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Creativity

Will ‘design thinking’ save classical music?

I recently happened on an online webinar series hosted by the Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT), entitled ‘Introduction to Design Thinking for Musicians‘. Now, this is sort of thing is perfect clickbait for me. ‘Design Thinking’ sounds like a cool piece of Silicon Valley tech-speak – and we can use it as musicians? Sign me up!

Like most of these cool-sounding strategies, though, there’s some pretty nebulous stuff hiding under the hood, which we’ll have to unpack before we get to whether this is actually going to revolutionise the concert experience as we know it.

What is ‘design thinking’?

Design Thinking has a few definitions, but from what I can see it’s mostly about developing products by reverse engineering the problem a consumer has, and solving it. But hang on – why use normal words when we could do this?:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding. At the same time, Design Thinking provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.

A ‘solution-based approach to solving problems’ sounds a little like the winner of an early 00’s Tautology of the Year competition. The more useful part of that paragraph is to do with the word ‘iterative’. You try something out, make small adjustments in response to feedback, and put out a new version, with a tight loop that should quickly generate improvements to the product.

Apple is a classic example of a company that’s renowned for this way of designing. They think their way into the consumer’s head, and solve their problem before they know they have one. The process is supposed to force you out of ingrained patterns of thought about how to frame problems and provide solutions.

There’s one more concept we need to introduce here, before we dig into the applications of this strategy to music, and that’s User Experience, or UX – the way the customer actually interacts with your product. In most use-cases, you want this to be fuss-free, accessible, and efficient. As an early social-media engineer now puts it, ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.’ UX design helps funnel people towards where you want them to be, or what you want them to do (or click).

Can we leverage this to improve the experience of music to audiences?

Come on, less talk, more saving classical music

OK, we’re getting there. A couple of people have begun to make the leap from UX to AX: ‘Audience Experience’. Essentially, centre the experience of the audience and design a concert around their needs. Zachary Manzi, an orchestral performer himself, has written on this extensively for Medium. The pitch is a good one:

…the traditional concert experience is just one kind of experience. We can design new ones to elevate music in ways that speak to new people.

So far so good, and even if you feel the ‘traditional concert experience’ gets a lot of unfair flak these days, it’s no great leap to suggest it doesn’t appeal to everybody. Manzi’s solution is to apply design thinking to the concert experience:

What does this really look like in music? If we are a piano trio and creating an experience for 20-somethings poets, then we must understand who these people are, what they enjoy, what they hate, what they do on the weekends, where they like to hang out, how they talk, and what else they would be doing if they weren’t at a concert. Then we build a tailored experience that invites them to pave a path through the music in a way that is intrinsically valuable to them.

Let’s set aside for now the issue of whether creating a better Audience Experience necessarily results in creating better art – there isn’t space here for me to take on Milton Babbitt, even were I the right person to do so. For now, we can choose to evaluate this through a lens of ‘getting bums on seats’ rather than ‘creating great art’.

I like the idea of an experience tailored to a particular group who you’ve designated as ‘your audience’ for the purpose of a particular project or concert. There’s a little problem of scale if you choose the wrong niche, though, specifically whether there are enough 20-something poets to fill the space and make the event commercially viable.

Manzi’s description of an event created along these lines takes a solid premise: people aren’t always feeling what we’re feeling when we’re listening to music, so let’s create a programme where musicians explain what particular pieces mean to them:

Musicians of the orchestra…introduce pieces they have picked for the program, talking about how it has inspired and changed them as people. Audience members share their reactions to the music in real time–responding to questions in their interactive program books and participating in creative capacities like drawing sounds or creating origami. Everybody has options: participate, engage, ponder…or just enjoy the music.

Whether you read that with approval or horror probably says something deep and meaningful about your cultural background. Regardless, it’s an inventive solution to the problem, though you would have to have an audience willing to play along – and presumably listen to a fair amount more talking than a traditional concert.

Audience Experience

The ‘creating an experience’ mentality has had benefits in related fields. Secret Cinema (recently, and not un-controversially, awarded a grant from the very fund I was writing about a few weeks ago) has made the cinema-going experience into a thorough-going event that has proven very popular, and (until this year at least), lucrative.

I imagine it helps that cinema at its most mainstream has an incredibly wide base of appeal. I’m not sure everyone would be as enthusiastic as me about a Handel soiree experience in which the audience is greeted by bewigged attendants and interacts with actors playing, I don’t know, Hanoverian royalty, while swanning around an 18th-century ballroom.

Critics of Design Thinking warn that non-STEM disciplines are being forced into models that simply don’t apply to them. It’s safe to say Lee Vinsel isn’t a fan, here quoting an architectural professor:

“It’s design as marketing,” he said. “It’s about looking for and exploiting a market niche. It’s not really about a new and better world. It’s about exquisitely calibrating a product to a market niche that is underexploited.”

That said, in the current climate, classical music would probably settle for exploiting some market niches.

Give the people what they want?

A broader concern is – to risk another nebulous concept at this late stage – to do with authenticity. Artists are generally encouraged to communicate something personal through their art, rather than simply something that will appeal to the consumer. If we concentrate on chasing the audience experience and designing our offering around them, how much are we communicating of ourselves, and how much do we simply end up chasing trends?

