The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Madison Opera’s Brian Hinrichs talks about how to build audiences and about his successes and failures in bringing new media and social media to an old art form.

August 12, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the last day on the job for Brian Hinrichs (below), the director of marketing and community engagement for the Madison Opera, which just marked its 50th anniversary this past season and summer.

Hinrichs is leaving his post just as the Madison Opera’s new general director Kathryn Smith taking over and a new season is about to begin.

Here is a link to the new season:

Hinrichs, 26, is leaving to pursue a master’s degree in the highly rated arts administration program under Andrew Taylor at the UW Business School.

I e-mailed Hinrichs some questions about what he did and what he learned during his time with the Madison Opera, which usually played to almost sold-out houses and to usually positive reviews from the critics. He graciously responded:

Could you remind us of your background, age, years at Madison opera, etc. just as an introduction and what you hope to do as a career after you finish the Arts Administration program.

I grew up in Bay Shore, New York, and prior to my position at Madison Opera I was in Thailand on a Fulbright grant, researching classical music trends in Bangkok (below). My wife’s graduate studies brought us to Madison in 2008, so I’ve been with the company for almost exactly three years.

I first became passionate about classical music as a cellist, but in college, a series of internships at the Chenango Summer MusicFest, Chamber Music Magazine, and Glimmerglass Opera (below top is the theater’s exterior, below bottom is the stage interior) turned me on to arts administration.

After attending the Bolz Center, I plan to pursue another position at a performing arts organization, hopefully something that allows me to utilize my MBA and have a hand in long-range planning and programming.

A lot of classical music organizations today are worried about how to reach and attract young people. Can you speak to the potential of classical music using new media and social media from your own experience with the Madison Opera?

Social media offers many fantastic tools for motivating and engaging a fan base, but its potential for building future audiences in classical music is extremely limited compared to education-based initiatives.

That being said, it is absolutely essential for classical music organizations to be on Facebook and Twitter, because that’s where people — indeed, many of them young people — get their news, make their plans, identify their favorite musicians and organizations, and then share all of that information with their friends.

Social media affords the chance for classical music groups to be more accessible, to innovate, break down barriers, and appear relevant. But in my experience, it is first and foremost about simply staying on the radar of your fans, and hopefully picking up a few new ones along the way.

It is important to acknowledge that initiatives on sites like Facebook and Twitter aren’t necessarily going to attract swaths of young people to classical music events, but if they’ve already expressed an interest (such as buying a ticket or “liking” a Facebook page), such initiatives can keep them engaged in ways that weren’t possible before.

Can you give specific examples (opera blog, Bloggers Night, texting donations, Twitter, Facebook) from your own experience at the Madison Opera of what works best and what doesn’t?

Here’s some of what I’ve learned over the past three years. Luckily, the Opera has been very open to experimentation and a trial-and-error approach – it’s really the only way to figure out what works best.

For keeping fans engaged on Facebook, I’ve found that backstage photos, videos, and interviews get people most excited. It’s a peek into the process that is interesting whether you’ve seen 100 operas or one. It’s also important to let your Facebook fans know that you care: responding to comments and offering CD or ticket give-aways shows an appreciation of their commitment to the organization.

Whereas Facebook (below top) has been excellent for nurturing that community of engaged fans and supporters, Twitter (below bottom) has been useful for connecting with local and national media, other opera companies, and local residents who might not necessarily be ready to become a Facebook fan but are happy to follow us more casually. Twitter is much more of a free-for-all: you get updates from a celebrity one minute, CNN the next, and your local opera company after that. It’s a less valuable site for real community building, but good for making connections and attracting audiences outside of your niche.

The MadOpera Blog, which I started and you can link to on our home website (see above), has received quite a bit of positive feedback, partly, I think, because it’s accessible to anyone, with no sign-in or membership necessary.

It’s a place where Madison Opera can really be itself and delve into the music and history of an opera and the production process. Blogs also allow organizations to create long-form coverage for themselves, as such coverage dwindles in the mainstream media. It’s been a great venue to spotlight education initiatives in particular.

As for some social media initiatives that have worked, and some that haven’t, here are two quick examples.  Blogger Night was a big success, first at “Carmen” (below) and then this past season at “The Marriage of Figaro.” Our goal was to engage writers, and in turn their audiences, in an honest conversation about the opera experience.

Some bloggers had come to the opera regularly, others had never been. The results weren’t always flattering, but what came through was the fact that a Madison Opera performance is, at the very least, accessible and worth trying out. It was also just fun to be engaging local writers from different creative threads; everyone, myself included, learned a lot in the process.

Now, a flop would have to be my YouTube contest for Carmen. “Show us Your Habanera” asked Madison Opera fans to create their own version of the famous Habanera song and post it to YouTube; the most creative version would win tickets to the opening night performance of the opera. We received exactly zero entries, and it’s obvious why in retrospect. For starters, at that time we didn’t have a big enough online fan base to try something so ambitious. Either way, coming up with a version of the Habanera, and filming it no less, is just way too much to ask of an entrant with such a small reward. As I said, it’s trial and error.

Where do you see things going in the future?

When I first started at Madison Opera in August 2008, I immediately launched a blog, a Facebook group, and a MySpace page for the company. Within a year, our Facebook group was cancelled and became a Facebook page; we deleted our MySpace page; we joined YouTube’ and we joined Twitter.

Being on Twitter, in turn, has eaten up time and mind space that was previously reserved for blogging, thus making blog posts more infrequent.

Technology, in particular social media sites and apps, is evolving at an extremely rapid pace. Today, people are making a lot of fuss over Google+, Foursquare, Jumo, QR codes, and much more.

Frankly, it is hard to predict what will stick and what won’t. But I do see Facebook staying at the front of the pack for quite some time. I also see the need for organizations like Madison Opera to increase video output (and quality) on YouTube. Live-streaming performances is another trend that’s not necessarily new but is becoming more affordable for smaller organizations, so I think you’ll see that happening with greater frequency over the next few years.

Same with text-to-donate: at Opera in the Park (below) this year  –Madison Opera’s second year offering the option) — mobile donations doubled over last year. Audiences are getting used to it.

As I alluded to earlier, none of these trends in social media will solve classical music’s audience problem. That’s something that lays much deeper in programming, education and institutional organization. But social media are, broadly speaking, comparable to “word of mouth” — something no one would dismiss as unimportant – if organizations want to stay relevant, they need to have an honest and active presence in our everyday world, which, for better or worse, is increasingly online.


Do you have a message or a comment to leave for Brian Hinrichs?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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