Harnessing Creativity During a Pandemic. Pandemic Diaries #2

Over the summer we’ll be visiting various members of the Canadian orchestral community – organizations and individuals who contribute to a thriving arts scene in Canada. If you want to write for us about your experience as an artist or arts administrator during the pandemic, get in touch with Katherine Carleton at katherine@oc.ca.

A Report on the 2020 Virtual Musician Summit

Guest blog by Bradley Powell

This past May 29th and May 30th, I attended the first-ever Virtual Musician Summit (VMS). Organized by emerging musician-entrepreneurs Noniko Hsu, Melissa Mashner, and John Hong, the VMS was an entirely online, pre-recorded conference. Thirteen 1-hour-long sessions covered topics such as audience building, productivity, public-speaking, developing online courses to generate passive income, video-creation formulas, and résumé-building, to help participants during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

As our orchestras navigate current public health regulations and plan for the future, many of us are being called to find new ways to deliver and monetize our creative content. The VMS and many other educational resources are being offered to help us adapt, which presents a new problem: how to spend one’s time wisely by sifting through the plethora of pertinent offerings. The good news is that I watched all THIRTEEN HOURS of the VMS for you, on behalf of the Orchestras Canada team. Below are tips from the six presenters whose expertise is most aligned to fill knowledge gaps in our community.

Gabe Bautista | May 29, Session 1

Former Classical Pianist and Composer

Current B2B Marketing

Tips for understanding marketing as a musician

  • Understand and always remember that today there are a tiny fraction of people spending money on [recorded music]… even though music consumption is as frequent as ever.
  • Disney as a company forecasts losing money on Disney+ until 2023; what counts is the personal relationship they are building with their clients. They have to do this in order to enter the competition with their streaming rivals. Breaking into this market is not easy, and you have to have the cash flow to sustain a reasonable amount of initial damage.
  • Know that you’re in competition with the greatest musicians in the world. They’re also stuck at home. The difference is that they have thousands of followers and you may not. If you can position yourself, you can find a corner of the world that is unique to you and apply Pareto’s Principle.
  • You’re also going to be in competition with everyone who’s dead!
  • Even the Taylor Swifts of the world don’t make the majority of their money from the masses; Again, remember Pareto’s Principle
  • The most important people to you are those you support you 100%. If you can have 1000 true diehard fans, you can make a living. It’s not about the million 10% fans.
  • You’ve gotta do whatever you need to do NOW because the new normal is what we’re experiencing. Returns to pre-pandemic venues are far off; even after a vaccine it still won’t be immediate because implementation will take time.
  • Sunk cost fallacy: the more costs we’ve invested, the less we want to give up our paths. We need to accept that some of our assumptions are wrong. We need to embrace change.
  • If you’re a creative, then BE CREATIVE. Some people just show up (to an orchestra rehearsal for example) and do as they’re told. Our industry is creative – go out and create!
  • Read [Bautista’s] book “Most Businesses Fail Within The First Five Minutes. It just takes them 3-5 years to realize”
  • Everyone wants to be unique, but no one wants to be different. We don’t wanna cause any trouble. For you to stand out… you have to stand out!
  • Remember the rule of “and”: every time you say, “I do this And this And this,” that doesn’t multiply your talents, it divides them. Be careful about taking on too much. Limit how you describe your offerings to your public so your value proposition is clear.

Marley Jaxx | May 29, Session 2

CEO of Video Marketing Agency Jaxx Productions

Has worked alongside Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin, and Randi Zuckerberg

Tips for how to market your online content

  • Form [what Jaxx calls] a True Fan base. People become “overnight successes” because of, in part, the community that they build around them. This often means that true fans have been recruiting other fans and the exponential increase in following happens at a tipping point. Getting to that tipping point requires fans that will support you, no matter what.
  • You don’t have to spend a lot of money to start learning; Jaxx started through YouTube, where she watched free videos and learned skills until she was ready to invest in courses that cost money.
  • You have to start to be able to find your voice. Don’t put up arbitrary obstacles for yourself like “I just need to be bigger; I just need to be a bit better.” before starting. Don’t worry if there are others putting up very similar content. Your start in video posting is as much for you to find your voice online as it is for developing a following. And your unique voice is really what will resonate with people watching your videos. We like to follow people who are relatable.
  • You have to make a conscious decision to be vulnerable as you begin to post videos for the first time.
  • The market will tell you what people need. Don’t assume you know what people need or don’t need. Test your content, and then go in the direction that your audience is asking for.

