Are you a college student or a young professional?
If so, when was the last time you attended a classical music concert, an opera, a ballet, or a symphony? Not recently I bet.
How about a museum, gallery, or theatre production? Maybe a different answer here.
Did you attend on your own accord? Or instead, were you influenced or forced (either by necessity or social pressure) by a parent, professor, or co-worker?
At some point in time while you were dressing in your Sunday church attire, did a smug grin come across your face when either you or someone else uttered “Oooh, how cultured!?” in a cringeworthy highfalutin tone?
That smirk, while fun and lighthearted to you, is a problem of nightmarish proportions for arts administrators across the country. To them it means that certainly now, and likely in the future, it is not a typical activity or purchase decision from your wallet. The fact of the matter is, all arts organizations — fine, traditional, mainstreamed, and avant-garde — not only want, but fiscally need the youth demographic. Whether through special outreach programs, additional programming, or subsidized ticket pricing, organizations see less naturally colored hair everyday. They’re slowly drowning in a sea of gray and blue hair. While many may be getting by at the present moment, all are concerned about their futures, fearing no one will replace your grandparents; few young people in attendance today do so on their own volition. Instead, they’ve looked to alternative outlets more accessible, trading in the mezzanine for a Macbook.
Prominent former New York Times business and culture columnist Judith Dobrzynski disagrees in a recent article from ArtsJournal. “Many people,” she believes, “don’t have the time for art or the inclination for it until they reach a certain age, which — anecdotally — seems to be somewhere in the 40s, give or take, after most people’s children have developed some independence.” Dobrzynski goes on to cite a recent Euro RSCG study which suggests that 63% of consumers around the world believe society’s obsession with youth has gotten out of hand. An article from MarketingCharts appears to support her conclusion, indicating 6/10 Millennials themselves believe too much marketing value is placed on them and their purchasing habits.
A bet you there are a good few marketers, like myself, who disagree with this thinking, citing brand and product loyalty studies. Many will cite exposure and experience with a product while young to be vital in purchasing decisions as people grow into their consumerism. In the age of today’s Millenials with more productions than ever before and technological alerts of offerings outside of a once-restricted sphere-of-knowing, tapping consumers while young is even more important. Building an affinity early is key, especially given this apparent advantage. Unfortunately, arts have consistently struggled capturing youth in the new long-tail landscape. The landscape has changed.
With the shift of arts and entertainment from experiential to digital, this becomes an even more pivotal and time-sensitive concern. With less and less young people provided with primary exposure of live arts every year, the target has already begun to shrink. Today, the emphasis is instead on a digital equivalent, largely due to cost, convenience to attain, and ease of continued, repeated use. While the digital arts and entertainment revolution has changed the experience from stage to screen, it has also largely impacted the economics behind it. In today’s economy, businesses based on technology continue to become more affordable every year with increased innovation, while those associated with labor only become more expensive (due to inflation and inability to increase efficient production), known as Baumol Cost Disease.
In fact, there is reason to think the situation could soon get worse. As the cost of admission climbs ever higher, the advent of supply-and-demand-based “dynamic pricing’’ ensures that tickets to hot shows [insert: the only shows these “casual viewers” are interested in seeing] are as expensive as the market will bear. On Broadway, there’s the additional scourge of “premium seats,’’ which for “Death of a Salesman’’ and “The Book of Mormon’’ have commanded nearly $500 apiece. Theater, an inherently expensive art form to make at the professional level, is in danger of becoming a boutique business. – Don Aucoin, Boston Globe
With a generation of Millenials suffering from student loans and postgraduate expenses, those without exposure or a cultivated interest in arts will not be motivated to spend the little leftover from each paycheck on expensive arts. When those tickets can be afforded ten to fifteen years in the future, a lack of interest and motivation will steer many away to spend elsewhere, likely on the more economical digital entertainment. To those who say there is too much focus spent on shifting demographics, I say look to fine and traditional arts over the next decade. Those sad negative outlooks you see year after year will spread across across the industry unless a major pivot is made.
