The Ushers vs. YouTube Culture

Last night, I kept casting my gaze down and around from my second-tier seat in Avery Fisher Hall at the rest of the audience.  Looked just like the crowd at a funeral, except not as well dressed.  Mostly gray and balding heads.  It was if they’d come to say goodbye to an old friend.  Just a sprinkling of younger people.

If we want to get younger audiences into mainstream classical institutions, we need to look at, among other things, the disconnect between the rules and traditions of traditional concert halls and the realities of today’s 40-and-under culture.  When it comes to non-flash photography using small cameras and smart phones, it’s the ushers (and the proprietary mindset of their employers and the classical establishment) vs. our new YouTube culture.  The new culture, where we want to take video and photos and share them with each other, is winning, of course, but the ushers aren’t going down without a fight.

Tuesday (at Alice Tully Hall), Wednesday (at the New York State Theatre) and last night (Thursday, at Avery Fisher Hall), ushers charged with enforcing no-photography rules caused more of a disturbance than whatever the behavior was that they were trying to stop.

Eric to the world: this doesn’t help create attractive experiences for new participants.

There I was on Tuesday, enjoying the really extraordinary Juilliard Percussion Ensemble’s Alice Tully Hall performance, when, during the music, an usher walked right in front us on our side of Row S, so we had to pull in our feet to make room for him.  At first I wondered who this asshole guy was, and why an usher hadn’t stopped him.  Then I saw he was in a tux and obviously part of the staff. An usher supervisor, maybe. Made his way to the empty seats in the middle of the row and made fussing gestures at someone  a row or two back.  Who was the malfeaser?  What crime against the Alice Tully was being committed?  Could it have been, horrors, a parent taking video of his or her child performing on stage?

Then Wednesday, in the midst of the informal rock-concert atmosphere at New York City Opera’s presentation of John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (a more delightfully incongruent contrast between performers and the formality of the space I’ve never seen), lights started flashing in my eyes. Ouch! I was in the first row of the first tier, in an aisle seat.  I looked to my left, and there was an usher, next aisle over, waving a (very bright) flashlight at a woman, I finally saw, in the middle of the front row of the section to my left.  Who was doing something with, I think, an iPhone.  (At first, paranoid guy that I am, I’d been afraid I was doing something wrong–legs crossed, the tip of one foot was slightly touching the top of the wall there to keep us from falling into the orchestra seats.) The waving light came again.  And again.  The message was clear.  Stop that!  (You bad person!) It just felt hostile.  Especially given the joyful, often chaotic explosion on the stage.

Finally the flashlight was turned off.

Ah, back to the music.

My relief came too soon.  Almost immediately the flashlight-armed usher was right next to me, joined by another.  They were pointing and whispering to each other, loud enough for me to hear speculation about seat numbers.  Finally they gave up–I thought it might escalate to a security guard being called–and went back to their watchtower-like posts.

Through through most of this I could look to my right and see an official photographer taking photos.  Talk about irony!

Last night (Thursday), at least at intermission and not during the performance, an usher scolded a New York Philharmonic patron who was, I think, taking a photo of the largely unoccupied stage. The camera or phone was put away, the usher left, the device soon came back out and the photo was taken.  The ushers have been given a losing battle to fight.

My seatmate told me about hearing a concert at the Cleveland Orchestra’s home base, Severance Hall, which she thought was the most beautiful music venue she’d been to.  But an usher stopped her from taking a photo. There are issues, I know.  But if I was running the Cleveland Orchestra, which is not exactly drowning in excess funding, I wouldn’t want my friend complaining about not being able to take a photo of the orchestra’s hall.  I’d want her showing it to me and everyone else, maybe organizing a weekend trip to Cleveland.

God forbid you even think about eating or drinking at your seat.  During intermission at a Zankel Hall concert, a patron started to walk in from the lobby with a drink in his hand.  “SIR!  SIR!” yelled an usher from across the way. He looked at her and she pointed at the drink while shaking her head somewhat, what, dismissively? Angrily?  Maybe “annoyedly assertive disdain” is the best way to put it.

OK, I know there are umpteem copyright issues.  No recording!  No video!  No photography!  And people texting and holding up cameras and smartphones can be distracting.  But this is what younger people do, what they want, how they share with each other.

Big classical-music institutions aren’t helping themselves, or the cause, by continuing this fear-inducing, semi-hostile environment.  We want to get new audiences in. They need to feel, and be, welcomed. We’ve got to find a way to embrace the new technology and user-driven social media, and let people do want people want to do.

(Now on Twitter @ericedberg)

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10 Comments

Filed under Alice Tully Hall, alienating audiences, audeince building, Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Hall, concert ettiquete, future of classical music, Lincoln Center, New York State Theatre, Performance Venues, Traditional Venues, Zankel Hall

10 responses to “The Ushers vs. YouTube Culture

  1. I was told by Universal Music Publishing in LA that they would not sell me a license I was trying to buy (putting money in their pocket) because it was for a YouTube video. “We’re blocking YouTube.”
    The “establishment” has a lot of catching up to do.

