Tag: social media

Terrarium: A New Sphere for Growing Art

A glass ball terrarium

I began this four-part series with a vision of my dream composing job, illustrated in three vignettes. This job would be structured like J.S. Bach’s salaried position as a composer. It would capture the directness and intimacy of the village baker making fresh bread each day for his neighbors. My creations could be met with the intensity of the children running around their brand-new playground in Central Park.

As far as I know, no job exists quite like this. So I am on a mission to create it, for myself and others, via two related initiatives. The first, my email series Life in Septuple Time, seeks a new and better form of social media. The second is a new project to bring us closer to the ideal I imagine—toward a place where, as I said in my first post, “the art and its communities are woven around and within each other… where art is not separate.” Such a thing could take many forms; I hope to make it happen in a new kind of community I am co-creating, called Terrarium.

To begin, let me follow up those three vignettes from my first post with two more, to take that initial vision and to draw it more sharply, more precisely.

Vignette 1

“In the fall of 1904, a farmer was stringing galvanized wire between lines of barbed wire fence… building an elementary telephone network to connect his farm with those of his neighbors. [He] was part of a movement of telephone self-connectors, the telecom DIYers of the first decade of the twentieth century. They intuited that the telephone’s paramount value was not as a better version of the telegraph or a more efficient means of commerce [as the Bell company saw it], but as the first social technology. As one farmer captured it in 1904, “With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young” [emphasis mine].

Typically, the rural telephone systems were giant party lines, allowing a whole community to chat with or listen to one another… Farmers would use the telephone lines to carry their own musical performances… “The opening of the new telephone line at Ten Mile,” reported the Macon Democrat, a Missouri newspaper in 1904, “was celebrated with gramophone, violin, banjo, french harp, guitar and organ Friday night.”

—Tim Wu, The Master Switch (Knopf Doubleday)

Vignette 2

In the summer of 2019, six people joined a new kind of discussion process called Terrarium. They are scientists, teachers, musicians, lawyers, engineers, psychologists, writers, each wearing multiple hats in life. They are working parents, caring for ill loved ones, studying for a competitive state licensing exam. They are in four states, three times zones, two countries. Most have never met in person and likely never will. During the weekly Terrarium cycle a wide-ranging discussion unfolds, ignited from two short pieces of writing on the topic they’ve chosen to pursue for this particular Terrarium cycle: the boundary between fake and real. One is about professional mourners in Congo who cry at funerals as a paid service. The other is about art forgery in Europe during the Renaissance.

This group is distinctive for two reasons: First, they interact entirely online, using simple tools outside the purview of Big Social Media. (In this case, Trello software.) Second, the group follows a careful process designed to de-Facebook-ize the rhythm of the discussion. There is no news feed and no ‘Like’ feature, no algorithmic advantage given to the speediest or most upsetting expressions of opinion. As a result of this counter-cultural discussion format, the conversation that emerges is slow, deep, wide-ranging, and non-polemic, despite touching easily polemicized issues like climate change, labor exploitation, forgery, and deepfakes. A sense of civil intimacy grows.

Soon, one of the musicians in the group gets an idea for a new piece of music, one that arises from this particular Terrarium group and speaks to their particular discussion: Several members of the group are concerned about climate change, an issue this particular composer does not feel as worried about as perhaps he should. Just as professional mourners do not feel sad about the specific dead person at a funeral, yet they are able to draw real emotion from a communal sense of grief; likewise this composer respects the concern about climate and is able to tap into the emotions around it. So, he realizes, this places him in a unique position: He can serve as a professional mourner for this group by writing a Lament for Climate Change. His music can help the group to experience, first-hand, one of the topics they have been discussing. The art can help them to feel what it’s like to have a professional do the mourning on their behalf.

A 2013 public domain photo of the Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park by Mike Lewelling, National Park Service via Flickr

Yup, that composer is me. This is just one example of the kind of super-specific artwork, tuned to a particular group and a particular topic, that emerges naturally within a Terrarium group. Writing this piece feels very different from any commissioned piece I’ve done. When the piece is finished I will be able to say to my small Terrarium community something deeply special: I made this. For you. I will know exactly who the ‘you’ is, why I wrote this piece for these humans, specifically. If I do a good job, the music will touch my listeners in a direct way, or at least it will deepen our discussion. If my music fails on any level I will be able to ask why, and hear honest answers. Then I’ll have the chance to rework it or try again. I will feel that I am getting closer to the kind of artistic meaning and context I’ve been longing for, and that I suspect other composers—and artists of all kinds—long for, too.

Together, these two vignettes show the special kind of close-knit, human-scale community that can be built across distances of space and schedule that are otherwise too difficult to span. The vignettes show people using basic telecommunications technology that requires no special skill to set up. They show communities free from the colonizing interference of telecommunication monopolies (like Facebook) that extrude our best human raw materials (emotion, relationship, dreaming, longing, making) and then use them to create morally vacuous products for advertisers. And in both vignettes the artistic encounters arise spontaneously; the music has a home and an audience before it is even made.

A close up image of an old wooden telephone with metal ringing bells, a speaker, and a receiver

An old telephone recently encountered by the author in rural Maine.

Let’s Put Art in Second Place… Where It Can Do Its Best Work

The key to bringing art into its most powerful role is to place art-making second in importance to other elements of the community.

One of my key goals is to move art-making down the totem pole, to place it second in importance to other elements of the community. This might sound odd, but it is, I believe, precisely the key to bringing art into its most powerful role, where it can work its magic most deeply. So in this article I will focus more on the Terrarium community itself—how it fosters connection and understanding broadly, beyond the realm of artistic creation—and less on the specific art being created within it, because if the community is working as it is meant to, then the art-making will flourish naturally.

In my work as a composer I feel a painful separation from the human beings I write for. Often, I don’t know who exactly they are, and I don’t feel sure why or even whether they need or want the music I create. It’s wonderful to fulfill commissions and sell my scores to performers; I meet great new friends and people tell me they enjoy hearing my music. Yet I feel disconnected from my listening audiences, and I long for something different. I want small communities where I can live my life in an ongoing everyday way, alongside friends near and far, new and old, learning together about the big issues facing our world—political, economic, scientific. In that context I can tune in deeply to the desires and cares of those humans and make art for them, specifically. As I described in my first post, I believe this works best when I, as artistic creator, can act in the role of servant to the served. And as I discussed in my second post, my long experience making community online tells me that a good place to do all this is on the internet, if we can find better ways of using it, well away from current forms of social media.

So this is a call to action. We don’t need to cultivate an audience, we need to cultivate communities with a larger purview than art alone. Then our music and audience can grow organically from that. In this article, I invite you to help us build this new kind of community and I propose a way to do it: Terrarium.

A Process for Small-Group Discussion

So, what is it? Terrarium is a new process for deep, high-trust, small-group discussion online, structured as a weekly practice. This is a project I’ve been co-creating with Erin Jeanette, my wife and partner in everything. In addition to conceiving many of the fundamental elements, she also came up with the name, which captures the spirit and shape of the project beautifully.

Like my email series Life in Septuple Time, which I described in my third post, Terrarium seeks smaller community, more trust. But whereas my email series is still a form of social media because it’s about broadcast—one person (me) posting outward to a group—Terrarium is, instead, about the group itself. A Terrarium group has a leader who invites the members and serves as coordinator and host. That person’s presence helps to build trust among those who may not already know one another. But the group is not about that person; it’s about the gathering of co-equal members in active dialog with each other.

A stacked hexagonal twists tessellation

A Terrarium group is six people. Their interaction creates a seventh point of energy, the fire at the center, the unique energy and collective insights of that particular group. (Image by Kerstin via Flickr)

Terrarium puts small on a genuinely human scale: Each group is just six people.

Terrarium puts small on a genuinely human scale: Each group is just six people. And unlike most social media, including my email list, the process relies on full participation from every member of the group. Here is what Erin Jeanette, my Terrarium co-creator, has to say about the reasons for this:

Group relating, even in its in-person form, is a strange and unwieldy beast. But group relating online…oh, boy! Here’s how I see it: There are some basic ways we ‘show ourselves’ to a group—we say something, we show up, we are silent, we are absent. All of these are valuable communications. In in-person groups, the latter two (silence and absence) are often as evident as the first two (speech and presence). In online relating, silence and absence are still powerful communicators, but it is difficult to notice or mark them in the same way. Consider this—if you had a backyard barbecue and one of your friends lurked outside your garden gate, staring at everyone intently but not coming in, you would notice. It would probably prompt you to ask some questions, both about that person and about you and your barbecue. Yet, on Facebook, people lurk outside your barbecue all the time—that might be the majority of what they do, in fact—but it is harder to mark this and consider its meaning and impact. Some of my contributions to this project are structural and procedural, and are motivated by my desire to invite those shadow-side communications, absence and silence, back into the purview of an explicit meaning-making process.

Terrarium works because it is highly structured. Small-group interaction online is already in the zeitgeist lately, with many people leaving newsfeed-based social media to interact more via Facebook Messenger, SMS group text, WhatsApp, you name it. Even Facebook is re-orienting its main interface around smaller groups. Although small is better, it isn’t, on its own, magic. Even small groups, without deliberate practices and methods to guide them, tend toward the sporadic and superficial. When it comes to getting deep thinking done as a group, grownups need structure. Two places where structured small-group discussion already happens on the internet are in online education (42-page rubric, anyone?) and the small online bible study groups in some megachurches. (No surprise that both arose in communities that value learning and discernment.) But these two types of small group cover limited kinds of content: the course subject matter, the scripture.

By contrast, in Terrarium the topics of discussion are wide open. A Terrarium group can tackle whatever issues or questions its members choose (for example the boundary between fake and real that we are exploring in the group this month) and they can draw material from any source. The topics that tend to interest Erin and me are those with many sides—social, political, artistic, aesthetic, scientific, ethical—all subjects that can become dangerous when some facets are negated or neglected. Or, a Terrarium group could take up a complex problem facing an organization or multi-stakeholder project. Terrarium is a vessel, ready to be filled with the ideas, the cares, and the aspirations of those in a particular group.

Terrarium’s structured process has two core aspects: There is a steady, regular rhythm to all interactions, and that rhythm is very slow. In Terrarium the communication moves, as my partner Erin puts it, “no faster than the speed of human relating.” Joining a Terrarium group means committing to one brief reading and writing task per week, for a pre-set number of weeks. We start with a prompt: two or three pieces of writing, music, or visual art that ignite a theme or topic. Then we each react and respond to each other, following a carefully laid out schedule. We follow the principle that ritual, method, structured practices—liturgies, therapy sessions, rehearsals, classes, and so on—set special conditions where special kinds of thinking and human relating can take place.

Convenience and access are also key.

Convenience and access are also key. Terrarium members can complete their reading and writing task anytime during the week, from any handy device. We are using Trello with its free, user-friendly website and mobile app, though other platforms could work too.

All the other specific details of the Terrarium process (please reach out to me to learn more) also serve to reinforce that slow regular rhythm. For example one unusual detail of the Terrarium process, borrowed from online education, is that all responses are hidden until a designated day and time each week, whereupon they all become visible to the whole group at the same moment. This gives each person the time and space to think their own thoughts without influence from whoever would otherwise have happened to post their response first.

A Spherical Conversation

So, what does it feel like to participate in a Terrarium group? To me, the conversation feels three-dimensional, spherical, like a glass terrarium; the ideas seem to spread outward in all directions. Every thought someone expresses stays present and active within the group’s consciousness. This contrasts with more typical discussions, both online and off, where a linear thread dominates, pushed forward by the more forceful personalities and the more attention-grabbing ideas, while ideas that are less immediately compelling—though often just as valuable—are left aside. How many times have you been in a conversation waiting to present your thought, and by the time you have a chance to speak the topic has moved on?

This inclusive, three-dimensional quality of Terrarium can feel overwhelming. When each set of individual responses is revealed, all six at the same moment, we find that each writer has gone in their own imaginative direction, drawing diverse ideas into the sphere. As a reader it is hard to take them all in, precisely because ideas have not become lost or sidelined; it’s not easy to keep so many things in one’s mind in order to prepare one’s own next response to the group. (There is no obligation to respond to every idea that has been raised, but I personally feel a desire to address as many as I can.)

That added effort is the point. Pondering all these ideas at once and plenty of time to do it, with no one forcing one’s attention toward one idea or another, helps seemingly disparate thoughts connect in one’s mind in unexpected ways, yielding surprising insights. Then, further along in the process, there is a mechanism for reining the conversation back in as a group, to refocus the group understanding via slow consensus-building—perhaps ending up in very different places than any of us expected.

Random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus.

Terrarium’s regular rhythm also improves focus, permission and sharing. In the current internet’s infinite web of nodes and spokes, each pulse of energy—a post, a comment, a share, an email, a blog, a news item—fires at a random moment in the day, rarely predictable. That’s why we use alerts and notifications. But those random pings are bad for calm, bad for focus. This is why I gave my email series Life in Septuple Time a steady beat in 7/8 time, with emails arriving only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, always at 6am. Terrarium likewise follows a steady, scheduled beat. You don’t need notifications when you know exactly when each communication will arrive. Then, at the moment in which you make yourself vulnerable by sharing, you already have the welcome and permission of the group. Your contribution is expected, on schedule; you are not interrupting anyone. Your reward is the true attention of the group. Rather than sending your energy out into the frenzied cacophony of a busy street, you send it into your peaceful back garden.

So. The Terrarium process cultivates depth, self examination, complexity, and nuance. It helps group members sustain equal interest in candor and civility, and to discern the boundaries between productive and destructive honesty. Terrarium brings the benefits of the small group, the ancient home base of human interaction, to the internet, to overcome the barriers of distance and schedule. It’s a structured home in which to build relationships and carry on deep conversations with anyone, anywhere.

Looking Ahead

There are a few options and questions we hope to explore as we continue. Although Terrarium is an online process, it can serve as a parallel online component for in-person groups like choirs and business teams. I believe such groups often lack a place to have certain difficult conversations, to seek understanding in ways that are not possible in person. A Terrarium group can also be closed or open—either remaining completely private to its six members, or finding ways to share insights and materials with others outside the group.