‘Give the people what they want’ might work for mass media (and James Bond), but part of the problem in generating new audiences for declining art forms is that the people don’t always know what they want. We should absolutely be applauding any effort to present music in original and effective ways – and looking to the tech world for solutions is fine, if we remember that what works in one field doesn’t always transfer neatly over to another. There’s a balance to be struck between creating a more appealing product and making better art. Right now we’d probably settle for a little security, and if ‘design thinking’ is a tool to help us get there, maybe I can let go of a little cynicism.

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Creativity Technology

A new creative arms race?

Cultural commentators seem largely to fall into one of two camps at the moment. The first camp sees an opportunity to ‘build back better’. From the desolate rubble of 2020’s creative landscape, a new, fairer, more diverse, less stuffy artistic realm can be built, they say. We should frame our current situation as an opportunity, an environmental course correction with long-lasting benefits to be had, if we can just seize them.

The second camp is less optimistic, and rather more focussed on preserving the viability of creative institutions and the livelihoods of those who contribute to them. After all, what good is a fairer and more accessible world of the arts if there are no artists left to fashion it?

‘Normality is futility’

This week, the Guardian published an editorial outlining its view on the way forward for classical music. Their conclusion places them among the optimists:

It may mean reversing every assumption they know, it may mean that orchestras become communities of musicians who operate in small groups, as opposed to the massed ranks that they were employed to be – but the path of becoming radically local, community-centred organisations, who perform in places other than grand concert halls lies open. So does the acceleration of connecting with audiences digitally.

It makes it sound so easy – notwithstanding the fact that many organisations have been pouring their energy into these avenues since well before the pandemic. (The CBSO has arguably been doing this for decades.) Having decried Boris Johnson’s ’empty optimism and intelligence-insulting boosterism’ earlier in the article, the authors have then made some suggestions which are significantly easier to write about than they are to put into practice: be radically local, while at the same time connecting to a monied digital audience.

The way to connect with audiences digitally may remain ‘open’, but it’s not as if orchestras and ensembles haven’t been aggressively pursuing this direction for a while now. The current problem doesn’t seem to be that there isn’t enough digital content – it’s that by and large people won’t pay for it, and that other ways to monetise are hard to come by.

Arts entrepreneur David Taylor’s provocatively titled blog ‘Of course orchestras can make money online‘ offers a dissenting view – monetisation comes at the end of a sometimes-lengthy process of audience-generation via an organisation or brand providing ‘value’ to its audience, free of charge:

1 – Generate attention with content that provides value to an audience

2 – Use that attention and value to build strong connections and meaningful relationships

3 – Monetise those strong connections and meaningful relationships through multiple income streams and advocacy that also provide value.

This approach works well in many of the fields Taylor cites, including YouTubers and online lifestyle gurus. But for an orchestra, putting so much online for free in order to provide ‘value’ might prove an insurmountable loss-leader.

A creative arms-race

It’s a compelling vision of the future, especially if, like me, you avidly consume the value offered up for free by certain online lifestyle gurus. But one wonders: if there is a creative arms-race into this techno-utopian future, there will be a great number of organisations that simply can’t keep up.

Of course, seeing organisations doing something new, creative, different, and perhaps lucrative, will inspire others to have a go themselves. But the adjustment to a new funding model will leave many behind, whether because their brand simply isn’t suited to the fast-moving world of online media, or because they can’t afford the expertise of a social media brand manager on top of the salaries of a few dozen hungry musicians.

It’s notable that one of the most-watched classical music live-streams of recent weeks was that given by ORA Singers from the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, which has now racked up a very solid 15000 views on YouTube. Significantly, it was free to watch, though it must have cost a fair amount to lay on. It was also very good, especially considering the requirements of distancing forty singers in the space.

This is a brilliant way to offer value for free and help build up an audience, and ORA will undoubtedly have reached beyond their regular live concert audience. But I wonder how many other ensembles are able to pay a small army of freelancers to put on a loss-making event such as this, in the same of brand-building.

The outgoing president of the American Choral Directors’ Association, Tim Sharp, opened a recent letter to his community with a quote from the hymnodist Robert Lowry:

My life flows on in endless song; Above Earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet ‘tho far-off hymn, That hails A NEW CREATION;
Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?

Sharp sees an opportunity to realise this ‘new creation’ by using the digital gains made during the pandemic to pursue wider teaching and engagement goals. I would love to be as optimistic as he is, and dearly hope he’s right, even though for me it remains something of a ‘far-off hymn’.

Ultimately, the conclusion I’m dancing around putting my name to is this: a transition to a more online economic basis for creative organisations is probable, at least in the short term, and not altogether undesirable. The speed of that transition is going to be the tricky thing. It will need to be cushioned by support for organisations attempting to make it. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the people they employ that need support during this time, to avoid being driven out of the industry altogether.

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Creativity

Consumption anxiety

Every now and then, I have a worrying thought, and it takes this form: is there a serious imbalance between the amount I’m creating, and the amount I’m consuming? To put it another way, I’m worrying about the ratio of things that I contribute to the world to things that I take from it. I don’t mean this in an environmental way – although I’m sure that’s true as well – but in a cultural sense.

It’s certainly a worry that’s been exacerbated by being unable to contribute to creative life in the way I normally would this year, what with global pandemia. But it’s not a new feeling, nor is it confined to this year. It’s an anxiety that appears to affect a large number of people. At a time when ‘content’ is available at our fingertips, more content than we could consume in a hundred lifetimes, many of us feel worried, even guilty, about consuming so much more than we produce.

