A few weeks ago, we had an interesting conversation with flutist Hélène Boulègue on her way of dealing with the sanitary crisis, the importance of networking and new opportunities for classical musicians.
Stephanie: The pandemic has plunged the music industry into a crisis that nourishes all the musician's enemies: cancellations of concerts, postponements of projects, a huge loss of income, a loss of connection… On the other hand, it created a space for introspection, time to rehearse new repertoire and to think of creative initiatives. How did you experience the last few months? A big challenge or a chance?
Hélène: If you try not to think about all these jobless musicians right now, in my opinion, the situation is quite an opportunity for classical music. Finally, classical musicians are realizing that they need to live in the present. They need to be active and proactive and not just waiting for things to happen. They need to be online, on social media.
Let’s face it: most of the classical musicians are dinosaurs. Programmers also. (laughs) And lately, many people have been aware of it because they started to be visible on social media and on live streams. Then there is the other perspective that is proclaiming that putting out concerts and music for free is killing the business, and our job. I think these people were first of all jealous or they were frightened to expose themselves.
In my opinion, what is happening right now is such a great opportunity. Even for someone that had no interest in classical music before, it was impossible not to stumble upon a classical music video at some point. And there is the chance to get rid of the prejudices and clichés about classical music and classical concerts. Maybe it could bring classical music into the 20th century at last, through the creation of new experiences for the audiences and musicians, and without being a substitute for a live concert.
You chose to dedicate your time to a twelve-week webinar on self-management strategies for classical musicians. How was your experience?
Well, I already knew the coach from his podcast and book on self-management for artists. When I heard from this webinar, which is a more profound version of his book, I thought “Now is the perfect moment”. Each week we had two hours of the online course, there were guest speakers, there was a lot of individual feedback to all your questions and also very helpful group work. It was so full of important and precious information.
One of the most difficult challenges for an independent musician or ensemble is to find the right partners, an agent or a manager. This course is aiming and claiming to enable musicians to run their “business” by themselves. How did you approach the business from the other side than the artistic one?
It is very interesting, because the 24 people in my class were very different by backgrounds, by instruments, by personality, and also by their individual goals and visions. For example, when you confront some people that you have to market, promote and sell yourself. You have to have an idea of what makes you unique and how to use that. But some people replied: “no, but I just want to do music! Marketing is just superficial and has nothing to do with music.” So, we really had a long debate about it.
Focusing on the “art” is already a fulltime job that needs many years of education. Now, this is not enough, you also need to know how to develop and use marketing strategies, how to create your “brand”, and how to promote yourself. Already the language that is used seems far away from the reality of an artist. What do you think?
This is, of course, business vocabulary, and I can understand that it feels strange at the beginning. As the former director of a concert house, our teacher was in the shoes of a promoter for a long time. Before that, he used to be a singer. So he really knows the industry from different perspectives. He is guiding you, but if one of the tools is not for you, then it’s fine.
So, the webinar is offering the tools and invites you to adapt them to your individual situation. What did you learn? Which tools were the most important and essential to you?
It’s hard to pick. Every week the course was focusing on a different subject: marketing, branding, recording, websites, contracts etc. One fascinating subject was on time management. It is just as essential as the one on social media. Or even how to really write a good biography. Maybe, I would pick the one on selling, on how to negotiate your fee and, more important, how to reach out to people to sell yourself and pitch your program.
Now, knowing what I know, I feel much better prepared for the market, for approaching people without pushing too hard. In the week about selling, we had to draft a project, to approach someone by email, create a design and do everything like in the real business. The teacher knew how to motivate us: he said, if he is convinced by one of the projects, he will actually send it out to his contacts. This session changed so much for me, not just about the flute and concerts. Whenever you need something, you need to ask, and there is a way of asking. This is useful for everything.
Can you share a few tricks?
The way forward is to be neither too shy nor too pushy, but still insisting, staying persistent and following up. Actually, if you already reached out once or twice, the other might be more inclined to say yes. I also learned about how to network effectively, but also not in a pushy way. Guess what, one of the most fascinating things about this webinar is, that it’s already creating a new network, a real community.
The group work, the constant exchange between the participants made us grow a lot, and that is probably the most beautiful thing of the whole webinar. My group and I are still exchanging every two weeks, we support each other, we can discuss and are re-connected. People might have different motivations or goals, but we all want the same thing: not to stay where we are! We want to grow, and experiencing that with likeminded people makes it so much easier. They take you out of your comfort zone. They are there for you. We are all in the same and sometimes scary process, but we are not alone.
