Little Bit Of Love For Intangible Benefits In Economic Reporting

Being a big proponent of libraries a radio story by Marketplace on the value of libraries caught my attention. Being an economics focused show, their analysis initially focused on return on investment:

Farrell: Well, there’s this recent study — this one grabbed my attention — [by] three economists [from] Montana State University, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Miami University. And they calculate by some measures a healthy return on investment. So among their findings, library capital investment increases children’s attendance at library events by 18%, children’s checkout of items by 21% and total library visits by 21%. Now, OK, that’s interesting, but increases in library use translate into improved children’s test scores in nearby school districts.

Long time readers know that I am also a proponent of not couching the value of everything in terms of economics and test scores so I was pleased that the reporters followed with a longer discussion of the intangible contributions libraries make to social cohesion:

Brancaccio: So there are interesting, almost hard-to-quantify benefits as well?

Farrell: That’s right. And that’s, you know, really the thing that stands out to me is we’re living through an era where there’s a lack of trust in so many institutions and, you know, the sense that we have connections with each other, I mean, that’s splintering. Well, public libraries are still trustworthy, community institutions and most important, public libraries are open to everyone. It doesn’t matter your age, it doesn’t matter your race, ethnicity, social class and net worth.


Farrell: And this is why I think the return on investment, particularly as you’ve mentioned, the return on investment on the intangibles, is so important. So a lot more needs to be done to maintain buildings, update bathrooms, increase the number of hours that they’re open, and there’s a wonderful book by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, “Palaces for the People.” And you know, in that book, he persuasively argues that libraries, the people who work there, and the people who visit that they’re essential to our democracy, and to our community. So support your local library.

Moving Beyond Under-Served

Something has been puzzling me lately and I haven’t come any closer to figuring out the answer. I appears to me that when there is discussion about populations which are under-served by the arts in the U.S. it seems to largely be in the context of race whereas when I see the same discussions going on in the UK, it seems to be in the context of class.

Earlier this month, The Conversation had an article about there being a class crisis in the arts, citing Welsh actor Michael Sheen. The authors of the piece were based at the University of Edinburgh and University of Sheffield and it was pretty clear that they were talking about the situation in the UK.

I have also seen a fair bit of social media discussion about a Guardian article on the subject. Much of the social media conversation is oriented on class:

I am not sure if it is a matter of demographics with Caucasians, which have for better or worse been defined as the norm, being 87% of the population in the UK versus 76% of the population in US, resulting in Britons  perceiveing degree of opportunity spread more along class lines.

Or if there has been such a history in the US of linking negative associations to race, including groups who later came to be regarded as “white,” that race has become the default lens through which to assess inequities in the US.

It is not that there hasn’t been recognition in the US that inequities are based in economics. Right now people are looking a little askance at how the wealthiest individuals and corporations are spending their money and paying their taxes. In the arts, there has been a recognition that people whose families can support them through unpaid internships are often more likely to succeed. Not to mention Martin Luther King was working to build a coalition of all poor Americans, was in Memphis to support all sanitation workers when he was assassinated, and was about to embark on the Poor People’s Campaign.

It strikes me that one of the ways the arts can work toward equity and inclusion is to decouple the concept of under-served from race based demographics. I am not sure what the most constructive terminology and frame might be. I can see the consequences of only using a single dimension like economic status allowing groups to hide the fact they are neglecting to serve people of different races and abilities.  You don’t want to adopt a position of “we don’t see differences, we serve people,” because differences do exist and need to be acknowledged in order to create a welcoming environment.

Probably the best approach would be if funders did not use measures or criteria which incentivize using race, economic status, ability, etc., as a definition of under-served. The problem is, funders can collect data about participation from these demographics to show they are paying attention and want organizations to work toward welcoming a greater range of their communities, but how do you combat the perception that the organization is being rewarded for reaching out to an “other” group?

It is also difficult as an arts organization seeking to perpetuate diversity, equity and inclusion to force funders to change their criteria even as they seek support from those funders. Obviously a small step is to write a grant proposal that doesn’t employ the term under-served at all, but applications and final reports are often formatted with a bias connecting under-served with race, ability and economic status.

Are NFTs The Answer To Ticket Scalping?

An appreciative nod to Artsjournal which posted a piece by Shelly Palmer on how the use of non-fungible tokens (NFT) can enhance event ticketing security, improve the resale market, and potentially provide expanded marketing opportunities. You may be familiar with the use of NFTs as the basis of cryptocurrencies and as a result be under the impression they are something that is mined using energy intensive high powered computing. However, if you are only concerned with creating one that is unique, but not super rare, the cost and energy required to mint, rather than mine, an NFT is low and continues to fall.

Palmer outlines some of the ways in which NFTs can be employed to make event ticketing safer and more secure.

If your ownership of an NFT has been validated, a quick matching of public and private keys (using something as common as a barcode reader) would instantly verify that the person with the NFT in their digital wallet was the authentic owner of the ticket….

If someone sells their NFT ticket, that transaction can trigger royalty payments to the issuer as well as any other stakeholder – artists, sports leagues, athletes, sponsors, promoters, a charity, or literally anyone with a digital wallet. These business rules can be hard-coded into each NFT, and like all smart contracts, when a transaction occurs and the conditions are met, funds automatically change hands….