With over four billion hits per day and more than 60 hours of footage uploaded every minute, YouTube has changed the way we think of and interact with the web. Since the service’s launch in 2005, we have become publishers of content, giving a platform to all with a webcam — no longer does one need a studio setup or large budget to upload and host video footage in the public domain. Soon after YouTube’s commercialization and acquisition by Google, new services began to emerge developing on the technology created, taking advantage of the fast growing trend. Two short years later, UStream entered the market with something a little different. Speeding up the process of instant gratification again, UStream made it immediate, allowing the live streaming of content to audiences around the world, free of charge. We first saw the wonders of this service in the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Election when primary reports and debates were streamed immediately online for all to see, building the fascination with this new online technology.
As could have been predicted, it was not before long we saw the arts take hold of this technology. For an industry specializing in audio and visual imagery with a finite number of admissions and high price tag, it was a perfect fit. Since the mid-1970s, established theatres have been attempting to incorporate live broadcasts into their business models. One of the most prominent, Live from Lincoln Center, has brought to our living rooms countless productions every year of their sold-out spectacles, recently Candide, Porgy & Bess, Contact, The Light in the Piazza, and South Pacific. Often aired on PBS, these productions are geared toward grey-hairs, free to watch on local television. Generally speaking, they broadcast Tuesday nights, have a historic biopic during the intermission break, and are hosted by a C-list Dick Van Dyke. Anything fresh or sexy was reserved for movie theatres with a steep admission up-charge (think something like Spike Lee’s Passing Strange, filmed months earlier with heavy post-production). Even these “accessible” movie theatre broadcasts are hard to come by and air sparingly at awkward times, setting them up to fail.
With the advancement of live streaming technologies, we’ll soon see these productions move into this realm. Over the past several years, we’ve seen this on a smaller scale with productions like the Hair revival posting their finale online every night. Streaming (not broadcasting) a full production is the next logical step:
- Live-streaming breaks new ground in the way it merges theater and technology.
- Theatre, in its most basic essence, is a live art form making its live transmission without post production natural.
- Web 2.0 can allow performances to be interactive in a way that a traditional audience setting cannot.
- It combines the excitement of live theater with the community live streamed video fosters.
- Provides an additional source of income, limitless in the number of participants, to an industry with a finite number of admissions nightly.
- Relatively low-cost of startup and almost-guaranteed audience around the world.
- Limits the impact geographic location has on audience members experiencing new pieces, enabling a diverse and limitless experience.
- Transcending quality and personal tailoring of of new technology deeply engages a 21st century audience.
- A new dramatic paradigm that could launch an entirely new dramatic form born of today’s technology.
The biggest forseeable issue standing in the way of this movement is blockades from Actors’ Equity. I foresee the union having extreme concerns with losing control over content, despite their lackluster performance monitoring bootleg traffic. They’ll cite it as distancing from the art and, if passed, push for radical increases in per diem and minimum salaries. I don’t think the move is for all companies, and to be quite honest, never expect to see commercial venues incorporate it into their business strategy, fearing all will substitue the online edition of the performance with sitting in ORCH BB 101. But for fringe producers and festival productions have much to gain by any method to pull in additional profits and build name recognition.
Chris Mellor of The Guardian believes, “Streamed theatre is still an underdeveloped (for some, unknown) tool and most producers are yet to grasp its full potential. But at a time when it can be difficult to fill venues, it represents a new way of helping the box office pull in additional revenue.” Starting small, these organizations should start by streaming rehearsals or press events for all fans to see and share. Arts organizations have little market research on their publics; by engaging them in web 2.0, depth of knowledge can be ascertained quickly, easily, and with little/no cost. By giving this audience what it’s looking for and creating this engagement, smaller arts organizations can use a long-tailed approach, better suited for their niche market. A better engagement strategy means a more involved audience who can grow with the organization — it won’t be long before these patrons pull themselves into seats. The sooner this shift happens, the sooner invested audiences are ensuring financial black for the arts organizations they patron.