It’s so easy to watch my friends making music online, or to binge a TV show, or waste time down in the depths of YouTube rabbit-holes. People have produced so much, and they share so much of it, and it’s just so very easy to gobble it all up. I’m attacked by the sense that I reap but I do not sow.

It’s not just me – this anxiety seems to be everywhere on the internet. Newer generations of internet users are well aware of just how much they consume; a quick google reveals that this has in turn provided the platform for dozens of articles about how to ‘release our creativity’ and counter the problem. It’s linked to an increased awareness of and contempt for the idea of consumerism. The revolt against this has led to movements such as ‘digital minimalism‘, which seems to be a reaction against the ease with which it is now possible to consume media of all kinds.

(The huge popularity of people peddling their own versions of this new ‘minimalism’ on YouTube is an interesting outgrowth of the idea. It can be easy to forget that they too are selling a lifestyle, albeit one with Apple-branded clean lines and the endless and subtly consumerist permutations of the quest for the ‘perfect productivity desk setup’.)

Where does this anxiety come from?

The disjunct between just how easily we can devour the fruits of culture, and how much we ourselves contribute to it, can seem vast. Most of us want to feel that we’re in control of our lives, and yet so many of us are reliant for our entertainment or consolation on the product of other people’s hard work and initiative – which makes us feel like maybe we aren’t in control after all.

I’ve been wondering if this is something which is particularly pertinent for those who practice music in the classical tradition. Most people would probably think of us broadly as ‘creatives’, but do we really create? I sometimes feel that at most we ‘curate’ – we take other people’s work (most often composers) and re-interpret their notes or rehearse their ideas. Thinking this way can leave me feeling like a net drain on the world’s creative output.

Is ‘creation vs consumption’ a false framing?

I wonder if it might be a bit simplistic to equate ‘creation’ with agency and ‘consumption’ with complacency. Certainly, for musicians, we can choose to frame interpretation and facilitation as a creative act in itself, one without which the composer’s notes and ideas cannot be realised.

A teacher once told me that to be a conductor is not to be an artist, or some kind of lofty spiritual being, but a craftsmen, working with their hands to fashion something, just as the musicians do. Seen this way, the performing musician is indeed a creative person. Performers are always creative when performing, as long as they are not doing so on auto-pilot or without intention.

Even beyond the realm of performance, the facilitation of a creative act is just as vital. Think of those who commission composers or arrange competitions, who stimulate or provide a conduit for the creativity of others. Teachers, artist managers, stage crew, tuners, luthiers, patrons. The whole ecosystem of the cultural world is so integrated that it doesn’t really make any sense to separate ‘creativity’ into something that some have or practice and others don’t.

Consumption is necessary for creativity

There’s a broader point to draw out here about how creativity works. Tiago Forte, in the Building a Second Brain Podcast, talks about the importance of the ‘gathering’ phase of creativity. This is when we intentionally gather material and allow ourselves to digest it. Only when we have consumed a lot of material and distilled it down to that which is most interesting or insightful do we then begin germinate ideas of our ‘own’.

Essentially, Forte is arguing that it’s not only OK to consume plenty of material, it’s a prerequisite to the creative act, a way of seeding the brain with the raw material which it can then play with or recombine in new ways.

Obviously, it’s going to make a bit of difference if we do this mindfully, being alert as we consume and positioning ourselves to be able to record things that resonate with us, in order to be able to recall and play with them. This idea is at the heart of Forte’s ‘Second Brain’ theory.


I’m enjoying processing this idea of how to think of creativity: as something not opposed to consumption, but the potential product of it. I’m hoping it will help me let myself off the hook – especially if I find that those tangible, recognisable fruits of creativity are thin on the ground in the wasteland of 2020.

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Creativity

Stop making the economic case for the arts

Arts funding is in the news again. The government’s announcement of a Culture Recovery Fund has prompted a round of online discussion of the place of the taxpayer in subsidising culture. It’s not hard to imagine that a feeding frenzy will soon be upon us, with arts organisations and venues gearing up to compete for a slice of the £1.57 billion available.

Why the ‘economic case’ is made

In the arts world, we often feel like we must fight to maintain the place of something we feel is essential in a world that doesn’t always seem to agree. In recent years, it’s become commonplace for those defending state-subsidised art to do so in terms of its economic benefit to a nation or community. In the UK, studies such as this one are cited, speaking of how much the creative industries contribute to GDP.

It’s a line of argument that is both compelling and frustrating. Compelling, because it appears to use a language that governments understand: that of economic value. It’s felt that an economic argument will have the greatest chance of success with the money-obsessed decision-makers in Whitehall – a measurable instrument of success that they can plug into their spreadsheets. But frustrating, because I think most of us would agree that the true value of art to a community or country doesn’t lie in its contribution to GDP.

Problems with the economic case

  1. What are the ‘creative industries’ anyway?

Let’s return to that study. I often see people on social media using the ‘creative industries contribute £13 million to the economy every hour’ line to justify state funding of artistic enterprise. But what actually are these ‘creative industries’, and do they perhaps merit a certain amount of scare-quoted suspicion in this context? Here’s an extract from the report:

The sector was supported by large contributions from tech services and the film and television industries, which contributed £45.4 billion and £20.8 billion to the economy respectively. Another boost was delivered by the advertising and marketing industries, which account for a quarter of the total growth of the creative industries since 2017.

