Monday, November 7, 2011

News from the Front: Image and the Young Classical Musician

This weekend I found an article from The Washington Post on ArtsJournal by Katherine Boyle titled "Young Classical Musicians Easy on the Eyes and the Ears." The article's title is a bit misleading, as the majority of the article is not spent merely reflecting on the attractiveness of today's young classical artists, but discussing the concept of image, especially as spread to the public through social networking and digital media. Specifically, Boyle focuses on how media has changed the way in which classical artists' images are presented.

The point Boyle dwells on the most is that of social and digital media's ability to make classical performers accessible in a seemingly personal way. "In today’s open-source, over-sharing, follow-and-friend frenzy, elite classical musicians, like every other sector of performers, are nothing if not familiar," writes Boyle. Besides the plentiful performance and interview videos found on YouTube of emerging young artists, there are also Facebook pages and Twitter accounts on which musicians can "reveal that they too can be ordinary" and make themselves identifiable as individual personalities, rather than stuffy, "highbrow" artists.

In fact, an individualized image is even necessary in the current climate, where being both a talented artist and having an authentic image is required for any kind of distinction:
Once respected for ethereal album covers and arresting performances taped for PBS, classical soloists are venturing into Rebecca Black's viral video territory. They share the stage with talking animals. They compete with political campaign managers who light up in jest.
Violinist Charlie Siem, one of the young artists featured in the article, commented on the necessity of marketing one's image with a personal touch: "You can now know the personalities, and you have to meet the audience halfway. In the past, people knew the music. Now, they might not, so you have to draw them in with something." The "something" could be anything from appearances in fashion magazines (Siem has appeared in Vogue) or personal minutiae shared on a Twitter account. Distinguishing oneself as an individual that audience members (especially younger ones) can relate to yet still view as an accomplished artist results in a quasi-celebrity status, unlike the reverence given to classical performers of previous generations. However, as Boyle remarks, "while the glut of virtual content exists to tease and lure in an amateur audience, it doesn’t bother the gray heads paying for prime orchestra seating." According to this statement, social and digital media may be the "magic formula" for promoting classical performers: it brings in new audiences, but does nothing to turn off the consistent demographics of classical music audiences. As Boyle puts it: "highbrow or lowbrow, everyone is pleased."

In the end, Boyle concludes that YouTube and Facebook may not be quite as much of a "seismic shift" as many believe, because they have not yet affected the process of filling concert hall seats in a measurable way. Of course, it is logical to assume that a musician who has a significant following through media is likely to draw some of that following to the concert hall, but to be booked as a performer in the first place requires more than internet notoriety. In the scope of classical music history, Boyle does not see digital media as completely revolutionary, which she expresses through her quip remark at the end of the article: "it's not like this technology replaced the harpsichord."

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