FAQ: How do I get my biography right?

On the 11th September, David Lister wrote a very interesting article for The Independent . He had been to one of the PROMS in the Royal Albert Hall and was clearly not happy with the programme book on sale. He vents his frustration at only get lengthy listings of orchestras where the soloist in question has performed last season, will perform in the next, in which major hall she has /will perform(ed) a recital and an equally long discography when he would have been by far more interested to learn something about the person who had been performing that evening.

The article popped up on my Facebook feed posted by my friend Christian Thompson from the Verbier festival / Orchestre de Lyon. I was not the only one who shared it - on the last count 29 others did too. And on almost all of their timelines a discussion about artist’s biographies broke loose. Obviously something a lot of us are passionate about and have different views on.

A manager claimed:

„Often the artists want particular stuff in (endless list of orchestras) and complain if something is missing. And many don’t want personal information.“

This is very much in line with what a singer said:

„Where is this demand for everyone’s 'back story' coming from? I assume TV talent shows... Unless it’s relevant in a professional capacity, I wouldn’t put it in my biog.“ (which in her case I don’t quite understand - she is very busy on social media, and gets the balance of sharing personal and professional things just right).

While a member of a venue’s marketing department remarked on the bog-standard biography:

„I can’t believe any concert - goer finds this kind of thing interesting. Perhaps I should refuse to print anything which isn’t a proper biog?“

A dear colleague and fellow ex-orchestra manager/promoter comments:

(…) „The problem is not *** or artists like her, it is managers and above all presenters who do not go through the trouble to edit and write something to make it readable and interesting. Those lists are horrible! The managers are writing for the presenters to impress them (…) with which orchestra’s and in which venues their artist has performed. But if they cannot get anything better, the presenters should be re-writing the biographies or insisting on better biographies from the agents so that they are written for the public!!! Or the artists PR representatives should provide something readable! But presenters don't have enough time to re-write biographies!!! It’s a vicious circle!“

A vicious circle indeed!!

I fear artists think that all these lists are necessary to impress both the audience and promoters because everybody else is doing it and therefore are finding it difficult to shorten them substantially. And most managers go along with it as writing biogs is not one of their favorite things (for them it is as difficult as for everybody else… ).

I remember when I started out (as a student helping at the Berliner Festspiele), managements still sent out the biographies in English, German and French. Alas that does not happen any more. I can sort of understand that it is a lot of work and of course costs are involved etc., still I am finding it a shame. Of course, that way costs for the translation are passed on to the promoters - maybe fair enough...but;

a) they too are not handling it extremely well and
b) the artist (or the management) is losing even more control over that which is printed.

When I was at the Wiener Konzerthaus my dramaturges and I tried to team up with other promoters to share the cost and time to translate the biographies into German for all the artists we would have in common in the coming season - alas all but one were not interested in doing this jointly. So everybody kept struggling on their own.

One of the explanations bared a silver lining - I was told that the promoter in question was re-working all biographies anyway and would need them in a special format for their programme books. Good for them! Having said that, my dear former colleagues also always spent time on the biographies to adapt them to the artist’s history in the Konzerthaus and also in length and would run them past the artist’s management for comments giving them a deadline to come back to them with alterations.

The length of the biography is the 2nd problem most of them bear in common - the space in the programme book is limited and cuts have to be made. By keeping your biography short you can ensure that all the facts that are important to you will actually appear in the programme book! If someone else but you is editing it, chances are that important things might get left out as they have to make a choice by themselves- this is not always the one you would have made.

One tip I would like to pass along is that your biography shows when it has been updated last. In their despair, programme book editors surf the net and grab the one they can find easiest and that could easily be out of date. By putting a date or the season at the bottom of your biog they know that they found the current one (and direct the promoter/programme book editor to your HELLO STAGE profile where it also should be up-to-date when fixing the concert date). :

However the key question is:

For whom are we writing a biography - and why?

In fact, you have two different audiences:

a) our pears and promoters and

b) our audience and fans - but how to combine the two?

A comment on the article from someone who is regularly asked to write biogs for artists says:

„Actually, this is something I’m puzzling with myself and trying to find the magic formula. I’m currently re-writing a biog for someone, and have been working with a few for a programme, and it's very tricky to get the balance right: to inform, sell, charm all at the same time, and to be unique, but not too kooky! (..)“

For me that pretty much nails it - that is a biography I would like to read in a concert programme. Or would it be a good idea to have two separate ones? One for selling and one to go into the programme book?

One artist manager (commenting on somebody else’s share of the article):

„ (..) a very good article! My feeling is that an artist should ideally have two quite distinct biographies: one which presents them to promoters of potential future engagements - the other for the concert programmes written with their audience and fans in mind. It has given me food for thought“.

I tend to agree with her - on HELLO STAGE you should have your "sales" biography and if you are happy with it and feel it is not too long and that it has a nice balance it should be your "programme book" one as well. But in case you want to distinguish between the two, have one for the programme book at hand to send to a promoter once the concert date is approaches, they will be grateful for this. But make sure it is clearly marked that this is the one you would like to be used for publicity material (otherwise the selling one will end up in the booklet despite your best efforts as they are only human too!)

You can take even more control by making your "About" on HELLO STAGE your short biography and tell people they should use this in case they only need a 3-5 sentence one on you (we created this with that option in mind but of course we also like you using far more personal notes in that section as well as the quotes from reviews of other artists you post here to introduce yourself to the community and the reader.)

And as to my earlier remark - it is totally fine to have all of this in English and in your mother-tongue only. But if you are performing in a certain territory often you might want to spare a thought on having your programme book biography translated professionally as this might be a good investment.

Bettina Mehne manages the relationships with Artists, Ensembles, their Managements as well as Promoters on HELLO STAGE. She toured Orchestras around the world, worked for London and Germany based Managements, took care of Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen as their Artistic Manager and headed the Artistic Planning at the Wiener Konzerthaus for six seasons. Follow Bettina on Twitter - you can also always reach out to her at bettina@hellostage.com
Author: Bettina Mehne HELLO STAGE
Comments [1]
Anne Wieben - 2015-10-06 08:58
Great insight. Thanks, Bettina!
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