In pursuit of perfection3:51, 11th April 2019
Social media is an important tool for promoting the musician. But how can the pressure to maintain a perfect online presence impact mental health? Annabelle Lee reports
With over 2.77 billion users worldwide, social media platforms are a composite part of the marketing mix in today’s classical music industry. Record labels and agencies actively encourage artists to implement social networks to build up a loyal following, and to encourage potential audiences to buy their recordings or attend engagements. Such is the growth of social media that artist management firms have created dedicated positions for digital media managers, and specialist PR companies fully integrate social media marketing strategies into their work.
The benefits of social media marketing have been reiterated by artists, audiences and promoters. Although more recently, there has been a growing concern around its impact on musicians’ mental health. While major mental health campaigns, such as the Royal Family’s Heads Together initiative and Mind’s annual #TimeToTalk Day, have focussed on the mental health of nation, it’s important to remember the unique demands that a classical performing career can have on mental health and wellbeing.
Any habitual social media user will be able to relate to the construct of perfection that many platforms encourage. Numerous studies confirm that users feel an insurmountable pressure to present their lives as seemingly perfect and idealised. Unsurprisingly, much empirical evidence indicates that such perfectionistic behaviours incite jealousy, constant self-comparison, and increased levels of depression and anxiety. But they are also caused by the way developers and strategists engineer their technologies. For example, visually-orientated apps such as Instagram and Snapchat encourage users to put in-built filters and edits on their photos and videos to make them appear ‘better’ than they are in real life.
Within a classical context, striving for social media perfection has massive implications. Artists’ status updates and tweets tend to depict an idealistic, carefree and glamorous lifestyle. A beautifully filtered cityscape hides a performer’s jetlag and feelings of missing family and friends. Post-concert postings usually show musicians wearing tuxedos or dresses, laughing and smiling with big bouquets of flowers or bottles of champagne. Musicians also regularly take selfies with well-known colleagues at rehearsals or social occasions, talking about themselves with, in the words of arts marketer Trevor O’Donnell, ‘overblown self-flattery and grossly exaggerated descriptions’ to show ‘how much other in-the-know people admire them.’ From a marketing perspective, musicians understandably want to present themselves in the best possible light, and indeed, it is now part of their job to look good online. In fact, many digital media and artist managers encourage their clients to take selfies – yet this self-promotion can create a false impression of the realities of a musician’s life.
‘I feared letting anyone know that I wasn’t always the happy-go-lucky person that I had tried to portray’
In the same way as artists perform a different, onstage version of themselves in concerts, they often give what the sociologist Erving Goffman has termed a ‘platform performance’ of their lives, projecting onto social media followers a public personality or persona in line with what they imagine themselves to be. One example comes from British tenor David Webb, who tweeted last year about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts: ‘[I] feared letting anyone know that I wasn’t always the happy-go-lucky person that I had tried to portray’; ‘On the outside looking in I had nothing to be depressed about. My career was going very well, I had good health, I was loved and I had (and still have) the best friends anyone could ask for, however so much of our lives are not lived on the outside.’ Everyone has emotions and pain, and it is counterintuitive that people feel pressurised to hide this aspect online. Yet, this human element is what precisely caused many within classical music to contact Webb thereafter. It is a welcome relief to see that musicians are increasingly utilising social media as a safe and supportive space to discuss the emotional pressures of their careers.
There is an overlap between social media perfection and tendencies towards perfectionistic attitudes that shape the classical performer. This is not helped by countless videos of child prodigies circulating in our feeds, or posts of amateurs and professionals, performing or practising in extreme ways, say, playing the most difficult repertoire at breakneck speed while doing a party trick. While such videos might be intended as light entertainment or promotional content for a performer, they can engender envy, unrealistic expectations and comparisons about what is attainable for any musician. In our social media age, it places the focus on the end goal rather than discovery, experimentation, creativity, musical understanding and real processes of music-making, all of which have been clouded by pedagogues’ expectations of technical perfection. Again, though, this content should be taken somewhat lightly. It is plausible that the musician may have filmed his/her practice session multiple times and uploaded the best version, or modified the video to sound like he/she was playing more right notes, much like a professional recording edits out the flaws of the original take. And yet, everyone falls for it! How often have great artists, competition jurors and teachers asserted that it’s not about who can play the fastest or sing the highest? But when the latest video of someone singing or playing ‘perfectly’ trends online, it is lauded as the epitome of musicianship.
Indeed, this dual endorsement of social and musical perfection does not help musicians, who are still carrying deep-seated memories from their youth, training or careers, partly compounded by the surge of classical performers’ confessions apropos of #MeToo. It is perhaps unsurprising that the aforementioned videos or a colleague’s ‘Insta-perfect’ life can impact a musician’s self-esteem and trigger negative thought patterns, feelings of envy, and a loss of joy for his or her own music-making. An unspoken protocol exists among musicians on social media that posting about such thoughts, admitting to having an off-day or making mistakes onstage, will degrade their reputation – both as individuals and as performers.
To return full circle, some musicians find it beneficial to use social media as a support network to nurture new attitudes towards work pressures, performance anxiety and their mental health that colleagues will, more often than not, be able to empathise with. Others will feel that they need to get away from their feeds or even quit social media due to the continual pressures to appear perfect personally, professionally, socially and musically. Indeed, there are successful classical musicians who do not market themselves on social media; ultimately, no one is being forced to use the technologies. But however performers choose to use them, we must now change the conversation to enable them to see that there is more to their identities, lives, careers and music-making than the potent echo chamber of social media.