I want to be an opera singer: should I be online?

So, you’ve decided you want to be an opera singer. You’re young, so you’ve grown up with the concept of an online presence – you don’t need persuading of its intrinsic merits, since it’s a fact of modern life. But this being a fairly old-fashioned sort of business, most of those involved are still sceptical or feeling their way. So let’s have an informal and unscientific browse through the current state of play.

Good reasons for singers having an online presence include:

Connecting with current and potential audiences – one of the reasons behind the success of “crossover” classical singers is that lots of people say they find them easier to relate to. That’s in large part to do with good marketing and PR, but that doesn’t have to be as expensive as the commercial firms make it. While I’m wary of trying to sell our art form to people as existing purely for the performers to “live the dream”, there’s no harm in giving an insight into what we do, and what our day-to-day lives are like, to people who are genuinely interested.

Being identifiable – a large part of getting your career going will depend on people being able to put a face (and a voice) to your name.

Being contactable – as budgets get tighter and less certain, decision-making windows in our business are getting smaller. Casting decisions which used to take months are now often done and dusted in a matter of days or even hours. The first port of call will almost always be online, so you need to be findable, and quickly.

Bad reasons for being online include:

Craving love and acceptance – if you don’t get enough of that elsewhere, online as a public persona is not the place to look for it. In fact you’ll need a thick skin and a long fuse at times – these are not bad qualities to develop for your career in general; life online only tends to expose and magnify the more extreme aspects of human behaviour. Try to invest as much of your self-worth as you can in a small and carefully-chosen group of family and friends. Then try to be nice and polite to everyone else.

“Publicising” yourself – by which I mean, doing what an agent and/or PR firm would do for you, which will necessarily be glittery and positive. That’s generally fine when it’s coming from a third party (or is perceived to be), but will not go down well in many quarters if it just comes across as you bigging yourself up. (Unless you’re fine with that as your public persona. Hello tenors!)

One more thing before we get going: bear in mind that there’s no such thing as online privacy. If one person can see it online, anyone can see it if they want it badly enough. So if you want to keep something private – keep it offline.

Website

When I was starting out back in the antediluvian days of the early 2000s, a website eventually came to be viewed as both necessary and sufficient for a singer. So a typical singer’s website could well include photos, an extensive biog, a CV, a repertoire list, performance dates, a whole load of reviews, comprehensive galleries of headshots and production pictures, audio files, video, news pages….. However, with the explosion of online content, people’s attention spans are ever shorter. For instance, I barely managed to get through typing that last list without nipping off to check my email, Google myself, have a quick game of Candy Crush etc. In addition, online storage space = money, so I would suggest streamlining down to the basics such as biog, a few pictures and contact details – an introduction to your work, rather than a comprehensive professional autobiography, and a gateway to other sites (see below) where people can find out more.

Keeping written content in the third person, as with a biog, is still the general orthodoxy, and is a useful protection against the bigging-yourself-up perception, even if it is you writing the content.

If you already have a good, forward-thinking agent, they may well have pretty much all of this set up for you.  The only caveat would be to bear in mind that if you change agents you’ll lose everything they were displaying for you (which might be a good or a bad thing), so even if you feel wedded to your agent for the long-term and their site is fabulous, you might still want to maintain a basic website presence for yourself – it could be enough just to have your domain name redirecting to your agent’s site.

Twitter

This is a biggy. Many singers who are on Twitter swear by it; others have a love-hate relationship; and many others ask me every other week “I don’t get it, what’s it for?”

At its best Twitter is an unrivalled tool for interacting with the public, because of its relatively simple and (thus far) egalitarian nature. Nothing quite compares to the thrill of getting a retweet or reply from David Hasselhoff or Rachel from Countdown. It’s worth a look, but if you decide it doesn’t suit you then that’s fine too, because it really isn’t for everyone.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts.

Do: interact – politely. If someone says something nice about you, thank them. If someone posts something interesting, retweet them. If someone asks you a question, respond, remembering also that the politeness extends to your colleagues and potential future colleagues – the importance of professional discretion should never be underestimated., and it’s wise to err on the side of blandness vs bluntness.

Don’t: get into arguments. Social media is like driving a car – because you’re involved in something ostensibly technological while shielded from many of the human aspects of interaction, it’s easy to get wound up in a way that you never would under normal conditions. Twitter has mute and block buttons: use them. Even if you’re the confrontational type, remind yourself not to say something online that you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, and that if you’re going to shoot from the hip, you’ll probably get it back with interest.

Do: retweet or post reviews if you find them interesting.

Don’t: retweet or post reviews if they are in any way critical of anyone else involved in the production. Critics have their jobs to do, but your colleagues won’t thank you if it happens to be their turn in the firing line.

Do: tweet about what you’re doing professionally.

Don’t: tweet while you’re supposed to be working. Also, really really don’t tweet about what’s going on inside a rehearsal room. This can be very tempting, especially if you’re a young singer rehearsing with an operatic legend. “Wow! X was on fire in rehearsal today!!” is a lovely sentiment, but will be viewed by many of your colleagues as having broken the sanctity of the rehearsal room, where we all need to feel safe to take risks. (And I hope it goes without saying that you wouldn’t tweet “Wow! X sucks today!!”, but I’ll say it just in case.)

As a direct portal to the world at large, Twitter is a powerful tool, and many singers use it subtly and skilfully – that’s a separate blogpost in itself. As with all powerful tools, handle with care – and remember the golden rule of PR: if in doubt, say nowt.

Facebook

This is a real curate’s egg and always has been. Firstly – keep your personal Facebook page as private as possible. In any walk of life, being tagged in picures from a house party when you were 19 is probably not going to be helpful.  (It helps if your real name is different from your professional name.)

