Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Self-Promotion: A New Pact for New Media

I've just been reading a blog post by a colleague concerning the BBC's new Saturday night talent show The Voice. Singer-blogger Heather Cairncross is a well-respected, multi-genre performer locked in a light-hearted battle with her sister (who runs a web-based business for people looking to make the most from web-based promotion) about whether she should appear on the show.

The issue of exposure for those who already work in a market is representative of all the hazardous issues surrounding success in the industry. An area of less interest to the public concerns those who work in singing who don't work as solo artists. Naturally the very title of the talent show suggests a single artist. However, the work that many of us do involves singing as part of a group of singers, from a handful of colleagues to over a hundred. Indeed, I know Heather Cairncross from the few times our paths cross working for ensembles*.

Here's the tricky situation that those who work in ensemble singing discover early on. How do you publicise and promote yourself in your line of work? The common vernacular for the singing voice is one that refers to something 'special' or 'unique', meaning something solitary. The talent show under discussion partly takes its title from the glib reference to someone having 'a voice', meaning what they have to sing and how they sing it stands out. Employability in an ensemble situation is predicated on being able to do the opposite, to blend in.

Professional ensemble singing engagement involves a music director, usually in tandem with a 'fixer', or technical professional, auditioning individuals to assess the quality of their singing (their voice and how they use it) and their musicality - not to mention their professional attitude - before inviting them to work as one of their ensemble. A high profile, or professional representation is irrelevant and arguably inappropriate.

With most ensemble contracts being short-term (from hours to a couple of months at most) classical singers also need to have a wide portfolio, including solo work. For the artist promoting themselves as both a striking soloist and team-player ensemble singer is an ongoing balancing act - but a necessary one for both kinds of employers, industry director-fixer and solo concert promoter alike.

So this is a difficult area. It's made a lot harder by the existentially neither-fish-nor-fowl positioning of the artist. It's possible to commit to traditional promtional paraphernalia - headshots, recordings - and sticking it all on a website. This is self-evidently distinct from the experience of the artist in a live performance (and also risks alienating those who would employ someone with a lower profile) but at least it gives an impression.

For the workaday ensemble musician there's no issue of excessive profile. Rather the issue becomes one of having no profile at all. Beside the notoriously unreliable chatter of peer opinion the very existence of musicians is contingent on the work itself.

New Media

Classical, acoustic performing is necessarily an ephemeral art. It's mutually enjoyed by performer and audience alike as it's immediate - literally un-media-ted by audio-visual technology. Consequently there is usually no record of a performance. In fact, the traditional record of a performance having taken place at all comes by testimonial, a review, although the anonymity (not to say parochialism) of classical concerts outside obvious cultural centres mean that published reviews are rare.

The exponential advances in technology and the Noughties social networking explosion go some way to mitigating against this problem. Today an artist can make a high quality stereo recording with a discreet, mobile phone-sized device. Video recording is becoming more common. And the ubiquity of audio-visual hardware on mobile phones themselves means that, invariably, a member of the public may have captured an artist's work. All this media is increasingly being uploaded to the internet, if only for storage or archiving rather than actively sharing.

As for reception and appraisal, the testimonial of an artist's work, no-one needs an audio-visual record to publish their reaction to a concert. Blogging has reduced itself to its critical mass through the micro-blogging service Twitter (indeed, many blogger-reviewers use Twitter as a trailer function for their long-form Blog texts).

For an artist minded to use this available media, either sharing informal pictures, mp3 tracks or video, or reproducing an anonymous review of a concert may not be sufficient to launch and support a serious solo career. However it is sufficient to build a reputation at the social level - Facebook is a particularly useful tool for the tightly woven, not to say insular world of classical musicians - that gives a CV substance where it might otherwise run the risk of being somewhat apocryphal. That unreliable peer chatter now has a context.

A New Pact

The one unmentioned issue here is the sensitive one concerning copyright. By this I mean discussion about both capturing an artist's work and, a wider point, whether a necessarily ephemeral, acoustic art can bear digital recording and dissemination.

My view, always contingent on the state of the technology, is similarly twofold: that the ubiquity of devices and platforms for its dissemination makes it difficult to resist; and, consequently, that that ubiquity changes the manner in which people talk to and about one another, increasingly incorporating digital media as part of the vernacular.

Live performance is precious, unique, and should be protected. The law dictates that recorded performances are the property of the artist and this should be respected (in particular, artists should be able to rehearse without having to worry that errors, experimentation or necessarily half-formed performing is being captured). However, the embattled rigour with which performers go about defence of this right labours in the face not only of the overwhelming ease of recording and the common informality of its exchange but also the usefulness for the artists themselves.

My professional website is peppered with useful pictures, sound and video clips found freely across the internet which give a much more substantial example of the sort of work that I do. Very little of it actually reproduces my voice itself, in isolation. I can pick and choose what I show. Most of the material is of such little interest to anyone that it might as well not be there at all - like I mentioned, it has likely been uploaded for storage or archive rather than active sharing.

I'm not advocating the blanket acceptance of recording. Artists should always be consulted about the capture of their work and image, not only as a legal necessity but also as a courtesy. What artists would do well to recognise is the changing attitude not only of the audience but also of the public. A talent show like The Voice may seem irrelevant artistically or professionally but it does provide clues as to the sea change in both the market and the way art is discussed: the audience for digital media is vast but the content is as disposable as the conversation that surrounds it. The artist remains distinct and intact.

*Part of the reason Heather Cairncross and her sister have this dialogue about appearing on The Voice is because Heather is also a successful, solo jazz artist. This is a subject for a separate blog post but worth noting here - along with a link to hear her jazz & pop performances.

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