A social media presence for orchestras seems de rigueur in today’s fast-changing musical world. Do American orchestras use social media differently from European orchestras? Do they engage audiences more? Do the numbers of followers or ‘likes’ on their Facebook and Twitter pages give an accurate reflection of the orchestras’ relative successes?

Many orchestras have a large presence on Facebook and Twitter, though I’ve found orchestras in the US generally more social media-involved than their counterparts in Europe. Most of them, through postings both from their administrations and individual musicians, combine their use of the social media to chronicle major events and promotions, and post reviews, articles of interest and photos of their orchestra tours, as well as YouTube videos of some of their concerts.

Boston Symphony's Youtube page
Boston Symphony's Youtube page

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has accomplished this to great effect on both their Facebook and Twitter pages. Recent postings of note include a Boston Globe article, “Why music sounds so good in Boston Symphony Hall” and the announcement, “President Bill Clinton Coming to Boston on Thursday to Receive City Year Legacy Award”. A YouTube button links to an entire page of BSO videos, and their Twitter feed links to a video of their China tour. On his own Facebook page, a young Boston Symphony cellist expresses his continued enchantment at being a member of this esteemed orchestra.

The number of Facebook likes and Twitter followers seems driven by the size and reputation of orchestra. For instance, the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently counted 121,290 likes, and followers 29.4K; the San Diego Symphony a mere 15,787 and followers 7,862.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's Facebook page
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra's Facebook page

Of two of the most social media-active orchestras on the other side of the Pond, the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony, the LSO has by far the larger presence. Vienna’s Facebook page, with 198,654 likes, is quite conventional, with announcements, events, and photos of artists and conductors.

By contrast, on the LSO ‘s Facebook page the reader can listen on live stream to interviews with artists, download recordings from the LSO store by album or excerpt, view photos both contemporary and vintage, see concert announcements and detailed comments, and listen to live performances on Spotify. With 234,564 likes and 174K followers on Twitter, they far outdistance any other orchestra on the social media scene.

London Symphony Orchestra's Twitter page
London Symphony Orchestra's Twitter page

Perhaps most importantly, one US orchestra actually credits a social media campaign for saving them from complete shutdown. In the fall and winter of 2013, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was in true danger of collapse. Their remarkable journey to solvency was chronicled in detail on the Milwaukee Symphony Musicians Facebook page.

On October 15, 2013, MSO posted a photo captioned: “Great art, great artists. Milwaukee is rich in both”. The following day, they posted a link to a disturbing article titled, “Milwaukee Symphony in crisis - again: The MSO is playing brilliantly but struggling financially; what to do?” with a photo of Maestro Edo de Waart and a link to a recent article in the local Journal Sentinel.

In his 6 October New York Times article, “Strife Joins Minnesota Musicians in Concert”, writer James Oestreich describes the Minnesota Orchestra’s particularly nasty labor dispute and rejection of management’s latest contract proposal. As a protest to management, the orchestra’s musicians held their own concerts, with Emanuel Ax donating his services, ending symbolically with  Sibelius’s Valse Triste.

Milwaukee Symphony's Facebook page
Milwaukee Symphony's Facebook page

Over the next several months, the Milwaukee musicians posted quotes from de Waart (“An orchestra is one of the organizations in a city that can serve as a catalyst for the rest of the arts”), and articles chronicling the difficult situation: e.g. (President and Executive Director) “Niehaus faces tests at MSO with musician’s passion”. Once they had finally reached an agreement with management that involved shrinking the size of the orchestra, however, funds were still lacking to continue the season. This is where the true value of social media kicked in.

“Milwaukee, we need your help. Please consider making a contribution to the MSO today. Your support is critical to our survival” the musicians posted on 6 December. The following day, “Love classical music? Right now is the time to show it. Save the MSO!” was posted, with a link to an article and plea for donations. Other postings included articles describing pervasive problems with American orchestras; announcements of benefit concerts; and expression of gratitude at the outpouring of support from the public.

Finally, on 26 March, an article proclaimed, “New donors help Milwaukee Symphony's $5 million emergency campaign succeed”. All of this was posted on MSO’s Facebook page.  

Does social media activity sell orchestra tickets? That is difficult to determine. But if the Milwaukee Symphony’s triumph is any indication, a social media campaign can actually save an orchestra from closing down. That alone is enough to make me a believer.