She Made Sure We Ain’t Gonna Lose Touch With Soul

I want to take the opportunity to call attention to an article in the NY Times this past Sunday focused on Zelma Redding, wife of the singer Otis Redding, Jr.  The Otis Redding Foundation is a close neighbor to my theater. We can see the back door of their offices from the lobby doors of the theater.   Zelma is only in the offices on occasion. The last time I saw her was a week before Covid shut everything down two years ago. However, her daughter Karla and grandson Justin are very visible, accessible and involved in the community. (I just congratulated Justin on the NY Times article in a crosswalk while returning from lunch today.)

Just as the article notes, Karla, Justin and other members of the family are active on numerous boards around the community.  But the Otis Redding Foundation has a number of programs of their own focused on music education. They have afterschool lessons and run two summer camps, one of which is focused on training kids for the music business and has seen them travel and perform in Nashville as part of the camp experience.

If you walked into their offices, you would hardly believe they run such extensive operations out of such a small space.  They actually announced construction of the Otis Redding Center for the Arts on March a half block from their current offices. It will be focused on serving students 5-18 who have interests in all aspects of music, from performance to recording technology.  Right now Justin is flying around the country raising money for the center. If anyone has any interest in being involved with the project, reach out to them.

The article does a great job of discussing the environment into which Otis Redding was launching his career and in which the Foundation operates in today. There is a Confederate statue right outside the foundation offices on a street with a history of Black owned businesses. The county’s efforts to move it have been stymied by lawsuits. The Foundation has had to be neutral on calls to have Otis Redding’s statue replace the current statue, just as they had to be with the push to have the city auditorium named for Redding.

Before I had read the NY Times article, I ended up having lunch with an elder statesman musician who grew up here and had gigged with The Pinetoppers when Otis Redding was a member prior to joining the horn section for Sam and Dave. He discussed the virulently racist mayor of Macon who nonetheless loved Otis Redding that is also mentioned in the NY Times article. (He also talked about touring in the Jim Crow era. While he made light of the situations, they must have been tense to terrifying when they happened.)

Similarly,  it is indeed “complicated” that when he died Redding had been a partner in a record label that later ended up carrying a lot of Southern Rock acts that employed Confederate symbols in their marketing.

But the Foundation probably wouldn’t even be around today if not for the dogged efforts of Zelma Redding. After Otis Redding’s death, while raising four kids, she went back to school and learned the music business, eventually opening her own music related businesses. All the way, she had to fight to make sure she was getting the royalties and payments from Otis’ work that were due his estate.

So give the article a read. It is such a great encapsulation of so many issues that remain relevant today.

Monopolies, Not Lack of Curiosity May Have Killed American Theater

Scott Walters is a blogger I started following 15+ years ago. His work has gone through various focuses and iterations, but is always very interesting and insightful. He recently returned to the blogosphere with posts on Theatre Inspiration. He started out with a series on the wrong turns theater has made in the United States. Just as you will often see articles about how classical music concerts weren’t always the staid, rule-bound affairs they are today, Walters points out we didn’t always do things  in theatre the way we do now.

Walters says the first wrong turn theatre made was the birth of The Syndicate. While it no longer exists its influence is deeply entrenched in current practices.  One of the first blow your mind facts he lays on readers is that there used to be TONS of performances spaces around the country from which artists made a relatively good living.  In 1900 Iowa alone had 1300 opera houses. I looked it up, the population of Iowa was 2.2 million in 1900 and about 3.1 million today. I think it is safe to say there are far fewer venues now than there were then despite the increase in population. This somewhat belies the notion that a lack of interest and investment in the arts is the result of the United States’ founding by stoic Puritans.

Walters writes:

The same was true across the country. Often, one of the first things that was built in towns as they were founded were “opera houses” (i.e., rooms for performances to take place). They weren’t necessarily elaborate, but they were important to townspeople. Music, theatre, dance were all important to communities, no matter how small, and performers were able to support themselves providing that work.

Basically actor-managers would travel the country with their troupes arranging for gigs for themselves. This changed in 1896 when a group of six men who owned a string of theaters across the country got together and formed The Syndicate, in part to cut down on competition with each other and increase efficiency so that a tour didn’t show up to the same town ready to present the same show. However, as they gained power and influence they were quickly able to squash competition and require artists that wanted to perform to contract with them for whatever price they decided to pay.

If you are thinking, with thousands of performance spaces scattered throughout every state how could they have possibly ended up controlling them all? The very decentralized nature of venue ownership should work against them, right? Well that was the same thought about the internet, wasn’t it and look how that turned out.

But the reality is, they didn’t need to control it all. Walters quotes Landis K. Magnuson:

Although the Syndicate controlled the bulk of first-class theaters in the major metropolitan centers, the fact that it controlled the theaters in communities located between such theater centers provided its true source of power. Without access to these smaller towns, non-Syndicate companies simply could not afford the long jumps from one chief city to another. Thus the Syndicate actually needed to own or manage only a small percentage of this nation’s theaters in order to effectively dominate the business of touring theatrical productions–to monopolize “the road.”