In the future, I imagine a large network of these tiny six-person groups. Terrarium can bring people together from anywhere in the world around a given topic of inquiry, whether or not they already know each other. Groups can remain very small but could be interconnected, for example via individuals rotating from one group to another, getting to know each new group deeply before moving to the next. In a large network like this, ideas and learning would gradually pass from one group to another, spreading insight and knowledge across broad swaths of society.

An Apis florea nest closeup image (showing linked hexagonal structures).

A beehive of interconnected six-sided groups. (Apis florea nest closeup image by Sean Hoyland via the Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know yet how creative artists will be paid.

Another important question is artist compensation. In my first post I left aside the question of salary, like the one Bach was paid in Weimar for his work as a composer. If art flourishes within an online community like Terrarium, I don’t know yet how creative artists will be paid. So far, it feels more like those free Friday-night telephone party-line concerts 100 years ago. But I believe that the organic nature of the art-making in Terrarium, and the felt need for art within such a community, will eventually lead, as the project expands, to the kind of funding needed to support professional art-making.

Finally (for now), if Terrarium communities exist entirely online, then the model of live encounter with art—seeing visual works, hearing aural ones—becomes complicated. Real-time musical performances over the lines can work, like those rural telephone party lines circa 1904, or radio, or today’s live-streamed concerts. Digital images can be vivid. But what kinds of music, what kinds of visual art, thrive best and most naturally on the web? Will visual art created digitally work better than reproductions of paint on canvas? Will recordings of live music satisfy? Do we need to rethink the experience of listening within such online communities, and even the kind of music that works well? There is an excellent article about this on NewMusicBox.

Why We Need This

I am on a mission to help find better ways to build community online—partly out of a sense that we need better communities, and partly from my feeling that with these better communities comes a beautiful new place where artistic creation, including musical composition, can grow. Recall that farmer in 1904:

With a telephone in the house comes a new companionship, new life, new possibilities, new relationships, and attachments for the old farm by both old and young.

Those words beautifully capture the value of the internet, too. The hope I have tried to express in these four NewMusicBox articles this month is that we, like those farmers, will roll up our sleeves and do it ourselves using the simple tools available, instead of relying on big companies whose actions are often guided by incentives other than helping regular people to form genuine connection and community.

For me, new music sometimes feels like that old farm before the telephone came along. We have the internet but we are relying on social media, which is a massive misuse of the internet. Our musical work is the gorgeous farmhouse, the barn, the silo, the fields, the brook, the smell of cut grass, sunset on the creaky porch. But it is also the abandoned wreck, the leaning structure that cannot bear its own weight, the property for which it sometimes feels that there may just be no new use.

Audiences and artists still need better ways to reach each other.

Despite all the outreach efforts we in the arts make, audiences and artists still need better ways to reach each other. Too many composers, myself included, work in abstraction and isolation, telling ourselves our work has inherent value and that an audience—by which I think we mean a community—will materialize if our music is good enough. I don’t think it works that way; that is not how artists and audiences truly connect. With many lovely exceptions, most of what we musicians in the new music community create reaches other musicians more than it reaches ‘lay’ listeners. We don’t speak often or urgently enough outward, from within the circle of our new music community, to the lay people who might value and love what we create.

A fundamental reason for this problem is, I believe, that there is currently an “in” and an “out” at all. At its most connected and vital, art is the nourishment that flows naturally and easily within an ongoing community where artists coexist with those who do not specialize in a given art, but who appreciate it. Think once more of that village baker in olden times, handing a precious piece of craftsmanship from one human to another, fulfilling a direct need: I made this. For you. This is the elemental interaction in which art plays its greatest role and shines its brightest. It is the quality I feel in writing this new piece, a Lament for Climate Change, for my Terrarium group this summer. This kind of interaction happens, of course, in everyday life in many ways. But our world of organized art-making seems to have come unglued from that core interaction.

I want to reclaim that simple act for new music. I think it’s time for us to get out our old telephone wire, rig up the internet in ways that work best for regular people, and bring the party back to this old farm. Not for a concert once in a while to hear a precious song or two, but to come and live and work and learn together every day, communing around big, vital topics that concern us all. Then, on a Friday night, we can make noise together, musicians and non-musicians side by side, all warming ourselves at the same fire.

Let’s capture and cherish whatever independence and humanity we still can, and ensure that artistic creation and encounter keep a place at the center. That’s what my Life in Septuple Time email series is about. It’s what this Terrarium project is about.

Terrarium is just beginning. If you’d like to join or lead a Terrarium group, or learn more about what we’re doing, please reach out to me. I could not be more excited to see where this can go.

I made this. For you. Anyone. Anywhere. No barriers. Everyone is welcome.

Life in Septuple Time: A Composer Opts In to a Different Sort of Social Media

A street at the Centre Pompidou in Paris on which I calendar grid has been painted showing people walking through various days

In my first post, I presented three vignettes—Bach’s job composing for the Weimar court, a village baker, and a playground designer—as ideal visions of the artist in community. In the community I imagine, artist and audience interact at a small, human scale around shared meaning that goes beyond the art itself. This allows art to grow organically within an environment that already needs it and therefore naturally fosters it and imbues it with meaning. In my second post, I argued that the internet is a good place for this kind of community—if we abandon social media as we know it, and create new, better platforms and processes for building community online.

Alternative social media platforms like Vero and MetaFilter offer something more human-centric and less dangerous than Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Likewise, email listservs and small-group communication like SMS group text chat can be useful, though often dysfunctional. But I have not found an option that fits what I need and what I believe others need, particularly as artists helping to build culture-sustaining communities. So in this post and the next one I will present two related experiments I am undertaking, both seeking in different ways to create high-quality, high-trust, human-centric, art-incubating communities on the internet.

The first of these two initiatives, Life in Septuple Time, is a small-scale, private, peaceful social media space I am creating, centered around a thrice-weekly email I send to a limited list of friends and colleagues, with an option for group discussion using Trello software. This project, I hope, points to better ways we can do social media—in small groups with a high degree of trust, made by and for users with simple tools we control ourselves, without the advertising and algorithms that distort context and control, on our behalf, who sees what we share and how we understand each other.

Toward a Better Social Media

I felt sad to leave Facebook (though I don’t miss it).

In my previous post I was defiant about the evils of social media. But I felt sad to leave Facebook (though I don’t miss it). I have a lot of ideas and thoughts to share, and I love learning from other thoughtful people online. Also, I worried about my composerly life. Don’t we composers need to be present on social media these days? Isn’t this one of the vital ways we artists are supposed to reach our audiences? Despite these concerns, it felt good and necessary to leave the Big Social Media platforms. But rather than retreat to a world limited by physical place (as rich in meaning and connection as that can be), I resolved to seek another way to form community online—something better, something human-centric and free from coercion, something owned and operated entirely by human beings whose motives are connection, art, and meaning.

The other thing I abandoned was my good old professional email newsletter, another staple of the composerly life. I typically sent one every six months or so, to many friends and colleagues, with announcements about current projects and upcoming premieres. I received warm responses and it was a nice way to keep in touch with people occasionally. But it had begun to feel empty. It was a big list, including many people I barely knew, whom I had met only in passing. I knew that my newsletter was one of a multitude of similar ones that each person received. And whenever I announced a premiere, only a handful of those on my list lived anywhere nearby. I began to see that my newsletter failed to convey the ongoing story of my work and the things I cared about, the thinking process and context that fed and gave rise to the music I announced in each email, the things that give my work meaning. Without that, I felt more and more that these emails had little real impact, either for myself or my audience.

I didn’t like that my email newsletter was an opt-out communication.

And then there was the subtle sense of coercion I felt in my email newsletters. Though I would send each email with a note that the recipient was welcome to unsubscribe, and I was scrupulous in responding to those requests, the whole practice of publicizing my work this way began to feel like an arm-twist. Unsubscribing from a large company’s marketing email is not hard, but unsubscribing — having to take an action that says “I don’t want to hear from you” — from that nice guy you met at a conference… that’s harder. I didn’t like that my email newsletter was an opt-out communication. If a recipient wanted not to receive my email, I was asking them to confront me with their disinterest, or imagine themselves into a space where I was a faceless spammer. These kinds of emotional and interpersonal gymnastics are not good for our souls.

So with Big Social Media and my email newsletter gone, what in the world was I going to do, as a composer who wants to share his work with others — and composing aside, as a person who wants to interact and share with friends spread far and wide? In my search for alternatives, I was inspired by the model of daily email blogs like Composers Datebook and Seth Godin’s blog. These emails arrive first thing every single day, and each is very short. It’s a format that works well for me as a reader; these are the newsletters I tend to read and remember, the ones I move to the hallowed “Primary” tab in my Gmail inbox. Another trend and model that has been in my mind is the move many people are making away from large-scale social media and toward private, small-group interaction via group text chat, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and similar. (Facebook is on-trend in planning to move its design toward private, small-group interaction. That would be great if their entire business model were not so harmful. I’ll be staying away.)

As I planned this new project, I had three goals:

First, I wanted my group of recipients to be small. I was intrigued by Seth Godin’s concept of seeking the “minimum viable audience.” Instead of trying to reach as many people as possible, however superficially, I wanted to seek a smaller group, for a greater chance of connecting deeply. This feels like the opposite of the goals that guided my old efforts.

Many platforms tend to seek the largest number of readers. I wanted fewer.

Second, I wanted the project to be private, with no public web presence and no possibility of popping up on a web search. Again, this is the opposite of the goals of a traditional blog, with its public URL, seeking to reach as many readers as it can, to be findable in as many ways as possible. Writing platforms like Medium or Substack tend to seek the largest number of readers. I wanted fewer.

Third, it was important to minimize coercion as much as possible, to proceed with the fullest attainable permission and active acceptance of those who participated. Instead of showing up at someone’s email inbox with my composer party and saying, “Please ignore me or throw me out if you’re not interested,” I would start by assuming disinterest and then ask people to opt in. This would be a party held at my house, with an invite and RSVP. “Let me know if you want to come, and if I don’t hear from you, you need not worry about my party descending on your mental space.” Of course, any invitation from one human to another might inherently carry a hint of obligation, but I would take pains to make clear that this was truly at-will and optional.

My Experimental Solution

With all that in my mind, I sat down in early May and made a list of everyone I knew, and set about narrowing it down. I thought about my relationship with each person and the kinds of things I wanted to share. I tried not to ask myself the traditional questions a composer might in trying to publicize his work. Instead, I asked a human question (but one that has deep impact on art-making): How personal and vulnerable do I feel I can be with this person? At the end of this painstaking process I had only forty percent of the original list.

I sent that much smaller group an email invitation. I told them I was leaving social media, where many of them followed my posts, and ending my old email newsletter that many of them had received. I invited them to my new email series, saying that I would send short emails three times a week, and that if they wanted to join me they would have to actively opt in by replying to say “yes.”

I also shared some of the themes and interests I planned to discuss in my emails, including:

  • How the modes of communication we use drive what we think and do, as much as the content of our communication.
  • How the technology we use (any tool) affects the meaning of our creative work in tricky ways.
  • What is art for? No seriously, what is it for?
  • Democratizing creative work: whys and hows (drawing from my composition teaching).
  • Creating useful things for other people, and witnessing them being used, is a core human need. When not met, it can cause deep pain.
  • Is it possible for an idea, a person, or a group to achieve broad cultural impact by being nice, by truly and completely avoiding the denigration of some other idea, person, or group?
  • Computers will never think like people, but as they get smarter they can serve us as powerful tools to help us in our human-style thinking and creativity.

In an email-averse world, I did not think many people would want three emails each week, even short ones. But people said “yes!” And in much bigger numbers than I had expected — over half of those I had invited accepted my invitation. It felt confirming to receive those “yeses,” and because I had already narrowed the list to a small number, the ending total — about twenty percent of my starting list — did not feel like too many for my goal to stay small. I have chosen not to give the exact number, with its whiff of “how many social media followers do you have?” I think many people, including myself, are sensitive to how many social media connections other people have, and how many contacts in general. Knowing these numbers invites comparison and, potentially, feelings of envy or pity. When I have mentioned my rather average number of Facebook friends to others, sometimes they say “wow that’s a lot” a little wistfully — but just as often I have seen people with many times more than I have. These numbers feel meaningless because they depend on how one seeks and accepts friends; some people limit their list to people they know well, others keep a broader list. If someone else were to start an email series like mine, I would not want them to be comparing the numbers. Perhaps a larger or smaller number suits them. What is important to me in this project is the relationship I have with each person, and the kind of communication and community I want to foster.

Those who opted out are just as vital to the project as those who opted in.

It’s also important that those who opted out are just as vital to the project as those who opted in. When someone chose not to participate, I was a little sad. (I’m only human.) But I was also glad because it meant, to me, that my plan was working, that the trust was strengthened. If there were a sense of obligation or coercion beyond my initial invitation, it would change what I chose to share, the way I could talk to people, and the way they would hear me, even what they would hear. So I am deeply grateful to my opt-outs. (Of course, the party continues and they are always warmly invited to drop by.)

Perhaps the best part of the experience, so far, is that many people have told me that they are not only interested in reading my email content, they are also interested in the project as a project. They see that it is an experiment in communication and they want to witness it and find out how it feels to be part of it. Many have told me that they would love to do something similar, to share their own thoughts and work with their own group. Already, a good friend who is on my list has begun a similar email series with the same opt-in “yes” requirement. The single proudest moment so far was when he cited my email series, in the invitation he sent, as part of his inspiration for starting his own. The more who do so—the more my experiment invites others to share their honest and vulnerable selves with trusted others—the happier I’ll be.

If it Ain’t Got that Swing… Life in Septuple Time

One more important element: I wanted my project to have an interesting rhythm and a steady beat. I have talked a lot here about social relationships and communication dynamics. But I am a composer, and I know how important rhythm is to our experience of the world. This is not just for fun (though it is fun, I think) — it’s important because of the way it affects my readers’ experience of my emails. If each email is predictable, if you can tap your foot to them, then each encounter feels calmer and more welcome, less of an interruption. Because everyone involved—the whole ensemble—can feel the beat, knows when it will land.

The daily email blog model, sending a short email every single day, felt too monotonous (a 365/4 time signature?), and I thought it would be too much to handle both for me and my readers. So I decided it should go out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, first thing in the morning always at the same time, 6am. I sent this to those on my list:

MWF makes the schedule easy to remember, and I like the spiky rhythm it gives to our 7-day week: 2 days, 2 days, 3 days; 7/8 time, two short beats and then a long, count it out loud 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3, easy breezy like this …Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance.

