Parlez-Vous Screen? (online arts and other considerations)

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So your workplace has shut down (your theatre, concert hall museum, stage, whatever). Now what?

Moving online is the obvious play. And in the weeks since lockdown there has been a flood of artists going online, making content for the web or repackaging performances that have already taken place.

Early efforts were encouraging. The Rotterdam Philharmonic did a “stay-at-home” “Ode to Joy” and quickly got two million views on YouTube. The Philadelphia Orchestra played Beethoven in the empty Kimmel Center and live-streamed it, drawing 55,000 views. In the immediate situation, it was moving, even comforting really, to see musicians playing from home and reaching out to one another. And poignant — defiant — to hear the Philadelphians play Beethoven in front of an empty hall.

Soon the now-familiar “mosaic performances” swallowed the web, with orchestras, bands, dancers, and artists of every kind streaming from their living rooms and kitchens and bathrooms. It was charming. Intimate, even. It had the look of home made. It sent the message that something bad has happened that affects us all, but we’re improvising to make due. Even late night network TV talk shows with enormous budgets and technical resources chose to broadcast from Seth Myers’ attic and James Corden’s garage to convey a sense of — however contrived — authenticity.

That home-madeness harkened back to the early days of YouTube, whose first slogan was “Broadcast Yourself.” The site had become a breakout success with its jerky, ill-lit, badly shot viral videos because it screamed authenticity. Aside from home movies, most of the video content most of us had ever seen had been professionally shot. YouTube exploded the notion that quality was a technically beautiful product and that you couldn’t get an audience for badly-shot video. Turns out we-the-audience valued authenticity more than we did technical quality. By comparison, user video seemed more real, more engaging.

It didn’t take long during the pandemic for home-made to look tired. The mosaic has become a cliche, and we’re awash in thousands of streams of old performances.

But you’re an artist, your regular place of work has shut down. Worse, there’s no sign that things will change for some time. The reality is starting to set in that even if concert halls and theatres reopen in the fall, it will be with severely reduced audiences.

What to do?

Three Considerations

The live business model has changed – probably forever. Even when we get back into performance spaces, the audience will be different. Artists will be different. Expectations will be different. We’re now living a large part of our lives online, and our screen language — which is different from in-person language — is evolving fast. The screen experience is just different. Not necessarily better or worse (probably a little of both), but the more we use it, the more our expectations about what engages us will change. To not understand this is to deny the impact our smart phones have made on our in-person interactions.

So here are three consideration when thinking about a strategy (note I didn’t say “screen strategy” or “live strategy.” The two will have to co-exist. There’s no choice.)

1. Learn to Speak Screen

For decades, public television presented the arts from prestigious stages. While it was great to see Great Performances, the broadcasts always felt like a lesser facsimile of what you would have seen in the hall. Then along came the Metropolitan Opera movie-casts, reimagined in the language of the movie screen and beamed into theatres around the world. Directors thought in cinematic language. Closeups allowed you to see the sweat and read the faces. The sound was glorious. The experience was intimate. The best of these don’t feel like facsimiles at all but fully-realized art that took full advantage of the medium.

Most streaming performances today feel more like lesser facsimiles of the real thing. You’re glad to see them (maybe) because you otherwise couldn’t have been there, but they’re less than an engaging experience. I call this the “documentary experience” because you’re seeing a record of an event rather than experiencing it as it was designed.

The web has its own culture, which is different from stage or other screen experiences like the movies. The web is participatory — the audience wants to see itself as part of the experience. The web expects you to speak directly to it. And to listen back. Not intermediated or encumbered by constraints of a traditional stage. The web is efficient at conveying information on many levels, but it doesn’t get blown up until it’s touched emotionally. Don’t tell us how great you are, show us a community that thinks you are. We’re blown away by amazing performances — the kid attempting the impossible skateboard trick, the singer nervously walking out on stage before a skeptical crowd (think “American Idol”) — when the performer lays it all on the line. We’re bored by the routine and thrilled by the unexpected. We crave being part of a crowd, but we’re compelled to try to stick out in it.

