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?

“…Black people, are just living works of art, in our culture and being.”

For years now I have been following and writing on the Culture Track survey.   At one time the survey was being conducted every three years or so in order to measure changing trends and attitudes about arts and culture.

When Covid hit, the folks at Culture Track decided it was important to closely monitor the impact of the pandemic on perceptions of arts and culture. It seemed like there was a new phase of the study being conducted every six months. (Disclosure, my venue participated in the study and has been grateful to receive useful data as a result.)

One of the things they noticed early on was that racial minorities were underrepresented in the survey and worked with NORC at the University of Chicago to collect data to offset that disparity.   In the most recent phase of the survey, they included a qualitative segment in which they extensively interviewed fifty Black and African-American participants to gain insights that the broader survey couldn’t provide.

In early May, Wallace Foundation posted an interview with some of the co-authors of the report on the role of race and ethnicity in cultural engagement. I haven’t read that report yet, but the interview provides some interesting perspectives.

The same interview links to the qualitative report, A Place to Be Heard, A Space to Feel Held: Black Perspectives on Creativity, Trustworthiness, Welcome and Well Being  This is extremely valuable to read.  While there are reasons specific to them that may or may not cause Black residents of the United States to feel an organization is trustworthy or welcoming, there is a lot in the responses that illustrate why anyone in general would not feel a sense of trust and welcome.

The findings are broken into four sections: Creativity, Self-Care, Trustworthiness, Welcome & Belonging. While there is much to be garnered from the executive summary of the study, the respective sections offer a lot to sink your consideration into.

I am always keenly interested to hear how people perceive creative practice and the study did not disappoint.

Some preferred to frame their creativity as a state of mind (“feeling like an artist inside”), an attitude they viewed as fundamental to guiding one’s life. One participant described this as an active rather than spectatorial process: “It’s not just about appreciating creativity, but about bringing creativity from the world into yourself.” Others seemed hesitant to call themselves creative, especially if there were people in their lives who had pursued creative careers. “I am very in awe of art and artists,” said one participant. “I think we all have creative sides, I think mine is not as expressed as others’.

The more I see people asked about creativity, the more nuance appears. I am starting to feel this is a topic we don’t talk to people about enough. In fact, the study says that in the first phase of the survey conducted shortly after Covid started, Black respondents reported participating in fewer cultural activities than the overall pool of respondents. In this qualitative survey, the range of activities people reported participating in was much broader.

Having the conversations about what people define as creative really seems to matter.

“And that idea of creativity as ubiquitous and lived was, for some, specifically tied to being Black and practicing Black culture as an important form of creative expression….As one participant put it, “I think that everybody, particularly Black people, are just living works of art, in our culture and being.”

In the trustworthiness section of the study, one of the big takeaways I had was that just because the demographic segment whom you hoped to reach are showing up, it doesn’t mean they trust your organization.

The people we spoke with can hold a “double consciousness” about cultural organizations’ trustworthiness and experiential value…they can enjoy the experience even though they don’t have a trusting relationship with it. They’re used to some amount of cognitive dissonance in these experiences: they can relish the art and overall experience even while knowing it’s problematic in important ways

Some of the issues of trustworthiness are related to who has influence and who is making the decisions are cultural organizations. There has been a fair bit of conversation these last few years about representation on executive staffs and boards. But it is also a matter of what stories and faces are appearing on stages and walls. One of the direct quotes from a participant is particularly pointed.

Traveling internationally…when you go to museums, you see what you are told in the U.S. is not true. The narrative of African race is much more out there than in the U.S. If you go to Sweden to the Nobel Prize Museum, [you’ll be] blown away by how many Brown people have won the Nobel prize. There are a whole bunch of us across the globe… I went to Mozart’s house, and I saw how he played alongside Black classical composers. Look at all this greatness we don’t talk about [in this country].”

The question of welcoming and belonging are closely related to these same factors of representation. Just because someone feels welcomed to a space, doesn’t necessarily translate into a feeling of belonging. While it is more marked when physical traits mark you as different from the rest of the crowd, most people can understand the difference because we have all had an experience where we are excited to be somewhere, but we don’t feel like we fit in. It doesn’t even need to be something like not knowing which of five forks to use at a formal wedding reception, we have all walked into a restaurant or store and shown ourselves to be outsiders by messing up the seating or ordering process.