We already live life in septuple time, week by week. I wish every week were as fun as that Dave Brubeck song, and I hope my emails will add a gentle off-kilter beat to your weeks.

Let’s call this project: Life in Septuple Time.

Since starting the series almost three months ago I have kept up the MWF rhythm every week, sharing ideas on the themes I mentioned above. Topics range from geometric cuts I made in a slice of watermelon, to dilemmas I struggle with, to announcements of the latest premieres of my music. The people on my list respond to me individually by email to share related ideas, to offer their opinions or reactions to what I shared. It’s like a private blog with active commenting.

Since starting the series almost three months ago I have kept up the MWF rhythm every week.

With these guiding elements working together, my hopes for this project have been fulfilled so far. It’s so much better than anything I experienced on social media or with my old email newsletter. I reach people now. They read what I write. They might skip a day or a week, and that’s fine. What matters is that I have their permission and their attention. My community learns about me as an artist, and I learn about them — their lives, their needs, and what concerns they want our shared art to address. I can weave an ongoing story they can follow, make their own sense of, and respond to. It feels analogous to what I do as a composer, a sort of ongoing composition-in-email (in 7/8 time of course), which in turn fosters my musical composition. (I still announce my premieres and publications.)

Trello as Private Social Media Platform

As I knew I would, I soon began to crave discussion not just between me and each individual, but between these wonderful people I had gathered. I wanted group interaction and sharing, a sort of… what shall we call it… a media that is social. A better social media, without the intermediaries of advertisers and algorithms controlling who sees what. (It might seem a bit odd, because it’s a social media centered around me. I ask my list to suggest topics for me to write about, but mostly they have been happy for me to share my thoughts as I please).

I don’t know how many people silently visit or when, and I don’t seek to find out.

And so, I looked for an online platform that felt peaceful, where people could comment but where the layout and pace could be measured and relaxed. I settled on Trello, the popular project-management software. I invited those on my list to join me on the Life in Septuple Time Trello board, and about a quarter of them have joined (the rest opt to participate by email only). It has become a lovely private online community, by and for its participants, hosted by a human (me), no data gathering or algorithms needed. I don’t know how many people silently visit or when, and I don’t seek to find out. When someone comments, then I know they’re there — not because I gathered data on them and encroached on their personhood, but because they exercised their humanity and free will to let me know they are present.

Our Trello board for Life in Septuple Time looks like this. Each card is one of my MWF emails. People comment in the cards and chat with each other. I use colored labels to track the themes (mentioned earlier) that we cover in each discussion card.

The Trello board for Life in Septuple Time

Some Questions

What does success look like for a project like this? Does such a thing scale up? Can it? Should it? If I am not seeking a larger audience, where does this go next? What are the goals?

If I get to know a thoughtful person who wants to join, I am glad to add them. (The point is trust, not smallness for its own sake.) But my main goal, my hope, is that more people will start their own projects like this, tailored to suit them. It doesn’t have to be done the way I’ve done it, for example the MWF rhythm might be too frequent, or not frequent enough. The friend I mentioned who has started his own email list is doing it on a once-weekly basis, not thrice weekly like mine.

There are many friends whose thoughts I would gladly receive in a similar mode. I dream of a series of Trello boards (or some other suitable platform) each containing the universe of one friend’s thoughts and interests which I could follow and visit. Sounds like Facebook? On the surface, perhaps. But fundamentally, it’s a different orientation and feeling. I keep bugging my list, encouraging others to start their own series like this. I’ll join them all.

Piling in is what cheapens the entire enterprise of Facebook and the other mainstream platforms.

Would there eventually be too many to keep up with? Maybe, but unlikely. Many of the people on my list have told me they don’t want to broadcast in this way, that being in the audience feels just fine. Keeping the series going, keeping the beat steady, is much more involved than posting on Facebook, more like running a blog. It’s a commitment. Others have told me they are interested in trying something similar, but they don’t have the time. So maybe it could be more like Facebook, where everyone piles in and competes for attention! Let’s fire up some algorithms to drive engagement! Ha. To me, that piling in is what cheapens the entire enterprise of Facebook and the other mainstream platforms. So, asking for real: How could everyone who wants to do so produce such a thing, all those whose lives are too busy or otherwise impeded? And if there got to be many of these invitations, how could everyone keep up with everyone? I don’t have an answer for this yet, but I’m working on it and I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

One more question for now: How will I become the World-Famous Composer I clearly deserve to be, if I stop broadcasting my work to lots of people? How will anyone know about my work if I ditch big email newsletters and avoid all mainstream social media platforms? If I instead share my thoughts privately with only a few people? Isn’t that just me, um, having friends? What happens to my Big Composer Dream?!? I hope you can hear the wink in my questions.

Fame starts small if it starts at all.

I have answers, and without the wink. First, I have my good old composerly website. It maintains a professional public presence, and people use it to purchase music for performance. Much more important, however, I’ve learned—slowly—that fame starts small if it starts at all. If my music inspires a few people and they pass it on to someone else, then perhaps someday down the line I might gain influence and reputation. But that secondary stage is… secondary. I haven’t done the first part yet, until now. I always thought I was doing it, but I wasn’t. And it’s already giving me at least 80% of the joy that fame would offer, possibly 101%. Because the joy lies in connecting with others in a genuine way.

A group of people standing in the middle of the street taking photos of oncoming vehicles.

The “Manhattan Solstice,” when the sunset aligns with Manhattan’s street grid. Viewed from West 79th Street & Columbus Avenue. (Photo by Robinson McClellan)

Not Far Enough Yet

So. My email series Life in Septuple Time tackles some of the problems with online interaction that I feel. But it’s still social media, in the sense that it primarily involves one person broadcasting outward to a group. I hope I am doing it in a healthier, more positive way than it was possible to do using Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. But ultimately I want more than broadcast: I want community. That’s why I added the Trello board as a miniature private social media space for those on my email list. It’s great, and I will keep doing it, but it’s still just broadcast, and it’s only Phase One of the larger plan I have in mind.

Ultimately I want more than broadcast: I want community.

Here’s what I ultimately crave: small, co-equal groups that include art-markers serving those who are happy to be their audience, a group gathered around shared meaning bigger than the art itself, where learning and art can grow organically. Next target: reshaping the broadcast structure of social media to create something quite different. This brings us to the second initiative I am co-creating, Terrarium, which I’ll talk about it in the next post. Stay tuned!

The Internet is Great, We’re Just Not Using it Right

An array of twelve flowerpots with budding plants

Americans idealize what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas,” a space where every member of society is, by right, free to peddle his creed. Yet the shape or even existence of any such marketplace depends far less on our abstract values than on the structure of the communications and culture industries. We sometimes treat the information industries as if they were like any other enterprise, but they are not, for their structure determines who gets heard.

—Tim Wu in The Master Switch

In my first post I proposed that the internet provides fertile soil to grow intimate, genuine communities and to foster a connected, organic kind of art-making within such communities. I want to talk more about how important the internet is to this vision, and why.

The internet is great. We’re just not using it right.

We don’t need digital detox.

We don’t need digital detox. Or more accurately, we do need a detox, but we have misidentified the toxin. Interacting online is not inherently poisonous, and online interactions are no less meaningful than talking face to face. Different, yes, but just as valuable. If we experience problems relating to each other online, I believe it’s because we’re doing it wrong.

To my mind, there are two main challenges facing us in our interactions and communities on the internet: The first is the overwhelming amount of choice. The second is the ubiquity and malignancy of the big social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter). We can solve the choice problem. And we can abandon — note that I say abandon, not reform or regulate — the social media platforms which dominate and poison our online experience. Then we can begin reclaiming better ways to interact online and building new ones, as I will discuss in the next two posts. If we do these things, I think the internet can be a much happier place.

A collage of cards on each of which is printed a single word:

Image by Gerd Altmann (Geralt) via Pixabay

Choices, Choices!

A serious problem with the internet is that it opens the door to so much wonderful information and friendship that it makes it harder to choose. This is solvable if we are tough and honest with ourselves, and with each other, about making choices and saying ‘no.’ If the internet shows us more stuff, but we commit to saying ‘yes’ only to that which our human minds can successfully and fully attend, it means saying ‘no’ to more. It’s painful to live with the knowledge that there are amazing things we will never know about because we have said no. But I believe we must each be bold and proud about being choosy. If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

If we choose to read one email but not another, it’s because we made that choice, not because email itself is bad.

I try to practice what I preach. The main news I read regularly is The Economist (because it feels centrist and I like the dry humor). Even the one magazine is too much information for my poor brain — I barely get through each week’s issue (I’m currently three weeks behind). I also follow the RSS feeds of a few blogs and news sources, but I usually skip The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, all the rest of them. So I miss out on things. It’s painful but it feels good to make these hard necessary choices, because it means that for what I do take in, I can attend to fully. To be fully engaged, to sit down and have a good meal, feels so much better than to taste from a continuous stream of samples, none of which stay long enough for me to be nourished.

amanita phalloides (young)

Two young specimens of amanita phalloides, commonly known as “the death cap,” which is perhaps the world’s most poisonous mushroom. (Photo by Stanislaw Skowron from the Wikimedia Commons)

Toxic! Wait, Social Media is Not the Internet

Many people spend most of their internet time on social media, so it is easy to conflate the two. Social media is literally embedded in our online experience — those three familiar little icons for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on nearly every web site, every brochure and sign. But these platforms are not the internet itself. Far from it.

From 2006 until earlier this year, I was a steady Facebook user (I was also on Instagram and Twitter but didn’t post much). In the past few years I have disliked these platforms more and more. Lovely interactions take place, but overall, it didn’t feel good. I have been reading books by Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu and others about the harmful effects of the ad-based business model behind Facebook (including Instagram), Google, and Twitter. The business model depends on controlling our behavior and thinking for the benefit of their only paying customers, the advertisers. The structure of the underlying design bends our interactions toward the nasty and superficial, because these are the most profitable for advertisers. I don’t like being used. I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

So for me, and I believe for many, the internet is drastically happier when we stay off social media. It’s important to know what’s a toxin and what’s a carrier. When possible we don’t dispense with contaminated water, we root out the contaminant. We refresh the stream. I recently left all mainstream social media, and I know many others who have left. I am hoping for a mass exodus.

I object to my affections (and more frighteningly, my hatreds) literally being sold to the highest bidder.

Perhaps influenced by these problems of too much choice and manipulative social media, many mistrust the internet as a whole. You’ll hear people say things like: “Interacting online is great, but if you want to really connect with someone it’s better in person.” Certainly, there is no replacement for sitting across from a warm human being, from sharing one’s time and one’s life with living, breathing people. And there are pitfalls to written communication, times when it’s better to talk it out in person or over the phone, as you’ll know if you’ve ever sent an email when you’re angry.

But at the same time that we collectively misuse and underestimate the internet, I think we overestimate in-person interaction.

A raven with a key in its mouth sits atop an empty open birdcage on a shoreline from which a dove is seen flying away and a balloon is also visible in the distance.

Image by Ria Sopala (pixundfertig) via Pixabay

Physical Place is Exclusive

We may not notice the ways in which being together, face to face, is limited, exclusive, and shuts out possibility. Anyone too far away is left out. And by too far away, we often mean away from the place where ‘the’ discussion is happening, too far from centers of privilege. Those with physical and mobility limitations are left out of in-person relating more than those without them usually notice. Those whose lives are busy with family and work obligations are often left out. And those who are paid less for their work often need to work more hours to support themselves, and so have fewer free hours for face-to-face relating. People who earn less can be disproportionately left out.

Even when physical presence is possible, in-person interactions are exclusive by personality and communication style. Interacting face to face favors the neurotypical and those whose speech is typical and fluent, while those with different social skill sets are often left out of the discussion. Highly structured discussion methods can help with these problems, but you can see where I’m going. In-person relating can be great, but it’s not automatically better.

The Internet Can be a Profound and Joyful Place

On the internet, different dynamics exist. Not lesser or better, but different and, I believe, equal. Online communications — when handled with care — offer a remedy to the exclusivity of in-person interactions.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person.

Things become possible online that are not possible in person. Different kinds of people shine forth and different kinds of conversations take place. The online world used to be more exclusive than the face-to-face world because access to internet-enabled devices was limited. But that is quickly changing. Over half of the globe, at many economic levels, can text, chat and watch videos on their phones (a blessing in places where literacy rates are low) — more all the time. It’s almost as easy for someone in Philadelphia to chat with someone across town as in rural Africa (where, despite setbacks, internet access is growing rapidly… Facebook is trying to help with that, but for mostly the wrong reasons). When such connections prevail, two people very different in experience and perspective can, potentially, learn in fresh and valuable ways from each other.

Young uniformed Ugandan students sitting in front of computer terminals.

A solar computer class in a rural community in the Mukono District of Uganda sponsored by the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organization and the Maendeleo Foundation Uganda. Additional information about this initiative is available on a 2014 blog post by Robert Kibaya, Executive Director and Founder of the Kikandwa Rural Communities Development Organisation. (This above photo is reproduced here with the permission of Kibaya and Asia Kamukama, Executive Director of the Maendeleo Foundation.)

For some, online interaction will never feel, or be, equal to talking in person. I don’t seek to convince anyone to give up what they love for something they don’t trust or enjoy. But I think there is an undue bias against online communication, reinforced by the flawed forms of it that currently dominate our consciousness, and maintained by the fact that most forms of in-person exclusivity are hard to notice.

It might sound overstated to say that chatting by text can be just as good as chatting in person (though different). But this is not a radical argument, it’s a conservative one. It’s about reclaiming ancient and fundamental forms of human relating — meaningful, intimate conversations, old-fashioned communities — and pushing our technology forward to do this better, online. It’s about using some of the earliest and simplest online tools like email and discussion forums and blogs, things that already work well, and seeking new ways of using them, as well as new methods and tools, that might work even better.

So I believe that if we find better ways to use the internet, then more people can enjoy more and better conversations. With more people. Of more kinds. In more places. With people they could otherwise never reach. They can form friendships they could not have otherwise. These friendships can coalesce into communities that can help make the world a better place. This is already happening, and it needs to happen more.