There are a couple of things to draw out of this. ‘Tech services’ is still a little mysterious, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt – it could refer to the highly successful video games that have come out of British-based companies in recent years. Next comes film and TV – mass media genres drawn to Britain by its lucrative tax breaks. Then there’s advertising, and marketing.

So, while the ‘creative industries’ are indeed generating healthy contributions to Treasury coffers, are these really the areas we mean when we cite these figures to defend investment in opera, dance, or live theatre? (If the success of film is how we’re going to justify investment in art, then it’s certainly a far cry from Keynes’ mantra upon founding what would become the Arts Council: ‘Death to Hollywood’!)

More recently, the Arts Council took a stab at defining more closely the actual cultural sectors involved, but still with a focus on the economic gain accruing from them.

2. What if the economic tide turns?

If the creative economy stops contributing as much to GDP as we say it does, how can further investment be justified? By tethering arguments for state subsidy to the economic performance of the sector, we make a rod for our own backs if it then stops making money. This could happen for any number of reasons, including changing tastes or modes of consumption.

To lean into the economic argument sets up a trap later down the road. If the numbers turn against us, and the creative industries stop being the economic boon we confidently assert that they currently are, perhaps even becoming a net drain on public resources, what argument can we fall back on?

3. Square pegs and round holes

London’s Southbank Centre was in the news recently for taking the decision to make two thirds of its staff redundant. Staff were told that when the centre – the largest arts centre in Europe, apparently – reopens, it will be run on a ‘start-up’ model. If you’re wondering what that means in practice, you’re not alone:

Over email, a spokesperson for the Southbank Centre told me: “When we talk about ‘start-up’ we mean a ‘mind-set approach’: being agile, adaptable to change, moving fast, risk-taking, innovating, constantly learning, changing the status quo, learning from failure, for example. We are not re-modelling operationally as a start-up.”

This is obviously nonsense, but it reflects the fact that organisations with an arts focus are increasingly being told to align themselves with the values and concerns of the trendy ‘startup’ model of business.

Should arts organisations really model for-profit businesses? If their worthiness for state support depends on it, thanks to that economic argument for their value, then it’s no surprise if they try and force themselves into a business model that appears to justify it.

4. Does investment in art directly lead to industry economic benefit?

It’s sometimes argued that there is a ‘trickle-up’ effect, by which investment in art filters in to the success of the wider creative industry. But the direct economic links between subsidised culture and creative industry are still not well understood. John Holden, who has written extensively on public policy relating to culture, articulated this back in 2007:

…the creative industries are still, in spite of all the attention that they have received, not fully conceived, explained, narrated or understood. At a fundamental conceptual level, the ‘creative industries’ idea veers between on the one hand being based on the creative capacities of individuals, and on the other being a categorisation of industry types.

It’s therefore too simplistic to say that investment in subsidising culture leads directly to some economic benefit via the creative industries.

5. The economic argument misses the point of art

Don’t worry – a definition of the point of art is somewhat outside the scope of this post. But it’s true that when compelled to articulate the actual value of art to communities, we tend to struggle. Most of us would agree that the ‘value’ of an artistic activity cannot be measured purely by its economic consequences. Social and cultural factors are at least as important.

The result of this is that a generation is at risk of not being able to make the case for investment based on anything except economics – which, as we’ve seen, is not a stable premise. Kate Levin underscores the risk in this article:

…you have to be able to describe your value. There can be a little bit of ‘we’re on the side of the angels’ in the creative sector, and the assumption that people understand what those benefits are.

So what’s the alternative?

If the economic argument doesn’t hold water, what other techniques can we use to make the case for public investment in art? Are there other arguments we can marshal, other valuations we can usefully deploy?

Arts Council England – the current successor to Keynes’ ‘Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts’ – has developed a 10-year plan, ‘Let’s Create‘, articulating its vision for publically-funded culture. It does a good job identifying some of the problems with access to culture across the country, and acknowledges a need ‘to improve the way we make the case for the social and economic value of investing public money in culture’.

However, there’s little in there that explains in simple terms why we as a people should fund the means of artistic creation. When one eventually reaches ACE’s ‘Investment Principles’, there’s a fair amount of buzzwordy jargon and not a great deal of solid matter. So what else is there?

  1. Soft power

If we still want to go down the route of talking to government in its own language, there’s always the idea of culture as ‘soft power’ – culture as an export, disseminated to project values and power across the world.

It’s interesting to see that Portland’s Soft Power Index has put the UK at number 1 or 2 in the world for the last five years, with ‘Culture’ tied with ‘Education’ as its chief asset. However, this is still largely the result of big-budget film, TV, or literature products such as Sherlock or Harry Potter – not the smaller, more fragile industries propped up by state support which are the focus of this post.

2. Enrichment

In a 2012 article for The Guardian, playwright David Edgar highlighted a case for the arts which centred on the idea of enrichment:

Five years ago, the Arts Council set out to produce a threefold definition of art’s purpose: to increase people’s capacity for life (helping them to “understand, interpret and adapt to the world around them”), to enrich their experience (bringing “colour, beauty, passion and intensity to lives”) and to provide a safe site in which they could build their skills, confidence and self-esteem. Other forms of endeavour do some of these things. Only art does all three.

I think this is compelling. Edgar goes on to lament how difficult these three effects are to quantify, but concludes that widening participation in artistic endeavour is likely to have the most long-lasting social benefit. But where does that leave high-level traditional opera, say, or other genres which are the domain of the highly-trained? Artistic value in these areas still seems to elude the quantifying measures required by state subsidy.