The tech platforms have been studying virtual culture and spend billions on trying to understand it. Look at what they’re spending those billions in researching over the past decade and you’ll see it’s all about that line between the virtual and real worlds. What motivates an audience to go back and forth across that line. What does it take to get them to do it. There’s a reason the social media platforms are so addictive to so many. They’re rigorously designed to be.

So you think you can just throw up a facsimile version of what you do on a stage and expect it to speak to people? Good luck with that.

2. Think you can Wait? Think Again!

What’s that saying – you’re only as good as your last show? Memories are short. The world moves on. And if you’re stuck in amber in your PP (pre-pandemic) frame, you won’t have moved on with the rest of us. The context will have shifted without you.

But on a more practical note: now is the time for experimentation. Every day I’m seeing more and more sophisticated and interesting experiments online. Like this gently playful Paris Opera Ballet video from a couple weeks ago. Or like this fabulously creative Juilliard video released yesterday which plays with the form.

Different ways of engaging an audience, meaningful collaborations beyond the mosaic. Given the crush of creativity being brought to bear on figuring this out, the language is evolving quickly, as are the platforms. Right now, the spirit of experimentation rules, we’re embracing the culture of trying things. Six months from now if you haven’t been part of that conversation in some way, what makes you think you’ll have something relevant to say to those who have?

Lastly — if the live business model is going to have to change out of necessity, you’re going to need ways to reach people far beyond the live theatre experience. Would you rather try to figure that out now or wait a year from now when your traditional model is toast?

3. Content is Cool but how about a Business Model?

Newspapers saw it coming, of course. The web wasn’t a secret. But in the late 1990s they still (unbelievably) couldn’t imagine that readers wouldn’t prefer to keep buying the daily paper. So they stepped back and waited. Many separated out their digital newsrooms from their print newsrooms (NYT Digital was even in a separate building back then). Used to print circulations in the thousands, they were intoxicated by web counts in the millions. Their audience was growing! They gave away their content for free, then watched as first Craigslist stole the classified ads business and DoubleClick and Google and Facebook drained the display ad business. The advertising model collapsed, selling subscriptions only made up part of the deficit, and now thousands of newspapers are on the verge of going out of business. This year will see the extinction a large swath of the local news business as the virus collapses what was left of the ad model. Only a few exceptional news operations were able to figure out the new model — The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and a few others.

So lessons for the arts? The arts have been caught in the same digital disruption (as I started to explore in my last post). In the new digital reality, reaching a bigger audience doesn’t necessarily translate into getting more resources to support it. I once heard Steve Jobs say that there were plenty of great ideas but if you couldn’t find a way to make a business out of one, it wasn’t worth anything. My translation of that is unless you can find a way to secure what you need to make your idea work, it’s nothing more than an idea, no matter how great. Jobs’ genius was that he could spot both the great idea AND figure out how to get the resources to support it. We’ve been so stuck in our non-profit selling-tickets-and-funder-support model that there hasn’t been nearly enough thinking or research into other models. And we’ve been too hung up on separating the idea from the business of supporting the idea. On the web form is integral with content is embedded in audience.

That’s starting to change. There are plenty of interesting experiments out there. Online acting classes. Online fundraising galas. A truly affecting and intimate celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday which raised $260,000. Standup comedians have figured out a virtual format that pays. The Gateshead Theatre Festival found a way to go online, and sell tickets for it with a mix of artist encounters, performances and even a patron lounge.

Most haven’t really figured it out yet, but 20 years into the web, there are a ton of web models to learn from. Micro-payment schemes, membership models, library models, freemium models (which is now the standard for web-development), subscription models (not necessarily tickets) open source models. And it isn’t like the arts haven’t tried some diversification around the edges. Thirty years ago, arts education was the primary domain of the public schools. Now arts organizations get money from a variety of funders to provide arts education.

Anyway — the point is that now is a time of experimentation. The good news is that the web loves experiments. Almost every new web experiment I’ve been involved with over the years has leaned heavily on the tolerance for experimentation by users in early stages. You get forgiven an awful lot by declaring yourself a beta.

NEXT: Leadership?

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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