That was the sound of me staring at the computer in stunned silence, trying to take in the new marketing campaign of the Binghamton Philharmonic in New York.
It isn’t just that the marketing campaign, in my opinion, is flawed… it is the way that is flawed.
Essentially the Binghamton Philharmonic has created an advertising campaign that scrupulously avoids mentioning the orchestra.
This isn’t just a campaign that is forgettable or misses its mark, but one that shows how the management fundamentally doesn’t understand its business.
That would be bad enough, but it is particularly ironic that this flawed marketing campaign comes in the wake of a labor dispute earlier this year and led to the cancellation of Binghamton’s season opener. Over the course of this dispute, management repeatedly pleaded poverty, and that the musicians’ contract was the source of its financial difficulties.
I can see why the Binghamton Philharmonic was facing financial challenges… but this disastrous ad campaign convincingly demonstrates that it is the administration that is the source of these problems, not the musicians’ contracts.
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To begin, let’s look at the video prominently promoting upcoming concerts for Halloween, and as a sidebar, trying to put the ugliness of the labor dispute behind them and generate good feelings about the ensemble. Have a look:
There are a number of problems here.
To begin, this video is completely disconnected from the particulars of the event it purports to promote.
The event in question is a Binghamton Philharmonic concert featuring Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and other “chilling classics.” But when we click this video, we see vintage, stock footage of an undefined musical ensemble… which seems to include saxophones (?). Is this an orchestra or a 60s-era nightclub band? The musicians in this vintage footage do not appear to be playing the Symphonie fantasique, and the music playing in the background is not the Symphonie fantastique, meaning the audio and the musicians aren’t even synced. And can anything in the musical clip be called “chilling?”
The real kicker comes at the end when the announcer cheerfully tells us that this is “your orchestra” and “your music.”
So to recap: this ad uses unknown footage of an unknown orchestra overlaid with unknown music… none of which has anything to do with the concert being marketed or the performers who are playing in it.
That’s quite a litany of problems for a 15-second clip.
I’m not a lawyer, but the legality of doing this seems rather murky. Most orchestras—or for that matter, people—don’t like having their images or the products of their hard work used by outsiders without permission and/or compensation. Think of it this way: how would you feel about a beer company running an ad featuring a YouTube video you and your friends recorded at a summer cookout, taken off your Facebook page without your permission?
Orchestras are no different. Musicians put a great deal of time and effort into learning their trade and putting on a great performance, and don’t appreciate someone else clandestinely making money off their performances without proper credit and remuneration. The American Federation of Musicians takes a dim view of using images and recordings without permission, and if Binghamton is running ads with content they just pulled of the Internet, it is playing with fire.
But more to the point, they are simply being foolish. It appears Binghamton might be trying to skirt legal issues by simply including stock footage (or what it considers stock footage). That might be permissible, but would it be effective? Most people buy tickets to see a specific group of performers play a specific group of musical works on a specific date. I’m not sure how this induces someone to actually buy a ticket to this performance. Nothing in this ad hits on those elements, or tries to tie these elements together in a coherent whole.
Does the Binghamton Philharmonic’s administration suppose that its audience members won’t realize or care that the musicians in the ad aren’t their own players? Or that the music has no resemblance to Berlioz’s famous Symphonie fantastique? Or that literally nothing in this ad goes together?
I mean, this is much like Toyota running an ad made from clips of 1960s-era movies showing random people driving around, while “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” plays in the background.
Would this lead you to buy a new Prius?
I wish this catastrophic ad was a one-off… but it isn’t. The Binghamton Philharmonic also has an ad for its new “Oblivion Project” that shows this same pattern. Under the banner “NEW this season: we launch the Binghamton Phil reMastered!” it shows a picture of a sextet on the stairs. Where is the orchestra? Coming on the heels of a contentious labor dispute that threatened serious cuts into the orchestra and a cancellation of the entire season, this ad is not just ironic, but terrifying… so, is this management’s ideal? To “reMaster” the orchestra into a chamber group, or to completely outsource its concerts? It’s telling that a lone comment on the group’s Facebook page has to ask the obvious question: “Who are these people?”
If that’s the response to your ad, well….
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Look, I get it… marketing the arts is hard. I say this as someone who has been the marketing director of one arts organization, and been in the trenches with several others. The Binghamton Philharmonic hasn’t asked for my advice, but let me provide some thoughts on the matter. I’ve found that the best way to generate audience-building marketing campaigns, you need to focus on a few key elements:
- The Musicians. In today’s world, there are countless ways to experience classical music; unfortunately, many of them are impersonal. A key area that an orchestra can beat out the competition is to use the musicians to personalize the experience. The musicians can share their feelings of the music, explain what it means to them, or provide personal anecdotes about it. These things ground the experience, giving the audience members a hook into what’s happening onstage, as well. The musicians are a ready-made group of ambassadors, so use them.
- The Music. At a minimum, marketing should give an indication about the music that will be performed. In a day when preview clips are so readily available, this seems like an absolute base-line. Talk about the music in real, authentic terms, using everyday language, and be honest about what the audience should expect to hear. Why this music? What makes this performance stand out?
- The Experience. Most important of all, give audience members a preview of what the concert will be like, the emotions at play, and the feel of the hall. Provide visuals that show your intended audience actually enjoying your performances, either during the concert/show or mingling afterwards. Use videos to draw back the curtain and give a bit of “backstage access” such as rehearsal footage. This helps audience members mentally place themselves at the concert, so that they feel like active participants. Showcase the benefits of the live experience… so they have a reason to actually come to hear you live.
Again, the goal is to convey the idea of what the concert experience is like—the music, the emotions, and the personal interactions. Plus, you have to create a personal connection between those on the stage and those in the audience.
And stock footage simply won’t help.
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I hate to badger an arts organization—as I’ve said, I’ve been in the trenches myself and it is not as easy as it looks.
That said, I am concerned.
The Binghamton management has stated again and again that the organization is in serious financial trouble, and placed the blame exclusively on its expensive union contracts. But these marketing initiatives point to an administration that is completely indifferent to its product, which means that cannot effectively tell its own story.
There is simply no reason not to include the orchestra in ads for its own concerts. In fact, I would suggest that the Binghamton Philharmonic follow a wide-spread trend and adopt an Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) to deal with the legal issues involved and make things easier (this article has more on IMAs).
Instead, they’re running ads for orchestra concerts that don’t include their orchestra.