Has Anyone Achieved Minimal Viable Audience?

Seth Godin recently made a post with a suggestion that runs counter to concept that arts organizations need to broaden their audience.  He has made posts throughout the years about attracting the smallest “viable audience” for products, but this time he specifically applies the concept to classical music and documentary films.

His basic premise is that if you focus on pleasing the core fans, the result will be greater audience satisfaction.

The smallest viable audience for certain genres is very clear. That allows the creators of the work to be specific and to deliver on expectations.

The broader you seek to make your offering, the more likely you are to run into people who don’t care, don’t get the joke or are simply not open to being satisfied.

It’s not easy to record a symphony or edit Restrepo. But your work is more likely to pay off in audience satisfaction.

The keyword “viable” is the slippery element in this. It is pretty widely acknowledged that catering to the traditional audiences isn’t sustainable so there does need to be some expansion.  But there is also an implication in “viable” that you would stop once the audience was large enough to sustain operations. Or perhaps that you maintain a program focused on renewing people lost to whatever factors are contributing to churn in audiences.

The problem is, there really doesn’t seem to be anyone who has discovered the secret of attracting and maintaining a core sustainable audience. Not to mention that economic factors are constantly expanding the boundaries of what is required to be sustainable.

So perhaps the answer is that there hasn’t been enough work done at expanding audiences yet. And by the way, I am not specifically referring to orchestras or art film houses and producers as mentioned in Godin’s post.

I don’t deny his statement that there is a point beyond which you can not please everyone. I have definitely been in too many meetings where people have said “our market is everyone” and that simply can not be the case.

Arguably, there are probably some arts organizations people can point out that have developed a core audience to sustainable levels. I suspect that these groups fall at either end of the population density spectrum. Either there is a large enough population available to support the organization or the community is so small the organization runs a budget with few expenses.

Pretty much everyone else in between probably needs to work on expanding audiences to the minimally viable size which will likely mean providing programming in which people can feel invested.

But I am curious, does anyone have other thoughts on this? Are there more entities who are maintaining a viable, highly-satisfied core audience which allows creators to focus on a high quality product than I am giving credit for?

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/)

My most recent role was as Executive 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.


6 thoughts on “Has Anyone Achieved Minimal Viable Audience?”

  1. I’m not sure why you are focusing on “audience” rather than “community”. Your choice implies that you regard the biggest group of people as essentially passive receivers of art, to be provided by professionals.

    Some of the most successful organizations include the community in the doing, not just in watching (or listening). Theater and music camps for kids and teens are not audience-driven, but participant-driven, for example. The mosaics on the bridges in Santa Cruz were created by middle-school students under the guidance of their art teacher.

    The past few years has seen a lot of financial and organizational damage to performing-arts organizations, so many of them are indeed trying to (re)grow their audiences, but quite a few previously had viable core audiences and only needed to recruit new audience members to replace those that died, lost interest, or moved away. When a theater groups sells out their shows season after season, there should not be pressure to keep growing the audience, though there may be pressure to diversify the fare to keep from boring the core with more of the same.

    The minimum viable community may include philanthropists who pay for others to see or learn things, rather than just to be audience members themselves.

    • I use the term audience because that is what Godin uses. In his posts, including the one to which I linked, he uses “smallest viable audience.” Your pointing out another issue here which is that he is viewing this as transactional with creators being able to focus their work to provide high customer satisfaction rather than as a matter of relationship building, the latter of which may better weather crises and mistakes.

