I’ve admired the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment‘s publicity materials since I was a student. Early music has known its share of ill-considered outfits and dated hairdos, but the OAE always looks fun and classy. I wanted to know how they do it, so I cornered Will Norris, the orchestra’s communications director, and asked him. Then I stole a bunch of pictures off their blog, because that’s what you really want to look at. Enjoy.

Anthony Pay (clarinet) and Roger Montgomery (horn), 2010

How are you people so awesome? I mean, seriously. When hear the words “period instruments” I think “1970s haircuts” – but every time I see a picture of the OAE, I think “I would totally hang out with those people. They look like a lot of fun.” What is it about the OAE that makes it possible to look so cool so much of the time?

Well, the simple answer is that we *are* a lot of fun! Players and staff alike! I suspect most orchestras are really, it’s just that we’ve decided to let the world know this through our photographs, images, blog etc.

Also, we know that people might have preconceptions about us, on top of all the usual classical music preconceptions. People often think we’re a weird cult, something totally specialist, on top of all the beards/wholemeal/sandals stuff. So we have to work doubly hard in our public image to look vibrant and ‘now’.

Lastly (Sorry, not a very coherent answer this), the OAE is a kind of collective. It’s run by the players, set up by them, and many of the original founders are still around now. This comes across when they play but I think also mean’s that there’s a great spirit about the band, adding to that perceived sense of fun.

OAE Brochure, 1998

What is a publicity photo for?

A LOT of things. We tend to focus on seasons, and try and give each season a distinctive look, a large element of which is fresh photography each year. So the photo plays a huge part in the image of the Orchestra we’re trying to convey – and it’s something people are going to base their ‘is this for me?’ decision on. Of course it’s not just about brochures, it’s about print ads, tube ads, billboards, online, blog, twitter etc etc, and of course our photos also get reproduced by concert halls across the world in posters and programmes etc.

I guess the publicity photo in some way distills the spirit of an organisation is a visual way. I never get why Orchestras use pictures of them standing on stage with their Principal Conductor – primarily because that makes every single Orchestra in the world look exactly the same.

For us, photography is also about promoting the Orchestra’s USP – the players. We’re run and owned by our players, and our regular audience members build up a rapport with them. We don’t have any Principal Conductor – so it’s all about the players, and portraying as them people that our audience can relate too. I’m always a bit shocked that you can pick up many Orchestras brochures and not find a single picture of the Orchestra inside.

How do you know if it has worked? How do you even begin to measure success in an area like this?

Well, sadly we don’t get stats like ‘35.6% of people love your photographs.’

I’ll admit a lot of gut feeling and intuition goes into it. These days you get some indication of how well you’re doing by how many tweets you get about things like this, how many likes you get on Facebook relating to the pictures etc. You also get verbal reaction from punters at concerts. We also run occasional focus groups and show people the print to get reaction. I think it’s a slow burn process. We’ve been refining and developing our image over the past 5-6 years and I get the sense that the benefits are just starting to kick in now.

James Wood Davison (Trumpet)

There’s a real sense of fun to a lot of the OAE’s photography. Aren’t you ever afraid of looking silly?

Not really. Of course, we don’t want to make people look totally stupid. And you can go *too* far. If it looks like you’re trying too hard to be zany it just makes the organisation look a bit desperate and tragic. Everything that the players do in pictures comes from the players themselves really, so it’s just about bringing their personalities out. And we do have years when we do more serious photography. Interestingly, these tend to be more controversial with players and the public!

But overall we often convey a sense of fun. And why not? Why shouldn’t classical music be fun, entertaining? Most people come to our concerts not because of some deep intellectual reason but because they want to have a night out, be entertained.

I don't even know what this thing is called.

Knowing a few members of the OAE, I can’t imagine you have much
trouble getting them to go along with this stuff. Do you ever encounter
any resistance?

Hmm, not really. We never force people to do the photoshoot in the first place, so people have opted in. I can’t remember people ever saying ‘no I won’t do that’. Oddly, the one year that *was* controversial was when we had more serious (but beautiful) black and white portraits and some players felt that we had made them look too miserable and grim. That said, we had a huge amount of positive feedback from the public that year and record ticket sales too!

Of course the photographer and his or her rapport with the players is hugely important in making the players at ease, getting the best out of them and overcoming any anxieties. In this respect we’re lucky to have worked with Eric Richmond for many years (He’s taken all the images here bar the mono one), who has built up a really good relationship with everyone, as well as being hugely important creatively.

Orchestral Gothic

Are there outtakes that unsuitable for public consumption, and what do we have to do to see them?

Sorry to disappoint, but not really! The only outtakes are generally just pics that don’t quite work out – so nothing scandalous!

How did you arrive at the 2010/2011 gaffer tape campaign? It doesn’t look like the product of a committee decision.

Our designer, Chris Harrison, came up with it – as he had been using the idea for a personal project. He said it was inspired by pop art and the works of Keith Haring. As with all good ideas it was both simple and effective. We usually run the campaign past a player or two to check it out – so we got the nod and went ahead with it.

OAE play the Monteverdi Vespers

You’ve just launched the first in a series of recordings with Signum. These have a coherent look among themselves, but it’s an idea that’s quite different from the 2010/2011 look. What’s the difference between an album cover and, say, a season brochure?

Well, an album has a much longer life span than a season brochure. Not only in that people will keep in for a long time (hopefully) but also in that it’s going to be available to buy for longer too. We knew we couldn’t base the CD label’s look on our season pictures as they change too often. Also, we wanted to build a coherent series. So we tasked the designer with coming up with something that would build up as a series, be distinct and be ‘OAE’. Very rarely for us, it doesn’t involve photography of the players. Our designer came up with about 6 routes we could go down and we loved two instantly. When one of my colleagues criticised one saying it ‘didn’t look like a classical CD’ I knew that was the one to go for. That sounds counter-intuitive, but hard-core classical fans will buy a CD on the strength of what’s on it. Even if they hate the cover, it’s not going to put them off. People with less knowledge will be more swayed by design (this is exactly how I am when I buy books for example) – so if an appealing design can sway a few waverers – then great.

Here’s a video about our artwork:

What advice can you give those of us without much experience of working with graphic designers and photographers? What mistakes have you learned from?

Tough Question. Well I think trust is important. You can’t just wade into an organisation, do things your way and expect everyone to be on board. At the OAE I’d like to think that at least some level of trust in my visual instincts has been built up! And the same goes with designers – you’ve got to be prepared to question them, make sure that the product WORKS as well as looks good, but also trust them – again, this comes with time. I also think you have to stick to what you’re trying to achieve and have a coherent idea of what that is, and what your target markets are.

You also have to learn to fail sometimes. I’ve done some campaigns that really didn’t work at all. My favourite being a flyer in the shape of a baroque masque that got incredibly bad feedback from punters. But I’m still glad we did it – because we learnt from it.

I think lastly you have to trust in your gut instincts. No one is going to look at a brochure for hours debating what it all means. Your first impressions are usually right, and are what’s going to be important to the people seeing your print etc.

So what’s next? Do you have something amazing lined up for next


Something a little different…It’s something perhaps not as simple or instantly appealing as the gaffer tape but it reveals a little about the players lives and personalities. We’re at the last proof stage of the brochure, so it should be hitting the doormats in the next month or so.

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One Comment

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  1. Ethel Biscuit #
    April 5, 2011

    Hmmm… self-consciously “whacky” = “fun and classy”?

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