• WOMEX 20 Digital Edition
  • 26-29 MAY 2021
  • ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
Digital Marketing

Extremely Classical

What Classical Music Can Learn From Djihadists and Right-Wing Extremists.
A thought experiment with digital anthropologist Roman Knipping-Sorokin on recruiting potential classical music listeners online and the use of hidden symbols.

Classical Music has a young audiences problem. It is generally regarded highly, young people view classical music as high art. In their everyday lives however, classical music often is perceived as too bulky. Even if almost everyone heard of Bach or Beethoven: who has not already grown up as a classical music fan, is not likely to become one today. Why is that?

Generally speaking, the classical music concert industry is well off. Concerts are often packed. Who visits one of those concerts however and scans the audience – the so-called ‘silver lake’ - will notice the almost total absence of young audience members. Now you do not have to convert every young person to become a classical music fan, of course. There is a debate whether many may discover a love for classical at a later stage and whether there really is a worrying lack of young audiences. But what is worrying for sure is, that even amongst the children of its core peer group, the educated middle and upper classes, the relevance of classical music is declining compared to the arts, film or theatre. To reverse this trend, classical music indeed will need to reach out to young men and women in a different way. And that comes with some difficulties.

A major issue is, that classical is having a hard time in a surrounding where you can reach young people the easiest nowadays, in the Internet. It might just be the most unsuitable art form for online communications you could think of: Classical music is not visual, requires undivided attention and its works tend to be extremely long. That is pretty much the exact opposite of what is believed to be attractive ‘online content’ today.

So will we all have to rewrite the musical works and present them in ‘snackable’ portions, to score online? Or can you find examples for successful presentation of demanding content online? Oh yes, you can!, says digital anthropologist Roman Knipping-Sorokin. Just not where you would necessarily wish to find them. In cooperation with the Reeperbahn Festival and the art music professionals’ forum Classical:NEXT we dare to make a thought experiment. We look into the methods of two groups who succeed in reaching out to and ‘recruiting’ youth online – djihadists and right-wing activists. Knipping-Sorokin has been researching their online strategies for many years. As appaling as their content and ideologies are, in our interview with the scientist we actually discover tacticts, which could also work for classical music in the world wide web.

Paul Bräuer: What do Jihadists and right-wing extremists have in common with the classical music scene?

Roman Knipping-Sorokin: Nothing of course, if you look at the whole picture. But you can understand classical music as a positive form of ideology. Music not for music’s sake alone, but for a good cause, which is not easily accessible and is based on long-term values. A promise of salvation which goes beyond the benefit of sheer entertainment. And through a comparison of groups or movements, who do not have any connection at first glance, we sometimes can gain interesting insights regarding certain actions and processes.

PB: Now the ideology behind classical music is a humanistic one, and as such it is the absolute opposite of e.g. djihadism or right-wing extremism, isn’t it?

RKS: This thought experiment obviously has its clear limits. But on an abstract level of communication there are certain parallels, that you can run through. And there might even be elements, which you could copy from those communication strategies. Especially since music plays a big role in those ideologies mentioned.

PB: Which are the communicational techniques of the extremists?

RKS: First it must be said, that the research field of communicational online techniques of ideological movements is a relatively new one. There are a lot of hypotheses, but it requires a lot of time to verify these scientifically, naturally. An observation interesting in this regard is e.g. how young people are led towards ideological contents online. Often extremists start with innocent, non-offending material and increase the level little by little. Especially music, lying under symbolic images, serves this purpose well. Emotions are created and then underlined with associative ideological texts and pictures.

PB: How and where exactly is this then increased?

RKS: YouTube is a strong channel for these scenes, Here, three kinds of offers are made to increase and deepen the messages made. Recommendations, channels (videos), and discussions in the comments section. So first a lot is happening via personalized, automatic suggestions the platform makes for what to watch next, so-called recommendations. If you label your videos and keywords accordingly, the user will always be recommended videos that go one step further. In addition, secondly there is exchange and debate within communities on these platforms.

PB: Ok, recommendations you enter with good metadata and active users. Which processes could you copy from the community debates though?

RKS: Possibly, the classical music scene should simply be more active on YouTube personally. Instead of waiting for young people to approach you, you yourself have to be active and moving around where your target group is active. Core tasks then are to build up and entertain an active community.

PB: Which further strategies do the extremists use to spread their messages and approach people on YouTube?

RKS: Further strategies are in line with the above. You can increase the power of your messages within one YouTube channel, if you slowly start publishing other videos in addition to you entertaining music videos, e.g. videos of speeches, of activities or plain agitating videos. Ideologically, the videos become more intense. What starts with easy and even pleasing content, can quickly turn into idealistic messages. But in order not to scare new users off, as soon as you take a step to considerably more extreme videos, you would offer those through another YouTube channel, to which users can and are supposed to switch to once they grow accustomed to your first messages. The next level within this ideaological network, so to speak. In other words, there is a controlled guidance towards ideological microcosms (echo rooms). Thirdly (if you remember the triad from above) this guidance happens through individual communication as well, e.g. in the discussions in the comment sections. Here other artists or songs can be mentioned: “Hey! Great to see that you liked my video. Why don’t you watch this one next.”

PB: How does this work exactly? I watch a video, I click on the like button and get a personal message?

RKS: Similar to facebook providers of posts, comments or videos get a notification from the platform on every action in relation to this content. I will be notified if someone likes my comment or shares my video and I can see this persons profile. Now I can contact them with a direct private message, but even better through a public reaction (such as likeing their comment or commenting back). I can offer further links and information there. That comes with the advantage that others watch this dialogue as well and I can appeal to those as well. Also, some users feel intimidated by a direct private message.

