Launched a year ago, HELLO STAGE is the largest online platform for classical music. Founder and CEO Bernhard Kerres talks to Mark Powell about his success so far.
Whether signing up to talk shop with other musicians, to contact mangers, to collaborate on new projects, or to share Vienna restaurant advice, the most obvious benefit for new HELLO STAGE members is becoming part of the largest classical music community online.
Membership offers a simple way to create a strong web presence, as well as giving users a profile page with their personalised biography, repertoire, playable media files and a calendar of upcoming concerts, the platform also connects members to all the HELLO STAGE databases. This provides instant, fully searchable access to long lists of repertoire, conductors, agencies and more. Growth has been rapid in the company’s first year.
Kerres tells us he recently came across promising statistics for other independent start-ups: ‘Airbnb had around 10,000 members in its first year, Twitter had only a couple of thousand,’ he says. ‘We now have over 6,500. Considering Twitter had a potentially infinite market, and so far we’re only addressing classical musicians, I think we’re doing pretty well.’
Those nearly 7,000 members, Kerres says, arrive at HELLO STAGE with very different objectives: ‘Some artists use it as a launch platform, while established musicians tend to use it to publicise their activities. Ferhan and Ferzan Önder, for example, actually scrapped their own web page in favour of their HELLO STAGE profile, because it does everything they want and it’s so easy to maintain. ‘Agencies like Primo Artists create events calendars and then embed them on performers’ personal sites and on their agency web pages.
Managers also use it to interact with each other and discuss representation. In terms of how we’d hoped the membership might engage with HELLO STAGE during the first year, we couldn’t have wished for anything more.’ Have there been any real surprises? ‘The extent to which everybody in the classical music business clearly wants to make it a real community and be an active contributor,’ he says. ‘The level of interaction has proved significantly stronger than we anticipated.’
That’s good, because surely an unwritten rule of social media is that, to some extent, you get out what you put in? Kerres agrees: ‘An ideal HELLO STAGE profile is one where the member uses it often and keeps it up to date with their latest news, concerts, repertoire and so on,’ he says. ‘People who spend, say, half an hour a week maintaining their profile will be much more visible in the community and typically generate more interest.’
In the fast-moving digital world, staying ahead of the curve is important. ‘We spend a lot of time online and offline listening to our members and potential members, meeting them and hearing what they need. At certain points, though, we just have to try new things and see what happens.’ For Kerres, this is how features like the site’s new Orange Board – a cross between an old-style online message board and a social media account – are developed.
‘Other social media channels are so broad and you can’t easily filter out content. We saw a gap for something that allowed our members a similar functionality, but that was more tailored to their interests, circles and needs. Right now, there are posts from a singer looking for a pianist in Brussels, a composer offering work, someone seeking a baroque cello, and a discussion about eating out in Vienna. You can search and filter all of these threads; if you want to only see posts relating to piano, you can.’
Is the industry itself suited to the technology? ‘We’re pushing at the digital barriers in an industry you could probably accuse of being fairly old fashioned in parts,’ he suggests. ‘The business side of classical music is effectively 250 years old – the last really big change came about when Johann Salomon took Haydn to London, and all we’ve really changed since is to swap letter-writing for email!’ he laughs. ‘Of course, I’m being a bit facetious and cynical there, but I do believe there’s some truth to it.
‘We really want to push [communication] forward, because what we see in other industries – and now in our own – is a great eagerness for musical talents, both established and new, to come as close as possible to their fans. We need to advance that at HELLO STAGE, so we’re heading over to Silicon Valley for a few months to really tap into that innovative technology talent pool, which doesn’t exist in quite the same way anywhere else.’
The independence of HELLO STAGE has obvious benefits for users. Bigger platforms such as LinkedIn offer similar functions, agrees Kerres – ‘But do our musician members really want to be sharing the same platform with accountants, engineers and so on? I don’t think that makes a lot of sense. Independence also enables us to work with big or small agencies, promoters and labels. We’re here to do something good for musicians and the classical community, rather than trying to sell a particular record.’
The classical business might present a modernisation challenge at times, but there’s both a need and an appetite for it, he emphasises. ‘A lot of tutors, for example, are fantastic teachers of instruments, but some tend to pass on a belief to their students that agents will be queuing up to take care of the business side when they emerge from university. The reality is, though, that 95 per cent of the people coming out of colleges and conservatoires won’t find a manager immediately afterwards.
‘There are only a few educational institutions currently offering ‘musical entrepreneur’-type programmes, but if you’re starting a music career, you’re essentially becoming an entrepreneur and you need to know certain basic things. If you wait too long and expect other people to take care of those elements for you, it’ll be too late. Someone like [London-based pianist] Alexandra Dariescu is a great example of taking charge in that area – if you look at what she does with her web page, her stage presence and social media, she clearly knows it’s an important part of her professional life. Unfortunately, not everyone is as confident or as active with that side of it.’
Digital platforms, he argues, are crucial in making networking and interconnectivity more efficient, but only if they’re used that way. ‘People should decide carefully which platforms and tools are going to be right for them, rather than spreading across 10 different ones,’ he insists. ‘I hope HELLO STAGE will be the centre for many of them, but either way they need to be selective, because they shouldn’t spend too much time on it.
‘Digital will never replace the value of face-to-face networking,’ adds Kerres, ‘because there’s nothing better for a professional musician than to go to concerts, to meet with promoters, other artists, audiences and managers. That’s always important; the digital world simply provides additional tools to help you manage your career more efficiently.’