Which role does social media play? Many classical artists have different social media accounts, but they don’t know how to use them…
Some people have social media managers, who are expensive. But to be honest: sometimes it is not the right choice. I would never use one. If I had fifty concerts a year and 40k followers, maybe, just to organize the postings. But I would never let the person manage my comments and messages. The thing is: social media is tough work. If you want to do it right, you need quite some time.
I started with social media when I won the Kobe International Flute Competition in 2017. At first, I just did it because everybody was telling me I needed to promote myself. I just hated everything about it, selfies, people posting selfies, I found it narcissistic. Then something changed, and I completely fell in love with the process. The key is engagement: once you really engage with your followers and fans, you start conversations, actual meaningful conversations. You learn actual things about them – and they about you. Be authentic, be genuine and just be you. It can create a real connection. A lot of people even became friends.
How do you use the platforms? What would you recommend?
Every platform is different, and you have to find what fits for you. For example, I don’t like Facebook that much, so I do not create extra content for it. What I post on Instagram will also be on Facebook. I feel the Instagram community is much more supportive somehow. Some people say that you will never get gigs out of social media. For me, that’s not true. Because someone saw my videos on Youtube, I got invited to the US. I also went to Taiwan because the person who invited me saw me on Instagram. Apart from the fact that I had won a competition, she liked my content, how I was portraying myself. I got an offer for a wonderful instrument, an alto flute, as a loan. At that point, I only had 1.000 followers, not 30.000. For me, it brought a lot.
Besides learning about the different tools and refining your skills, is there something you immediately wanted to change or you changed during the process of the webinar? You have a fulltime job, a solo career to start with, maybe a private life – where do you find time to be your own manager?
You have to schedule one hour a day for it. You have to put it somewhere. But the most important conclusion: I need to start. I need to get in contact with people. Now that I know all about the tools, I just need to do it, but I never had the courage to do it. I was a bit scared. You know, the chance of getting rejected is quite high, or not getting an answer. It’s not comfortable for anyone. And then I keep on postponing, then time passes, and you don’t do it anymore.
You are very positive about the education and insights to the music business, but is there anything you are critical about?
For me personally, I have nothing to criticize. It was such an eye-opener, and I am absolutely satisfied with it. And for my whole group, it really was. Now, I need to try out many things, and of course, there will be things I need to adapt to. You can disagree with the view on music being a business, how it was treated in that course. You can disagree on the use of social media or find your own way of using it. But, if you look at all the successful soloists nowadays, in my generation, or a little bit older, they all are business women and men. It is also the network.
And in the best-case scenario, this leads to the right partners, somebody that represents you … but for the moment it is you and the community.
It will always be the network. I was also approached by a lot of agents and managers, to take me on their roster. But now, I am not going to do that anymore. If one day somebody wants to work with me, they will find me. Actually, a lot of people from my group have managers, and they are really unhappy with their work. Except for the ones in the big agencies. For the time being, I will do the work myself, and we will see. I think there is a wrong idea about how it works: a lot of people think, if I have a management then I am going to be the next, let’s say, Yuja Wang. But no, it’s not working like that.
It seems you look positively in the future …
Yes, I am really motivated and I want to put that energy in my work. Also, I have a project of writing a blog. One reason why I have such strong connections with my followers is that I share the ups and downs. I have decided to be very authentic with it, very honest about what is hard on the path of a musician.
Last year, when I did not pass the trial period for the position of the solo flutist in the SWR Symphony Orchestra, I shared it and wrote a big post about it. At first, I was hesitating, but then I got such immense feedback, thankful messages and comments. Now I feel relieved that I did it. It happens all the time: musicians don’t pass an audition or an entrance exam, and it can happen many times in a row. Winning a big competition is never a guarantee. Because nobody tells you, it is normal to get a “no”, it’s normal to just fail, and it is ok to be sad about it. In a musician’s life, there will always be hard days and there can be failure. That’s what I want the blog to be about: victory and failure and rejection. It is part of life, but for musicians, it is harder because we have to audition again and again until it works. Life of performers: the good and the bad of winning, and how it is to fail. Because when you win then you have to keep the level. Sometimes failing can have a positive side as well. The good, the bad and the ugly.