Scratch That: The Agony and the Ecstasy
Five Things New Music Advocates Can Learn From The Super Bowl
I know, I know. You’re probably right to be skeptical. Our scrappy, small-budget ensembles and presenters don’t have much in common with the billionaire behemoth that is the NFL. Our concerts aren’t beamed out to millions of televisions every week. Contemporary music doesn’t have a nationwide Pee-wee program or online fantasy league. Even if we pooled all our money, we couldn’t hire PSY to dance with a bunch of pistachios.
But still: the Super Bowl is one of planet Earth’s most massively successful entertainment events, each and every year. We could probably learn a thing or two.
1. Hype is everything. The Super Bowl is preceded by two weeks of constant discussion, trash talk, and speculation. The NFL and the television networks create narratives (the battle of the Harbaugh brothers! Ray Lewis’s emotional last game!) and infuse the Super Bowl with enormous drama. They make it clear how much is at stake. This helps give the game more technical and emotional meaning for fans, and by kickoff time, we’re fully invested.
Takeaways: Don’t be afraid to talk yourself up. Tell stories about what concerts, collaborations, and recordings mean for you. Give fans and listeners multiple “hooks” and entry points to help them engage. Help build a thriving music media.
2. Fans really care about the human personalities on the team. Over the course of the season, fans master the players’ favorite dance moves, learn the meaning of their tattoos, and figure out who prays and who doesn’t. Big personalities fascinate us and make the game interesting. Fans want to hear the primal scream of Ray Lewis, to see the flustered paper throwing of Jim Harbaugh.
Takeaways: Go ahead and wear that funky accessory onstage. Don’t try to smooth over your eccentricities online. Embrace what makes you, and your music, special and noteworthy.
3. Watching is social. Thousands of people—many of whom don’t normally care about football—excitedly assembled nachos and trudged over to friends’ houses on a cold Sunday night. The Super Bowl brings people together to share an experience. That’s something that doesn’t happen often enough in our lonely society; as we know, it’s also one of the greatest things about live music.
Takeaways: Create concert and listening experiences that let humans connect with other humans. And don’t underestimate the power of great snacks.
4. The game experience is deepened by a sense of history. Football announcers are constantly pointing out historical signposts that help give meaning to key moments in the game. Our work is steeped in history, too. But do we really use history to our advantage? Do we talk about the Chicago musician who performed this piece first? Or get the composer to tell personal, vivid stories about where they were when they composed the piece?
Takeaways: Let’s find new, more exciting ways to talk about the rich personal history of our art form.
5. The flip side of victory is loss—and loss matters, too. Ever since I was a twelve-year-old girl rooting for the Patriots, I’ve empathized with the losing team. Sunday night, as I watched the sad 49ers trudge off the field, I sensed their acute vulnerability. They had given everything they had, in front of an audience of millions, and they had failed. There’s something about loss and failure that humanizes the athletes and makes us pull harder for their future success.
Takeaways: Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability or to fail in public. Do like Jennifer Jolley and Megan Ihnen—fail in public. Your fans, friends, and colleagues will understand your commitments and respect you all the more for it. P.S.: A grumbled congrats to Megan—and 2/3rds of the NMBx editorial staff, now that I think about it—on that Ravens victory!