My Life is Better Because of the Internet

The network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide.

All this comes directly from my own long-time experience. Both professionally and personally, the network of humans I cherish and depend on is spread far and wide. First, there’s my family: after college I moved across the country from where I grew up; not an uncommon thing for my demographic. So common, in fact, so normalized, that the pain of it is often overlooked. There was a real loss there, a lack of being part of one another’s lives. But I barely registered the emotional toll consciously until years later. Technology has helped. Texting has brought us closer, video calls mean my toddler can picture the new toy his grandparents got for their cat yesterday. The internet doesn’t fix the separation, but it heals it partway.

The internet has also been at the center of my creative and employed life. I worked for a tech company for eight years remotely. I build online courses with a friend and colleague on the opposite coast. In those cases, I meet in person once in a while with my colleagues, and it’s fun and it deepens the bond. But the relationship thrives primarily online.

My work that happens entirely online is just as deep, demonstrating what I think the internet is good for: equality of access and greater connection and community. I worked on the team that created The Morgan Library’s Music Manuscripts Online, where my daily tasks were highly tactile: I sat in the Morgan’s vault, paging through Mozart and Schumann manuscripts to capture their often confusing pagination for those who could not, like me, see them in the flesh. It’s the best of the internet: connection, democratization, reducing the inherent exclusivity of those physical manuscripts. Yes, the online viewer cannot, as I could, touch the very same paper Mozart had touched (well, not without an appointment and a plane ticket). So there is a loss. But the gain is that they can now have a personal encounter with these composers, and maybe even sense Mozart’s personality in the way he shaped each note.

Robin Muir-Miller

Robin Muir-Miller (1934-2019)

For me, the universe is divided: my little universe of physical proximity and my online universe.

Deep relationships based on written correspondence are as old as pen and paper. The internet can only make this kind of bond easier and more likely. In 2009 I heard from a poet in Australia, Robin Muir-Miller, who had found my compositions on my website. She liked my music, and I liked her poetry. We began exchanging emails about our work and before long we began collaborating as lyricist and composer. Over the course of ten years and many collaborations, we became close friends. She was in her 70s when we met, and confined to a wheelchair by her worsening MS. She became less and less able to read and type on her computer, and she died this past spring. So she was cut off from people physically, and email opened a door. We never met, never even spoke on the phone. It was a relationship between people who would never have met any other way and whose perspectives and interests matched each other unusually closely (despite some heated arguments, from which we both learned a lot). Our collaboration led to the large-scale work This Ravelled Dust: Cantata for a Nuclear Age, premiered in Toronto in 2010, which is for me one of our best and most important works. I wrote about the piece for NewMusicBox in 2011 in response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

All of these examples are about reducing exclusivity and increasing connection and access. I want the world to lay wide open for every thoughtful soul who wants to participate. For me, the universe is divided: On the one hand my little universe of physical proximity, beautiful environs full of tactile experiences, face-to-face human intimacy, not much commuting or traveling, time freed up for living and being. On the other hand my online universe, a rich tapestry of close friendships, interesting interactions, unexpected confluences, joyful professional and artistic opportunities. My iPhone is a happy place. Everything that happens on it is about learning, creating, and human relating. I don’t need a digital detox.

Numerous cartoon renderings of various people showing lines connecting them all to each other.

Image by Gordon Johnson (GDJ) via Pixabay

Let’s Build Better Tools for Being Human Online

I have two specific goals, and I have launched initiatives to test these goals in practice. I’ll talk about those projects in my next two posts, but here is a bit about the goals.

I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it.

First, I want to find viable alternatives to social media as we know it. I have left the big social media platforms and I have invited others to join me. But instead of receding to my local corner, hemmed in by physical proximity, I’m looking for a place online for lay people of every sort and from every possible place, experts together with non-experts in any given topic (see Post 1 for more about experts and non-experts), to share and discuss and learn from each other within new communities. Sites like Meetup.com do not fit the bill because they exclude. I appreciate alternative social media options like MetaFilter and Vero, but I want specific qualities that these platforms don’t focus on in the ways I seek. I also want something different from the ways in which listservs and most online discussion forums work. I am looking for communities that are deliberately small (I love that MetaFilter values this too) — in some cases under ten people per group, in other cases perhaps a few hundred. I believe participation must be rooted in values of opting in, mutual free will, disclosure and permission. Communication online also benefits from being highly structured, with timed and scheduled interactions, in the manner of therapy groups and some online education methods. I also think social media and most current online interaction has the wrong rhythm and that this is a serious flaw — I’ll discuss that in upcoming posts.

Second, I’m an artist and, as I discussed in my first post, I seek a model in which art-making is intimate, on a person-to-person to scale. Where art is organic, growing from interactions that are already taking place about something beyond the art itself. Where art is a secondary but vital element within a community that exists for some other purpose. Where art functions by serving to express and teach the values that guide a community.

These two goals support one another. If we can find ways to push the internet forward and away from ad-based social media, then we can use it to reclaim the intimacy and strength of ancient and proven forms of human relating in small groups. When art naturally has something to serve beyond itself, it grows organically and naturally, imbued with the deep meanings of the community context in which it serves. Such art does not need to seek an audience. It has its home before it is made, and is made because it has a home.

Speak Now: #45miniatures

Several composers have written eloquently on this site about how the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath have affected their work. They’ve advised that ultimately, no matter how paralyzed they feel, it is time to create, even if their job as composers has now changed. Margaret Atwood wrote a great article about what art can, should, or will be made under the current administration. And she makes a good point when she says that the president won’t even notice, rating his interest in the arts somewhere between zero and negative 10 (on a scale from 1 to 100).

I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer.

To me, the result of the election was an “unpresidented” [sic] embarrassment on a global level, and continues to be as we all witness the daily barrage of tantrums and tweets. But I found myself wondering what I could do, as a performer. I felt compelled to do something, and regrettably I had not yet read this great article about what many other performers were up to, or discovered projects such as the Activist Songbook or this hilarious piece.

So, late at night on August 9, 2017 (I’m pretty sure it was after reading about North Korea and how “Trump’s ‘Fire and Fury’ Threat Raises Alarms in Asia”), I turned to the one thing I know I can always count on: sarcasm. I posted on Facebook that I was thinking of commissioning a piece called Suite #45, or potentially writing it myself. I listed a humorous set of possible characteristics (which I’ve also listed here):

  • movements limited to 140 notes, 140 measures, 140 phrases, or other permutations of the Twitter character limit
  • erratic shifts of: character, dynamic, articulation, tempo
  • improvisatory sections that do not relate in any way to the thematic material of the piece, or commonly accepted musical practices. In ANY way.
  • playful/childish outbursts, in the form of “heckler chords” or “bad hombre-like non-chord tones” with shocking key area explorations highly encouraged!
  • “tonality-change” denier (i.e. Anti-Modulation) sympathies
  • structural musical elements in no way qualified to be a part of supporting the administration of the composition
  • short, repeated motifs that are expressed vehemently (but not developed), then forgotten by the average listener at crucial later moments when they could change the appreciation/understanding of the piece
  • a blatantly critical and unwavering sense of self-importance, in the face of wide-spread critical disdain, and limited audience base.

It was a moment of comic relief, shared with my friends. It made me feel better, at least temporarily, and then I went to bed.

People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it.

But something quite unexpected happened. The next morning, there were a lot of notifications on my phone. People loved the idea and encouraged me to actually do it. Having devoted a significant amount of my own professional career over the past decade to contemporary piano music, both in recital programming and through commissioning projects like American Vernacular: New Music for Solo Piano, it seemed like a natural fit. After some thought, I set up an open “Call for Scores” and changed the name to #45miniatures, combining the hashtag styling of Trump’s favorite social media pastime and a word with obvious double entendre implications.

This call was done entirely on Facebook, and 24 composers (including a violist and a pianist!) responded expressing interest. No one cared about a commissioning fee, though I set up a GoFundMe campaign anyway to try and generate some funds to be distributed equally among the composers. As scores started coming in I was – as I always am – amazed by the creativity and craft of the participating composers.

One piece for speaking pianist takes text from the campaign, punctuating each section with “SAD!” Another combines clusters with an increasingly louder, faster chant of “LOCK HER UP!” and incorporates a Dies Irae recitative. There is a toccata that systematically removes all pitches until only Ds are left.

A palindromic chaconne leads to a “wall” in the middle before reversing itself all the way back to the first note. Text from tweets and speeches feature prominently in many, and musical quotations abound (from “If I Only Had a Brain” to our National Anthem). Some are very serious; some are definitely not. These are just a few; you can read about of the pieces I have received to date here.

However, a few things didn’t sit right. First, I began feeling uncomfortable thinking of the project as “mine” in any sort of singular way. Performers often hold tight to the right for a premiere or first recording, and in many cases this makes sense. But #45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends. The mere presence of a body of work in response to this presidency is, in itself, powerful.

#45miniatures isn’t about me. It is about the music and the message it sends.

Second, why should I limit this to composers who happened to have seen the call on my Facebook wall? Many of these people are my friends, but we all know how much is missed on that platform, as Facebook’s algorithms decide what you should see on any given day based on your interactions (or non-interactions) with your friends. Surely there are others who are looking for an outlet like this?

The conclusion I came to was that this really needs to be a collective, open-source project, so I created this #45miniatures website to connect us all. You can read about the project there, and view perusal scores. (Funny story, the sub-heading on the homepage was suggested by the Wix auto template design robots in nanoseconds after seeing my title. I’ve ordered hats, but they are currently held up at customs, due to the trade war.)

Here’s the important part:

Pianists: Want to get involved? Great! You are welcome here. You can peruse any score that I’ve received. See something you like and want to program? Contact the composer and get a score. I don’t have to premiere anything. This music should be programmed and played all over the country and globe. The News/Media section of the website will be a great place to share info about performances and audio/video links.

Composers: Do you have an idea and want to write something after reading this article? Great! Please get in touch. I took everyone who responded to the initial call for scores, and I genuinely welcome as diverse an array of composers as I can possibly have. This is a work in progress, but I would love to eventually see a published book of all the miniatures that come in.

I believe history will be the ultimate judge of this president, but art must be a part of the contemporary response.


Live Streaming 104: Post Stream, Graphics, Licensing, and Live Streaming Through Collaboration

Live streaming is trending, feeding the algorithms, and connecting the world in new ways. If you are already putting forth the effort to create a musical production of any kind, adding another technical layer is very much worth it to share your music, create a community, and market your product. Plus, you will end up with excellent content for blogging, your portfolio, submitting to competitions, and consistent posting to your social media channels.

In my previous three posts, we covered the why, where, and how of successful live streaming. This final article is a sort of postlude, to discuss post-stream content benefits, to clarify some concerns about licensing, copyright, ownership, and agreements, and to encourage you to think beyond the scope of what you are able to do by yourself.

Post-Stream Benefits

There is a segment in Live Streaming 101 about post-stream benefits, but I think it is worth repeating. Once your stream is over, you will have an HD video (saved to your mobile device, camera, or computer) and synced audio. If you have an engineer helping you out, you can master and remix the live audio and re-sync to the video pretty easily at this point as well.

Once the video is polished, if possible, I recommend segmenting the concert by piece and creating a separate video for each piece. I recently did this with three of my short piano pieces from a February 2018 concert at Kalamazoo College, presented with Aepex Contemporary Performance. Instead of bulking them into one video, I cut them into three shorter videos. Here’s what they look like:

Glass Study One
Glass Study Two
Glass Study Three

By having shorter content, this gives me three opportunities to repost to Facebook and Twitter, three opportunities to tag and mention my many collaborators (Kalamazoo College, Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, Aepex Contemporary Performance, Justin Snyder), and listenable examples of my music. I could even make a YouTube playlist of all three, and add to it if I make more videos in the future.

If we quickly dissect the social media impact of three videos, with four partners we can tag, we get 24 sharing points (three videos tagging four pages three times on two social media platforms) which will only be multiplied by the algorithms of social media and the shares made by your friends. These videos can also be featured on your website, and—as mentioned before—emailed to your subscribers. Segmenting videos and delaying the release also allows you to be consistent with your social media presence—taking a singular event and spreading the content out over many months.

There are many ways to spice up your live stream in post-production and they usually include graphics. You can do anything, but the standard for concerts seems to be 1.) a title slide or sequence of title slides, 2.) a bar or graphic in the lower third of the video image that you can use to denote the name/movement of a piece and the performers playing, and 3.) closing slides for crediting performers, funding organizations, and your website. For all of these images, make graphic files the same size as your video resolution.

This brings us to creating graphics for your stream.

Graphics for streaming and post-stream production

Inserting graphic overlays and title slides into a live stream is really only possible using an external encoding program like OBS, Switcher Go, or some other non-mobile tech. It’s a really great effect for your next level professionalism; you can have the concert poster start the stream, followed by composers/performer/piece title bars that overlay the video image, like in this live stream I did for The Gilmore.

To create these graphics—specifically the overlay bar—you need a design program that can create a transparent PNG. I use Canva, a simple online graphic design program. (I do believe that the transparent PNG option is a paid feature.) Once you get past the title slides, designing a piece/composer/performer bar for the lower third of the screen is really easy. My recommendation is that you design it in a 1920 x 1080 pixel format, which is standard HD definition, so when you load the graphics into your streaming software, they automatically fit the HD video image. To create the lower third bar effect, use the same resolution, create your lower third image, then download with a transparent background in PNG format. As always, do your research and make sure you know what your video image resolution is.

If you don’t have the encoder software that allows you to import graphic overlays during the stream, take the time to edit your video post-stream and use these graphics (like I did above) or other video editing software to make your videos look awesome.

Licensing, ownership, and approval

As with all non-public domain music, there are some licensing and copyright issues that can arise with live streaming new music. Questions about this were posed to me at my presentation at the New Music Gathering in Boston this past spring, and thankfully, after an interview with Chris McCormick at BMI, I am fully aware of the concerns that can arise, and the solution to properly and legally address them.

In short, you need to get approval from all composers represented on your concert live stream, and all performers who will be part of your live stream. I recommend drafting up a simple letter of agreement for composers and performers detailing 1.) how much they will be paid 2.) how many services are expected (rehearsals and performances) and 3.) that the performance will be recorded and streamed live, with all planned future uses outlined. It’s important to note that the rights to produce a piece can be controlled by 1.) the composer and publisher or 2.) just the composer. The composers involved should know whether or not to include their publisher if you are unsure.

