Protesting or Praising, Classical Music Fans Become Activists Online

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Before the Minnesota Orchestra locked out its musicians in a season-long labor dispute, the orchestra's administration had already locked down a large number of domain names – buying up at least a dozen website addresses that were variations on "Save Our Minnesota Orchestra."

The bulk purchase was uncovered by Emily Hogstad, a Wisconsin-based blogger who was trying to set up a website to rally support for locked-out musicians. She quickly discovered that many of the obvious URLs had already been taken — several months before the lockout began, by the orchestra itself. (She eventually found one, which launched this week.)

The incident is the latest example of political-style web advocacy that's moved into the realm of classical music and the arts. In this podcast, we get three views on the trend, including that of Hogstad, who writes the blog Song of the Lark.

A Minnesota Orchestra spokesperson told NPR Music's Anastasia Tsioulcas that the organization reserved the URLs to protect the orchestra's name, knowing well that the labor talks would be contentious. Such purchases are a standard business practice, although they're usually masked by a third-party buyer so that it's not quite so obvious what's taking place. Even so, the revelation drew a wave of negative commentary and the orchestra had to acknowledge Hogstad's blog, which she said it had previously ignored.

Tsioulcas believes the rise of "save our symphony" advocacy websites signifies a new level of audience empowerment, giving fans "a foot in the discussion," as she put it. "It used to be that for a ticket buyer, a fan, really the only agency they had was: would they buy tickets or not?" She further notes that the musicians themselves had bought up their own domain name two years earlier.

Ryan J. Davis is a vice president of the new-media start up Vocativ, and has worked on social media at Blue State Digital and the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. He notes that arts organizations have been generally slow to understand social media. However, he said, "we're seeing this shift from the power of institutions to dictate policy and the top-down way they’ve been doing for generations for an ability for people to using social media to express their opinions and filter information up."

Another recent example of fan-driven advocacy involves an online petition aimed at pressuring the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night gala to the gay community. The gala features the two stars – Anna Netrebko and Valery Gergiev – who are supporters of Vladimir Putin, who recently passed anti-gay legislation in Russia. Davis believes that whether or not the petition can influence Met policy, it has succeeded in stimulating a conversation about the issue of gay rights. "It's just another piece of bad P.R. for Russia," he said.

Arts organizations must also learn better ways to harness social media, and not only from a defensive stance, said Tsioulcas. Two years ago, it was enough to stage a flashmob and that would spawn a viral YouTube video. "That’s not quite enough," Tsioulcas said. "They really have to spend the time and effort and learn how to spread them.

"It's a multi-way conversation. It's not there as a megaphone to broadcast your next press release."

Weigh in: How can the Internet give fans a greater voice in performing arts companies? Listen to the full discussion above and share your thoughts below.