Many times over the past two years I found myself messaging Scott Chamberlain:
You want to cover this one, or should I?
Scott Chamberlain, the author of the widely linked Mask of the Flower Prince blog, and I share a lot: mediums, outlooks, communities, topics, inspirations, and a passion for our Minnesota Orchestra, as well as the performing arts in general. In other words, I’m not sure why I haven’t interviewed him on the blog before. So yesterday I emailed him a list of discussion topics about the role of blogs in the orchestra world, why the [expletive] we kept writing about the Minnesota Orchestra meltdown for as long as we did, and oh, yeah, a little bit about his historic trip to Cuba. (Stay tuned for part 2 of my interview for that.) And he was good enough to email back. So without further ado –
EH: It’s surreal to me we haven’t had a public chat yet. We’ve each linked to each other a million times, but we’ve never actually sat down for a conversation, so I feel like this entry is way overdue.
First I want to hop in a time machine back to June 2013, which was the month your blog started. It was the exact middle of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. You were crazy prolific during that time. Why did you feel compelled to spend months documenting this disaster? For me, it was because this orchestra meant so much to me, and it was cathartic to dissect the news. And gradually it became more rewarding than anything I’d ever done, even when the news was really bad. (And it was almost always really bad.) But I was curious why you kept at it. Looking back, don’t you think rational people should have given up after Osmo resigned?
SC: The funny thing is, in many ways I fell into blogging as an afterthought. As many people know, I used to work for the Orchestra and had several friends among the musicians and the staff. So when the negotiations fell apart in fall 2012, it really felt personal. I think like many people out there, I started off thinking that this was a standard-issue labor dispute. For me that changed on November 28, 2012, when the Star Tribune published an op-ed piece by the board chairs of the Minnesota Orchestra detailing their views of the lockout. There were so many things in that op-ed that were disrespectful, and flat out wrong. I was irritated enough that the next day I posted an extensive deconstruction of it on my Facebook page.
I had no idea anyone would ever read it… I mostly wrote it just for my own peace of mind. Plus, such a lengthy rebuttal was way, way too long for Facebook. I fully expected that any attention it received would fade quickly, just like everything else on social media. But oddly enough, this post didn’t die away quietly. I watched in disbelief as my rant took on a life of its own, shared by hundreds of people I didn’t know and had never met. Within a week my number of Facebook friends had nearly doubled. (I ultimately re-posted that piece here on my blog, if you’d care to read it.)
I followed up this commentary with many others, but given their size and scope they weren’t particularly suited for Facebook. I was a fan of “Song of the Lark,” and wondered if a blog might be a better way to get my ideas out into the real world. With a great deal of prodding from my wife and other friends, I made it happen.
I totally agree that it writing was cathartic, and that was a huge motivation behind my writing. But there was more to it than just venting. I’ve worked hard to establish a successful career as a non-profit administrator, and as an arts administrator I was genuinely offended by the administration’s actions. They were acting not from industry best practices, but a lazy sense of conventional wisdom, and the results were a disaster. I was horrified that this would happen with such a proud, venerable institution with a reputation for good governance. To see that happen to the largest arts organization in our arts-loving state? To an institution I cared deeply about? I wasn’t going to sit by quietly. I think my training and experience gave me a good vantage point to explain why their actions were problematic, and read between the lines of their statements to get at what they were really saying. Plus, it allowed me to propose real solutions.
I guess some rational people might have decided to throw in the towel when Osmo resigned. But the reverse happened—his resignation focused attention and jarred people out of complacency. In terms of my own writing, the gloves came off. More important, I think that changed the whole tone of our campaign. For a while we had been fighting to end the lockout. After Osmo was forced out, it became a fight to reclaim our Orchestra. It was more than about a simple labor dispute…it was a fundamental question of what kind of orchestra we wanted in our community. And a recognition we were going to have to take a much more active role in supporting it.
EH: Talk a bit about your day job. Is there any kind of symbiosis between your day job and blogging? I’ve been thinking a lot about how non-writing careers can either help or hinder bloggers. Maybe there’s a bit of both?
SC: In truth, I do write a fair amount for my day-to-day job. I’m the Corporate and Foundation Relations Officer at St. Catherine University, and a good deal of my day is spent writing grant proposals for the University. I try to keep my various worlds separate, so that it is clear that I am speaking solely for myself, and not for any other organization.
I think this has been a great help to my blogging—in my job, you get used to writing fast, and on a deadline. At the same time, you get into a rhythm of making concise, persuasive arguments. I firmly believe that writing is a skill that has to be worked at constantly… somewhat like playing an instrument or singing.
EH: Here’s a short but very open-ended question, so take it where you want. What, in your opinion, do blogs really excel at, and what are their biggest weaknesses? Not in general, because that topic has been hashed to death, but in the context of the arts world, and especially the orchestra world.