What does that leave us with?

Cultural ecology

John Holden, commissioned to report on this topic by AHRC in 2015, elects to reframe the subject as a ‘cultural ecology

…culture is an organism not a mechanism…careers, ideas, money, product and content move around between the funded, commercial, and homemade/amateur parts of the overall cultural world in such a way that those funding categories cannot be disentangled.

Finally we have a view which reflects the complexity of the contemporary creative landscape – culture as an interconnected series of pursuits, professions, and crafts, each umbilically linked to the others.

Seeing culture as an ecology allows the formation of ‘a comprehensible overview that does not privilege one type of value – financial value – over others that attach to culture’. A later passage is worth quoting in full, because it gets right to the heart of our discussion about the problems of relying on economic value alone:

It is…a category mistake to treat culture only as economy, because the cultural ecology operates in ways, and produces effects, that transcend monetary transactions. The mistake has real consequences. One is that concentrating on only monetary valuations of the system (which the Treasury’s Green Book methodology demands, in that it requires all types of value to be expressed in monetary terms) inhibits interactivity, and is likely to reduce the creation of both financial and cultural value. Another is that non-monetary flows in the ecology are neglected whereas in fact, as Crossick explains: ‘without an extraordinary level of free-sharing, value cannot be formed’. The cultural ecology cannot be understood without taking into account free labour and emotional rewards.

So, the focus on the measurable economic benefit of art not only misrepresents what art does, but does active damage to what it can do.

People do not have a solely ‘professional’ relationship to creation. They move through different phases, pourously – at different times and in different circumstances they can be amateurs, professionals, spectators, supporters. I started singing as an amateur; I spent a few years as a professional singer; but in my current phase I’m more likely to listen to and support others singing than participate directly myself.

Not all of our labour is directly able or apt to be monetised, and there is no blanket distinction in art between the amateur and professional worlds.

Holden is leading us towards viewing the cultural environment as a whole. This allows him to suggest targeted interventions which might take the form of funding, based on asking ourselves questions about what art needs:

It is helpful to think of these biological concepts as a set of life-cycle questions: what conditions bring a form of culture into being? How is that form of culture then sustained? What threatens its existence? How can it be nurtured to grow to its full potential? How can it help other life-forms to emerge? When should it be let go?


Perhaps we shouldn’t be shying away from the complexity of the organism that is ‘culture’. Finding the right answers to the questions above could result in funding going a lot further.

However, it’s certainly true that fulsome answers to complicated questions don’t fit in a tweet. And if government only talks the language of economy, can it be persuaded to learn that of ecology?

It might not be so far-fetched. After all, the national conversation about the natural environment has advanced greatly over a short time, with those in government generally agreed that the care of the natural world is a matter of pressing concern. The ecology model might be one to road to helping us present subsidised culture in the same light – and attract a similar level of concern.

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Creativity

Creative portfolios: diversifying against risk

I recently made my first, tentative foray into the stock market. I know very little about stocks and shares, but what I have managed to glean so far is this: diversification helps inoculate against risk. Diversifying your holdings, by spreading them out across multiple kinds of investment or country or genre or ‘asset class’, means that if there’s a crash in one area, you’re still (hopefully) not going to lose out too much. I’ve been wondering if this is a useful analogy for professional work in the creative world.

[…] diversification is the investing equivalent of a free lunch. Research suggests that, not only is it the best way of managing risk but, over the long-term, also leads to higher returns. 

Lars Kroijer

In the past six months, we’ve experienced the equivalent of the bottom dropping out of the creative market. Anything creative that was generally done in front of other people became mostly impossible, overnight.

Everyone going into a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, knows the risks. Precarity. Uncertainty. Vulnerability to market forces completely beyond our control. But just as in investment, in return for accepting the higher risk, we receive various rewards: maybe it’s a degree of control over our lifestyle, or flexibility with working hours.

We might be tempted to think Covid-19 is an isolated occurrence, but there have been other market-altering calamities, and there will be more to come. All manner of events can affect our ability to do what we do, be it external, such as a market crash, or personal, such as a change in circumstances, or an unexpected illness.

Is there a way of inoculating ourselves against these risks? And how feasible is it for a creative person to ‘diversify’?

Risk tolerance

In investing, you decide how much to put into the riskiest assets – equities, for example – vs the safer options – bonds, cash – by determining your individual risk tolerance. Younger people are advised to take more risks; the market generally evens out over time, meaning over a longer time-frame, you’re less likely to lose out. Those coming closer to when they might need the money are advised to shift the balance to less risky assets.

So, as someone just starting out, you might justifiably put all your eggs in one creative basket, and commit full-time to your passion. In the event of a Calamitous Event(TM), your liabilities are few, and you can dust yourself down and try again, or try something else.

But not everyone has the same tolerance for this level of risk. Those with more liabilities, or dependants, might want to swim more cautiously in these waters, to have a backup plan, or even something else running along the side.

Transferable skills and ‘side hustles’

Let’s assume for now that we want to do the latter. We’ll commit to our chosen focus, but we’ll try and spare 5% or so of our energy to keep something else on the back burner. What that something else is depends on a number of things.

The investment analogy suggests that to be diversified against risk, our supplementary activity needs to be in a different enough field that it would be unaffected by anything that might threaten our core activity. Here’s an obvious example: if our core focus requires live performance and travel, then the ideal bulwark against this year’s particular obstacle is a job that can be done at home.

