Unbeknownst to most of those attending the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera’s Sergei Rachmaninoff performance in February, a cohort of fans relegated to the back rows were on their phones the entire show. They tweeted jokes about the concert, without shame. Because on this evening they were simply doing as asked.
“I don’t know what song this is but I hope they play it at the funeral of my enemies #SacPhilOpera #SacPhilOperaInsider,” stand-up comedian Johnny Taylor Jr. wrote to his 124,000 followers.
“We’ve been here awhile and I haven’t seen one vendor. Peanuts in aisle J please. #SacPhilOpera #DoYourJob,” friend and fellow comic Keith Lowell Jensen wrote to his following of 56,000.
Comedians live-tweeting Rachmaninoff may sound off-putting to classical purists, but it seems to be making an impact on the community.
In October 2015, the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera launched Tweet Seats, a marketing initiative inviting influential Twitter users in the region to live-tweet performances in exchange for free tickets and exclusive backstage access. The Philharmonic has since filled more seats than any season in the last decade, a remarkable feat given the nonprofit’s canceled 2014-2015 session.
“We were hoping for an average of 1,600 (attendees) per concert, that was our goal,” says Marketing Director Raymond James Irwin on the 2015-16 season. “We’ve had to open the second tier at seven of eight concerts so far, averaging 1,850.”
They’ve broken 2,000 twice.
Irwin attributed the Philharmonic’s rebound to a number of factors — a healthy mix of classical and pop concerts, partnerships with local radio stations — but the nonprofit’s social media impact is undeniable.
Case in point: The Philharmonic’s Rachmaninoff performance took place the same evening that the Nevada presidential primary results were announced. At one point in the night, the #SacPhilOpera hashtag trended on Twitter at No. 5 in the nation, above hashtags referring to the Nevada election.
“It was something that I didn’t necessarily think was going to work,” Taylor says. “But I think a lot of the people that normally follow me were retweeting, which is cool. They stuck with me.”
Taylor and a half dozen other tweeters enjoyed VIP treatment at the performance, meeting performers backstage and taking photographs with U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui before being spirited away to the Philharmonic’s upper deck to live-tweet a safe distance from paying concertgoers.
Among the marketing professionals and comedians live-tweeting the shows, there have been a few classics enthusiasts. Chris Hagel, a Sacramento County employee with a Twitter following over 1,200, live-tweeted for the San Francisco Opera in the past. But that doesn’t mean he’s all business either.
“This clown amuses me.*adjusts monocle*,” tweeted Hagel at the Cirque de la Symphonie performance in February, which juxtaposed live classical music with acrobatic circus acts.
And isn’t that what it’s all about — fun? On a given night, a live-tweet party might include a young daughter of a tweeter armed with Harry Potter books, a business consultant tweeting pun-heavy photo memes or a tattooed comedian making pot jokes. It’s all off the cuff, uncensored. Which makes it feel genuine.
“You think the opera is monocled old people, but that’s why this is such a great thing,” Hagel says. “You see that the younger generation appreciates this too, and is enthusiastic about it, and you don’t have to take it so seriously.”
The Philharmonic and Opera seems to be lowering its target age demographic, adding younger members to the board in recent years and saying yes to innovation. Irwin says the Philharmonic is looking into a grant dedicated to injecting innovation into the arts. Simulcasts? GoPros on members of the orchestra? He’s not sure what direction they’ll take, but he’s not writing anything off.
As for the live-tweeting, there may be a hiccup or two along the way.
Participants during the nationally trending Rachmaninoff performance talked about how much they enjoyed themselves that evening, and how often they laughed. Perhaps a bit too often.
“When you love your #tweet mates but realize you may need to eject them…” Irwin joked on Twitter that night. And then: “I’m moving all of you trouble children to the very back…#whenisintermission?”
The group eventually did move back a few rows, but the live-tweeters don’t believe they negatively affected other concertgoers’ evenings. Besides, with that level of public exposure, what’s a couple chuckles among friends in the era of Yelp?
“We’re in the age of peer review, where we’re going to take a friend’s advice over a critic’s advice,” Taylor says. “Our friends don’t have anything to gain. They’re just trying to have a good time.”
Therein lies the power for the Philharmonic: Humor and revelry create buzz, which puts butts in seats.
That’s the plan, at least. And it seems to be working.