The Syndicate used their power to drive artist managed groups and rival venues out of business. Many tried to resist. Sarah Bernhardt would only perform in tents in an attempt to avoid Syndicate controlled theaters. The Syndicate would tend to book lighter, entertaining fare instead of serious drama. Walters quotes writer Norman Hapgood who observed this suppressed the work of many talented playwrights and actors.

Since The Syndicate was based out of New York City, that was where the tours originated and therefore where all the shows were cast. The impact of this persists today and people have long wondered why it is necessary for actors who live in NC need to move to NYC so that they can return to NC to perform.

Walters writes:

If all this sounds familiar, it’s not surprising–little has changed since 1900. Theatre is still controlled by risk-averse commercial producers and theatre owners who are interested only in using theatre to make a tremendous profit through the production of shallow, pleasant plays. And theatre artists still feel pressured to live in New York in order to have a hope of making a living, because regional theatres across America do most if not all of their casting there. Artists are thought of and think of themselves as employees who must ask permission (i.e., audition) in order to do their art, and are told who they will work with, when they will work, and where they will work.

Walters’ work is deeply interesting in a time when the performing arts industry is considering what changes will be necessary to adapt to changing expectations and operational environment. Take the time to read it and reflect on some of the forces and events that have gotten us where we are today.

Where Is Your Favorite Podcast Getting Its Material?

h/t to Isaac Butler who retweeted a somewhat horrifying thread written by author Brendan Koerner recounting how one of his Atlantic articles, two of his books and a WIRED piece he authored have been ripped off by podcasters.

Koerner recounts how the person who created a podcast based on his Atlantic article blatantly told him he was going to rip it off.

A couple people Koerner confronts do give some cursory acknowledgements. He feels it is insufficient, but doesn’t have the energy to fight all these battles.

Given the ever broadening proliferation of podcasts, this is going to be something to which to pay attention. People want to jump on the wave but if they don’t have original material to share, apparently they don’t have many scruples about stealing it.

I suspect we are going to see people getting paid speaking engagements or interest in developing expanded work based on their podcasts only to find there are credible claims of plagiarism and theft.

But even if it goes no further than podcast episodes, as Koerner points out, people are creating ad revenue supported episodes that compete with his books and spoil the plot twists in his writing.

Artist Coding Switch Code Switch

A couple weeks ago there was an article in the L.A. Times about Artists Who Code, an organization created after the pandemic hit by two Broadway performers to help artists transition into careers in coding. The two were a married couple who were having difficulty seeing the possibility of creating a stable life.

“With every big Broadway credit that I earned and the higher the ladder I climbed, I actually did an analysis; I saw my net worth going down,” she says. “I felt less and less powerful with each year I spent in the industry continuing to audition, and feeling things like typecasting and constant unemployment, and many physical injuries — it just all became very frustrating.”

Catherine Ricafort McCreary and Scott McCreary had enrolled in a coding boot camp in 2018 and had started transitioning to coding jobs when the pandemic hit. Seeing their friends in the arts struggling during the pandemic, they created Artists Who Code as a way to provide direction and support to those seeking to transition to coding.

Ricafort McCreary and McCreary built a free mini-curriculum of resources for Artists Who Code. These include advising members on how to choose a coding boot camp, setting up a mentorship program to help artists in different phases of their coding journey and offering advice on the job search and nailing technical interviews.

[…]

“It’s like a code switch. As an artist, you don’t know what a Google Calendar invite is,” McCreary says. “Absorbing the etiquette of this new world and knowing what is appropriate and what’s not and how to reach out to people, and how to advocate for yourself and how to communicate the skills that you as an artist bring to the table.”

In the early days of Artists Who Code, the couple worked to find ways to walk through technical concepts and jargon for those who were unfamiliar.

[…]

For Ricafort McCreary and McCreary, one of the most crucial aspects of Artists Who Code is the formation of a community to help artists navigate the identity crisis that often comes with changing careers. Making a new résumé is particularly painful; much of the feedback they have received, and have given, is to minimize their achievements in the arts to make space for discussing their expertise in, say, engineering. “It feels like that’s your soul and you’re crushing it and making space for this other thing,” McCreary says.

As I was reading this, I was thinking that Drew McManus might find people in this group to be helpful. As an artist who codes himself, he founded Venture Industries which provides a lot of technical services for artists and arts organizations. He has used me as a guinea pig on a couple of his projects and the user experience elements seem to be among the earliest considerations he addresses in the creation of new products.

That may be one of the competitive advantages artists have in programming. Something might work well as designed, but if people are reluctant to use it because the navigation isn’t intuitive, then it will have a difficult time being successful. And if your organization has chosen to use that service for ticket sales, donations, website, etc., poor UX design can be detrimental to the relationship you are trying to develop.

We hired someone with an artistic background a few months back and were teaching him how to use one of our pieces of software. Within the first two hours he blurted out that the UX design was awful. UX is not a niche terminology only shared by designers and software engineers. People are becoming increasingly aware of it and its value.