If our subsidiary focus can be one that informs and enriches the main discipline, so much the better. The classic supplementary job in the world of musical performance is teaching or tutoring – leveraging existing knowledge and pre-gained experience to generate a more securely predictable income. And teaching can be just as valuable for the teacher as the pupil – something I’ve certainly found as I’ve begun to teach conducting. For me, teaching and writing have been sidelines that enhance and help me reflect on what I think of as my main discipline – and inevitably the balance will keep shifting.

We want something that will enrich and be enriched by our main specialism, but is sufficiently separate from it to avoid the same risks. Of course, not everyone will have a sub-specialism that meets these criteria, but there are other ways – perhaps there’s a related hobby that can be monetised.

I’m wary of what’s become known as hustle culture – the idea that we should always be trying to monetise our activities, spending all our time thinking of new ways to make money. I can’t imagine it’s possible to be a reflective, creative person without a bit of space in our lives, and I’m not suggesting that we need to adopt the ‘hustle’ mindset to achieve diversification. Instead, I want to safeguard that creative space by attempting to mitigate the risks associated with it.

The world as it should be vs the world as it is

This position might seem a little cynical. Shouldn’t artists be free to pursue their art to the exclusion of all else? The answer, in an ideal world, is yes, absolutely. Whether the solution ends up being a Universal Basic Income or something else, a world in which we can all exercise complete freedom of creative choice, unconstrained by market forces, or what will make money – that’s surely the goal.

However, we don’t live in this perfect world. The real world has yet to catch up to this ideal. We are, unless we are very lucky, tethered to the fortunes of the financial systems in which we live, as well as subject to the vagueries of taste or politics. For me, that awareness breeds a certain caution, and it’s why I’m going to try to keep myself, at least a little bit, diversified.


Now, you might say: Pavarotti never ‘diversified’! Da Vinci didn’t have a ‘side hustle’! Artistic geniuses always devote themselves 100% to their passions, ignoring the constraints of the ‘market’ or the ‘real world’!

Even if that were true, and even if I got away with that straw man – and I’m pretty sure it isn’t and I didn’t – most of the ‘genius artists’ we might include in this category were not only talented and hard-working, but lucky – and we might not be. So if we’re OK with embracing a bit more risk to become a bit more successful, all good. But if our risk tolerance means balancing the risk with something else, there’s no shame in that.

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Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 3 – Video

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online, and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 1 & Part 2

We’ve got our audio. Now it’s time to put the video together.

Step 3: Transcoding the video

This sounds fancy, but it’s really just the process of making sure all the videos you’ve been sent will play nicely with each other. Different phones produce different kinds of files, and film at different frame-rates. Handbrake will put them all into a format that Premiere/Lightworks can handle.

NB Phone cameras generally use variable frame rate (VFR) to make the size of the file smaller. Many video editing programmes don’t like that, as it makes things much harder to line up – that’s why we’re ‘transcoding’ the videos to use a constant frame rate (CFR)

  • Add the file to Handbrake when prompted
  • From the presets, select ‘Production Standard’
  • On the ‘Video’ tab, make sure you’ve selected ‘Constant Frame Rate’, and specified a frame rate to work at. 30fps is fine for our purposes. It should be the same for all the video files in the project
  • Press ‘Encode’ to generate the new file, and give it a new name so you know it’s the version you’re going to use
  • Do this for all the videos you’ve been sent
Transcoding in Handbrake

Step 4: Assembling the video

  • Create your project in Premiere Pro/Lightworks, and add all the newly-transcoded videos, each with their own Video and Audio track
  • To create that split-screen effect, select each clip, and make each video smaller (using Scale), then change its position along the X and Y axes (using Position)* (DVE in Lightworks)
  • Soon enough, you’ll have a screen full of videos. Now, in the EDIT tab, you can line them up with each other by using the audio of each track, and lining up the ‘clap’ waveform, just as you did when lining up the audio
  • This done, you can mute all the audio tracks and import the one you’re actually going to use – the mixdown from Cubase we made in Part 2
  • Export the edit
  • You could leave it like this, but if you want to add transitions and fades-in etc, rather than use the same project, I’d create a new project and import the video you just made. Your processor will thank you
  • That’s it!

*There’s some maths to be done here – work out by what factor you need to make each clip smaller in order for them to fit into the grid. In the end I used a 7×7 grid to accommodate my 27 participants, but I suspect there’s a more elegant solution out there.

Assembly in Premiere Pro

Final Thoughts

There are probably a number of ways I’ve made this more complicated than it has to be. I have, though, generated a work-flow that seems to get the results I’m after. As I’ve mentioned, you can take bits of it that you like, and incorporate them into your own way of doing it – let me know what you come up with!

I’m probably going to end up making more of these, and I’m keen to refine the process. I think it’s worth conductors dabbling – these formats are not going away. Judge for yourself below..!

Categories
Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 2 – Audio

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online, and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 3

We’ve looked at why we might want to have a go at a split-screen music video. Now let’s look at one way of actually doing it.

Note: This is just one of a thousand different ways you could approach this. I’m not claiming this is the best way – just the one that worked for me, which I mostly figured out as I went along.

Further note: I’m going to address this to the moderately tech-savvy. If you don’t know how to install software, or still think that nice video website is called ‘the Youtube’, there are other guides that might suit you better! This is purely a guide to what I did – take all or none of it. It presupposes using YouTube tutorials to get the basics of the software, so I’m not going to cover these in the guide.