Those recruiters fish around mainly at videos which are shallow, from an ideological point of view. Users who are interested but are still careful or unsure are then less inhibited to “come out“ and show their sympathy. And you can place more arguments and extreme opinion in those comment sections. The recipients are slowly persuaded into your values and viewpoints with the help of videos (or music) which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. The crass videos on the other hand, showing your pure ideology, are not suitable for those discussions, cause the ‘battle lines’ are drawn too clearly there.

PB: So should all classical music entrepreneurs hire entire teams of online recruiters, to position their content with new audiences?

RKS: Apart from having a social media manager or team of course, I would not go that far to hire pure recruiters. It would be much more effective, to spread a certain know-how amongst the fans as well as the professional representatives of the scene. The aim should be to step by step establish an etiquette, in which direct dialogue between the producers and the listeners is understood as good and as important. And in which especially classical music newcomers are valued and regarded highly.

PB: How do extremists organize this etiquette?

RKS: While recruiting, the online activists select: User showing interest are taken care of (read: ‘are worked on’) more intensely. Those who do not react at all or only show a little interest are not bothered. Especially the open forums (YouTube videos or open Facebook groups) work well for a first contact, and the recruiters approach new users with caution. It is only during the course of discussion that the most interested new users will be sent links to closed discussion groups or non-public (non-listed) videos. Also other platforms are offered. Chat groups on Telegram or Whatsapp or online forums serving as resources and information repositories.

This process of selection has a positive impact to the self-esteem of the potential new fan: I gain privileged access to something special, therefore I am privileged and special. Then there follows an exchange with like-minded people, which quickly is about appreciation and reassurance of the individual (and collective) mindsets and opinions. In these rooms of resonance your way of thinking is accepted, confirmed and enforced.

PB: Let’s talk about the videos themselves. During your research, you observed and identified certain associative elements, purposefully placed within the films.

RKS: Exactly. Each ideological orientation has its own symbols and ‘cultural codes’, picking up specific values and images of the ideology in question. Content with extreme right-wing orientation for example, depict nature, symbols of ‘home’, of surpremacy, strength and masculinity. But also the idea of being grassroots and being ‘close to the people’. E.g. if right extremists rock musicians walk through the video picture wearing the jackets of the popular little man’s outdoor brand. Each ideology appeals to their own peers and targets with appropriated symbols. Rieger speaks of “propaganda 2.0”.

Djihadist videos work with target-specific symbols as well. Isis, for example, published different versions of videos for their recruitment of fighters in Europe. The videos differ in cultural symbolism, historical references and in that they have French, German or Russian protagonists and speakers. This way, the videos appeal to a specific group. In addition, nasheeds (Islamic chants) are charged with and used for djihadist ideas by combining them with video symbolic of strength and freedom of muslim culture, interspersed with scenes of fighting and conquering from the Syrian civil war.

In general, there is a strong trend towards hidden symbolism. Content is not immediately perceived as ideological loaded and thus works with a wider audience. Also the producers thus evade censorship, deletion or blocking of their content for legal reasons. The trick is not to make your own ideals the main dominating message anymore, as extremists used to and the classical music world may still do. Instead the core values and messages appear unobtrusively, almost secretly.

Shallow ingredients are used, references to fashion or leisure interests of the target group. Which means the videos belong to very different genres esthetically and musically. Especially youth is approached through content and formats they already know.

PB: Isn’t that the point where even when you are promoting a ‘humanistic ideology’ it starts to become fraudulent? Should art really copy such techniques?

RKS: Whether or not to copy such methods is of course a double-edged sword. Because if you start to copy manipulative online techniques, no matter from where and from whom, that is not only questionable in an ethical way – on top of that this can always be understood as a concession that your own art is not immediately attractive and does not have much value by itself. But as long as your ‘content’ actually is worthwhile, a non-manipulative but targeted approach should not be a problem. It only gets fraudulent if the ideals transported are despicable and anti-human as with the extremists’ ideologies. When the advertorial measures (if you want to call it that) serve to hide but transport political values, when thus something totally different is delivered than was originally offered. You do not have this problem with classical music fortunately.

Roman Knipping-Sorokin does his doctorate about opinion making in the internet at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology of the University of Hamburg. He researches authenticity and processes of opinion development in social media and online video.

Interview by Paul Bräuer, summer 2018.

The thought experiment elaborated in this interview was first presented by the music meetings Classical:NEXT and Reeperbahn Festival in September 2017. For help with the idea and concept all parties involved ar indebted to Lukas Krohn-Grimberghe of Grammofy.

Summary of measures and strategies which professionals working in the classical music scene could copy:


  • Find out who your potential new listeners are, where they are active online, and which symbols and other formats they like.
  • Be active online where your target audience is active online as well.
  • Acknowledge that while art music is great and transports humanistic values, it is not the most easily accessible art form.
  • Sort your content (videos, music texts etc) by the degree of accessibility to new listeners and offer different channels (YouTube channels, playlists etc)
  • Watch reactions to your content on all platforms and engage in an active public dialogue where possible. But be cautious doing this.
  • Make use of meaningful connections to other interests of your target audience. E.g. health or self-consciousness. Other art forms which also require a long attention span, such as cinema or modern art can also be ‘echo rooms’ in which you can attract interest people to learn more about classical music.
  • Use images and symbols you and your potential audience share. It is ok to select symbols or content in a targeted way. But…
  • Do not act in a manipulative way, do not promise things, your music in the end will not be able to keep.