Dip Your Toe, But Probably Not The Time To Take The Plunge

As I was driving into work today, I heard an NPR story about the 92nd St Y, an event/education space in NYC, and how they have gone virtual during Covid-19.  According to NPR, in a typical year 92 Street Y has about 300,000 people participate in their events. In the last 6 months they have had over 3.4 million people engage with their virtual programming.

My first inclination was to think that if they had successfully monetized their offerings, it was likely due to the fact they are located in NYC and are such a marquee name that Hugh Jackman takes classes there.

It turns out that even with those numbers, they haven’t been financially successful.

BLAIR: And they’re selling tickets. Some programming is free, but they’ve also generated over $3 million in revenue. Still, CEO Seth Pinsky says, despite the income and the massive audience increase, they’ve had to furlough staff and cut salaries.

PINSKY: The hardest part of all of this is that, in spite of all the successes that we’re having, the economics still don’t work. And we’ve been operating on fumes.

BLAIR: Pinsky says he hopes, going forward, the 92nd Street Y can crack the code on how to make this new virtual, now global model a sustainable one. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

It should be noted that while $3 million seems great revenue for a lot of us, it is all relative. According to 92nd Street Y’s  financial reports, (much love to them for making it so easy to find), they had $45 million in earned revenue in fiscal year 2019.

For as much as people are saying virtual content is the future, you don’t want to necessarily go all in on this right now. Though obviously, investing energy in in-person content ain’t generating $3 million right now.

Broadway producer Ken Davenport is of the mind that the more paid virtual content that is offered, the quicker that mode of engaging with content will be normalized. He uses the example of younger people paying to watch people stream themselves playing video games.

I am not sure that is the most apt comparison when it comes to streaming live content. I think using your computer to watch someone play a game you, yourself can play on a computer involves a different mode of thinking. There is no live substitute that exists for that experience. Even if you attended a video game tournament in person, and people pack arenas to do just that, you would still end up watching the action play out on a huge screen.

That said, Davenport seems to think there is a separate audience out there that may not necessarily overlap with existing audiences. I am put in mind of the fact that among the top impediments to attending a live event are not having anyone who will accompany them; transportation/distance difficulties; not having the time. There may, in fact, be a local demographic that will engage with a performance that is livestreamed for them.

Davenport writes:

Well first, if you’re a TheaterGoer and you see a TheaterMaker doing something with a price tag attached (and it’ll be much less than a live ticket – because they have to be), considering paying.  You’ll be helping a TheaterMaker.  And TheaterMakers?  Help your peers.  Attend their shows.  Support and you’ll be supported.

But if you want more specifics, then here are my three giant takeaways for TheaterMakers that you MUST do to get on the ground floor of the paid streaming revolution that is coming.

  1. Build a following. You need your own tribe, your own fans, your own community to have a successful career in streaming your art. (That tribe can be any size, but you need to know where they are and be able to communicate with them daily – and yes, social media is great, but nothing beats email.
  2. Stream something. Anything. Start experimenting. Plays. Concerts. One person shows. Try to make it a unique experience for the streaming market so it feels created for it.
  3. Repeat.  Keep doing different things until you find what works for YOU. And after a while you will find something that supports your live stage work. Wouldn’t that be nice?

At my venue we are going to experiment along these lines with a speaker series in October. We will have a live event that is streamed. We are putting the stream on sale a little later than the live event tickets under the philosophy that live streaming is an overflow space to some degree.

After the speaker finishes, there will be a curated Q&A. A half hour after the Q&A we will host online discussions of the topic in Zoom breakout rooms as a way to simulate an after event discussion. The half hour is to allow in-person attendees a little time to get home and log in. The goal is to try to bring the two methods of interaction together in one place. I will let you know how things turn out.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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