New Marketing for New Art: The Mondavi Center Google Hangout Experiment

In 2003 and 2004, the Concert Companion, a device designed to enhance the concert experience, was tested during several orchestral concerts around the country. The user response recorded in post-concert focus groups was quite positive. The goal, said creator Roland Valliere, was “to attract new listeners to come and attend concerts, much like audio guides do in the museum world,” and many of the concertgoers who beta tested the device reported learning new things about a certain piece or aspect of the orchestra. They felt more connected to the music than they ever had before. Yet despite this positive response, which was accompanied by a flurry of press, the Concert Companion faded from sight.

There were issues with the service itself. The creation of content for the CoCo, as it was nicknamed, was extremely labor-intensive, and special technicians had to be flown in to coordinate the device with live orchestral performances. But perhaps more lethal was the disdain with which the Concert Companion was received by musicians and orchestra administrators. Pianist Leon Fleisher refused to allow its use during his performance at a trial run by the New York Philharmonic, and John Summers, chief executive of the Hallé Orchestra, described it as “patronising.” “For me, music is an aural experience, about being there,” he said. “I would be absolutely staggered if these devices became part of the regular concertgoing experience.”

Here in the Bay Area, the Oakland East Bay Symphony tested the CoCo, and music director Michael Morgan could only muster up a half-hearted, if pragmatic endorsement. “As a professional musician I am, of course, somewhat ambivalent about such devices. But I am also smart enough to know that if using this brings people, particularly new and infrequent concert-goers, closer to the music and provides a more enjoyable experience, then it could be a wonderful tool.”

The Calder Quartet. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The Calder Quartet. Photo by Autumn de Wilde

The brief rise and fall of the Concert Companion—and its goal of bringing audiences “closer to the music”—was in the back of my mind when I attended a Google hangout with members of the Calder Quartet on January 30. The hangout was part of a new audience engagement initiative supporting the Studio Classics series at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis, California. The series showcases new music and I was curious to know why the Mondavi Center chose Google hangouts to promote the series, and what they hoped to accomplish.

For those who are unfamiliar, hangouts are a feature of Google+ (Google’s social network) and are free video chats for up to ten active participants during which everyone can see everyone else on screen. The Mondavi Center also uses the On Air feature that streams hangouts live on their YouTube channel so that those not actively participating can still view the stream, and then an archived recording of the session is made available for later viewing. I asked Rob Tocalino, director of marketing at the Mondavi Center, why the decision was made to use hangouts. “Our intent was to find a way to bring new music fans and artists together in conversations,” he said. “We wanted a tool that was cost-effective, provided real interaction, and allowed us to archive those interactions, in whatever shape they took.”

Lara Downes, pianist and Mondavi Center artist-in-residence.

Lara Downes, pianist and Mondavi Center artist-in-residence.

For more on the appeal of this type of audience outreach, I reached out to Lara Downes, pianist and artist-in-residence at the Mondavi Center. Downes assists in the programming of the Studio Classics series and was the moderator for the hangout with the Calder Quartet. “The goal is to reach out beyond the immediate physical perimeters and to invite in an audience from the much wider community,” she explained. “This is an opportunity to cast a much wider net and really reach out and allow people who aren’t able to physically even be at the performance to at least experience the interaction with the artist.” This is one of the advantages of the hangout, to both audiences and marketers—the personal, visual interactions with artists, what Tocalino called “real interaction.” In hangouts you can chat (if you’re one of the active participants) with composers or performers while sitting in your living room, hear them speak about new works, and get to know them as fellow human beings—a riff on the pre-concert talk in which anyone (well, up to ten people anyway) can participate.

Providing real interaction between audiences and artists is laudable, but does that translate into ticket sales when this technology allows and even encourages participation by people all over the world? Thinking about Downes’s statement about “casting a wider net,” I wanted to understand the benefit to the Center of engaging someone who might live too far away to actually buy a ticket and attend a show. I posed this question to Tocalino and he said that connecting new music fans and artists is the main goal, regardless of whether or not those fans ever attend a concert at the venue. If this seems unusually altruistic, it helps to know that the hangouts are funded by a grant from the Mellon Foundation specifically for online audience outreach.

For a complimentary perspective on the free content issue, I reached out to friend and colleague Scott Harrison, executive producer of digital media at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which streams free webcasts of its performances at www.dso.org/live. I asked Harrison how providing all that free content helps the orchestra. Regardless of where viewers are tuning in from, he noted, many are returning for multiple performances and are forming a relationship with the orchestra, and that is what’s important. “I think that it’s not just about reaching people or having a huge audience,” he said, “it’s about having an audience that’s very connected, whether that’s a new connection or rekindling an old one.” I asked Harrison if fostering this sense of connectivity is a higher priority then generating revenue. “If you were only worried about revenue,” he replied, “you’d never get off the ground because you’re never going to make money in the beginning.”

Like the Mondavi Center’s hangouts (and the Concert Companion), the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s webcasts are grant-supported, which allows Harrison and his colleagues the freedom to experiment. (He compared the grant funds to the revenue a for-profit company would invest in R&D.) It provides them with a “runway” to get the Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series—currently in its second season—up and running and then start to think about how to make it first self-supporting, then ultimately a revenue contributor to the DSO. Plus, Harrison says the resulting videos are a great resource for promoting the orchestra. They bring the DSO to a worldwide audience at a time when touring is becoming more and more expensive. And while this isn’t marketing specifically in support of new music, performances of some new works the DSO has performed recently, like “Acrostic Song” from David Del Tredici’s Final Alice and Mason Bates’s The B-Sides are archived on their YouTube page for anyone to hear. Even if you can’t experience the DSO live in concert, you can experience it online in more ways than you previously could.

