LUDWIG VAN GUIDE | To Why Interviews With Classical Musicians Sometimes Suck

By Anya Wassenberg on August 24, 2018

Insider PR advice on how musicians can improve their interview skills.
Insider PR advice on how musicians can improve their interview skills. (Photo: neonbrand)

Possibly the most awkward interview in classical music history took place back in 2011. Actor Alec Baldwin is the Radio Host of the New York Philharmonic, and he interviewed conductor Alan Gilbert during the intermission of a concert during the NYP season. The interview began innocently enough with a friendly talk about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Then, however, Baldwin threw in a question about contemporary music, suggesting that modern composers were intentionally obtuse, and that the music was difficult to enjoy.

Gilbert bristled. “I completely disagree, actually. With both parts of your question.”

Cue awkward silence. Baldwin made a joke about the NYP staff’s research skills. Gilbert then threw the question back at Baldwin, and a clearly unprepared Baldwin gave a lengthy answer where he acknowledged, “an admitted prejudice where I think classical music has to be written in the 18th century. And certainly the 19th century. And some people in the 20th century.” More bristling.

It was not one of the award-winning veteran actor/writer’s better moments in the public eye. It’s also a classic cautionary tale that illustrates the fundamental principle of a successful interview: don’t go in unprepared. And second — avoid blurting out something you’ll regret later.

It’s advice that any PR rep worth their salt would put at the top of the list. When it comes to dealing with the media, your publicist is your friend. They can help you refine your responses and anticipate issues that will come up. What kind of interview tips do the pros give their clients?

(Photo: Sam McGhee)
(Photo: Sam McGhee)

Adam Bello is the Manager of Media and Analyst Relations at Primoris Group Inc., a full-service public relations agency with a diverse client base that includes performers and organizations in the live entertainment industry, such as noted bass-baritone Mark Steven Doss, along with non-profits and a wide range of publicly traded companies. Before joining Primoris, Adam was a freelance journalist with more than 500 published pieces to his credit — so he sees the question of communications from both sides, in other words.

“If you are properly prepared, it’s going to make a world of difference,” he says. That’s where the expertise of a good PR firm comes into play. “It’s important to work with a publicist.”

His approach to interviews is disciplined. “Reply promptly — ideally within an hour,” Bello advises. That means a simple acknowledgment of the request, with a view to getting more information about what the interview will entail.

Next, the preparation begins. “Be ready to explain your work in short, clear sentences,” Bello advises. It helps if the artist already has a kind of artist’s statement in mind. What are you trying to achieve with your work? How are you different? What sets you apart? Those are some of the key questions that should frame a good artist’s blurb. There may be relevant background materials you can compile, particularly where there are issues of factual accuracy. “The clearer your message is, the more effective you’ll be.” The good news is, prep time decreases as time goes by. “It will have long-term benefits.”

Andrew Kwan (Photo courtesy of Andrew Kwan Artists Management Inc.)
Andrew Kwan (Photo courtesy of Andrew Kwan Artists Management Inc.)

Andrew Kwan Artists Management Inc. (AKAM) is one of Canada’s most prominent agencies specializing in classical music. Director Andrew J. Kwan oversees a large portfolio that includes luminaries like The Gryphon Trio, Soundstreams, the Rolston String Quartet, and many others.

Kwan begins the process when he’s fielding an interview request. “I often talk to the interviewers to surmise what topics they’ll ask about. I try to protect where the topic of the conversation will go.” That pre-screening can weed out inappropriate interview requests. As an example, Kwan recounts how a reporter from a major news organization called recently asking for a comment on the Hedley sexual assault scandal. As Kwan pointed out, his classical music clients operate in an entirely different realm than the Canadian alt-rockers, making the request somewhat nonsensical. (Really?) It’s not an uncommon situation, however, particularly when it comes to hot-button issues. “No agents will talk to them, so they go fishing.”