When your video is uploaded to YouTube, it becomes YouTube’s responsibility to pay the PRO (Performing Rights Organization, like BMI and ASCAP) based on streaming data that it sends quarterly. If you are streaming the music of other composers (which you should already have approval for anyway), YouTube will typically direct the streaming fees to the right places. Of course, this works best for pop acts that accrue more streams and have larger representation. After speaking with Chris at BMI, I learned that Twitter and Facebook are currently working on developing their licenses with the PROs, whereas YouTube has a pretty robust system already, so we may see some future changes in how we credit and control intellectual property in live streams.

Thinking beyond your limitations

After reading these four articles, I hope you have gained a deeper understanding of where to begin your live streaming journey, how to do the research necessary, and how to ask the right questions to start your own streaming. If you get hooked like I did, consider expanding your talents and go a little more pro.

When I started streaming with The Gilmore, I was fortunate to get video work from our upstairs neighbors in Kalamazoo, the Public Media Network. They had the equipment and know how—all we had to provide was clean audio and some direction. After years of cultivation, we have a really great partnership and, through practice, have learned how to get our tech working in the best possible ways to make some great streams. After visiting the streaming room in the basement of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s hall, it was apparent that a high-quality stream needed an entire team of people, and early on, the DSO partnered with Detroit Public TV to make it happen. It made me wonder how many other public media groups are out there with camera equipment and know-how, and how many would be interested in collaborating with local arts groups.

The point of my short story is to encourage you to think of ways to leverage your network to build partnerships and share resources for mutual benefit. When I started working with the Public Media Network in Kalamazoo, we benefited from their robotic controlled multi-camera set up and staff expertise, and they received artistic content for their cable channels and community exposure. It never hurts to seek out local groups and ask. You may be surprised what can come together.

Another option might be to build a sort of streaming consortium that would allow you to pool resources to buy a rig that would work for multiple groups, and you could come together to produce each others’ work.

So don’t limit yourself just because you only have a mobile phone set-up. If you are interested in expanding, seek out collaborators in your community!

End Credits

Thank you for reading this far. Special thanks to my employers, The Gilmore and Kalamazoo College; my video partners Public Media Network; and the New Music Gathering and NewMusicBox for helping me hone my thoughts. Also props to Garrett Hope of the Portfolio Composer for being my first public appearance (here on his podcast) where I spoke about live streaming.

As you can tell, I love talking about this stuff, so please reach out:

Twitter: @schumakera
Or through my website: www.adamschumaker.com

Live Streaming 102: Hosting, Preparing, and Advertising Your Live Stream

For those who are ready to add live streaming to their concert presentations, there are a pile of technical preparations and considerations to think through. Before we delve into the technology behind live streaming, let’s look at where it will be hosted.

Hosting your live video

Make it easy for your existing audience and your potential fans to find your live video by hosting it where they gather, and linking the video to as many other locations as possible.

The goal of live streaming is to reach people. To reach people, go where the people are. More specifically, go where your people are. Make it easy for your existing audience and your potential fans to find your live video by hosting it where they gather, and linking the video to as many other locations as possible. Personally, I have streamed to Facebook Live, YouTube, UStream, and Livestream.com. The DIY composer in me suggests you go with the free services like Facebook and YouTube. The tech-geek administrator in me likes how Livestream.com works. So let’s start with the free services. But before we do that, it’s important to know a bit of technical lingo.

Streaming Connections

In the next installment, we will look at how to stream with iOS and other mobile devices and beyond. Many simple stream connections can be created using just the phone in your pocket, but it’s helpful to be familiar with a different type of connection: RTMP.

Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) is simply the way audio and video are streamed over the internet. All streaming to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter can be done via RTMP. Regardless of what you are using as an encoder, all you need for RTMP streaming is the “server URL” and the “Stream name/key.”

The YouTube menu [YouTube → Creator Studio → Live Streaming] looks like this:

YouTube stream screen

The Facebook menu looks like this:

Facebook create screen

Facebook, YouTube, and paid providers all have RTMP connections. This means that you can stream to the platform without a mobile device. Instead, you can use external cameras that send video to external encoders for fancier multi-camera systems. For the novice, try using a mobile device for your first live streaming projects. For those seeking multi-camera and alternative connections, understand which platforms are able to connect to your encoder via RTMP.

Facebook Live

Facebook Live is a go-to streaming platform because just about everyone is on it. With close to 2 billion users, chances are, most of your friends are on it. Despite recent changes in the algorithm, the delivery system is effective. Plus, people know how to find you and your page, and you, or a social media assistant, can feverishly share the link with other pages once it goes live.

In my experience, although Facebook live is great at reaching people, the watch times are usually less than those captured via other platforms. Maybe it’s because we are all trained to scroll through our Facebook feeds for the next thing, or maybe the compression Facebook applies to the live videos is less appealing. The average Facebook view times have been clocking in around 1 minute per view. I like to think of Facebook Live as pure marketing rather than a true audience connection.

For best practices, including tech specs (which will be covered next week), read this Facebook article.


We typically don’t think of YouTube as a social network, but it is. If you have taken time to recruit subscribers to your channel, they will typically receive notifications when you are live, depending on their personal settings.

YouTube has many perks over Facebook:

1.) When you drive people to your YouTube live link via your other social media accounts and email, they statistically stay longer.

2.) Unlike Facebook, you can embed your YouTube video link into your website, found in the “advanced settings” of the live page.

3.) YouTube can stream at higher resolutions than Facebook’s 720p. Live streams also populate to your YouTube channel for future views, embedding, and sharing.

Twitter & Instagram

These social media platforms are less known for streaming, and honestly less known to me. Perhaps these platforms are ripe with opportunity! For Twitter, read How to create live videos on Twitter. For RTMP streaming to Twitter, read this article. Twitter can also connect directly with Periscope, a streaming network. For Instagram, the live video feature is part of the “stories” section of the app.

All of these networks are less known for music, but as expressed previously, if your audience is there, then by all means stream there!

Paid Hosting Services

When I started streaming with The Gilmore Keyboard Festival, we chose Livestream.com as our video streaming host. This was partially because the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and several other classical music organizations used Livestream.com as their streaming host. At the time, Facebook Live and other young streaming platforms were difficult to access when using a more traditional camera setup, instead of mobile technology.

There are a few good reasons businesses use Livestream.com as a hosting service.

1.) These platforms offer excellent analytics, including time viewed; regions down to country, state, city; ways the stream was accessed; and on what kind of device the stream was viewed.

2.) They can store videos, published or unpublished, and allow the embedding of these videos onto websites.

3.) Simulcasting, which deserves its own header.


Simulcasting is simply the simultaneous broadcasting of the video signal to multiple destinations. Social media platforms do not simulcast. Paid hosting services can. Using Livestream.com as an example, it is possible to send multiple video streams to multiple destinations at the same time. This multiplies the reach of a live stream by however many simulcasts you have access to.

For my work with The Gilmore, we try to gain distribution through the Facebook page of the artist, the venue, presenting partners, as well as our own, resulting in a minimum of four simultaneous live streams. The increase in viewership is impressive.

Interestingly, Livestream.com does not allow simulcasting to YouTube and Facebook, but it does allow YouTube and Twitter, or multiple Facebook pages. It’s also important to note that Livestream.com doesn’t allow RTMP connections without subscribing at one of the highest levels.

In the next article, we will briefly touch upon hard-wiring a simulcast, if you want to step up your live stream reach without purchasing a broadcaster subscription service to do the simulcasting for you.

Reaching Your Audience

With marketing, usually the more you can do, the better. Assuming you are a one-person show or a small team, I recommend marketing your live stream alongside your live performance, in as many digital places as you can.

Facebook Events are a great way to connect with your friends on Facebook, and remind them that they can join the event from afar because it will notify them of the live stream. The live stream link and info can also be posted inside the event. Facebook also keeps great stats. More importantly, if you can get a few people to co-host your event on Facebook, you will greatly expand your reach, your ability to invite audiences in your hosts’ networks, and you will also have multiple destinations for your stream (on the co-hosts’ pages).

Twitter is more immediate, so a little pre-tweeting and then live tweeting during your event, with links to the stream, can help move online traffic to your live stream.

Email is still a powerful source of reaching people. If you haven’t already started a virtual mailing list, now is a great time to do so! Emailing your audience about the concert, including the live stream link prior to and near the time of the event, will help bolster your stream audience.

Blog about your concert and live stream. If you cannot get an interview on a friend’s blog, a local media interview (radio/tv/podcast), or an article in a reputable publication, then you must do it yourself! Create an interesting discussion about your upcoming concert and make sure to including streaming links, and how and where to launch the live stream.


There are many places to host your live stream. It can be overwhelming. I recommend you find the platform where your audience is, and host your streams there so they are accessible to the most people who support you. Then make sure you review the ins and outs of creating a live stream on your desired platform. Next week, we will cover the technology behind DIY live streaming, including some tech suggestions that I have personally used or researched.

Live Streaming 101: Why Live Stream?

When I jumped into live streaming in 2013, I had no idea what I was doing—and my first stream featured a world-renowned pianist performing in a packed hall. The Gilmore Keyboard Festival, where I am on staff, was presenting a concert to the community featuring Kirill Gerstein. Because the concert was being offered free to the public, someone at a staff meeting asked, “Can we live stream this concert?” And from the silence, I blurted out, “Yes!”

You can watch segments of the 4:3 / 480p video here:

At the time, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had been live streaming concerts for two years. Today, they are a leader in classical music live streaming, presenting around 30 concerts a year online. At The Gilmore, however, live streaming repeatedly brought up one major concern. This concern resonated throughout the office, though I didn’t believe it to be true:

If we offer the concert for free online, won’t it negatively impact ticket sales?

Despite this resistance, streaming a concert live to the internet became a small obsession of mine. With some help from the local Public Media Network, great audio engineers, and the world-class performances at The Gilmore, I managed to get our concerts online, with high-quality audio and multi-camera shoots.

As I gained experience managing small teams of videographers and audio engineers, I learned the ins and outs of the technology, the philosophy, and the social media impact. I even found ways to live stream my own new music concerts—without breaking the bank.

Building off my presentation at the New Music Gathering in Boston this year, during the month of June, I will explore why to live stream, preparing and advertising a live stream, the technology behind various live streaming set-ups, and how to begin collaborating with individuals or organizations to maximize reach and impact.

Why live stream?

If you somehow missed the memo, video consumption is, and has been, on the rise. In 2017, Facebook Live broadcasts quadrupled and 3.25 billion hours of video are watched on YouTube each month. From a marketing perspective, having video content is a no-brainer. But live streaming is a little different.

Live streaming—the act of broadcasting an event in real-time—gives us the unique opportunity to capitalize on the energy of a live performance, while enabling others outside of our community to participate. With advances in technology, it has also become increasingly easy to broadcast live video to the internet.

By live streaming our music, we gain the following:

  1. Expansion of reach and visibility (marketing, social media, locations, networks)
  2. Accessibly for both our current audience and potential future audience
  3. Increasing trust and loyalty from our fans
  4. Excellent content for later use (YouTube channel, website, grant proposals, sharing)

But what about the impact on ticket sales? This is where you need to trust your audience. I would argue that most people are cognizant of the uniqueness of a live concert experience. Given a choice and with no outside barriers, most people would choose a live event over a video version of it. By offering live streams of your events at no charge, you are trusting that the audience members you have will continue to buy tickets if they can. The benefit of the stream then becomes the ability to engage the dedicated fans who just couldn’t be there (thus allowing them to continue to participate in the experience), while also potentially reaching future audience members who are not fans—yet.

FOMO and concert attendance

Although research is limited, current case studies and surveys point to the same conclusion: after watching a live-streamed concert, viewers are more likely purchase tickets to future concerts. It’s like giving a sample of something delicious at Costco.

It’s important to note that many reports come from service providers like Livestream.com, who are trying to sell their services. Still, according to their 2017 survey, “67% of viewers are more likely to buy a ticket to a similar event after watching a live video.” The idea is simple: viewing a great live stream allows current fans to engage with a concert they would probably not have been able to attend otherwise, and allows potential fans to get a sample of a live event they may want to attend in the future. You are building community.

You’re also working off two sides of FOMO. If you’ve managed to avoid current slang and abbreviations, FOMO is the “fear of missing out.” Regardless of what one thinks about FOMO’s powers of motivation, it is a factor at work that everyone on social media experiences at some level. By live streaming your concerts, you can increase FOMO for those who are on the fence about attending your upcoming programming. On the other hand, you may also be able to dissipate some of those FOMO feelings via the live stream by giving your dedicated fans a way to participate, despite not being there.

Post-Stream Benefits

After the live-stream event (and the real-life concert), the video lives on, and some algorithms, like those on Facebook, perpetuate the views for a short while, reminding people of what they missed the night before. If you captured audience emails at your concert, you could send attendees a thank you email with a link to the video. You can also send the video to friends and colleagues who couldn’t be there.

The most important post-stream benefit is the content you’ve created. If you get the chance to clean and mix the audio and re-sync to the video, you have an entire concert to segment into individual pieces for your YouTube channel, your website, portfolio submissions, etc.


  1. Make sure all content stakeholders are aware and in agreement about how the captured media will be used and distributed well in advance.
  2. Don’t repost the entire concert in full. Only keep the entire performance video up as a result of the live stream.
  3. Segment out individual pieces and create a lead in and a closer for each video, with proper credits to performers, composers, and technicians as text overlays.
  4. Develop a channel/page where all of your media lives.
  5. Use the reposting of video content to strategically activate your social media or blog/newsletter presence.

Upcoming articles

Next week, we will discuss technical preparation, advertising, basic artist agreements, and a complete guide to hosting your stream on different platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter/Periscope, and other streaming hosting services.

