Friday, January 20, 2012

Breaking Trail (and Wind) for Classical Music in the 21st Century

Every year, the Internet takes a larger role in our lives.  This 'series of tubes', as then-United States Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) once called it, has had an incalculable influence over the general public's taste in the past decade, as well as the marketing strategy of arts organizations. These days, many online businesses build their brand in the hopes to go 'viral', a very recent development in the history of marketing. This week, we meet one of the first classical music ensembles to have gone viral in North American social media, The Breaking Winds Bassoon Quartet.

(From left to right)
Yuki Katayama
Brittany Harrington
Kara LaMoure
Lauren Yu

Though they had planned to put it on their YouTube channel, as they had done with a previous concert, BWBQ never thought the video would catch so much attention. Two weeks after publishing the Lady Gaga Saga, over 100,000 people had viewed it. The next few weeks saw news websites, blogs, radio and television stations carrying the story. "We had hoped for 1,000 views," explains Brittany, "after the first night we had a few thousand."

Since their rise to stardom, the four girls have taken their roles very seriously, each taking a particular task in the administration. Today, they operate a website, Facebook pagetwitter feed, and a YouTube channel, which are regularly updated. For an ensemble with an average age of 23, this is quite extraordinary. The girls have been steadily posting new videos on their YouTube channel, keeping up with their fans. "It's nice to think that people might be watching our progress who aren't able to see us live [yet]," says Kara, "though [putting videos up] was more for our friends at first." Though their other videos haven't had as many views as the Gaga video, they still have a few thousand each.

An ensemble with a clear understanding of modern marketing techniques, the Breaking Winds have had their fingers in the digital pie for years. Formed in 2008 by four young bassoonists (Eryn Bauer, Brittany Harrington, Kara LaMoure, and Lauren Yu), the quartet called the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, home. Originally conceived as more of a social activity, the girls took much enjoyment out of the few performances they had together, while focusing on their studies. By their senior year the membership had regularized (Yuki Katayama replaced Eryn) and the group began looking towards new, 'out there', programming ideas, when it dawned on Kara to do a Lady Gaga tribute. "We had all wanted pop music in our next show," explains Kara, "the other girls seem to remember me as being super enthusiastic about [Lady Gaga], I don't think I was... but getting them to warm to the idea was like pulling teeth... Maybe it was a bit odd at the time, but she was everywhere." Fortunately, the other three jumped on board with what had the potential to be quite an embarrassing affair.

After graduating from Eastman, the quartet branched apart for grad school, and expect to be performing quite a --bit together in-between term-time. "We're sort of doing our own thing right now,"says Kara, "we all want to work on being the best bassoonists we can be before making a big commitment." Their heart looks to be in the right place, as the demand for the BWBQ has increased dramatically.

This past summer, the Breaking Winds tooted over to Texas and performed, to great success, in schools and retirement homes. The tour, their third geared towards schools, came into being thanks to Jennifer Auerbach, a popular bassoon teacher in Dallas, who acted as an intermediary with the local band teachers and principals, before handing off the legwork to Brittany. Ironically, it wasn't the Texas natives, Kara and Brittany, who got the ball rolling with Jennifer, it was Lauren."Lauren was a musical education major," says Kara, "and her [former] teachers go to conferences across the United States...They've been very good with connecting us with [music educators] all over." Lauren introduced the idea of touring school districts, which, in turn, targeted the quartet towards a niche market. What made the pitch to principles so successful, admits Kara, was their strong web presence. "Their reaction was usually a little hesitant [or skeptical], but once they saw [our videos] and their popularity, they immediately signed on."

Over three weeks the quartet performed 40 concerts, with 7(!) on the first day. Talk about a day's work. "It was a lot, but we work really well in schools," explains Kara, "we talk a lot with them [in between works], and most band kids think of us as heroes. It's very gratifyingto have fans." What made them so successful for the presenters (band teachers, school staff, etc.) was their flexibility in programming."Every concert was a little different," notes Kara, "because of the timetables, the age of the kids, or special requests from the teachers we had to adapt."

What makes the BWBQ stand out, as you can see in a few of their videos online, is the use of humour throughout their programs. When making the audience laugh, "we find that they become much more willing to listen to everything on the program," says Kara. "It's important for our audience to see that we're people too, and, so far, we're really getting a positive reaction from [the audience]." Unsurprisingly, most walk out of a BWBQ concert thoroughly entertained.

This coming March, the quartet will be performing their first 'concerti' with Lauren's old high school concert band, an interesting instrumentation, but one that looks to become familiar with them. They have commissioned a work from Scott Switzer, a friend of theirs from Eastman, for 4 bassoons and concert band to be performed with the Yale Concert Band next fall.

In another first for the group, Breaking Winds will be performing in the 'International Competition for Bassoon Ensemble' in Strasbourg, France organized by the French 'Association Bassons'. The competition, being held from the 20th-22nd of April, will focus on more 'serious' works, which will be a fresh turn for the group, whose repertoire has, until recently, focused more along 'classic' American bassoon quartet repertoire and arrangements of popular works.

Though what may have been more of a happy accident for the Breaking Winds, we see that viral marketing can be just as successful for classical music ensembles as for online businesses. With their massive exposure and clear online presence, it appears that they have gained a sort of credibility among concert presenters, who may not have taken a risk on them otherwise. Finally, thanks to social media, what was once looked upon by its members as more of a hobby, has transformed into a real career opportunity almost overnight.
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