Say you’re a composer whose music is getting presented on a concert series that employs an in-house marketing team. You think, “Blessings! I finally don’t need to worry about concert promotion.” Not true! Just because a presenter has dedicated staff does not mean you’re off the hook. Administrators at traditional music institutions often struggle with promoting new music—how to convey to their audiences why this unknown piece by a composer they don’t recognize is compelling and intriguing and worth taking a risk on.
What I’ve noticed in my years of working at different music institutions is a distinct line drawn between the communications staff and the performers and composers. Generally speaking, there are a lot of middlemen in our industry: The director of an organization contacts the artist’s manager or publicist, who then get a response from the artist, and then that information (hopefully) makes its way back to the communications person.
Here’s the issue: If the communications person doesn’t have enough information to write compelling marketing copy about the new work on the program, s/he is likely going to focus on promoting another aspect of the concert instead. Suffice it to say, this is a huge missed opportunity for emerging composers.
This is why it’s important to lean in—not step back—when you have a marketing team promoting a concert (or CD release, creative project, etc.) with your work on it. When you equip people with the right information, you empower them to use their resources to push your music out broadly to new audiences.
Bridging the Gap
The first step is simply to let the presenter know that you’re willing to work with their marketing team on promotion. I’d suggest reaching out to your contact at the organization, probably an artistic administrator, about two months before a concert (or earlier, if you’re in touch with them before). If the concert is arranged through the performer, have the performer introduce you before you jump in to offer help.
Once you’ve established contact, here’s what you can offer:
- program notes
- written interviews or videos in which you discuss the piece or your music in general
- pictures related to the work
- audio of the music
- anything else that can be shared on the company’s website, via social media, in marketing blurbs and press releases, etc.
These materials can (and should) also be readily available on your website. The more content a marketing person can easily grab online without having to ask, the more likely s/he will push your materials out from the institution’s different platforms.
You can also offer to sit for a video interview, help with social media outreach, or answer a written Q&A interview for their blog. If marketing content is created (e.g., e-blasts, flyers, artwork), offer to send it out through your channels and suggest other networks that might be willing to give a shout out (e.g., the university you teach or studied at, ensembles you work closely with, a cultural society you’re part of).
[A word to the wise: There’s a fine line between being helpful and being overbearing. In all your interactions, remember to be respectful and let people do their jobs in the way they think is best. Writing the actual marketing copy for a marketing person or offering unsolicited feedback, for example, is ill advised. If you don’t like the marketing copy that’s written, try to let it go; if something is actually inaccurate or offensive to you in some way, then you should let someone know.]
It Begins with the Program Note
The composer’s program note is the first thing a marketing or PR person reads in order to quickly download what your piece is about. (Next, they read your bio, and then they read press to see how critics have described you.) Program notes help promoters figure out how to describe your piece, frame it in the context of the program, create fun marketing campaigns, and determine what angle to pitch to which press outlet.
Keep in mind that people are busy and don’t have a lot of time to get to know your catalog, or even listen to your work. You can make it easier for them by providing a program note that includes descriptive language they can use to write about your music.
Also, ask a friend to proof your program note to confirm it makes sense. Sometimes composers submit notes that are convoluted, vague, or overly technical—and administrators are not likely to come back with questions or suggested revisions because they don’t want to insult the composer.
What Marketing/PR Folks Want to Know
When marketers research your piece, they’re looking for details that might be compelling to audiences or journalists. Here are some things they’re keeping an eye out for, and what you can consider including in your program notes (or somewhere on your website or in an interview).
- A narrative: Is there a story within the piece or behind how the piece came about, or is there a human interest angle involving yourself that explains why you wrote this piece?
- Novelty factor: Are there any unusual/new techniques or instruments that you use?
- Inspiration: Did you draw inspiration from something you saw, heard, read about, etc.?
- Are there any themes in the music that are relevant to events happening today?
- If you wrote the work specifically for this performer, is that somehow reflected in the music?
- How is this piece in line with your musical identity/style [also: What is your style]? How is this piece different from other pieces you’ve written?
Here’s an example of a piece with multiple points of interest: Last fall, Sebastian Currier wrote a work called RE-FORMATION for the Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale. The Minnesota Orchestra had commissioned Sebastian to write a current-day version of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Sebastian responded with a piece that embedded fragments from Mendelssohn’s work, but also focused its attention on current environmental issues, which Sebastian felt mirrored the corruption and excesses that Martin Luther was battling five centuries ago.
There were a lot of angles to work with here: the Reformation anniversary narrative, the Mendelssohn inspiration, and the present-day environmental theme. To help explain all this, Sebastian wrote this program note, worked with filmmaker Michele Beck to create this video, and participated in this Q&A interview. We handed all this over to the Minnesota Orchestra, which then pushed the content out across multiple channels and were able to secure some superb press.
Being able to share this type of nuanced and specific information with the communications team leads to better-informed, more powerful messaging on the whole. The more we can open up channels between the communications people and the composers and performers, the stronger we can convey what music is being created today and what’s important to us as artists, and hopefully invite more curious people into the room.
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Carol Ann Cheung is a marketing communications professional who specializes in working with new music. In 2016, she joined the team at Boosey & Hawkes, where she works with some of the world’s most renowned composers, including John Adams, Steve Reich, Osvaldo Golijov, Anna Clyne, David T. Little, and Sean Shepherd. Prior to Boosey & Hawkes, Cheung worked at Carnegie Hall as an editor for six years, where she concentrated on publications and marketing campaigns for the Hall’s experimental and new music programming. Cheung’s passion for working with new music... Read more »