SC: I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought as of late. For me, there are a couple of main benefits that bloggers and/or community writers can bring. One is a degree of freedom. For example, the Star Tribune has great writers, great resources, and all kinds of official access. But in the course of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, we saw how these strengths could be problematic. For one, the publisher at the Star Tribune was actually on board of the Star Tribune, and it felt like that connection clearly colored its coverage of events as they unfolded. But even if there isn’t this personal connection influencing coverage, it felt over the course of the labor dispute that many media outlets felt constrained by the idea of balance—that they had to shade their coverage so both sides were given “equal” coverage. This balance was entirely artificial… instead of reporters trying to get to the truth of what was going on, it felt that at times they were more concerned about lining up statements that would zero each other out.
Bloggers work outside this system, and are usually much freer to have a distinct point of view and an individual voice… and in my experience, readers crave that. We can actually say what we actually mean. Blogs don’t feel like they’ve been vetted by a dozen hands to within an inch of their electronic lives.
On a more practical point… bloggers were doing most of the investigative research. I mean, the two most explosive stories to come out of the Minnesota Orchestra lockout—Domaingate and Michael Henson’s bonuses—were uncovered by you, not the major media outlets. Sadly, most media groups have slashed their arts coverage, meaning that their arts coverage is often restricted to either preview or reviews. As a result, it’s dedicated bloggers working on their own time who are left to do research and write the deep-dive analyses that get to the heart of things.
Another benefit of bloggers is that they often have a direct line to the community. Program notes are great, but too often they highlight musicological points. Reviews are great too, but often they focus on technical elements of the performance. There is absolutely a place for these things, but bloggers are better about translating the overall arts experience to the community, sharing more basic ideas about why a piece is great, or what kind of emotional experience audience members should expect. Or providing reviews that go beyond a simple explanation of the performance, so that they provide a more comprehensive description about all aspects of the concert experience.
At the end of the day, biggest selling point is that we wear our biases on our sleeves… in a good way. We’re anything but abstract or impersonal—we’re partisans telling readers why we’re partisans. And at our best, we sweep up our readers in our excitement, too. Our stock and trade is immediacy, authenticity, and personality.
EH: So what are the weaknesses of the format, then? Or are the weaknesses so inconsequential they don’t warrant much discussion?
SC: I think the shadow side to this is that without editors, fact-checkers or other buffers, there’s less accountability. Many people write off bloggers as mindless juveniles who unleash the dogs of war without thinking about the consequences… essentially feeding the Internet rage machine. Good bloggers don’t do this—and I certainly don’t think we did this—but of course there are folks out there who feel they can hide behind a computer screen to spout off any number of barbs, character assassinations or lies. A more insidious danger is that since bloggers are writing in relative isolation, we have fewer counterweights to pull us back if we go too far, or to re-direct us if we get stuck in a rut. That’s why we have to create our own networks of friends and colleagues with whom we can bounce ideas around. Beyond a good group of friends, I’m enormously grateful for my wife for providing honest feedback and telling me if I’m going too far out on a limb.
EH: Not too long ago you were elected board president for the Minnesota Chorale. Rumor has it that’s partly because of the philosophies you verbalized as a blogger. Is that true? What are some goals you have for the Chorale? Besides donations and ticket sales, what do you need from the community to keep the Chorale strong?
SC: [Laughs] That’s pretty close to the mark. In the fall of 2013, I wrote a four-part deconstruction of the Orchestra’s Strategic Plan, which they had posted on their website. It was a 30-some page behemoth, posted as a way of “proving” that they knew what they were doing, knew what their goals were and how they would go about achieving them. Well, I pulled it apart and suggested that it was generic and too dependent on poorly-defined buzzwords. Worse, there was very little “art” in the plan—with minor changes it could be the strategic plan of any number of non-profits.
Almost immediately, the then-board president contacted me and said she wanted to lead the Chorale in a new strategic planning session, and wanted to be sure no one could do to theirs what I did to the Orchestra’s. Would I consider coming on board to make sure they didn’t fall into any of the same traps? With this came a renewed invitation to join the board (I had been a member previously, but rotated off 2 years previously). A few months later, the previous board president’s term ended, I was elected to replace her.
As to what we need to stay strong, my best recommendation would be to experience the Chorale first-hand. You’ll love it! We are deeply, deeply committed to our community, and have all kinds of concerts and programs to meet people where they are. We have programs like InChoir that lets community members sit among us during rehearsals, so that you can feel what it’s like to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the state’s premier symphonic chorus. We also have a family of choirs—including our Minneapolis Youth Chorus and Voices of Experience in addition to our familiar symphonic chorus, that allows singers to enjoy a lifetime of singing with us. Experience our artistry for yourself—you’ll be swept off your feet!
In part two of our conversation, we discussed Scott’s Cuba trip. Stay tuned for that. If you want to learn more about it now, though, head on over to the project’s GoFundMe page!