Bob Baker's Indie Music Promotion Blog

Music marketing ideas for DIY artists, managers, promoters and music biz pros

April 13, 2007

Earning Attention: It's All About Context

For years I've been wanting to write about the role of context in musical success and recognition. Example: Several years ago, Kelly Clarkson could have sung at a karaoke bar in Texas and few people would have noticed. Put her on an American Idol production stage, team her with pro songwriters and producers, get her some airplay and ... boom! She's a sought-after superstar.

She had loads of talent either way. But it wasn't recognized until she was presented in the optimum context. This idea was driven home recently when violinist Joshua Bell played in a Washington, D.C. subway.

Bell is an internationally renowned virtuoso, considered by many to be one of the most gifted musicians in the world. The Washington Post asked him to conduct an experiment. Writer Gene Weingarten was given the task of investigating what would happen if a gifted musician played in a D.C. subway during morning rush hour.

How would commuters respond? Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked to predict what would happen. He guessed that, over a 45-minute period, a small crowd would gather and that Bell would earn $150 in tips.

The results: Seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

Again, it's all about context. Here's Bell quoted in Weingarten's article:

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cell phone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence ..."

Context creates expectations in the audience, it can add or subtract confidence in the musician, it colors everything about the musical experience.

Read the entire article here. And remind yourself of this principle next time you have a less than stellar gig. Most importantly, do everything you can to create the context that's best for you and your audience.

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posted by Bob Baker @ 10:27 AM   5 comments


At Apr 22, 2007, 2:16:00 PM, Anonymous Rahim said...

I think the test could have been conducted better. To have the violinist play in the subway in THE MORNING, when people are rushing to work, of course nobody is going to stop to pay attention because people are trying to get to work on time. The test conductors should have conducted this test either after 5pm on a weekday when people are getting off work, or on the weekend when people are off.

At Aug 2, 2007, 4:00:00 PM, Blogger vox80 said...

I don't think it matters that much what time of day the experiment took place. People are just as much in a hurry when their leaving work. People aren't going suddenly start giving a street performer tons of money because they like what they're hearing. The point is they're not going to the subway to listen to someone play the violin that's what the concert hall is for.

At Aug 2, 2007, 7:09:00 PM, Blogger DaNelle said...

This is a thought provoking blog. Its something that I was aware of but after reading it 'in context' as it were, the article really shows how superficial a perception can be. I always appreciate talented buskers when I take the rare trip on the underground. As a fellow musician I always think "Good on you" and like to show support to them with their performance as I hurry past.

Mostly though, the final words about putting the show in context for your audience are what I'll take away with me. They have made me think differently about that aspect and how it can be applied to ensure that my audience enjoys itself and gets what they came for and in the correct intended context. They seem to but I want to make sure that they do - so my next gig will be played with fresh insight.

Thanks Bob!

Danelle Harvey

At Aug 3, 2007, 10:56:00 PM, Anonymous Jeep Rosenberg said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Bob. I attended an advanced section of Jimmie Dale Gilmore's songwriting workshop at Omega Institute last summer, and for performing songwriters he was emphasizing context a lot, both song-by-song (carefully edited set-ups, not sloppy winging-it patter), and choice of venue for your music. Also, even rootsy, "authentic" type genres can benefit from professional lighting, etc., and careful stagecraft. As I've relaunched my performing career recently in support of a new CD, I've made an absolute rule of never playing in a venue that I haven't reconnoitered as an audience member. I'd rather be patient and have really positive experiences that I can build on and leverage. As a young musician I spent a lot of time in the musical "underbrush", and no mas. (Playing dinner music doesn't count, one is simply paid to rehearse repertoire & chops in public.)
Such are my ruminations...interesting experiment/article.

At Aug 4, 2007, 9:35:00 AM, Blogger Bob Baker said...

Vox80 wrote:

"The point is they're not going to the subway to listen to someone play the violin; that's what the concert hall is for."

Exactly. Which proves the point that context is everything. Which is why you should give some serious thought to where and how your music is presented.



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