  2. Hey Joe! I now that sometimes Seth Godin makes things sound a bit too easy. Nevertheless, while you find the word “viable” to be slippery, I find an equal amount of peril in your use of the phrase “pretty widely acknowledged.” It seems to me that the arts have a tendency to think within well-worn mental boundaries, and that, not surprisingly, has a tendency to lead to the same dead ends. Godin has long ago discussed his admiration for the “1,000 True Fans” approach to making businesses viable; I admire that concept as well. However, I would marry it to the need for a business model that doesn’t simply accept that, say, the way a symphony has been delivered in the past is how it will be delivered today, or that the only income stream comes from musicians playing concerts in front of live audiences. My area is theater, of course, and I often similar issues surrounding discussions of the streaming of performances. Godin is seeking a match between the size of the audience and the cost of serving that audience. That doesn’t seem to me too much to ask. Does it require that we adjust the way things are done? Yes, and for purists, those adjustments will likely be a bridge too far, which is problematic because they form the current audience. But I don’t have much confidence that arts orgs will continue to be able to bridge budgetary gaps with unearned income — would you agree? That there seems to be evidence that contributions to the arts continue to shrink in the face of other societal needs? [Hell, Peter Singer, in his book “The Most Good You Can Do,” says Americans ought to stop contributing to the arts at all and instead provide money to charities that save lives in the developing world!] I guess I’m asking at what point we take “sustainability” serious enough to change the way we think and do our art. And I think Godin’s “minimum viable audience” gestures in the direction of a path we seem extremely reluctant to tiptoe down!

    • Scott – Yes, as you mention it I do recall his writings on the 1000 true fans idea where he provides more detail about how he envisions things working.

      I am not sure where we differ in my saying the performing arts industry pretty much widely acknowledges that we can’t keep catering to a traditional audience.

      A number of things you mention about changing the medium of delivery, performer-audience interaction, programming choices, etc are the sort of things an organization would implement to expand an audience.

      Mode and context of delivery has often had a large role in audience size. Recordings, radio and television each expanded accessibility beyond the scope of the previous mode of delivery.

      I think you are probably right in saying Godin is leaving a lot of detail which would probably run along similar lines of not being complacent and lean on entrenched practices.

      But I think if someone associated with classical music came across that post, they would feel vindicated that an acknowledged thought leader said they should focus on those that get it and not worry about those that don’t care and don’t get the joke.

      While I don’t subscribe to the idea that people will age into liking artistic practice, I do think there are people who are on the fringes of caring and getting the joke if the framework is shifted for them and that people will age into that fringe of potentially caring if someone is there to welcome them to explore their curiosity.

  3. Hi Joe,

    Interesting post. As an orchestra marketer, I get the idea of minimum viable audience but I also think just playing to fans is a bit fraught.

    The considerations are:

    1) If the evidence about the aging audience is correct (and I think it is), that pool of fans is slowly contracting year on year, making it risky to keep performing only to them.

    2) However, professional orchestras also have a set number of permanent musicians that need to be paid regardless of what you’re performing in a year – unlike, say, theater where you could scale your artist costs depending on the play.

    So I’m leaning more and more towards the idea of putting money first with orchestra programming – I.e. playing what will bring in the biggest crowd possible for a few years – and then starting to find room for working in some lesser-paying but artistically satisfying projects in there.

    But I’m worried the industry will do what it normally does, which is start with the art, and then struggle to find the audience, which then leads to a reduced capacity to create more art, etc.

    So for me, Minimum Viable Audience for an orchestra is the amount of audience that pays for a standing orchestra and allows you time to do some interesting less-popular music. But the Catch-22 of this approach is that we might need to be a lot more populist than we think to get there, which might feel like we’re being *less* artistic.

    • Right I think that is the tension in what Godin writes. If the programming is more populist, does that mean the people creating the content are having to dilute their focus and aren’t delivering on expectations?

      Perhaps the bigger question is, are audiences not being given enough credit for being broadminded? This past year there was an effort to revive an orchestra using students from the local strings conservatory and musicians from Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. This meant all the concerts were on Mondays. Every concert had at least one piece from outside the canon. They had audiences between 700-900 people each time with a diverse audience in terms of age and racial background. My marketing director contends that even if the traditional core audience didn’t really enjoy the non-canon pieces, (and there is no indication that they didn’t in any significant way), they were just happy to consistently see a lot of young people at concerts. Obviously, that may not be true of every community


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