Maybe It’s Not The Performance That Should Be Streamed

Covid forced a lot of conversations about the value of streaming content from performing arts venues and visual arts galleries.  As we emerge into more optimistic times, some groups are already planning to make streaming part of their programming mix while others are happy for the opportunity to jettison the practice.

I was reading an article in FastCompany today which discussed how video games were driving tourism to places like Ireland and Italy based on fictional depictions of the terrain, buildings and other features of those places. And the games were doing it with the encouragement and cooperation of the official tourism organizations of those places.

That called to mind the fact that movies like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have inspired people to travel to places in Ireland and New Zealand which served as settings in those movies. Organized tours of Game of Thrones locations will take you across multiple countries.

Then there is also the issue of the quest to visit Instagrammable places by thousands threatening the natural surroundings.

This made me reflect upon the idea that it isn’t the realistic depiction of a location, but rather the idealized or creative concept overlaid on the reality which is drawing people. Yes, that is sort of central to the description of television, movies and video games and that isn’t what live arts experiences are all about.

I will admit this isn’t a fully formed idea, but it occurred to me that maybe a focus on the performance experience isn’t the way to do. I can tell you from experience that trying to stream a live event without much of the equipment used in television and movie making present yields a disappointing product.  Not to mention, even if you remember the buffering issues YouTube frequently had, they have largely ironed those out. As a result, people expect the same smooth delivery experience from an image being delivered as it is being created as they receive from a video available in its entirety before you think to ask for it.

So instead of the performances which can’t meet the quality of movie and television production without a lot of money or removing the elements that make live experiences distinct from recorded experiences, are there other things that can be centered in live streamed content to encourage people to become engaged? Is there something about the exterior of the building? The surrounding town? The buzz and bustle of the audience in the lobby or in the neighborhood prior to a show? Does that activity orient around a unique feature of the lobby?

Basically, if someone wandered in accidentally, would they have a sense they were missing out on something great and can you stream that?

Likewise, is there some element of the experience that will fire the imagination even if it is overlaid with CGI  for a movie or rendered in a video game? Is there a way to make these things come to pass? While you don’t want to misrepresent what you are all about and have people feel you oversold or did a bait and switch, people are clearly interested in viewing the reality behind the fiction.

The term “Internet famous” is used to imply a certain niche appeal, but sometimes that is enough.

Every location and organization is going to be different in terms of what is available to be leveraged. As I mentioned, this is definitely throw it on the wall to see what sticks type of suggestion. I toss it out in the hopes of shifting thinking away from the idea that the live performance is the central thing that draws people to conceptualizing what else may be perceived as valuable.

This is highly unlikely to generate long lasting engagement and shouldn’t be viewed as a way to build future audiences and donor bases. (Unless there is a connection with an existing affinity group like Lord of the Rings fans.) Knowing there will be guaranteed churn, you don’t want to sink a ton of resources into this unless you discover it results in increased local/regional resonance that leads to return visits. But emerging from Covid, a surge of buzz and activity around you might be what is needed to jump start things again.

Has The Time Come For Digital Program Delivery?

When I saw a story on CityLab about restaurants replacing their printed menus with digital ones, I began to read it eagerly. Staff at a couple of venues at which I have worked have long had conversations about the paper waste generated by discard or unused programs. (Even if I printed 200 fewer programs than we had people in attendance, I would inexplicably still have multiple boxes of unused programs left over.)

The trend away from program distribution due to Covid has seemed like a good opportunity to eliminate printed programs in favor of digital delivery by QR code or large lobby screens and by emailing copies to ticket purchasers in advance of a performance.

There is some great opportunity to be proactive with advance distribution of program content to provide additional materials to help people prepare for their experience. If people are inclined to peruse the program book file prior to attendance, they would probably welcome a short, clever explainer video the venue creates to enhance the upcoming experience.

As I read the CityLab piece, it became clearer that digital delivery, like all technology has the potential to be a double-edged sword. I was already aware that there was some psychology involved with pricing and placement on printed menus to direct people to certain dishes. I wasn’t as aware that alcohol distributors had been printing the beer/wine/spirits menus for bars and restaurants and using design tricks to steer people toward their own products. Though obviously that makes sense.

Likewise, digital menus format can be beneficial because you can swap between breakfast/lunch/dinner/brunch menus at the appropriate times while using the same QR code or screens. When you run out of an ingredient or product, it can be removed from the menu so people don’t try to order it only to be told you are out of that food.

On the negative side, digital menus can be adjusted so that people at one table are being charged more than people at the next table based on data compiled about their spending habits and interests. The article also points out that cameras on phones are built in eye tracking sensors which can help the restaurant learn a lot about its customers and what is getting noticed on the menu vs. what is being ordered.

