying, symphonic miracle, literally a “sounding together” of the many as one. This unity is then broadcast to the many of its listening public.

I don’t know Clay personally, but if we really could go to a concert together, I’d point out that the a symphony hall has become increasingly special; it bucks the Internet trend because the orchestral experience counterbalances the hectic, increasingly dilute, multitasking lives we now inhabit. Today being connected to everyone and everything can leave one overwhelmed at best and at worst alone in the crowd. I’d point out to Clay that as listeners at a concert, we sit with our cell phones off and Twitter feeds shut down, experiencing the rarity of concentration without fear of a ringtone tearing at our attention. I’d point out that the sound of a live orchestra blows away those tinny laptop speakers, and that as concertgoers we look at real people and not a LCD display.

Yet I bet that Clay would point out to me in response that if I’m searching for friends, an LCD display is a good place to look.

Conductor Laura Jackson (center) builds friendships with Reno Philharmonic listeners after a concert.

What Is a Friend?

Key here is not the technology but social practice. It’s not about Facebook, but about how we define “friend.” Facebook has cheapened friendship. I’m Facebook friends with people I don’t even know, whose names I barely recognize. If we want to Take A Friend To the Orchestra, however, we need to consider what a friend is, or maybe more to the point, what a friend can be.

Inspired by Clay Shirky, I’d say that a friend today is a lot like a friend of yesteryear, at least good friends are much the same—those friends who would help you in a pinch, who would listen to you at your worst as well as your best, who will take the time and make the effort to participate in your world. Our orchestras need this kind of friend.

It’s obvious but still worth saying: such friends are earned through friendship. Friendship is an ongoing relationship, not of one to many, but one to one, person to person, face to face. Making this type of friend requires time and effort, but also that the orchestra as institution get out of the way; it means taking some risk, letting your constituents speak, accepting vulnerability, and being real (enough); it also means that the individuals that embody the orchestra as institution (its musicians, staff, board, volunteers, community) invest in the relationship with time, attention, and care. What technology offers is the possibility to expand friendship from one-to-one to many-to-many. Whether we embrace this possibility and do it well is up to us.

The Socially Networked Orchestra

What if every orchestra maintained a community blog in which all stakeholders from musicians to staffers to volunteer ushers, board members, listeners, and community members could (and were expected to) post? Several orchestras have begun such initiatives (San Francisco and Minnesota or the UMS Lobby) spring to mind), but they are hard to sustain in part because contributors need to be given great freedom to make participation fun and the range of authors needs to be crowd sourced. Web logs run counter to every marketing strategy for control. Blogs are not about brand, but about relationships and relationships are risky, uncontrollable, participatory, emotional. Yet tapping into such passion, produces results.

As a member of the extended Detroit Symphony community I watched with horror the vitriol spilled on the Facebook pages of both the ensemble and its musicians association. Yet in the end, these very public displays of passion have forged friendships across the community. Many of us in the DSO Facebook community now “like” both pages, and it brings joy and hope when the two pages now finally agree and support one another. The question remains, however, can Facebook friends become actual friends?

University of Michigan Symphony Band students “rehearse” for their upcoming tour of China (4/2011)

For the past several months I’ve maintained an ensemble blog for the University of Michigan—the catalyst being our Symphony Band’s upcoming 21-day tour of China. See http://moore.music.umich.edu/chinablog/ . I called for volunteers and recruited twenty or so, a mixture of student musicians, faculty, and administrative colleagues, to contribute. I sparked the conversation myself with initial posts and announced every new communication via Facebook and Twitter. The results have been encouraging—more than 1000 hits a month, posts that our student musicians have shared about why they love U-M, our bands, and making music. One young couple considers the tour to be their honeymoon. Conductor Michael Haithcock surprised me by becoming one of the most frequent participants, discovering that he could explain his decision-making and thus build musician investment in the ensemble. Members of the ensemble have gotten to know one another better and our faculty, staff, and university administrators have come to respect and celebrate each other more deeply.

Building for the Future

What excites me is that for this group of student musicians, blogging is now part of what it means to be a member of the ensemble. The role of musician now includes cultural advocacy. And in the future when these students join an orchestra, they should be ready to do whatever it takes to forge friendships in the community.

Yet my hope is that the notion of the orchestra as friend can grow faster, that today’s musical institutions can embrace relationship building through the Internet and with a smile. It’s good, I think, when musicians in Cleveland, Detroit, or Philadelphia leave the stage to meet their listeners, to connect with their audience and advocate for music. But this effort need not occur only when a strike threatens. We all need to be advocates for music and all the time.

Musicians and staffers alike need to post regularly to the ensemble’s Facebook and other social media streams. Every community needs to have a professional musicians association, and it needs to remain active in good times as well. Regular community engagement events need to make online efforts real and tangible. Personal friendships need to be forged with teachers, especially. And the next time local music and art teachers are threatened with pink slips, professional musicians and their organizations should lead the charge to support music in our schools.

What Clay Shirky tells us who love the orchestra is that LCD need not stand for “Liquid Crystal Display,” but for “Living Community Dialogue.” Technology must not be a substitute for friendship, but its vehicle for actualization.