Ken Kubota | May 29, Session 4

Cellist, founder of viral Instagram and YouTube success JHMJams

Recognized in Glamour, The Strad and much more

Tips for ‘going viral’ with online music performances

  • Kubota has not missed a weekly deadline for this project ever; that means 4 years of meeting personal deadlines for the project. Consistency is king!
    • Started his project as part of an Intro to Technology course at Juilliard while he was in graduate school.
    • Announced to the world he’d post every Tuesday and Friday and creatively works to meet that; He began posting short cover-performances of songs every week.
  • Find a void missing in your own life; Kubota was losing sight of why he was a cellist in school, and the downward spiral of his mental health during classical music education motivated him to find a new path.
  • Make sure the fuel you’re using to drive your musicianship is sustainable. A lot of what Kubota was doing early in his training was driven by fear.
  • Four Step Process to Cultivate Motivation for Consistency by Finding What You Really Want and Are Intrinsically Motivated By:
    • Cue: What reminds you that your goal exists?
    • Craving: What makes a project attractive to you?
    • Response: What are you going to do to make this “easy” for you?
    • Reward: What will make this satisfying for you when you put in this work?
  • Eliminate as many obstacles to your consistency as you can
  • Suggested Reading
  • Patreon is a very effective and personal platform for creators (better than YouTube); avoid begging for money and instead provide a worthwhile value proposition.
  • Understand the concept of compound interest [as applied to marketing] and how it can propel the growth of your following.

John Hong | May 30, Session 2

Performing Arts Copywriter, Former National Sawdust PR Manager

Clients include nonprofit CEOs to US orchestra

Executive Directors to GRAMMY® winners

Tips for eye-catching text

  • What does writing good copy mean?! If you can communicate authentically you’re much more likely to convince someone to support you than if you try to sell in the showmanship style.
  • For Hong, a job in door-to-door sales (alarm systems) led to PR for National Sawdust (all learning on his feet). He had to convince people he was trustworthy enough to let him into their homes… to talk about alarms. Succinct, trustworthy communication style is key!
  • Diversify your income, even if it’s business as usual in your sector. As an example, only 10% of noted performance psychologist Noe Kageyama’s income comes from his Juilliard faculty position; most of it comes from his website.
  • Good copywriting can actually convince audiences to come to concerts. It’s important.

Jacques Hopkins | May 30, Session 3

Founder of 7-figure online empire PianoIn21Days

From an engineer to a proven piano pedagogy course builder

Tips for building passive income from online music courses

  • Youtube is a search engine! Remember that. Consistent quality will pay off in the end. People will be able to access older content as you gain a following, and that can become a great source of passive income.
  • Running an online business involves knowledge of complex tech. Partner with someone if that side doesn’t come naturally to you.

Jade Simmons | May 30, Session 7

Concert Pianist, Motivational Speaker, Entrepreneur

Former Miss America Runner-up, “A magnetic personality worth seeing” — The Washington Post

The most compelling speaker at the VMS was Jade Simmons. Her entire message centres on the fact that classical music can be invigorated simply by each one of us making space for more creativity and individuality. In a ‘creative’ field which has told us to blend in, to compare ourselves to others, and to be the fastest and loudest so we can win a stable income, we have lost touch with our desire and ability to tell our unique stories. We have the potential to gain momentum if we focus on moving others. Communication with our audiences will compel larger, more diverse groups to support our story-telling.

I encourage you to watch her 2015 TedTalk. Watch all 18 minutes. It’s worth it. You can learn more about Simmons here.


According to its website, the VMS is “A two-day event where proven musician-entrepreneurs unveil step-by-step techniques to get an edge in marketing concerts, building your own social media content, building online streams of income that you can rely on during troubled economic times, and much, much more.” In attending this summit organized by and for a young, diverse group of musician-entrepreneurs, I believe that the orchestra community has a lot to learn, but that there’s a ton of untapped potential within our sector that we can access to adapt and thrive during a time of crisis.  *

* “Let’s get this bread”, as used by The Youth, means ‘let’s get to work and make that money, honey.’ I’m trying to blend in with Gen Z. The children are our future.

Four questions to ask before starting any digital project

Blog post by Nick Walshe, Orchestras Canada

Last month, I attended the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) second Digital Stage Symposium. The Digital Stage is a collaborative project between the COC, the National Ballet of Canada, and Sheridan College’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre, and is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. It is designed to explore and embrace new technology in the arts, equipping arts organizations with what they need to thrive in a constantly changing digital landscape. From apps designed to help audience members engage with the works presented at a concert (last year we wrote about the Winnipeg Symphony’s adventures with an audience engagement app), to ‘smart’ wearable items designed to help performers and artists monitor their bodies, the Symposium presented a wide range of cutting-edge digital technology. More information on these technologies and others can be found in their initial Digital Horizon Scan.

Download the Horizon Scan here.

Unsurprisingly, there was no single technology that stood out as a game-changer for orchestras. The question of how we engage with our audience digitally or live is complex, and only complicated further by the wide range of sizes of Canadian orchestras and the diversity of the communities they serve. I came away from the day with more questions than answers and felt that rather than providing a list of new technology to explore, it could be more useful to share a list of questions I kept coming back to when looking at how orchestras might engage more deeply with digital technology. This non-exhaustive list of four questions is designed to spark discussion and thought before starting any digital project.

What problem are you trying to solve by undertaking this project?