“It’s important to understand who you are speaking to,” Bello notes. “An entertainment reporter may ask you different questions than someone from a community newspaper.” Different kinds of interviews require different approaches and preparation. It may be an artist profile, or it may revolve around a specific work, recording, concert, or tour. Sometimes artists are asked to provide commentary as a working professional on various aspects of the music industry. “If it is outside your scope, it’s better to be clear about that.” While it’s crucial to be available for interviews, it’s also about being realistic. “There’s no point for either of you to take the time if it doesn’t pan out.”

If the interview has to do with an event, then it’s also important to know enough about the event and the organization throwing it to be able to make intelligent commentary. In the case of a music festival, knowing about the nature of the festival and perhaps even some of the other artists gives you something to talk about. The reporter’s deadline is another factor to consider, as well as whether pictures are required.

Bello advocates taking a proactive approach where an artist should try to anticipate what kinds of interview requests might be coming down the pipe. Is there a new recording being released? Get your notes ready before the interview requests come in.

The difficult and anti-social artiste who doesn’t do interviews is no longer an option. Artists should be prepared to accept interview requests from reputable reporters and publications. “As a professional artist, you do need to make time for this type of work,” Bello says. In an ensemble, there’s a little more leeway. In a chamber group, for example, one member might take on interview duties for all of them, but as a soloist, it’s all you.

“It’s part of the duties of a professional,” Kwan agrees. Still, it’s not something that necessarily comes naturally to musicians. Kwan likens a classical musician’s background to the training regimen of professional athletes. Public speaking isn’t necessarily a part of it, and PR coaching often comes into play. While music is about expression, that doesn’t necessarily extend to the spoken word, especially when it comes to interviews. “Musicians practice many hours. They let their instrument do the talking.”

Victoria Lord, of VLPR Inc., is a Toronto based public relations consultant with two decades experience in working with musical artists, including a stint with Universal Music Canada prior to forming her own agency, where she was PR Manager of the classical and jazz division. Her clientele has included a long list of artists, festivals, and even venues like Roy Thomson Hall, among other specialties such as travel and tourism.

She finds many younger and more inexperienced clients often have an unnecessary sense of reserve and hesitation about interviews, and she tries to encourage them to open themselves up to the experience. “They’re interested in what you’re doing. Don’t be scared,” she tells her clients.

“One thing that I have found, especially if someone doesn’t have a lot of experience, the answer doesn’t have to be short,” Lord says. She advises her clients to turn the interview into a conversation as much as possible, avoiding curt yes and no answers. “What they’re really looking for is that human interest,” Lord says.

Savvy clients anticipate the opportunity, and some have demands of their own. Lord describes one client, an internationally renowned musician, who will only agree to an interview if she can provide them with personal information about the interviewer beforehand. In one case, for example, she found out that the reporter in question had studied the cello. The information reassured her client that there would be some common ground to connect with, and the interview went forward as planned.

An easy pitfall in interviews is to simply get sidetracked and use up the time discussing possibly interesting, but not crucial issues. “I’ll remind them to focus on, to keep talking about upcoming concerts, tours, and so on,” Kwan says.

“Make sure you know what take away you want to incorporate. Is it the CD? What is the story?” Lord reminds her clients. It’s important to have a good sense of your message. “How can you illustrate it?” If the reporter doesn’t go in the direction that you’ve prepared, and doesn’t address that take away you intended, there is often an opportunity to add your own thoughts at the end of an interview.

Bello also sees the interview from the writer’s point of view. A reporter is looking to tell a story — it’s the artist’s job to give them a story to tell.

It’s important to maintain a sense of control over the process. “Don’t be afraid of the silences,” Lord advises. On radio and TV, in particular, empty air can tempt you to rush in just to fill the silence. “You don’t have to rush to answer a question.”

