Are social networks developing new audiences for classical music or reinforcing elitism?

This post is written by network participant Dr. Annabelle Lee.

The impact that social media marketing has had on the music industry within the last decade or so cannot be ignored. Social networks provide an efficient yet effective way for artists and organisations to promote performances and projects. In addition, social media can drive revenue, alongside traditional income streams such as subscription-based marketing and box office sales.

Audience development, too, has become a preoccupation within the classical music business in order to target digitally-inclined demographics vis-à-vis the older generations and middle-classes, typically associated with classical audiences. Take leading violinist Ray Chen, who has attracted “millennials” via comedy videos on his YouTube channel and mini masterclasses for aspiring violinists on Facebook, amassing over 114,000 views for one such tutorial. Attaining new, digital audiences for classical music, though, is often a reaction to commercial pressures or funding bodies. For example, the production team behind Eurovision and Glastonbury are presenting this year’s Proms television broadcasts, and are devised particularly with young people in mind, a demographic “raised on popular culture”– this youth-orientated media strategy includes promotions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Royal Opera House, meanwhile, implements a content strategy to capture certain social profiles and international markets– the ROH is also funded by the Arts Council, which has developed a digital media policy for cultural organisations in order to engage a wider audience.

But despite trend-driven marketing campaigns and social media success stories, social networking may not necessarily have the democratic reach many classical practitioners desire in order to secure the industry’s future. It is important to remember that using social media requires a computer device, Internet access and payments for online data. Although numerous artists, orchestras and venues have extended their presence by live-streaming content and performances via YouTube, UK viewers must purchase a TV licence to watch these live broadcasts online. “Wealthier and time-richer audiences are undoubtedly able to access great diversity,”as David Hesmondhalgh opines.

This links to the “digital divide,” a term referring to limitations that prevent certain people from accessing the Internet. With specific reference to classical music, it concerns not only physical access to web-based technologies but financial, educational and socioeconomic access too. The cultural construct of the bourgeois concert hall pertains here, and indeed, classical audiences often use social media to demonstrate their class privilege, musical knowledge and levels of cultural capital, which are seen as typical prerequisites for classical music appreciation. For instance, posts may incorporate technical terminology from music theory, reinforcing the image of classical audiences as a knowledgeable, albeit distinctive group. Similarly, Chen’s aforementioned video tutorials imply that viewers already need a certain level of musical understanding and violin technique to benefit. Classical audiences also post about intellectual, perhaps, highbrow pursuits such as politics and theatre, and even recall travelling abroad to see a specific concert or opera. Furthermore, there is an uptake in social media-enabled devices by the middle-aged and retirees, the archetypal classical audience who possess the time and money to experience their beloved music more frequently – these users are affectionately known as the “silver surfers.”

By utilising social media in an attempt to alter traditional business models and concert audiences, the classical industry may only be perpetuating elitist conceptions surrounding its art form. A final proposition from Hesmondhalgh appears to elicit a call to those working with social technologies in a classical context, “the rise of digitalization is unlikely in the medium and long term to lead to any profound democratization of musical creativity and innovation without transformation of broader economic and social conditions.”

Dr. Annabelle Lee graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with a PhD in Musicology, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her thesis investigated the effects of social media marketing on the music business, with a focus on the classical music sector. Towards the end of her doctoral studies, she commenced work as a marketing professional in London over a two-year period, specialising in social media strategy. She has also worked as a freelance flautist and a Visiting Tutor in Music at Royal Holloway University. Annabelle will now be working as a blogger on a variety of topics about the music industry for Burstimo Music PR, a leading UK music marketing agency. She also hosts Talking Classical, a new classical music podcast focused on interviews with industry professionals, as well as performers and musicologists (