Tonight We Have Paired The Seared Scallops With Wine And An Aria

Back in May, American Theatre had an article about audience building efforts Opera Theatre St. Louis (OTSL) undertook with funding from the Wallace Foundation.  In my experience, there is always something to learn from these projects funded by the Wallace Foundation, especially since the case study reports tend to be honest about what things didn’t go well. So it is worth the time to read this short article.

One of OTSL’s efforts that drew my attention was their Opera Tastings project where they would pair tastings of food and wine with short opera performances. What I really appreciated about their effort here was that they took the program a fair distance from their home rather than concentrating on the St. Louis city limits. (my emphasis)

Hosted in a local restaurant or venue, the evening pairs 11 samples of food or drink with 11 operatic excerpts. The evenings have taken place all over St. Louis: in predominantly Black neighborhoods, in Chinatown, in Southern Illinois, or as far away as Columbia and Fayetteville, Mo. (120 miles and 145 miles, respectively).

“If the intent is to draw people in who surround you, then most of our organizations are finding that they have to be more present in the community,” says Ramos. “It’s how you build relevance. It’s how you show the work.”

[…]

Newcomers, in other words, discover what type of opera they enjoy, instead of being told why they should enjoy opera. More than three-quarters of Opera Tasting attendees are new-to-file (i.e., first time patrons), and every attendee gets $10 in “opera bucks” to redeem for a ticket to an upcoming show.

As I mentioned before, an aspect of these programs I have valued is the fact they were open about what went wrong. This type of reflection is a core part of Wallace Foundation’s ethic of “continuous learning” according to the article.

There was enough of an upside, despite the cost, to make the Opera Tastings worth retaining and refining. (my emphasis)

A lot of those opera bucks get redeemed: Right now an average of 42 percent of Opera Tastings attendees go on to buy tickets. What’s more, audience members who come to OTSL through Opera Tastings tend to buy more expensive tickets and become donors at a faster rate than expected.

One caveat: The tastings are costly to produce, costing $7,100 per tasting in 2018. And the true cost of audience recruitment may be obscured by the subsidies covered by opera bucks as well as discounted ticket prices

“It’s an expensive way to acquire new audience members,” admits Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre from 2008 to 2018. And the majority of people who attend, 58 percent, never buy a ticket. The challenge now is to see how the tastings might be sustainable without Wallace support.

The article also talks about other programs like their Young Friends program which they estimate has a $16,000-$17,000 impact and their Opera Kids Camp for children to attend while their parents are at the opera. Take a look to learn more.

IMPORTANT: Changes To Music Licensing May Impact Any Performance At Your Venue

Some important information about changes to music performance rights came to my attention today and I wanted to share it with readers.

Apparently the consent decrees under which ASCAP & BMI operate are up for review by the Department of Justice. The public comment phase is ending on Friday, August 9.  You can find out more about the consent decrees on the MIC Coalition website.

Basically, because ASCAP & BMI operate akin to monopolies, they and other performing rights organizations (PRO) are limited as to what they are able to do when licensing performing rights. They want these limits loosened. You can provide feedback to the Department of Justice here.

Even with these limits, dealing with these companies is often confusing and criteria seems inconsistent. Many have felt they were forced into purchasing broader licenses than they needed.

Today I received a huge flurry of emails urging myself and others to oppose the loosening. I was confused about why there was this sudden urgency when the public comment phase opened at the start of June. I started to wonder if there was an effort to create a huge sense of urgency by rallying support at a late date. Especially since there were initially few details provided about why one should voice their opposition.

Come to find out, the reason is that a large number of organizations across the country received revised licensing agreements from BMI this week containing some alarming changes. There is some suspicion they timed the mailing to hit toward the end of the public comment phase.

Here is a page of the agreement that is causing the biggest uproar.