What you’ll need

This is the most basic version of the equipment you’ll need to put this together.

  • A reasonably well-specced computer
    • There’s no getting away from this, I’m afraid – video editing eats processing power for breakfast. You’ll need a reasonable amount of RAM and a decent CPU. If you’re using a MacBook, you’ve probably already got this. If not, check your system specs – I reckon 4-8 GB of RAM and a reasonably modern processor should do it, together with enough space on the hard drive for quite a few videos!
  • Audio editing software
    • I used Cubase, which is available as a free trial. If you need longer, it’s not too expensive to buy, or you could try Audacity, which is rather more fiddly, but free for life
  • Video editing software
    • Adobe Premiere Pro, again on a free trial. It has a really good introductory tutorial built in. There’s also Lightworks, which is free and does the same sorts of things, but I found it got unstable on my system once I got past 20 tracks
  • Handbrake
    • This helps us make sure all the video files submitted to us can be edited by the software, by converting them all into the same format
  • Time

Step 1: Create the Guide

You could simply make your performers record audio and video at the same time. This can be a little overwhelming, and it makes editing and controlling the audio a little trickier. We’re going to record the audio and video components of the video separately, then put them together afterwards. This means that the performers can focus entirely on getting their performance right, then can effectively mime the video.

Creating the Guide

The performers need a guide recording to perform along to. It can be as simple as a metronome, but the more the performers feel like they’re performing with others, the better, and some have used preexisting recordings for this purpose. Metronomes can lead to a rather mechanical performance, and singing along to someone else’s recording doesn’t allow you to come up with your own interpretation.

Note: in fact, the pieces I chose needed a flexible tempo, which a metronome would make impossible, and there weren’t any extant recordings to use.

Here’s how I made my guide recording:

  • Using my phone, I took a video of myself, clapping on the fourth beat of a metronome – beep, beep, beep, clap – followed by me conducting the piece to camera.
  • I then recorded myself playing the piano into Cubase, while watching the video I had just made (making sure to clap along at the beginning), then exported this
  • In Premiere Pro, I lined up my new piano recording with the video, by lining up where the two ‘clap’ waveforms were on the audio tracks – they’re pretty easy to spot. I then exported this video
  • Watching the new video, I repeated the piano recording process, except this time recording myself singing the vocal parts, always lining them up using the clap

After exporting, this left me with a video of me clapping, then conducting an invisible ensemble of piano and singers. By following myself conducting, instead of using a metronome, I was able to allow for breaths and a slightly more organic performance. It also helps you see whether you’re easy to follow or not!

Note: I asked friends to supply the voice-parts I couldn’t sing. If there’s no one around and you don’t feel like doing it, why not engage some professional singers to lay down guide tracks for a few bob – they’ll appreciate the work.

Send it to the Performers

Send the video to the group, along with detailed instructions as to how to contribute – everything from positioning the recording device, to warming up beforehand, and clapping with the guide. I based my guidelines on the excellent list available here (geared towards the acappella tradition but mostly applicable).

Each participant records audio (with headphones in) and then video separately (no headphones), and sends you both files.

Step 2: Assembling the Audio

Lining up clap waveforms in Cubase

As you receive the audio files, import them into Cubase, and line them up with the guide recording using the clap.

NB You might need to make sure they’re in a format Cubase can read – it doesn’t like Apple’s m4a, so I used this website to convert those to wav.

Hopefully this should mean they’re vaguely together with each other – you can make micro-adjustments if not. You can trim ‘rogue’ moments out, add some reverb to distance the sound a little, and use the Mixer to get the balance right between parts. Play about until you’re happy, then export to a single file.

If you’re just making an audio virtual recording, you can stop there. If hubris hasn’t yet got the better of you, though, the final stage is video. Hold on to your hats (and spare a thought for your poor computer).

Next week:

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 3 – Video

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Choirs Creativity Technology

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 1 – Why

In this three-part series of posts, I’ll take you through why and how to make one of those charming multi-screen, multi-track musical videos, based on my own experiences. I’ve used software that’s freely available online, and I’m very much coming at this from the perspective of an amateur video editor, in the hope that my tribulations might make life easier for anyone contemplating putting one of these together.

Click here for Part 2: Audio and here for Part 3: Video

You can’t escape them, it seems. Open your social media account of choice and there they are: serried ranks of faces, at once charming and somehow alien, singing directly at you. It seems almost magical, like they’re under a spell.

These kinds of videos aren’t new, but Covid-induced lockdowns have prompted a remarkable surge in interest in this quintessentially 21st-century form of performance. But how hard are they to produce? Do you need to hire a professional video editor, or can it be done by anyone with a bit of time on their hands and a taste for masochism? More importantly, is this a bandwagon worth jumping on?

I’m going to try and answer those questions over three posts, from the perspective of a musical professional but a technological amateur. My hope is that it will be a helpful resource to anyone thinking about doing this over the next few months, or beyond.

Let’s begin with the philosophical, before moving on to the technical.

Why make a video?

First things first: ‘because everyone else is doing it’ probably isn’t a good enough reason. I’ve joked about the bandwagon, but ultimately I think it’s only worth doing if it satisfies certain criteria: will my ensemble enjoy it? will it serve our mission/purpose? does this format serve us? Let’s address them in order.

Will we enjoy it?