As they say, “every solution has a problem”. It’s important to look at what problems we’re trying to solve with technology, and what other solutions may exist to the same problem. Our audiences can feel when the use of tech becomes ‘gimmicky’. Considering how stretched resources are at arts organizations, it’s important that our investment in technology aligns with our organization’s goals. Are we trying to educate the audience? Increase audience numbers? Deepen their engagement by livestreaming or creating ways for them to participate digitally?

Has it been done before, and did it work?

While Canadian orchestras operate in diverse communities with different tastes, strengths and demographics, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every digital project. It’s worth exploring who is using the new technology being considered and seeing what they learned from implementing it. These examples may not come from the orchestra world; we have much to learn from other art forms’ use of digital technology, from dance to theatre to visual arts.

What does this do to the live product?

Or perhaps, what IS the live product? Every exploration into the digital realm has the potential to make us more aware of the live product we present. We often talk about the live experience as one of the most important aspects of what we do as orchestras. Can we bring this experience to more people? Do the forms of digital technology we plan to use enhance or detract from the experience of our live audience? In a digitally connected world, it’s important that we acknowledge online forms of engagement for people that are unable to get to the concert hall for a variety of reasons.

What resources are we lacking in order to get there?

With many arts organizations running at (and pushing) the limit of which they are capable, it’s important to have a plan to bridge any knowledge or resources gaps. Issues of time, money and the knowledge of people within the organization are critical. Is an outside consultant needed, and how much of their time can we afford? Are there additional funding streams we can apply to for this project?

These questions are designed as a starting point for discussion before embarking on a digital project; there will no doubt be other important conversations to be had. We’re excited at the possibilities that new technology will bring to the orchestral sector and the arts world, but acknowledge that this is fast-moving and requires a smart investment of time and resources from decision-makers at our orchestras.

The Canadian Opera Company’s Digital Stage project is ongoing and scheduled for completion in June 2020. Learn more at https://coc.ca/digitalstage.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra goes Digital

Daniel Raiskin and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Orchestras are always looking for ways to broaden their audience and engage more deeply with them. Many orchestras cite an aging audience and the move away from specialized music education in schools as reasons for a slow but steady decline in audience sizes. In recent years, however, there has also been a trend for orchestras to want to make up for this gap in specialized music education and to appeal to a younger new audience, while fostering a deeper engagement with their current patrons.  This is done in a variety of ways from pre-concert talks to ‘Symphony 101’ type guides. In the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s case? They went digital.

To elaborate, the WSO is making use of a companion app called EnCue at three of their concerts this year, with the intention of integrating this app into more concerts in coming seasons. EnCue is a free-to-download app that sends users live, real-time program notes, images and stories during the performance. The EnCue website lists the app at $350 USD per concert, with potential discounts for multiple concerts. The WSO launched the app at their October 18th (B)eyond Classics series concert, for the performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Though app-users weren’t separated from the rest of the audience, the screen is dark lit and the hall lights are brought up to avoid disturbing other patrons. This is the first example of something like this being done in Canada, though several orchestras in Europe and the United States have integrated similar technology into their concert programs. Advertising for the concert mentioned EnCue as a point of interest for prospective patrons.

RBC Resident Conductor Naomi Woo during the concert. Photo: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press

For Jean-François Phaneuf, VP Artistic Operations at the WSO, the benefits of the app are twofold. “We’re excited about using this app to appeal to new audiences and increase the level of engagement with current and prospective patrons. We saw some audience members who were deeply moved by the experience. You get to read about Rachmaninov’s thoughts when writing his work and Music Director Daniel Raiskin’s personal connection to a special passage while hearing it all unfold on stage in front of you.” Over the course of two months, Jean-François Phaneuf, James Manishen, Artistic Associate and RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo worked hard to prepare the necessary materials. They tested their content among musically-educated and non-musically-educated WSO staff, and found that short slides (5 seconds to read) and images helped to keep people listening actively. The learning curve for programming the app was steep, but with satisfying results; basic concepts were explained for those unfamiliar to orchestral music, and more complex ‘tidbits’ of information were provided for experts. During the concert, Naomi Woo was backstage with the score, synchronizing the slides with the music for the approximately 200 patrons that downloaded the app. The response from app users was generally positive. By and large, patrons were excited to try something new. Some concertgoers expressed resistance to changes to the concert experience they know and love, but many felt a greater understanding of, and deeper connection with the music through the new information they were given.

There is no intention from the WSO to use EnCue at all of their concerts. It is planned only three times this season for one piece per program. WSO audiences will next see EnCue at the closing concert of the New Music Festival in January, for Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony and during Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in March. There are plans to integrate EnCue into the second half of every concert for their (B)eyond Classics concert series in 2020-21. With a tech help desk in the lobby at the October 18th concert, most technical challenges were avoided. More studious patrons also requested receiving the slides in advance to ‘study up’ for the concert. Both the WSO and Orchestras Canada are excited about the opportunities presented by giving a wider audience more ways to open the door and access orchestral music in a way that enhances what is presented on stage.

Learn more about the question of digital technology in the orchestral industry by reading our interview with The Space’s Fiona Morris on building a digital organization.