In section 1 (g), terminology has been changed from “Gross Ticket Revenue” to “Gross Revenue.”  According to the new definition, in addition to ticket sales, calculation of a fee will now be based upon revenue from sales on the secondary ticket market, service charges, handling charges, VIP packages, advertising revenue, box suites, sponsorships, merchandise, concessions and parking.

So essentially, if you have a sponsor for your show; sell VIP packages, merchandise, food, and charge for parking, all that gets factored in to what you pay BMI rather than just ticket sales as was the case in the past.

From what I am told, the definition of “licensee” has been expanded to include a wider range of activities.

For events without an admission charge, the definition of what is included in the fee calculation has been expanded from a flat fee based on seating capacity to one based on entertainment expenses like room, board and transportation costs for the artist.

There are other problematic issues which are a little difficult to explain in a blog post and might not apply widely to many venues. I suspect there are problems that people have yet to discover.  If you do any sort of licensing with folks like BMI and ASCAP or if you have been trying to fly under the radar, you want to pay attention to this.

If you don’t think this applies to you at all, but you have live music performance, you may find that it does. That band that plays at your museum during First Fridays is probably subject to music licensing.

With more opportunities for revenue available, especially if the strictures of the consent decrees are loosened, there is more incentive find the places that have been trying to slide under the radar.

If you have concerns, check out the MIC Coalition website to learn more or provide feedback to the DOJ.  Also –read any new licensing agreements you get very, very carefully.

 

Data You Need To Believe Over Your Gut

I so frequently tell my readers that Collen Dilenschneider has made an awesome post on her blog that it makes it difficult to convey the increased urgency to read one of her pieces when she has made an even awesomer post.

Despite this impediment, believe me when I say she recently made a post that is even more awesome than her usually awesome posts. Last week she wrote about how research results often contradict our gut feelings about a situation, despite being true. She confesses that as much as she deals with data every day, there are some instances where she asks the experts to revisit it just to be sure.

She goes on to list five data points that even she and her co-workers really wanted to believe were untrue.

Let me just say, I have seen some of this data before but part of what makes her post so great is this “contradicts our gut” framework she employs. As much as I read and write about arts administration, there are a fair number of instances where I raise mental walls against information I come across. It is useful to be constantly reminded that we need to take a deep breath and open our minds.

1) Local audiences have negatively skewed perceptions of the organizations in their area 

IMPACTS tracked 118 visitor-serving organizations and found that on average, people living within 25 miles of the organization indicate value-for-cost perceptions that are 14% less than those of regional visitors living between 25 and 101-150 miles away. In other words, locals believe their experience is less worthy of the admission cost they paid compared to the perceptions of those living further away. Interestingly, locals paid 20% less for admission, on average, than non-local visitors thanks to local discounts and promotions! They are also much less satisfied with their experiences than non-local visitors.

Even if this is influenced by a sense of sunk cost where long distance visitors arrive with a firmer conviction than local residents they will enjoy an experience given that they have already invested so much more time and money in planning and execution, it is important to recognize this dynamic is operating for different visitor segments.

2) An average visitor attends a cultural organization type only once every 27 months – and the average member returns to take advantage of free admission only once per year.

The average person who visits an art museum will not visit another for 28 months, on average. The average person who visits a history museum will not visit another for 32 months, on average. In total, the average visitation cycle for organization types that we monitor is 27 months. Here’s more on that data and what it means.

[…]

Subscription-based organizations such as theaters and symphonies: You’ve got it a bit better. Your members visit twice each year, on average.

I had actually written about this idea around 8 years ago. In the research presented at that time, it wasn’t that people felt they had enough of the organization and were going to wait a few years to go again, it was that people were so emotionally connected with the organization, they would swear they had just been there within the last year when it had been about two or more years.

Don’t immediately delete people from your mailing list if they don’t buy tickets to return, give it 3-5 years before you decide they are disengaged. (This assumes annual/semi-annual mailings vs. more frequent ones.)

3) Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture

Oooh, pay attention to this one!