Bots, scalpers, bad actors, criminals, and 2nd-party sales on eBay or other auction sites are common. NFT tickets offer an easy way to gather actionable business intelligence about how and where your tickets are being sold and resold. You can find the exact moment of the transaction, the exact address of the digital wallets in use, the amount of the transaction, and much, much more.

Palmer goes on to discuss how NFTs can provide expanded opportunities to learn more about attendees and market to them. For example, if someone buys tickets for themselves and friends and family, you don’t know who those other people are. However, if everyone must provide a verified NFT upon entry, the digital ticket will need to be transferred to them which potentially allows any profile information associated with each person’s digital wallet to be collected. That information would conceivably allow you to promote similar events to them due to knowing they had been in attendance. Likewise, if you had some sort of loyalty program, they could be credited as having participated where they couldn’t have been before.

Also, just imagine how things would change if the artist and presenting venue were automatically getting a cut every time a ticket was resold for over face value. The way Palmer describes it, you may even be able to limit the amount at which a ticket can be resold. Though I can already envision a couple ways sellers could circumvent that.

As a more immediate and practical example – about two weeks ago we had a rental which had been postponed from Spring 2020 due to Covid. When it had gone on sale prior to the shutdown, it sold out very quickly. Based on some conversations the ticket office had, we know tickets ended up being resold and transferred. However, because we only had the contact information for the original purchaser, we were unable to communicate the rescheduled dates to those who currently held the tickets. As a result, we had about 200 unoccupied seats. Had we known who held the tickets now, we could have directed reminder communications to them instead.

Palmer says most major ticketing providers are already working on offering a NFT based ticketing service. It will be interesting to see what opportunities unfold as people recognize how to technology can be employed.  Given that competing standards will likely be appear before one emerges as the dominant format, I would caution arts organizations from signing up too early.

I also wouldn’t assume some of the dominant parties like Ticketmaster will end up running the table. Many of the big players are not focused on providing good customer relationship management tools. I suspect whomever can deliver a product that facilitates more authentic and accurate interactions with customers with ease and low expense will do well.

Barriers To Equity Admission Are Suddenly Dropped

Big news today from Actors’ Equity Association  the union which represents stage actors and stage managers. The union basically immediately opened membership to anyone who has ever worked professionally as an actor or stage manager on production and ever will, along with members of associated sister unions like SAG-AFTRA, AGMA and AGVA. Anyone who currently in the member candidate program working toward their union card can immediately become a member with any fees already paid to the union counting toward their initiation dues.

It should be noted that the definition of working professionally seems to being paid any amount as long as you can provide a pay stub. The previous process was based on a certain number of hours worked on a production under a union contract.

The union says they are doing this as a step toward diversity and inclusion due to the high degree of self-selection that has existed in the hiring process:

But Equity theatres, like all entertainment industry employers, are disproportionately run by white people, and their programming and hiring decisions show that they often hold biases in favor of people from similar demographics. In fact, recent hiring studies demonstrate that Equity contracts are disproportionately offered to white people, and the majority of new members join via a contract.  Because our membership rules until now have left access to membership in employers’ hands, they have implicitly created a disproportionately high barrier to access for actors and stage managers of marginalized identities. We have inadvertently contributed to the systemic exclusion of people of color and people of other marginalized identities from the benefits of union membership.

In a Backstage article, Diep Tran quotes Equity President Kate Shindle as saying this is not a cash grab after the Covid shutdown:

But she is adamant that Open Access is not a “cash grab” to get more money into the union; Equity was affected in the last year when its members were unable to work because of COVID-19 and thus, pay into their union.

“I am telling you the God’s honest truth when I say that no part of this has felt like any kind of cash grab,” she says.

Shindle also admits that with this change, it may mean that auditions become “more crowded,” but she believes that overall, more members are a good thing: “We’re eager to look at the ways in which structural and systemic racism has permeated our industry and say, Okay, these are things we can just fix without anyone’s permission. We don’t have to have an industry summit in order to say it should be easier to join Equity if you want to join Equity.”

One of my colleague’s first reaction was to wonder if the influx of membership would help the union’s issues with health coverage. Back in April, actors were marching in protest against the union’s change in the number of weeks members had to work in order to receive health coverage, in addition to calling attention to racism, sexism, and unsafe work environments.

It will be interesting to see how this move plays out over the next few years. One of the biggest challenges will likely be broadening the appeal of union membership geographically. While it sounds like anyone who performed for a small stipend could become a member of Actors’ Equity, the restrictions on working on non-union shows may limit people’s opportunities to participate in local or regional productions.

For decades now the fact that acting opportunities were oriented in a few cities, particularly New York City, has been identified as a significant problem. (Call out to Scott Walters who often wrote on this subject.)  The joke about needing to move to NYC from Milwaukee in order to audition for a part in Milwaukee wasn’t far from the truth.

Equity is probably going to have to create new sets of rules that allow people to perform in myriad more circumstances than they currently are. The union was formed over 100 years ago to protect actors from exploitative situations and there are still many areas in which advocacy of a few broad basic work rules like the recent trend away from grueling rehearsal schedules can create new standards of practice.


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