The Mondavi Center’s Google hangouts also generate digital materials that can be used by both the Center and the artists, and while they differ in content, both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s and the Mondavi Center’s marketing efforts aim to create a sense of community by providing more opportunities to connect with them in the arena in which so many of us spend our time—online.

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The Studio Classics series is one of many at the Mondavi Center, which is part of the University of California Davis campus about twenty miles west of Sacramento. Like many large performing arts centers, it hosts a broad range of regional, national, and international performing artists and also serves as the performance space for the UC Davis music, theater, and dance departments. The 2012-13 Studio Classics series consists of three concerts, each with a hangout preceding the performance. The Calder Quartet performances were the first of the series and featured works by Elliot Cless, Lei Liang, Nicholas Omiccioli, Ryan Suleiman, and Tina Tallon along side classics by Bartok, Mendelssohn, and Ravel. The second concert pairs pianist Lara Downes with composer Matt McBane’s band Build, while the third features The Paul Dresher Ensemble performing Dresher’s works for invented instruments as well as works by John Adams and Martin Bresnick. It’s an appealing, eclectic mix, and Downes said she often uses the word “laboratory” to describe the series. “It’s a place where we are able to push boundaries when it comes to crossing genres and developing partnerships between artists who are working in different genres or different disciplines.” The Calder Quartet certainly fits that description; they are the quintessential gnarly-music-playing, rock-band-accompanying, omnivorous new music group.

In order to participate in the hangout I had to revive my previously deleted Google+ account, and after a bit of poking around the Mondavi Center’s Google+ and Facebook pages I was able to join. Other than Calder Quartet cellist Eric Byer and violinist Andrew Bulbrook, moderator Lara Downes, and San Francisco-based PR pro Maura Lafferty, who is also part of the Studio Classics marketing team, I was the only one there. Given that this was the Mondavi Center’s very first hangout a low turnout was not unexpected, but the lack of outside participation stifled the half-hour conversation a bit and forced Downes to carry it all herself. Even so, there were also some really interesting moments, like when Calder Quartet violinist Andrew Bulbrook spoke about his quartet’s role as an interpreter and curator (7:25) and about how participating in the creation of new works is the best way to expand the string quartet canon (11:35). “There is something to a consensus that builds around things and weeds things out,” he said, “but to get to that point you have to create. Things have to be generated; they have to be made and they have to be explored and interpreted and discussed. The canon and what is being created now are completely intertwined.” You can view the full hangout below.

Its clear that it’s going to take the Mondavi Center some time to grow their audience for the hangouts. They just had a second hangout on March 5 with composer Matt McBane and it too lacked outside participants. If the goal, as Mondavi Center Marketing Director Tocalino says, is to create connections between audiences and artists, then I think Google hangouts are an ideal format to help them accomplish it. For me, many pre-concert talks can be a passive experience—a one-way flow of information from the stage to the audience—but I found the hangout to be a surprisingly intimate experience. Perhaps the fact that I was sitting at my kitchen table had something to do with it. While this particular hangout with the Calder Quartet was hampered by a lack of participants, I feel that the format itself encourages free-flowing, informal conversations that have the potential to go beyond the standard Q&A. All the Mondavi Center needs now is an audience.

When asked about the value of new forms of audience outreach like Google hangouts, the Calder Quartet’s Bulbrook said, “as an artist you have to always be searching, trying new things. It’s such a thrill to make one’s life in music, and in picking up a stringed instrument you are entering into a tradition that spans centuries. It’s great to have the opportunity to experiment with new ideas of reaching people with an art that is rooted in such history.”

Ultimately, Tocalino and his staff are figuring out how to better market new music on the fly, and experimenting with new modes of audience outreach is part of the process. “We have tools that we rely on to market the better-known artists on our season; there can be tactical challenges, but they’re usually fairly easy to overcome,” he explained. “But with new music, we are often bringing artists and works into the area for the first time. And, sometimes, you are selling work that is “difficult” in the best sense of the word. But it feels great to work on the front end of trying to grow an audience that, we hope, will continue to value and trust our programming over the years.”

There will always be a need for experimentation in the marketing of new music, and of classical music in general. The use of supertitles in opera, while commonplace now, was quite controversial when it began in America in the 1980s. When Beverly Sills introduced them at the New York City Opera in 1983, she was called a “philistine” in The New York Times. In 1985, James Levine famously replied “Over my dead body” when asked about the possibility of supertitles at the Metropolitan Opera, and yet ten years later there they were, Met Titles in the back of every seat, and in standing room, too. While Google hangouts certainly don’t impact a musical performance the way supertitles affect the experience of opera, they have the potential to achieve what the Concert Companion never did: to allow audience members to connect directly with a composer or performer as a person before connecting with them onstage. Perhaps this is exactly what the Mondavi Center’s Studio Classics series needs, perhaps not, but they won’t know unless they try.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of The Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

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