Just as it takes time to become accustomed to the practices of a new place, making someone feel they belong is the process of small experiences over a long time. As the study points out, this can’t entirely be achieved by making an intentional effort to be hospitable to new arrivals, there are also myriad cues about who belongs, many of which will be invisible to insiders. It will likely take conversations with those with whom you have cultivated a degree of trust to identify what cues may be undermining a sense of belonging for them and their friends.

Take the time to read the report of the qualitative study. For many, there will be some things you are aware of already, things you may have already suspected, and things you haven’t been explicitly told before.  For others, it will be a lot of what you already know and will perhaps appreciate having explicitly mentioned and talked about in a manner it hasn’t been before.

Ode To The Stage Technician

There is a saying among those who work in the technical side of live theatre and events that if someone notices what is going on, you are doing your job wrong.  The idea is that for the most part, the technical elements of an experience should enhance and complement rather than call attention to themselves.

But that is a double-edged sword because if people aren’t aware of all the pieces that have to come together, they think their goals are easy to accomplish.

No matter where I have worked, often one of the most frustrating parts of working with an inexperienced renter is having a conversation about their needs. Their perception is that a task can be accomplished by 1-2 people when it is closer to 6-8 due to all the locations and tasks to which stagehands need to attend at the same time. (Though truth be told, there are some experienced, returning renters with whom you might revisit the same conversation on an annual basis.)

Likewise, people don’t often think through their entire process. If something is dropped, flung, placed, etc., during a performance that wasn’t used during rehearsal, it is staying there unless someone is assigned in advance to pick it up.

What brought all this to mind is seeing a story about a week ago billing the performance by Mike Mills of the band R.E.M. at a university graduation as a surprise. While term was meant to the convey that it was a surprise to the audience, it could also be read as being a spur of the moment decision.

But the fact that there was a cable for him to plug in his guitar and another cable available to amplify the violin of the guy accompanying him wasn’t something that just happened to be there by chance. In all likelihood, he probably didn’t make the decision to perform that morning and asked that cables be run when he arrived. A number of people probably knew this was happening at least a week or so in advance.

One of the characteristics that makes for an excellent stage/movie/television technician is the ability to foresee the implications of a decision when it is discussed in advance of an event or pantomimed during a rehearsal. They are able to take action or make recommendations to solve the problems they anticipate.  But they can’t anticipate what isn’t communicated.

A lot of times they work miracles just in time anyway.

So just a little ode of appreciation today to all those technicians that make it all look so easy. Because they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.


Cheaper By The Dozen, But I Only Have One Set of Eyes And Ears To Experience It

Seth Godin made a post about leveraging the power of word of mouth by incentivizing sharing with friends.

Krispy Kreme grew to become a doughnut behemoth in the US. The formula was simple: Scarce supply, high short-term taste satisfaction, and a dozen priced almost the same as just four.

As a result, most people bought a dozen. But few could eat a dozen, and you can’t really save them, so you realized that sharing a warm doughnut was the way to go.

Carmine’s restaurant in New York was the hot ticket for decades. One reason was that the only way to get a reservation was to come with five other people. So you needed to talk about it.

He goes on to talk about how a book he worked on about climate change, The Carbon Almanac, has priced pre-orders to make it cost effective to share copies with others.

The general concept is a springboard for ideas for arts organizations, which much like Krispy Kreme, offers a product with an ephemeral lifespan. Offering tickets/entry fees and memberships at prices which incentivize sharing the experience with friends–and intentionally promoting it within that framework provides exposure to a broader range of people.

While providing free admission to an event can also serve to expose your work to a broader range of people. One – surveys show that people who attend free admission events are ones who would have attended anyway. Even if they bring a friend, the friend may not be incentivized to return and pay for admission in the future.

Second – charging some form of admission creates an associated value with the experience. If tickets are $15 but five person pass costs $50, two people may technically be getting in for free, but the group is more likely to think of the tickets being $10 each.  The pass created a situation where two people who might not have attended now have.  If they have a good time, any of the five may not balk at paying $15 in the future when the pass or four friends aren’t available. (Or they may work to invite some new friends along.)

The venue I am at does something along these lines with movie passes which are good in any combination – an individual to 10 movies, five friends to two movies, two friends to five movies. Tickets are $5 regularly and with the larger passes I think you end up only paying $3/ticket. We end up selling quite a few of the passes and have a lot of them redeemed at each screening. It has been relatively easy to administer and worthwhile overall.

Reading Godin’s post has me thinking about how we might structure pricing and experiences for other events to encourage people to share then with friends.