For several years now Facebook has had an “artist page” function (under various guises). They’ve never seemed clear what they really want this to be, and currently seem to have settled on a Twitter-without-the-character-limit format. It’s fine as far as it goes, and I’ve found it occasionally useful for posting something that requires more detail than Twitter allows. Being that there are a fair few million people for whom Facebook is the primary internet portal, if you can be bothered setting a page up it’s probably worth 15 minutes of your time, even though the current format and functionality is fairly underwhelming. NB: Be prepared for explicit or silent comments from many of your Facebook “friends” along the lines of, oooh get her setting up a Facebook fan page. Trust me, your real friends don’t mind.

(There’s one potentially interesting aspect of Facebook pages, which is their paid post-boost function, which allows you to target ads, plugs, posts etc at particular demographics. It’s of much more potential use to agents and companies, but if you’re into this sort of thing it presents intriguing possibilities, even though it’s currently fairly uninspiring.)

Youtube

A few years ago this was the place to be, since for members of the MTV generation (ask your dad), music with video was the thing. My feeling is that it’s been on the wane for a while as a useful tool for singers – the quality of video and audio reproduction available is not great, while video productions of live performances are getting better all the time (remember, that grainy iPad recording of your recital rehearsal will be viewed back-to-back with clips from Met HD broadcasts or the like).  And it’s not particularly easy or rewarding to use. I still have a few things on Youtube but I find myself taking more and more of them down, and it’s increasingly an afterthought when it comes to posting new material.

Soundcloud

Now this is more like it in terms of what we’re after. It has most of the functionality you’d wish for – decent quality audio, a quick-and-easy-to-produce visual format, and useful functions such as the ability to make a track or whole playlist private and only accessible via an emailable link. I like it a lot, and if there’s one site you take a look at from this list, it should be this one.

Operabase

You may never have heard of it, but your agent should have and your potential employers certainly will. Take a look at it if you haven’t already. There’s an option for a pro artist subscription – currently something like €100 a year. If you feel you need more info up there than you already see, do give it some thought it as an investment (everything else I’ve listed here is free) – you might be surprised at the extent to which some casting processes rely on it.

UPDATE January 2016: Operabase have added further functionality for Pro Artist subscribers, making it even more useful. It’s definitely worth a look – here’s a link to my entry which gives you an idea:

Me on Operabase

Blogging

This is far more of a niche. Social media in general is a long piece of rope with which some people will not be able to resist hanging themselves. Blogging is potentially an even longer piece of rope, although it has two advantages, in that you’ve got no character restriction to blunt your argument (current word count: 1380….), and no-one has the time or patience to read blogs anymore. The problem for any singer-writer is that in public a singer is well-advised to be as pleasant and inoffensive as possible, whereas those qualities are pretty much fatal for interesting writing.

A great example of an interesting singer-writer is Christopher Gillett (read his stuff here: http://christophergillett.co.uk/blogs/ – although not before you’ve finished reading this post obviously). But young singers should bear in mind that Chris has a very well-established career and is fully aware of what he’s doing and at whom he’s taking aim when he writes. It looks much easier than it is.

In general my advice to potential bloggers and writers is the same as to potential singers: if you don’t feel you have to do it for your own happiness and sanity, don’t.

LinkedIn

It’s there but I don’t know what it’s for. Nobody knows what it’s for. I suspect it doesn’t even know what it’s for.

Wikipedia

You’re not allowed to write or edit your own Wikipedia entry. I suppose someone else could do it for you, if they can be bothered navigating Wikipedia’s complex set of rules and guidelines about verifiability, balance and neutrality of sources. It’s all far more trouble than it’s worth unless someone is actively libelling you, or you’ve finished all the currently extant levels of Candy Crush.

MySpace

I had to check whether MySpace even exists any more (it still does, just). It used to be an absolute riot – a freeform amalgamation of all the best bits of all the other social networks ever all in one place. Now it sucks. I just put it here to remind you to delete your account if you had one.

Instagram

This is something to do with photos. In a sign of encroaching middle-age, I don’t quite see what it brings to the party that isn’t available elsewhere. Also, I can’t see the photos embedded in my Twitter feed, I have to exit to the external site, and really, life’s too short*.

UPDATE February 2016: I’m on Instagram, it’s quite good fun.

Google

In some ways everything else leads here. In the old days (see above), googling your name would (you hoped) produce your own website as the lead result, then your agents, and then a whole load of other results which could well be embarrassing, misleading, libellous, obscene or all of the above.

I’ve just googled myself and the top 10 results are: my website; my Twitter account; my Wikipedia entry; my Facebook artist page; two pages from one of my record labels; an interview I gave last year; my Operabase page; my LinkedIn page; plus a link to six images, five of which were posted to various sites by me or my representatives.

Other than the Wikipedia entry (which is in theory balanced, verifiable blah blah blah), I had or have entire or partial editorial control over all of those sources. Page 2 of the Google results is slightly more anarchic, but the fact is that 95% of Googlers don’t get beyond the first page. (I made that stat up, but the fact that you believed me shows that based on your own anecdotal evidence you know it’s true.)

First impressions count, and modern first impressions are formed by the first page of Google to an extent which many of us still struggle to comprehend. Building a career as an artist involves discovering and deciding who you are, and fulfilling that vision as truthfully as you can. Being responsible for at least some of the online content relating to that identity gives you a fighting chance to define who you are, before someone else does it for you.

* – currently stuck on Candy Crush level 376

 

UPDATE February 2016: here’s a screenshot of a page from the latest edition of BBC Music Magazine:

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I had no idea they did this, or that magazines could print your Tweets without permission. But, for better or worse, they can and they do. As it happens, in this instance I’m perfectly happy for them to have printed that particular thought. But it’s always worth bearing in mind before pressing Send – once it’s out there, it’s public property.

 

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
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