In terms of arts venues, there is already capacity to use the data tracking integrated into ticketing and email software and Google Analytics to discover when people are viewing digital program book content on websites and what devices they are using. With just a little more sophistication in software tools added in, it is entirely possible to gain additional insight into audience interests and habits to assist with decision making. Really well developed tools can reveal a great deal more.

I feel like I am just scraping the surface of what is possible. Anyone see other possibilities?

Actually, it would be interesting to know who many people out there are considering shifting primarily to digital programs, outside of any content you have available for persons with disabilities.

What Can Cotton Candy Teach Us About Sculpture?

Among the biggest questions I have when it comes to creating a presence for my organization on a social media platform are: 1- Is it worth/appropriate for our organization to present in this space and 2 – How do we participate without appearing to be a clueless, self-promoting business trying to sell something.

Seema Rao over at Museum 2.0 addresses these questions in a post she made last week about lessons learned during Akron Art Museum’s three month foray on to Tiktok.  Rao is the Deputy Director and Chief Experience Officer at Akron Art Museum.

Her advice basically not to approach TikTok with the intent of disseminating a planned calendar of information about your brand, goods and services.  Instead go in planning to have fun and follow cues about what other users are interested in.

As soon as I saw what she and her team had been doing on their TikTok account it was so obviously the way museums could talk about art while not talking about themselves I kicked myself for not thinking of it before. Many of their posts amplify the work of other content creators while pointing out the technique being employed.

Additive sculpture with cotton candy, for instance:


#duet with @feast24seven additive sculpture #arttiktok#arttok#museumtok#museumtiktok#edutok#learnontiktok

♬ The Simpsons – TV Hits

or use of lines:


#duet with @fridacashflow line #arttiktok#edutok#learnontiktok#museumtok#museumtiktok

♬ original sound – ourfriendsonfacebook

There is also a really relatable Art Appreciation for the Average Person series of posts:


#greenscreen #arthistory #artappreciation #eternals #contemporaryart #art #hats

♬ original sound – Akron Art Museum

Rao says their account is small in the context of all museum TikTok accounts, though two of their posts have been in the top 10 in terms of number of views of #museumtok posts. If you are considering starting an organizational account TikTok, read her post and watch some of their posts to get a sense of how to think about using the space.

Is E-sports The Next Big College Degree?

So here is something to keep on your radar and  consider the long term implications – Activision Blizzard, one of the biggest names in video gaming, donated $25 million to the University of Michigan to help them launch an esports team.  If you are not familiar with esports it is basically teams of people competing against each other on some of the marquee video game titles.   The competitors may be sitting down, but reflexes, timing, strategy, leadership and teamwork are significant determinants in success.

It is already fairly widespread and lucrative as hell which means it will inevitably continue to expand. Especially if Covid or other pandemics continues to be prevalent because the teams communicate over headsets and can therefore be easily isolated from each other.

So it is no surprise that universities are beginning to get on board. Not only is it an area of interest for students, some of them are already competing professionally.

Kotick’s enthusiasm to establish esports at Michigan is part of a bigger movement that has legitimized gaming as a path to a college degree and career.

There are nearly 200 colleges and universities nationwide with varsity esports programs and more than $16 million in scholarships is awarded to esports athletes each year.

The growth of collegiate esports allows institutions and their students to tap into a market that is expected to surpass $1.5 billion by 2023, per Esports Ecosystem Report.

Not only do video games present competition for live performance, (Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said video gaming was a bigger source of worry for them than Disney & HBO streaming services), but also a potentially expanding source of employment for creatives.

The small university in southern Ohio at which I worked three years ago had long been recognized as a top 10 video game design program. It taught both programmers and artists and included classes in composing and designing sound/music for video games. There wasn’t an acting for video games class, but it did have a motion capture studio and independent companies in town were working on related technologies.

It is a lot more difficult to design and program for video games than most people imagine. Increasing demands for realism mean serious calculus for the physics and intense execution of detail in the art. As computing capacity and processing improves, it is only going to get worse–or better if you are a highly skilled creative being sought after by gaming companies.

After realizing their professors were right and enjoying playing video games does not translate into being able to create them, many students would change the focus of their majors. But they were still pretty adept and enthusiastic video gamers. And so 3-4 years ago, that small university in rural Ohio started an esports roster alongside their athletics teams.

Now there were other universities that started esports teams a few years ago as well, but the fact that a small university could have an organized a roster of ~50 competing on 6-7 game titles for years while the University of Michigan was operating at a recreational level provides some indication about the shifting dynamics of who is and can participate in esports.

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