If you’re working with an amateur ensemble, you presumably want this to be an enjoyable venture, or at least not an actively disagreeable one. The difficulties for the amateur contributor are not inconsiderable and shouldn’t be underestimated: 1) noone is at their peak of technical or vocal health during lockdown 2) not everyone has the same technology, or aptitude for it 3) there’s nowhere to hide and no safety in numbers, and 4) hearing/seeing yourself alone can be a very disheartening experience – even for professionals! Not to mention that everyone is adapting to different demands on their time and energy.

My solution has been to be upfront about these difficulties – to stress that the final product will be worth it, and that noone is being judged on their performance. As I’ve said numerous times, I wouldn’t anyone judging me on the current state of my lockdown-lapsed breath control! I’ve encouraged members of my ensembles to just give it a go, and promised that most things can be fixed in the edit.

Additionally, I’ve put in the caveat that if we as an ensemble don’t think it represents us as we wish to come across, we won’t release it publicly. Which brings us to the next criteria: what does it do for us?

What does it do for us?

Ultimately, once things are out there in the public domain, it’s pretty hard to close the box. You’ve got to be fairly sure that what you do put out there is going to reflect positively on the group.

There have been some terrific videos, which will certainly have long-lasting reputational benefits to those ensembles. This one is effective. And this one, below, from my old choir, is really slick and shows the group at home in their core repertoire. But it’s probably fair to say that not all the groups that have put videos out there are going to want them to stay there for time immemorial. So take a moment to think about reputational benefit vs risk.

Perhaps there’s a particular repertoire that’s under-recorded that your group specialises in. There might be a unique interpretation you can bring to bear, or a piece that says something about your identity as a group, or about the current situation. I think these are the most compelling reasons (and incidentally, I think they apply to commercial CD recordings too).

Ultimately, the way I’ve framed it to my groups is this: we’ll challenge ourselves to have a go. If we think it represents us well or is of value in some way, we’ll release it. If not, at the very least it’s generated something that we can keep and share internally, a memento of a bizarre year.

There’s a solution to the current situation which is group-shaped, by which I mean there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Each of my main choirs has come at it differently, and come up with approaches to addressing it which suit them. Some will involve remote recordings, but not all. There’s no shame in not doing these, and they’re not right for all situations.

Next steps

Now we know why we’re doing this and what we hope to get out of it. Next comes the fun part.

Next week:

Making a ‘Virtual Choir’ video with free software: Part 2 – Audio

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Choirs Creativity Technology

Lockdown lessons: three habits to take back with us to normality

2020 has seen choirs, orchestras, and all manner of other cultural organisations forced online. It’s fair to say that for many it’s been an uncomfortable transition. But what can we learn from the adaptations we’ve made? And could there be things we’d like to take back with us into normality?

During the lockdown months, I got into habits – some good, some less so. Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about what I can take forward from this time into ‘normal’ life. For me, habits such as the mid-morning coffee, brewed slowly and deliberately, and daily exercise, are ones I’d like to continue. But are there new habits that ensembles have formed in this time that can be of value in a theoretical virus-free future?


Community

A choir of a hundred people subdivides into voice-parts, and probably then further into multiple social groupings. It can be difficult to break out of those and get to know who else is performing at the other end of the room.

One thing several members of my ensembles have commented on recently is that they feel that they know more people in the group. The online ‘rehearsals’ that we’ve been having weekly present everyone in a very egalitarian way, each in an identically-sized box, and, importantly, next to their name. It’s been invaluable to me as a conductor and ensemble-members have benefited from it too.

The randomised ‘coffee’ break-outs, which put attendees into smaller rooms for a chat for a few minutes, before unceremoniously dumping them back in the main room, have also helped with encouraging interaction beyond automatic social groupings.

It’s a truism that people who go through adversity together form strong bonds. The challenge will be to maintain and further strengthen them once the adversity is over.


Technical Skills

Both participants and leaders of groups have had to learn new skills to maintain their connections. Even some of the more technology-shy have been surprised by how easily they’ve been able to learn to attend online meetings, or make and submit recordings.

Leaders have learned these skills too, managing newly-digital ensembles, and have often strayed quite far into the technical realm, making guide recordings or assembling multi-tracked performances.

These skills are not temporary assets, and the requirement to master digital skills is not going to go away. Even in a post-virus world, the arc of the social universe tends towards the digital. In a world that, whether we like it or not, will increasingly view its culture from behind a screen, these skills are necessary evolutionary adaptations. Even predominantly live groups are going to have to learn how to exist in both physical and online dimensions.


Presentation

Closed door performances, live-streamed. Pay-per-view singalongs and workshops. Pieces designed for performance over video-conferencing. Innovations are being made not just in rehearsal but performance, and we’ll see even more imaginative variants this autumn.

In the amateur world, some may feel able to return to regular activities, while some will prefer to remain online. There may be hybrid concerts, with some performers live and some pre-recorded. We may see outdoor venues being used in different ways.

This kind of variety is good for the art. It keeps performers and audiences from complacency. It may even herald the ‘shake-up’ of live performance conventions which we are often told is so badly needed, especially in the ‘classical’ sector.


It might seem unfeeling to write of hopes for the future at a time of fundamental uncertainty for creative people of all kinds. All around us, cultural institutions are crumbling, and many involved in the arts are considering their options.

I remain hopeful that there will be a future for us. And if there is, we could do worse than taking into it with us any positive things we’ve learned.