  2. I’d like to share an experience I had with Sacramento Philharmonic. I attended a concert right after the Egyptian revolution and conductor/director Michael Morgan decided to play the piece “New Conception” composed by Nader Abbassi, a conductor and composer based in Cairo who has guest conducted for SacPhil, as a show of support. I loved the piece and thought it was a great way for the orchestra to make itself relevant. Either that night or the next morning I went on FB to comment that I loved the piece and was so glad they played it. I also asked if they happened to record it on video or even just audio because I really loved it. I knew this piece had been played only once before at a peace conference in Paris a few years ago and that there were no recordings of it, but was hoping that SacPhil might have made their own recording for their website or FB page. The reply I got back was this:

    That was the American Premiere! Michael forgot to say that. So, there is no recording to be found. The SPO recorded it for the archives and perhaps for the radio…

    It was just about the worst response I could have gotten — apathy about media! Here I was, wanting to spread a video of this beautiful piece all over FB and my blog and market for the phil and their sometimes guest composer, and they wouldn’t let me! I wrote in my blog about this piece I loved and instead of getting to share it, I got to talk about how disappointed I was that there was no recording to share! SacPhil had an opportunity to connect with a young person (me) who was willing to share something really awesome with a bunch of other young people, but instead they got negative publicity from me. What’s even worse is that if you type “SacPhil” into Google, my negative review pops up SIXTH on the front page! They could have had an awesome video embedded on my blog if they’d thought social media was actually important, but instead they have me complaining about them to a bunch of other young people.

    I get the impression that they think they’re doing the whole internet thing right with having a website (which does have some videos, but not of the phil playing!) and having a FB page, but really they’re failing at doing it in a way that gets young people excited (and marketing for them!)

    So, I can understand not wanting the audience to record/take pictures during performances since it can be distracting, but they really need to record the performance (or a rehearsal) themselves and stick it on youtube and spread it all over the internet where young people lurk.

    On a positive note, I also wanted to point out one classical musician who really seems to get this social media thing: Itzhak Perlman His FB page is great (he updates it a couple times a week and posts videos of recent rehearsals, etc. all the time!) He’s inspired me to listen to more of his music and I can’t wait for the next time he performs at the Mondavi Center in Davis (and you can bet that I’ll be sharing his videos on FB beforehand to get other young people excited!)

  3. Great point, Adult Beginner. Of course there are a whole bunch of copyright and performance rights issues, so I think I understand where the Sacramento Phil was coming from to a certain extent. To broadcast the concert they’d have to pay the orchestra members extra, pay the publisher extra, etc. (See Jon Burr’s comment above as to how publishers can be about this.) The rules can be mind-boggling. Our faculty piano trio played the Beethoven Triple with the Ft. Wayne Philharmonic years ago, and the recording engineer couldn’t legally give us a copy of the concert. A local friend taped it off the radio broadcast for us.

    For the longer term, these things can be negotiated, need to be negotiated, because with orchestras collapsing around us, anything that can be done to get them more engaged with the wider culture is essential. Everyone involved has to be educated about this. It’s no longer in orchestra members’ interests to insist on high compensation for broadcasts, webcasts, etc. And some really understand this.

    All that said, I bet it would have felt better if you had been told, “We’d love to give you video or audio. Contractual issues prevent us from doing it at this time, but we would if we could, and are working on it.”

    I’ll definitely check out your Perlman links. I know at least some of the people at his management get the importance of social media, because I heard one of them speak about it at a conference. So it may be some savvy young person doing it rather than Itzahk himself, all or in part.

    • I think it might actually be Itzhak himself — he has misspelled some things (such as writing “websight”) and later having to correct himself, during which he’s commented about not speaking English as a first language. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was multiple people, but the posts often seem far more personal than usual if someone else is manning the site.

      And yes, I understand about copyright issues, etc. Those really need to be dealt with, as you’ve said, but I would have loved your hypothetical response instead of the apathy I received. Also “We’re so glad a young person enjoyed our show!” would have been awesome since they purport to want people like me in the audience.

  4. Pingback: You’re young; You’re not important. Really, I promise, this post ends up relating to music. « The Adult Beginner

  5. Social media is where these old institutions get a big fat FAIL. I’ve alway thought it would be so great for folks to be able to download or stream concerts (even if for a minimal fee)–it’s not as if the infrastructure for setting up the kind of archiving of performances would be prohibitive. In fact, I think it’s a great way to outsource a connection with the local community to do so. For example, if a local university with a recording studio/degree program or even a local media company would be willing to let students or interns use the concert as a professional development opportunity for learning or practicing their trade, the cost could be negligible. Then there would also be incentive from the local community to continue supporting their local orchestra, ballet company, opera company or whatever.

  6. Michael

    If people were considerate on their own, there wouldn’t be a need for the ushers. There does need to be some standard of behavior. Look at how rude people can be in movies. At some level, there has to be the ability to eject rude people from the audience regardless.

  7. Michael

    Perhaps one compromise would be to have some sort of special concert series with a looser standard of behavior, and see how it goes?

    • I think that’s a great idea, Michael. I did a concert once where we invitied the audience to clap whenever, dance in the aisles, etc. It was a lot of fun. And opened up some issues!

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