Uncomfortably Serious and Disarmingly Fun: The Irreplaceable Matt Marks

[Ed note: On May 11, 2018, the composer, performer, and new music organizer Matt Marks, 38, died unexpectedly in St. Louis. Testimonials from friends and colleagues sharing reflections on his humor, candor, and inspiring work as a music maker have poured in across social media where Matt was a vibrant, pull-no-punches presence. Perhaps illustrating the far reach of his impact, many of these messages were prefaced with variations of “I only met him IRL once, but our friendship here meant so much to me.” Online and off, Matt Marks was a point of community connection, and the absence of his voice—especially in the days leading up to the annual New Music Gathering he helped to found—has been difficult for many. Reflecting on this vital role he played in the field, Will Robin offered to share this interview he conducted with Marks in 2015. Spending a bit more time in the company of Matt’s conversation seemed a perfect way to celebrate him. Acknowledgments to Ted Hearne for the title inspiration.—MS]

As a historian of the recent past, I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to speak with the musicians whom I study. Most of the composers and performers I interviewed for my dissertation on the so-called “indie classical” scene were in their late twenties to early forties; I never thought to worry that a subject might pass away before we could talk. That one of them died last week is an unfathomable tragedy, from which the world of new music is still reeling. Matt Marks seemed like the kind of composer who would simply exist forever, whose presence would always be palpable. From his work as a founding member of Alarm Will Sound, to his heartfelt and hilarious compositions, to his organizational efforts with New Music Gathering, to his sardonically prolific Twitter account, it was impossible to overlook Matt or his essential role in the new music community.

In September 2015, I spoke with Matt in the sunny Brooklyn apartment that he shared with Mary Kouyoumdjian, a fellow composer who would become his fiancée, and their menagerie of adorable pets. I was primarily interested in his role in the scene around New Amsterdam Records, the label that released his first album, which was a main subject of my dissertation. The condensed interview transcript that you read below thus focuses primarily on Matt’s life, and less on his music; I hope that the many tributes that we will surely be reading in the coming weeks equally emphasize his compelling artistry. But what I think it does address, importantly, is that community doesn’t just “happen”: it requires the tireless labor of people like Matt to make it happen.

For me, despite—or perhaps because of—the incisive humor and postmodern irony that swirled through his music and writing, at the core of Matt’s work was a willingness to be publicly vulnerable, and to provide his listeners and readers with a sense of his entire self. This is maybe why it’s so hard to feel his absence, especially for those of us who primarily knew him virtually. His sometimes-insightful, sometimes-stupid, always-entertaining tweets are all still there; his music is so insistently written in his own voice, with his own voice. All you have to do is check your timeline and cue up his Soundcloud, and there he is again. On our screens, in our ears, in our presence.

Here is our conversation.

Matt Marks, a.k.a mafoo

Will Robin: Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background, up until college?

Matt Marks: I don’t come from a musical background. My dad owned an auto place and my mom worked with him. It was very much a car family: my brother was into cars, worked with them, my dad raced cars, all of that. I’m from Downey, California, so like L.A. I started taking piano lessons in second grade and got pretty into that but was never really a pianist-pianist, just played and had a good facility for it. And then in sixth grade I started French horn. When I got into high school I started getting more serious with horn, and actually the first big thing I did was—kind of out of the blue—auditioned for the LA Philharmonic High School Honor Orchestra, the first year they did that. I won first chair French horn. That kind of gave me a big ego boost, to “Oh, maybe this is something serious.” I joined more orchestras around there and did a bunch of playing: it was very much horn, horn, horn, classical music, Mahler, everything like that. In high school, I had my Stravinsky thing; I listened to The Rite of Spring and had my mind blown. That was a big thing for me, hearing The Rite of Spring. At this point, I was still pretty ignorant of new music or new music groups, or whether that could be a thing.

I went to Eastman. I did my undergrad there in horn. Like a lot of classical musicians, I started off trying to be really good at my instrument, and not necessary being like, “I’m going to win a job,” but just like, “I guess that’s what I’m supposed to do.” Practicing horn a lot, playing horn a lot, and trying to win auditions and placements at Eastman, stuff like that. My sophomore or junior year, I played the Ligeti Piano Concerto and that kind of blew my mind, and that was this thing for me of like, “Holy shit, this is a new type of music that I don’t even understand yet.” I did a rare thing for me, which was I took the score to the library and was like, “I’m going to sit down and listen to this because it looks really hard.” And then I got lost on the first page. I was like, “What the fuck is going on?” Which is funny, now, because I listen to it and I’m like, “This is such an easy piece,” [hums and snaps the rhythms] but for some reason there was so much going on in the 12/8 and 4/4 stuff that I couldn’t follow it. I practiced it and learned it: in the horn part there are a lot of microtonal partials and stuff like that, which is something I eventually got kind of into. Within two to three years, I went from “Holy shit. What the fuck is Ligeti? How do I do this?” to then soloing on the Ligeti horn concerto at Miller Theatre for the New York premiere of that, and that was one of Alarm Will Sound’s first gigs. That was my senior year, so that would have been 2002.

WR: What was your involvement at the beginning of Alarm Will Sound, which developed out of Ossia, the student new music ensemble at Eastman?

MM: We came to New York, did that [Miller Theatre concert], and it was a success. I think we got a good review. So that was the first kind of like, “Oh, man, maybe we can actually be a thing.” At that point, there was Kronos Quartet, there was Eighth Blackbird, there was California Ear Unit, and a bunch of string quartets. And from my perspective, all the other chamber groups were people who tried to play CMA [Chamber Music America], and tried to just be a chamber group and play colleges, and play hard music or whatever, or French wind quintets or whatever, or brass quintets—I was very plugged into brass quintets, and that was pretty bro-y. What’s your instrument?

WR: Saxophone.

MM: Oh yeah, sax quartets, you know, all that shit. And there’s something really beautiful, but also kinda bro-y about traditional chamber groups—I don’t know, whatever, there’s probably something bro-y about new music groups. When we started, Alan [Pierson] and Gavin [Chuck] were like, “We want to make this a real thing, an actual group with members.” And I was like, “Sure!” But I also had no idea whether that would stick or what. I graduated and then went to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music for a year, so I was like, “Sure, if you want to fly me down to play some gigs, okay,” and they did. And that was our first year where we had somewhat of a season, and it was weird because I was in London the whole time so I would just periodically fly back. I left and moved back to the states, first to New Haven and then to New York. I moved to New York in 2004, and from then on it was kind of like, “Okay, now I’m here” and it was actually a pretty interesting time to be in New York for new music groups and shit like that.

You know, I’m your typical composer narcissist so I can just keep talking about myself: feel free to stop me.

I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever.

WR: What was it like starting out in New York?

MM: It was pretty shitty for a few years. I knew just a few people in the city, and I was like, “I guess what I’m supposed to do is try to hound gigs, just make friends with horn players and brass players and bro out, and try to get gigs.” And I did that to a certain extent, but it was never really my thing. I wasn’t really particularly interested in playing random orchestral gigs, and eventually working my way up to getting a Broadway show and playing Mama Mia or whatever. So I pretty soon off decided that wasn’t the track for me, or at least I tried for a while and was like “I don’t have the heart for this. This is not my thing.” It took me a couple years, but I started meeting more people who were involved in new music. I eventually went to Stony Brook for a master’s in horn. At that time, I was starting to write music more—mainly electronic music and weird noise music on my sampler, and building my confidence for like, “Maybe eventually this will be something that’s not just on my headphones.”

At that point, there were maybe about seven Alarm Will Sounders living in the city. We started playing together and doing our own things. I started playing with Caleb [Burhans] and stuff. [Soprano Mellissa Hughes] was like, “Oh, you’re making music. You should keep doing that, and I’ll sing on some of it.” So we started working together. And after a few years, we had A Little Death, Vol. 1, my weird pop opera. That just came out of my weird sample pieces and pop pieces, and having an actual good singer to sing on it. I had that and recorded it and didn’t really know what I was going to do with all that material. Around that that time I started writing more for instruments—Mellissa, myself, and James Moore started this weird chamber group called Ensemble de Sade. It was basically this S&M-themed chamber ensemble, but it was also kind of satirical and making fun of itself. This was at that time when – I guess we’re still in that time – when classical music was all about tearing down the borders between audience and performers. Performers were trying to dress more casually, inviting people from the audience to join them. And we were generally into the idea, but we had this idea of being this satirical ensemble that was the opposite of that, like “Fuck that, there should be more distance! The audience is beneath us and we’re the top, and they’re lucky to be here!” So we put on a couple performances where we all dressed in tuxes and we were all super slick looking. We came out and we would be mean looking, play shit and finish and just leave, and not even acknowledge the audience. We had this dominatrix who would instruct the audience when to clap, and they weren’t allowed to clap unless she told them. We had all these restrictions on them—they had assigned seating, they couldn’t sit near their friends, they were really far from each other. I had been reading a bunch of Marquis de Sade at the time, and so this idea came from 120 Days of Sodom. The audience was seated, and they were super restricted and couldn’t talk, and if they did she would yell at them—she had a switch and shit. And then we had this separate section that was a VIP section with friends of ours. We let them sit there and we let them talk, and gave them food and wine. Some of the people who came were pissed about it, but some were like, “OK, I’m in a theatrical thing.” We did a few of those and that was pretty fun, and through that, basically, Ensemble de Sade and Newspeak, the two of us formed the New Music Bake Sale.

Marks on stage

Marks on stage with Mary Kouyoumdjian (left) and Lainie Fefferman
Photo by Tina Tallon

WR: What appealed to you about New Amsterdam Records—which released The Little Death, Vol 1.—and its scene?

I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it.

MM: It’s less of a scene as in like, everybody’s going to the same concerts all the time and hanging out, and bro-ing out. It’s more that they tapped into something interesting that was happening in the mid/late 2000s that seemed pretty cool. And it’s funny, because we talk about it in the past tense because maybe it’s not as much of a thing anymore? But I am interested in this idea of classical music that is appealing to people who weren’t bred to appreciate it. I like this idea of classical music, or pop music written by classical musicians, that is a little bit more immediately appealing to people who aren’t trained to understand how classical music works. That doesn’t mean I think that that’s the only music there should be or anything like that, but I think that the people involved in New Amsterdam are all people who are very interested in pop and involve it in their work in some way. Some people more explicitly than others, I think. Some people take ideas from pop music and involve them in music that’s clearly written in a modernist tradition, or in a classical tradition. And some people like me are more explicit with it, where it’s like, “We’re going to make music that’s pretty much like pop, but with influences from outside of pop.” I think that’s interesting, and it was a unique movement or scene or whatever for a while. I think it got pigeonholed by a lot of people outside of New York and also in New York as being like, “Oh, we’re going to make classical music more fun – or more accessible.” I think a lot of people think that it was really focused on accessibility, or trying to be hip.

WR: What were the early New Amsterdam shows you performed in like?

MM: The vibe at that time at a lot of these things was playing for people or going to their shows to support them, but also, “Oh, this will be genuinely good so I’m going to go check this out.” With Little Death, when we did it and I had the small choir, I think I paid them $100 or something like that. I don’t know if that’d be possible now. That was 2010, and those people are now touring all over the world and shit, or teaching at USC. There was something kind of special about that. We got like a hundred bucks for it, but it was a day’s work and it was fine. I do feel a little bit like it’s gotten a bit spread out though: there’s not the same feeling of everybody’s going to come to everybody’s show and everybody’s going to play on everybody’s show.

WR: How has the new music scene changed since you’ve been active in it?

MM: I’ve been in New York eleven years as of September. It’s funny. I feel like I’ve gotten a bit disconnected from it, mainly because I’ve become more involved in my own things, and I’m also kind of a horrible homebody. It’s hard to get me to go out. In the event I have children of my own, I’m a little worried, because I won’t go to any shows. I always find a reason to miss shows. What are the scenes right now that I think are cool? I really dig the vibe of Hotel Elefant, Mary [Kouyoumdjian]’s scene.It’s a good mix. They tend to be younger—late 20s, early 30s. I guess I like that vibe a lot because, similarly to how I was maybe five years ago or whatever, people are just willing to try shit out and do things, and they aren’t necessarily worried about like, “Okay, this many rehearsals means I need to get paid this much and blah blah blah.” There’s a lot of vitality with younger people, because even though they have less economic freedom, they’re just down to do weird shit.

WR: What are the most interesting things you’re seeing these days?

MM: I think San Francisco will be seeing more cool stuff. The fact that we did New Music Gathering there was really interesting. There’s a ton of stuff happening in San Francisco, and when we were there, a lot of it came on our radar and we were like, “Oh wow, this is great.” We’ll see what happens in Baltimore, but I know that there’s a lot happening there. Part of what we’re trying to do with New Music Gathering is to be like, “Hey, there are all these really great scenes. Let’s go to these places.” Rather than just be like, “Let’s do it in New York where we live.” Let’s go to these places that have these interesting scenes and shine the light on them and let them show the world what they’ve got, and also have other people there too.

WR: What do you think is the significance of the entrepreneurship rhetoric that’s become a significant part of the discussion in classical and new music?

MM: It’s a tricky thing, because I do think that it’s really important to think creatively about how you’re going to run the business that is either yourself or your ensemble or your label or whatever it is, and I think people are getting better at doing that. And I think that’s something that sadly hasn’t been really taught at schools at a practical level. Schools have their entrepreneurship program or arts leadership program which, if you’re a horn player and you’re there to play the horn, you just don’t engage with. I would have gladly foregone taking the mandatory humanities class that I didn’t care about at all to take a class on how to put on a show, how to program a concert, how to schedule rehearsals. That could be a fucking semester class, just scheduling rehearsals. The most stress in my life is about scheduling rehearsals, promoting things. That’s terrifying, and I just learned it from being in New York and doing it the wrong way for ten years. That said, I don’t think you can think too capitalistically with it. Classical music, I don’t know how well it would ever survive as something that is purely capitalistic, purely something people just spend money on.

WR: Those are all my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

MM: Who do you want me to talk shit about?

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders

The New Music Gathering Co-Founders: Matt Marks, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Daniel Felsenfeld, Lainie Fefferman, and Jascha Narveson
Photo by Tina Tallon

On Big Questions of Creativity and Intention

or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine.

As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable.  It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s now been for years, with a cast of players who are more or less successful in navigating the subtle side of the #winning game that varies depending on your own feed.  Once in a while, still, it’s DesperationBook, with an alarming call for help nestled in there after LookAtWhatBabyFedPuppyBook posts (that might just be my very helpful personal algorithms at work, knowing what I will definitely click on), but we’re in an era of savvy self-marketers who are constantly improving our posts Content™ and protecting our online fake persona Brand™.  Facebook is not for musings on self-harm (or even, yes, suicide, back in the day) anymore. Now we know better, somehow: that’s just not what our friends? Audience™ wants to see.