The media landscape has changed, and that has changed the nature of interviews. It’s not just all business anymore. “Everyone wants that personal story,” says Andrew Kwan. “You really need to keep your public profile fresh.” Even those who’ve received regular media coaching may not grasp the new realities of social media, where good interviews can make for a lot of useful content. “They were not trained on how to keep their stories fresh, but they have to.”

But, that doesn’t mean you have to tell all. “Think about what personal story to share.” If you can anticipate personal questions and think of a good story or angle to talk about, it’s clearly preferable to blurting out something off the cuff that you’ll live to regret. It’s important to remember, too, that there is already a wealth of information available online. “Tell me what I can’t find,” Kwan advises.

“Arts coverage has to have a lifestyle element to it,” agrees Victoria Lord. She notes that the contraction of the media landscape has meant that classical music and the arts are rarely given their own section or coverage anymore. That means it often gets lumped into lifestyle coverage, which broadens the scope.

For artists, it opens up new possibilities. “It doesn’t all have to be music based,” Lord says. Someone who cooks, for example, can get a lot of mileage out of being the cooking musician. Those non-music related topics can serve as a new slant for magazine interviews or social media, allowing artists to branch out and expand their online and media presence. “They’re looking to tell a good story.” It’s up to the artist to decide what that story includes.

Lord finds that younger artists, in particular, seem to regard an interview as a kind of performance. “It’s not.,” she says, advocating a natural approach instead. Remember, you’re going to impress them with your show or release, or even your cooking skills — the interview is about putting a human face behind it.

After all the discussion and preparation, however, it’s also important to keep it in perspective. “It’s not as difficult as preparing for a political debate,” Kwan notes. The good news is, the world of classical music is generally a more pleasant environment than other, more cutthroat sectors of the arts and entertainment biz. Certainly, it’s nothing like the harsh light of scrutiny that the average pop star deals with on a daily basis. “We’re in a fragile genre of entertainment. There’s a security of comfort.”

“You don’t find that an issue in the arts,” agrees Victoria Lord. “I’ve rarely seen it.”

Still, the results may not always turn out as planned. What can you do if an interview seems to be heading south? It does help if you are aware of any potential pitfalls in advance. “Whatever is best known, or what is best documented about you, is what reporters will go back to,” Bello says. “It’s fair game.” If a reporter seems to be focusing on a negative or undesirable angle, it’s an opportunity to steer the conversation towards a more positive direction. Don’t let them go on and on, in other words, and keep emphasizing the new and the positive.

There are certain things any artist should steer clear of in an interview. Don’t speculate or gossip about other artists. Stay inside the scope of your expertise. In giving commentary about the industry, for example, make sure you know your facts and avoid guessing. “You are less likely to end up in situations where you will have to address it in controversy,” Bello notes.

It’s important to stay on point. The days of between you and me gentleman’s agreements are long gone. “They need to treat everything as on the record,” Bello says. “Anything you say, be willing to stand by.”

After the fact, if you don’t like the way the interview went, by all means, do not go on social media to complain. If the interview hasn’t been published yet, you or your publicist may still be able to contact the reporter to get things straightened out. “Allow the reporter to do their job,” Bello says.

When it’s published, promptly review the article for accuracy, and make any corrections known immediately to the editor. “Just be polite and respectful,” Bello advises. Critiquing the article isn’t a good move. “It’s more likely to antagonize the reporter and publication.” Creating an antagonistic relationship isn’t in anyone’s best interests, and those interview requests may just dry up in the future. “If you prepare properly, a lot of these challenges will be minimized.” Think about the next time, and building a rapport with the reporter. A simple thank you, and making sure they have current contact information, can go a long way.

When it’s a good interview, it’s a great opportunity to help spread the word. Who will you share it with? Comments or quotes can be used in future PR materials. “If you want to use the article, ask the reporter and publication,” Bello adds. Even if the interview doesn’t go so well, it’s still an opportunity. “Look at it this way: there’s always room for improvement.”


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