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Good content is forever

The internet offers musicians fantastic opportunities to build their reputations and legacies, as well as selling their music. They should take more advantage of it

When it comes to music, I’ve often been a late adopter. Innate scepticism leads me to disregard trends and the latest ‘big thing’. So while I vaguely remember Dmitri Hvorostovsky winning the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 1989, for the next 30 years I barely noticed him.

Then he died. Since then, I’ve spent a large proportion of time crying over YouTube videos of him. Even to a novice opera buff, the quality of his voice, the endless musical lines, the sincerity and empathy of his communication are clear. Who could fail to fall in love with his Prince Yeletsky in Queen of Spades as he tells Liza that he loves her (it being opera, apart from the heroine herself, of course)? Or be wracked by the conflicting emotions of Renée Fleming rejecting his Eugene Onegin? And who does not feel the gamut of feelings on watching his surprise appearance at the Met in May 2017 – his voice and spirit intact despite sharing space with the killer tumour only months before his death.

But this post isn’t about Dmitri Hvorostovsky, or about the pains and pleasures of finding an artist to adore unconditionally. It’s about content – because that’s my line.

I learnt several things as I trawled the internet looking for articles about Hvorostovsky. First: Russians are obsessed by opera and by their national operatic heroes in a way to which no other nation comes close. Nearly everything I found – celebrity television shows, interviews, articles, blog posts, biographies – was in Russian, despite him living in London for many years and being an international star. There were only a few English interviews and more than once, I had to resort to YouTube’s own English captioning to get the jist of an interview (advice – don’t bother).

Secondly, it’s obvious that when an artist is gone, they leave behind their recordings and videos, and in that respect, they are immortalised. But what hit me is how the details behind their craft – their artistic choices, creative struggles, physical regimens, psychological conflicts, pedagogical theories and interpretative journeys – are so often left to chance. Certainly I have found this with Hvorostovsky, for whom I have found only a few scattered comments revealing his very considerable knowledge and insight.

Yes, there is journalism. Specialist magazines may have asked him good questions but these articles are largely hidden in the recesses of their archives. When I was Editor of The Strad, I treasured the old bound volumes, going back to 1890, with biographical detail of the string stars of yesteryear, but it was considered too expensive to digitise them, so they’re now largely inaccessible to the public. And anyway, it’s only in the last few decades that interview techniques have really dug into the profound questions about performance and learning. There are opera blogs and a few broadsheet interviews online, but few go deep enough into the detail for my liking.

On Hvorostovsky’s own website there is a section on videos and a news section which referenced then-current stories. But to find a collection of good, relevant articles about Hvorostovsky and his work, I’ve found the best place to be a Facebook fan page where even now, his admirers are collating and translating every bit of information they can find.

The internet has transformed the possibilities for artists to communicate directly with audiences and would-be audiences, and I don’t think they have caught up. Many players have good social media feeds, posting fun photos, videos and comments, which is great (there are some very personal videos that Hvorostovsky posted to greet his fans). But this is the tip of the iceberg of what is possible, both for musicians’ personal ‘brands’, but also for the general discourse about classical music.

Hearing great musicians talking about their craft can inspire and educate the players who come after them while also giving non-players deep insight into what they’re listening to. For good examples of this, watch Itzhak Perlman, Ray Chen or Jacob Collier. We need more of this. Just imagine if we had written records of how Paganini practised, Maria Callas learnt her vocal technique or Rubinstein voiced his chords. (We can certainly be thankful for some wonderful insights from various letters and documents left behind by the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann.)

My Hvorostovsky obsession has reminded me that for all artists, creating good content is an essential marketing tool. It creates a permanent and meaningful legacy. But for the truly great artists? It is a moral responsibility.

Five tips

1. Write

Don’t wait for The Times or Washington Post to call you up for an interview. Write your own Q&As, articles, opinion pieces, analyses, diaries. People call these blogs, but I hate the word – it’s all ‘content’. If you don’t feel you can write, find someone who can. There are plenty of us around.

2. Go high

It’s great to put out fun/quirky/charming/quick posts that might go viral, but why not vary it with some meaty, in-depth posts about what you’re doing and what your musical philosophies are. Talk about a piece you’re working on and what you’re discovering as you go through the score. Discuss what you learnt from listening to an old recording of a favourite player. Remember a joke your teacher made that made you think about something in a completely different way. Explain your choices as you work on a project. Consider anything that reflects on your specific passions, knowledge and talents. You may not get as many instant likes and retweets as the shorter posts, but you’re reaching an audience that cares about what you have to say, and communicating your unique musical essence – to bookers and agents, as well as to listeners.

3. Videos

Videos are great, and increasingly becoming the norm in marketing, but people don’t always have the time or space to watch them, so make sure there are good subtitles, and maybe even transcribe the text under the video so they can get the sense quickly. You can also reuse this text in other ways for your marketing and press releases.

4. Media

Collect any media interviews in one place on your website and make sure it’s up-to-date. Collate any good quotes from these interviews to make it easy for readers (and journalists on the look-out for good copy).

5. Website

Longer, more meaty posts can go on social media feeds, but make sure to post them on your website, so they don’t get missed in the current. Steven Isserlis is partial to wonderfully long essays on his Facebook page, which then go on his website. Consider the different strengths of the channels, whether Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or anything else and what sort of content suits each. Have some sort of strategy for there sorts of things you put where, and how they relate to your website, and also where you focus your energy, especially if you're doing it all on your own.

I will be writing more about good content in the coming weeks. If you would like to discuss any of these ideas or find out how I can help you, contact me here.

Favourite Hvorostovsky resources

An interview with Bruce Duffie, transcribed from a radio show in 1993, with lots of interesting detail about his work.

A Telegraph interview from 2002 – more commentary than interview.

A charming, if slightly bizarre, interview with Hvorostovsky making pasta while being quite frank about how he found his voice and developed his career – and his thoughts on the Russian music education system (from 2000).

A slightly awkward interview, but revealing – including how he learnt from his father that what you have to say as an artist is more important than how you actually sing, and the rather awfully ironic memory of colleague Leonie Rysanek discovering she had terminal cancer. He starts to go into his technique for being able to sing a line for half a minute, and how he knows how to project his voice, although it’s a shame they don’t press him for more specific detail.

A short interview for La Scena.

Lovely two-part interview, with good questions and the time and space for him to go into fascinating detail about his thought processes, and to discuss what he perceived as his own weaknesses, and his relationship with Russia.

Photo of Hvorostovsky in Eugene Onegin at Royal Opera House, 2015: Bill Cooper

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