Too cynical?  Sure it is.  Also it isn’t really the point of this missive.  We each have our own way with each of these soc med platforms. Twitter has turned into Land Of Dark Thoughts Quickly Typed in recent months, for example, although I don’t deny the geniuses in our midst. But it has seemed that for the entire 2010s thus far, Facebook has been a place for composers and co. (whether to chat, laugh, share work, share opportunities, discuss musical issues, discuss politics, fight like hell) to come together.  The same is true for actors, string players, academics, doctors, and bankers, to some extent, I’m assuming.  But for composers, or for the several hundred spread over six continents whom I’m FBfriends with, at any rate, it has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night. Our lot, as a rule, doesn’t congregate.  The quartet or troupe or surgery team needs to be in the room, together.  We work best alone, no matter what TV comedy writers have to say about the creative process, and we know that from years of trying to write with a hangover.  We don’t, en masse, otherwise come together.  Maybe this place is our water cooler.

For composers, Facebook has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night.

For me personally, I can safely * though not proudly * say that a day going by without me checking FB has been a rarity in the last five years.  I’m a freelancer who works from home, and so in that time, my days of not leaving the house or speaking to another person (esp. while in deadline/work-trance mode) have outnumbered my no-social-media days by the dozens or hundreds.  I say, without too much embarrassment, that most of my hours are spent in solitude, never more so than in the past few years since I’ve moved to a new city.  I go on Facebook and the like to dial in.  I very much suspect that I’m not the only professional scribbler to do so.   Even so, this recent sour mood at the virtual party felt like just too much, so several weeks ago and a bit on a whim, I quit, cold-turkey style, for a full seven days.  Apps off phone, bookmarks flicked away.  I realized what an incredible habit I’d acquired, but also that after three days, I felt just fine about what I didn’t know about everyone else.  I missed #metoo and #notallmen entirely.

A lower case f (the Facebook logo) surrounded by a collection of pills and tablets.

But what to do when it was time to log back in?  I headed straight for one of my old personal standbys, SnarkBook, announcing that I was back and did you miss me and that I was so happy not to have missed anything!  Since then, I’ve not reloaded apps or pages so as to make them easy to get to, and have remained pleased with my Newly Distant Daddy involvement.  But on day two, without really giving it too much thought, I went to an old trope in terms of my posts:

A screenshot of a Facebook Post by Sean Shepherd from October 25, 2017 at 5:25pm. The full text of the post is printed directly below in the body of the article.

Here’s a composer question for composers:

Looking back on all of your work, and trying to be objective about it*, do you feel that the pieces that had some special emotional significance to you while you were writing them resulted in (objectively*) better music?

Are the ones we want to be the best really the best?

*understood as probably not possible

I find that the “composer question for composers” post pops up every few days, somewhere on my feed, although sometimes in statement form.  Generally, it’s coming from a fairly personal place for the author, although some like to rouse the rabble and say something #controversial once in a while. Although as I say, I read a lot of outrage from people who appear to agree with each other these days, so the “Beethoven(/Brahms/Mahler/Boulez) sucks” comments, being too hot to touch (even if they are about dead people who really can’t hear them) have been on the dwindle.  Instead, they range from shoptalk to the downright philosophical in terms of content (the threads that veer into style can turn into 500-comment monsoons and are just downright poisonous. Sad!).  My occasional forays into the genre seem no different.  Whether off the top of the noggin (“Just heard Copland Dickinson Songs – still genius! I’d forgotten. Had you?” or a musi-business bone-to-pick thing), or a strongly worded, fiercely grandstanding COMPOSED POST about gender and programming, I realize: Okay, yes I do want to talk about this stuff sometimes.   And whenever that seems apparent, from anyone, it seems like the group is eager to jump in.

I found the response to my composer question for composers, after a week away from AngryBook, to be unexpectedly delightful.  In addition to the many composers, those who could relate—writers, performers, and others—also joined in, almost immediately.  I asked and ran—never really offering my own thoughts—and returned after some time only find a whole world of perspective.  Over the next 24 hours, there were more than 50 comments, from the casual “Nope” to the poetic, with sprinkles of the typical self-congratulation and snark we can surely expect from any bunch of composers so gathered.  Yet, it has also dawned on me: never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

Never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

This was especially interesting to me in this case, given my hasty choice and inclusion of several words that I know very well will shut a room full of composers right up.  Words like “objective,” “best,” and “emotional” are hot, hot words amongst us, a group that would disagree as to their meaning before even getting into their usage.  Had I really formulated a Serious Question for Serious Thought And Conversation, I would have likely afforded myself the time to, well, basically dodge the question.   Aye!—there’s the rub.  Facebook isn’t the place for formal questions and stilted answers, both designed to impress our colleagues (and besides, I’m well out of grad school. * taps mic *  Is this thing on?). These words were about me—me, a composer.  Hey, you, a composer, what are your thoughts?  And hi, it’s your old pal Sean. Use all the dangerous words you want; it’s only Facebook.  Let’s communicate, right here in public.

A tasseled graduation cap atop a blue box containing a white lower case f (the Facebook logo).

“Best” in music is a danger word.  My conservatory education, which at times consisted of preposterously idiotic nuggets—such as “Brahms is the best and also Tchaikovsky is not the best”—presented as some kind of acceptable canonic knowledge, is a constant reminder for me of danger words like best.  Six minutes after my post, John Glover, who I’ve known since he was 18 and I not too much older, was on to me.  “Asking to make the ‘best’ is usually a recipe for disaster. The only thing I find consistently helpful is maintaining a feeling of softness and curiosity.”  Andrew McManus soon sought further clarification: “Do you really mean ‘the best’ piece, or ‘the most successful at accomplishing the goals of that particular work’?”

It occurred to me: yes, “best” is a dangerous word, and I don’t often use it when talking about other’s work.  (Is Daphnis Ravel’s best work? Yes. Is Gaspard Ravel’s best work? Yes. Useless, even to throw opinions around with.) But also: yes, I most definitely mean “best” when I’m talking about my own.  I have a best piece (perhaps, but not necessarily, my most significant piece), and that is how I choose to think about it.  I’m thoroughly aware that within my own body of work, I can point to “good” and “bad” moments as I choose to see them, and for the sake of my work, I most certainly apply scrutiny and criticism to everything I make.   I do let it bog me down, I do wish I could be better at the job, and I most certainly wish my best was better—I’m an optimist in the hope that my best does in fact get better.  It’s an important part of my daily working process—making “good” work to feel good about the work I make.  But I’m also old enough to see that we eventually just become more aware of our own limitations.  And yet I hear John’s message and Andrew’s context loud and clear—a little softness and curiosity could go well with all that awareness.

Predictably, though, throughout the discussion, the hotter, deeper buzzword-topic—that big one—was emotion.  Again, my minds drifts back toward my education—music and emotion; emotion and music—this could get out of hand so very quickly!  I also think of the 15 years that I sat in seminar rooms with mostly straight white men and all of my years of weekly lessons with teachers who were nearly all straight white men, and how comfortable I felt in discussing my emotional world and its connections to my attempted artmaking.  Which is to say: I was not.  Usually they, also, were not.  But I was lucky with those men. Once in while we were able to open up, and I could talk about what I was really talking about. Thank god for that.  But much more often there were other things that were easier to discuss—for Xenakis, design, for Messiaen, harmony, etc. Talking about the Greek War of Independence or a deeply held Catholicism could get messy and speculative and VERY not-objective.  Let’s look at the notes!

For a performer, dealing with emotion is an intrinsic part of one’s education. On stage, emotion will not be denied.  We each have seen all manner of trajectory in front of our eyes—from good to great to sublime, from bad to worse, general lethargy, general mania—guided simply by responding to a performer’s emotional state in live performance.  Their training in channeling the energy for the better begins as soon as they pick up a bow.  But as a general topic of interest to composers, it’s one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects we, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.  As a result, when a composer says they are not emotionally connected to the work they make, I tend to believe them.  Emotion is for others. We’ve just been diligently putting notes on a page, by ourselves, for months. Please, anyone else, emote away!  With passion, please!

Emotion is one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects composers, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.

On the question of a personal emotional connection to the music during composition, there were great guns in the conversation threads throughout, first from Dalit Warshaw: “I find that one’s perspective toward one’s music is constantly in flux, and that—when revisited after a respite of (even) years—new wisdoms, about one’s self, the nature of one’s writing, continually emerge… Re your question: I’ve wondered the same thing, and do tend to think it may be the case, perhaps because, when deeply in touch with one’s emotions, one is perhaps also more in touch with one’s creative intuition and inner freedom. The trick, I think, is to be like a Method actor in finding the emotional sincerity in every work one writes.”  Alan Fletcher agrees with the idea of flux over time, writing “very often the pieces I doubted most in composition reveal themselves to me as better than I thought—not always, though. And pieces I am enthusiastic about during composition come to seem too obvious, or something…. I’m not talking about the motivation for the work, just the impression I have of how well it’s going. But I do find a correlation with works written from a deep emotional impulse and works that end up satisfying me in the end.”

Reynold Tharp is acutely aware of this turbulent connection.  “My best pieces are the ones in which I had some kind of strong emotional engagement with the compositional process and the desired affective or expressive character,” he says.  “Also often they’re the pieces during which I oscillate the most between thinking they’re great and thinking they’re awful as I’m working on them. If I don’t have an emotional connection with the idea of the piece or what I feel I can do within the limits of the project or medium, it will almost always end up being a weaker piece. Of course, even the more strongly felt pieces all have their flaws too…”  John Mackey has found his balance by looking outward, writing, “I think my best two pieces are the two that I wrote about loss—but not my own. Putting myself into an empathetic place about somebody else’s loss gave me just enough distance to still approach the pieces with craft first, rather than simply emoting on the page.”

For Clare Glackin, the process is not easy to pinpoint, saying, “I think it comes down to what I call “essence”—kind of hard to define but I use this word to describe the soul of a piece—the specific mood or aura or thing that the piece is expressing that’s hard to put into words. The things I’ve written that have been most emotionally significant to me have stronger essences. And to me a stronger essence almost always equals a better piece, as long as the composer has the skill to realize their intention. Without a specific essence, the music might be decent but it is more generic and boring than it would be otherwise.”

I do believe the stakes change with the task/piece at/in hand, and Matthew Peterson’s comment resonated for me and brought the conversation back to earth a little: “I always have to like and be enthralled in some way by what I create, but it’s hard to write a funky, weird baritone sax solo ‘from the heart’ or some sort of inner investment.”  It reminded me that we can’t always be sure what we are or aren’t saying or how from the heart we really are.  I recently heard a piece for the first time in years, one I finished in 2011 in the wake of a mutually devastating breakup with a longtime boyfriend.  In no way connected in my mind at the time, the first thing that occurred to me upon hearing it again: “Whoa Nelly, that is some real Breakup Music™!”  Jefferson Friedman hit that nail on the head:  “Not to be reductive, but honestly all the best ones were about a girl.”

Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?

And what of the answers to my million-dollar question?  Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?  A sea of noes flooded the comments early on.  Marcos Balter went further: “Actually, my best ones are almost always the ones I composed the fastest, without thinking much of them.”  But the yeses began to balance the scales; Felipe Lara wrote that, for him, “my favorite ones of mine are the ones I work on the hardest—sort of opposite of Marcos.”  Felipe and I also share the same attending secondary fear.  If the answer is yes, that the pieces we are the most ambitious about, or attached to, confused/rattled by, are in fact for us, the (non-objective) best—is it only because we want them to be?

A group of seven rectangular box-shaped crayon sticks in different colors (from left to right: red, orange, yellow, light green, sky blue, dark blue, and purple); a white lower case f (the Facebook logo) appears on the front of the penultimate one (the one in dark blue).

Like others in ComposerBook land, I wrote the post simply because I was confronting the question myself.  I was going through something (part of a bigger story for me as I’ve struggled with blocks and with finishing “special” pieces for special occasions for several years now).  I reached out into the ether and found more perspective and commiseration (including from those I’ve barely met in person, or haven’t seen in many years) than I should have reasonably expected.  Social media, as it’s slowly morphed and grown up and changed, has guided our online behaviors as well.  This was a normal day online in 2017, yet wouldn’t have been possible even in the FB of 2009, when it was five years old.  For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, and I’m not stepping anywhere near the global/political issues that are coming into focus here, I can see that my relationship to this community of my colleagues is partially facilitated by the daily feed.  If I were pressed about it, I’d say: yes, I’m glad it’s around.

For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, I’m glad it’s around.

In the end, did I find an answer for myself?  No.  I don’t know if the pieces I truly want to be good really are good simply because that’s what I want.  However, I know that for me it’s not about what others like or don’t about it.  I definitely am okay with holding the outsider opinion on a piece of my own (and yes, many of us certainly have), whether it’s thumbs up or thumbs down.  I like the Mies van der Rohe line, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” It fits my temperament and ideas about why I should do this and not some other thing with all the remaining solitary-ish days of my life.  Best, though, is yet another category.  If we really only have one best piece, or moment, or gesture, or note in our whole lives, then the likelihood of us writing it today is low.   How relaxing—what a relief!  I’ll do as well as I can today and try (and fail) not to obsess too much about it. Then I’ll just click right here and see what’s new on Netflix…

Sean Shepherd, an occasional contributor to New Music Box since 2006, is currently in deadline/work-trance mode on a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Top 10 Things to Know About Social Media Marketing

In my first post, I explained some of the basics of publicity and branding—the story of your music and how it’s told. I also gave some guidance on media relations and how you can try to work with other people to get them to tell your story to their audiences.

For this post, I’d like to talk about social media and digital marketing—something that many musicians dismiss as shallow self-promotion, a waste of time, or something they’ll never understand.

But it’s none of these things. Social media is something remarkable that represents an absolute sea change in our industry.

I urge you to think of social media not as a thorn in your side or something you keep pushing down the to-do list, but rather as an extraordinary opportunity to build a community of supporters around your music that you can communicate to directly with complete control over what you say, as well as when and how you say it.

This communication is a two-way street. You can get real-time feedback that once upon a time would have been impossible. And in the same way that people can come to your social media to learn about you, you can learn about your supporters—where they’re based, what their demographic makeup is, what they respond to most, and much more.

In the interest of demystifying social media and giving some concrete advice on how to manage it, below are the ten things I feel any musician must know.

1. Facebook Is the Most Important Platform

If you’re going to pick one social media platform, Facebook is the one to go with.

Many musicians avoid social media simply because of the overwhelming number of platforms available to them and the feeling that maintaining a presence on all of them will require too much time and energy.

Social media doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing game. While it’s certainly better to be on as many platforms as possible (more on that further down), it’s far better to focus on one platform and do it well, rather than do a bunch of them poorly.

And if you’re going to pick one social media platform, Facebook is the one to go with, for the following reasons:

  • Users: With nearly 2 billion users, it is by far the dominant platform across the globe (though there are other country-specific competitors, like China’s WeChat or Russia’s VKontakte).
  • Content: Facebook has the most sophisticated platform in terms of the different kinds of media you can post (text, photos, video, links, etc.), and how people can interact with those posts. As a marketing tool, it has none of the limitations of platforms like Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat.
  • Data: The analytics and statistics you can get from Facebook are more sophisticated than any other platform, and if read correctly (see #7 below) can give you amazing insight into your followers.
  • Paid Advertising: Facebook has the most complex advertising options available to its users, allowing you to target existing and potential users in ways that none of the others can even come close to.

As an extension of your professional music career, Facebook is heads and tails above the rest. And speaking of professional…

2. Personal vs. Professional Social Media

Everyone loves cat photos, but your professional social media profiles aren’t where you should be posting them.

You must, must, must differentiate between your personal and professional social media—not only in terms of what you’re posting, but also on a technical level of having professional pages that are public-facing and (if desired) personal pages that are private to all but your friends.

Everyone loves cat photos, but your professional social media profiles aren’t where you should be posting them (or at least only post them occasionally…). Your professional page is where you talk about your music, say what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with, share your successes and gain feedback from your supporters.

If you have a personal profile on Facebook, you can easily convert it to a professional page, or if you’d prefer to still have your personal profile, you can create a separate public professional page for yourself and then encourage your friends to follow that page for updates on your music (remember to make your personal profile private so strangers can only view your professional page!).

At the end of the day, you want to make sure that whatever goes up on your social media is polished, professional, and represents your music in the best possible light. Which brings us to voice…

3. What’s Your Online Voice?

It’s crucial to establish a consistent online personality that reflects your real-world personality—what’s called your social media “voice.” Are you serious or light-hearted? Formal or informal? Easily accessible or shrouded in mystique? Modern or more traditional? Opinionated or easygoing?

All of these things go into how you should present yourself on social media. One exercise: think of the three words that best describe your professional personality and try to reflect those in your posts.

4. Your Profile Page Needs to Look Good

If someone who is interested in you—whether it’s a fan, journalist, presenter, or anyone else—visits your social media profile and sees a half-finished, sloppily done page, then they’re going to believe that’s how you approach the rest of your career. (The same is true for your website, which we’ll discuss in the next post.)

You need to have the following:

  • Profile image: Usually your best professional headshot. Don’t change this too frequently as people associate this with you.
  • Cover Image: A larger image, usually another promo shot or one of you in performance. You can also swap this out more frequently to promote specific events.
  • Relevant Info: Be sure to fill in the About section so people can find out more information, and curate photos and videos so that someone who goes to those sections sees only good content.
  • Integrations: Facebook allows you to connect to YouTube, Instagram, email marketing services like Mailchimp, and more.

All platforms periodically change elements of the layout, info, etc. Set yourself a reminder to take a look at your profile page every so often to make sure that it continues to look like it’s professionally presented. (Facebook and others have a “view as visitor” option in settings, so you can see it without your own administrative privileges—or just pull it up in a private browser tab.)

5. The Basics of Posting

Is this the best representation of myself and my music?

On a technical level, there are a number of things to keep in mind when posting on any platform, to make sure that you’re taking advantage of what the platform has to offer. Some general things to consider:

  • Length: Unless the post is specifically supposed to be a major statement, keep it brief. After 477 characters, Facebook goes into “read more” territory and you lose most people.
  • Timing: Try to avoid posting in the evening or weekends, as fewer people are on social media then. Your analytics (see point #7) can help you determine the best time to post. Also if you have fans in other time zones, bear that in mind!
  • Tagging: Typing “@” and the name of a person/organization usually links to their page, notifies them of your post, and will sometimes get them to share your post, which is an important part of expanding the exposure of your social media. Tag often, and try to do so in the flow of your writing (i.e. “This @newmusicbox article about social media is THE BEES KNEES!”).
  • Hashtags: Typing “#” and a word or phrase (without spaces) is a way to become part of a conversation around a topic, so that people who search for posts by that hashtag will see your posts about it.
  • Links: On Facebook, you can edit everything about a link after you paste it into the post box—including the generated image, title, and preview (try it!). Also you can use a link shortener like Bitly to make your links look nicer, plus it’s trackable if you make an account, meaning you can see how many actual clicks you get from a post. Remember that most platforms like Facebook will penalize you for posting links to external content (because they want you to stay on their site), so you’ll likely have to pay to boost those posts to get to more of your followers. And Instagram doesn’t let you include links in non-Story posts, but you can put one in your profile and direct people there from a post (i.e. “Link is in my profile”).
  • Photos: Experiment with the different options—from standalone photos (remember to double check how they’re cropped in the actual post), to galleries (What’s the lead image that people see first? Is it the best of the group?), to newfangled options like 360-degree images, GIFs, and more.
  • Videos: Always upload video separately to each platform rather than just posting a link to YouTube or Vimeo. A video uploaded to Facebook itself will get FAR more exposure from their algorithm than an external link. (Again, they’re trying to encourage you not to drive traffic away from their site.)
  • Livestreaming: Most platforms now have a livestreaming option, and it’s worth experimenting with (Facebook Live, Periscope on Twitter, etc.), particularly around live performances. The most important thing is to try to get someone who has a good following (or just as many people as possible) to commit to sharing the livestream as soon as it goes live, so leave a few minutes for that before the actual event starts.
  • Others: Geo-targeting (i.e. having a post only show up to certain locations/languages), location check-ins, events, notes, emojis, etc.

The above is just a collection of a few things to keep in mind. The key thing is to always double check your posts and ask yourself: “Does this look professional? Is this the best representation of myself and my music?”

festival message on cellphone

Photo by Kate Serbin

6. Understanding Content

This is a massive concept and one that could have an entire post dedicated to it, but for right now I’m just going to go into the basics as it’s a word that gets tossed around a lot without everyone being clear on what “content” actually is.

Content is simply the “what” of your posts (rather than the “how” of point #5): it’s taking the strokes of a brush and making it into art rather than just random lines.

Good content should be thoughtful, interesting, provide value and perspective to your audience, and somehow be uniquely representative of you and what makes you different.

Some basic points to keep in mind about content:

  • Variation: Think about different the kinds of content you might post (news updates, concert promotion, album promotion, posts about recent reviews/interviews/etc., personal updates, awards), and how each can be represented in different ways. For instance, you can post four times about an upcoming performance and each time just post the ticket link and say “Performance in NYC June 20, come get tickets!” OR those four posts can be: 1) a photo of the concert poster; 2) a video of you rehearsing a piece from the show; 3) a link to a preview feature or listing; and 4) a post with the ticket link saying how excited you are to see everyone there. Which of those two seems more interesting to you?
  • Timeline: For things that are time-specific, like an album release, performance, or similar, think in terms of pre, during, and post What can you post at each point to keep people interested? For an album: PRE could include a photo of the recording session, album cover, promo video. DURING could be a livestream of the release event. POST could include reviews, music videos, etc.
  • Tone: Consider the mood of your posts. Are you excited? Thankful? In awe? For instance: with reviews of your performances or works, it’s important to post these since that will give your followers a sense of success and momentum, but at the same time you never want to seem self-congratulatory or bragging. Be genuine and concise, and thank the outlet or writer for reviewing your work. You can include a pullout quote if there’s a great one, but again, try to insert some personal commentary that is humble and grateful.
  • Interactivity: Ask questions of your supporters, encourage them to start conversations about important topics in the comments of your posts, respond to their comments, and generally make sure to be communicating with them and encouraging them to communicate with you, in order to build a sense of community on your page.
  • Personal content: It can be good to include some personal posts mixed in with the professional: life at home; a great meal you had; photos from your travels; hobbies like photography or dancing; congratulating colleagues on their successes; interesting news articles; etc. These show aspects of your personality and interests, which will draw supporters closer to you. Obviously how personal you get depends on you.

This just scratches the surface, but you always want to be thinking about the content you post. Is it interesting? Is it varied? Is it something you’d want to see yourself if you were a fan of your own page? Are people responding to what you’re posting? That last point brings us to Analytics…

7. Analytics—Know Your Audience

One of the most powerful aspects of social media is that it allows you to actually get real data on your audience and your content. Some key things to keep in mind:

  • Following vs. Engagement: The number of followers you have is less important than the number that actual read and engage with your content. You can have 50,000 followers, but if only two of them like or share each post then that’s not a powerful community. This is where content comes in; the more consistent and interesting it is, the more people will want to be a part of it.
  • Reach vs. Engagement: If a post reaches (i.e. is seen by) a large number of people, but only a small percentage actually engages with it, then perhaps that’s not the most compelling content for your page. Conversely, if a post has a high percentage of people who see it liking and/or sharing it, then clearly that’s compelling content that you should post more of.
  • Demographics: Looking at Analytics/Insights, you can see where your followers are from, whether they are male/female, how old they are, which kinds of people are most engaged, what time of day and which days of the week they’re most engaged, and so on.

There is a wealth of other information you can find in the Analytics section of any professional social media page, but the most important thing to keep in mind is to try and understand what the data means in real-life terms, and how the information it provides can be useful in terms of helping improve your content and posting strategy.

8. How To Grow Your Following

This is the most common question I get from people: how do I get more followers? There are two ways:

Organic Growth

  • Posting good content that people share with their own followers, who then follow you to get more interesting content from you.
  • Being featured on the page of a colleague/organization and having them tag your page (i.e. do a Facebook Live interview with a presenting organization you’re performing with, on their page with them tagging you).
  • Tagging a colleague with a large following, and/or asking them share your post to their page.
  • Having online media (blogs, industry websites, etc.) link to your social media, or embed specific videos/posts.
  • Having presenter organizations always link to your social media.
  • Displaying your social media links prominently on your website.

Paid Acquisition

  • Pay to boost important posts so they reach more of your following, or friends of your followers (experiment with different settings).
  • Create specific advertisements targeting people who might know you and your music, but where you don’t currently see many fans when you look at your demographics data. For instance, if you’re a composer who studied and has had a lot of performances of works in Boston, but you don’t see many fans from the area when you look at your Analytics, then you could create a targeted ad that displays to contemporary music fans in Boston, encouraging them to like your page. If people see that and know who you are, there’s a good chance they’ll like your page. With paid advertising, you want to consider the groups of people who might recognize your name but not already be followers and think about how you can get to them via a paid ad on your platform of choice.

BE CAREFUL: Paid acquisition can be incredibly powerful, but it’s also an easy way to waste a lot of money to get very few fans, or to get a lot of fans who aren’t engaged with your page (which looks bad to visitors).

Once again, there is a lot more to discuss here, but what’s most important is that you keep gaining new followers over time, and if you see a spike in followers when you look at your analytics, try to understand what made that happen, and how you can replicate it.

9. Other Platforms

As noted, I believe that Facebook is by far the most important platform to invest your time and money in, but if you feel a personal attachment to any of the other platforms, or you enjoy using them personally, then it’s worth building a following on them around your professional career. For example:

  • Instagram: If you’re a visual person or enjoy photography (or are just really, really ridiculously good-looking), this can be a good platform for you.
  • YouTube: Do you like shooting/editing video? Do you communicate really well in-person with your fans? YouTube can be very powerful, but only if you take time to post videos frequently, and with a consistent brand/content style.
  • Twitter: If you are funny or good with one-liners, like expressing opinions, enjoy being a part of larger conversations, or understand memes, then Twitter is good for you. Otherwise it’s probably not worth your time.
  • Snapchat: Tough to “get” for many, and it isn’t really useful for professionals, but if you enjoy it personally then go for it!
  • LinkedIn: It can be useful to connect on a professional level with presenters, etc., but it has a very cold, corporate energy that can clash with a more artistic mindset. I generally encourage our clients to stay off of it.

There are more social media platforms emerging every day, but my general advice at this point is to focus on Facebook in terms of your time and money investment, unless you personally feel drawn to another platform (but even then, you should be on Facebook, too).

10. Email Marketing

Email is BY FAR the most powerful form of marketing.

Just a final point: you need an email list. Email is BY FAR the most powerful form of marketing. It is the best in terms of getting actual results (i.e. selling actual tickets or recordings), and gives you the most control over how you express yourself.

Go with Mailchimp. It’s free up to 2,000 subscribers and is the easiest to use. Have an email signup field on your website and start sending out update emails every few months, telling recipients about your upcoming concerts, past successes, new photos/videos/recordings, and so on. Occasionally drive your social media fans to sign up. Ask people you meet if you can add them to your mailing list. Do whatever you can to grow this list.

ONLY email them with interesting content. It’s better to skip an email if there’s nothing to say then to send a boring email to your subscribers. Every blast they receive from you should give a sense that you have cool things happening and that your career is on the rise.

As with social posting, consider the tone. Are you conversational (“Hi friends! Another update from yours truly!”) or professional (“Dear friends, I hope you’re enjoying the spring. I have some exciting updates from my end…”)?

Also similar to social media, Mailchimp has amazing analytics reporting, so you can see how successful each email is in terms of opens, clicks, and more. Use that data to improve your email blasts!

In Conclusion

I know social media can feel like a time drain for already busy musicians, but I cannot stress enough how important it is, and how it will only become more important in the coming years to have your own following of supporters that you can communicate with directly. So take the time to grow and nurture a community around yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Next up, the assets you need (photo, video, audio, website, and more) and how to get them on a budget.