This isn’t surprising to me and we have so much on this we’re getting into a “ridiculous” data volume category here, but this shocks other folks, so it’s making this list!

Millennials are not “aging into” caring about arts and culture as a natural function of getting older. Millennials also are not “aging into” other things some entities are banking on, like the belief that dolphins should be kept in captivity.

[…]

Millennials are a very important group for cultural organizations to engage. The take-away of these findings is critical: “Let’s just wait for people to think we’re important” is a failing engagement strategy.

Here is another point to be particularly mindful of–

4) On average, attendance goes back to baseline 5 years after a major expansion (but operation costs tend to be increased forever).

In a nutshell, attendance decreases in the years prior to a major building project as folks defer their visits until after the expansion opens. When an expansion opens, attendance certainly increases – 19.6% compared to the ten years prior! But that increase gradually decreases until attendance levels retreat to the baseline of the ten years prior after only 5 years. And the increased building space also means more staff members, more programming, more electricity, and more ongoing maintenance.

[…]

If you’re fundraising for or undertaking a major building expansion, make sure that you are clear on your goals and objectives – and that your expectations for long-term attendance and ongoing maintenance are grounded in reality.

And finally… (note the distinction she makes between mobile web and mobile apps)

5) Mobile applications do not significantly increase visitor satisfaction

Interestingly, people who use social media onsite in a way that relates to their visit report 7% greater visitor satisfaction scores than people who do not use social media in relation to their visit. Mobile web users experience a 6% bump in satisfaction. Even though all three of these methods (mobile applications, social media, and mobile web) take place on a mobile phone during a cultural organization visit, social media and the web significantly contribute to the visitor experience. Mobile applications do not reliably do this. One explanation for this may be that social media and mobile web “meet audiences where they are” and are examples of onsite technology facilitating the experience. Mobile applications, on the other hand, can be examples of technological intervention in which a visitor must interrupt the experience to figure out how to engage with the technology, or download it in the first place.

As much as I have quoted here, it is only about 1/3 of the data and rationale she presents in her post so check it out in order to get a more complete picture of things.

15 Years Later, An Arts Criticism Model Where Open Access Is Assumed

If you didn’t happen to see it rolling around social media or on Artsjournal.com last week, Carolina Performing Arts’ festival, The Commons, experimented with a new model of criticism.  Their reflections on the process appeared under the attention getting title of, “Uh, We Sort of Made an Arts-Criticism Utopia? Here’s What We Learned.”

What they did was pretty simple, but more resource and labor intensive than most media outlets have invested. They assigned two critics to a show, one who was embedded for the entire creation process, and another who only saw the final product.

The premise was that critical documentation is at once changing in form, diminishing in frequency, and urgently needed. And it’s not just documentation of performances that is needed, but also of the work and conversation that surrounds and sustains them.

My read on their process was that since the traditional media sources for arts criticism were divesting themselves of the practice, there is room to re-imagine what it means to discuss the merits of an event/performance/work. Part of the re-imagining seems to be examining what the critic, artists, and readership are really looking for from a critique. In the process, a lot of old rules are ripe for being broken.

The Commons Crit was designed to test several hypotheses, which we raised again at the start of the roundtable: that criticism should not always be beholden to a coverage model; that critics should have the space and freedom to experiment; that critics and artists are allies, not adversaries; that artistic process deserves as much attention as the final product; and that artists have legitimate ideas about who can authentically represent the cultural perspective of their work.

[…]

In journalism, it’s a no-no to let an artist pick their reviewer, but in The Commons, to a large extent, we did. At least, we consulted the writers about what sort of person would be an apt conduit for their cultural perspective. For example, Victoria and Stephanie—accomplished writers, but not performance critics—were selected for their fluency in Spanish and border issues, while Chris and Michaela built upon longstanding relationships with Justin. For Eb. Brown, a male African-American embedded writer was essential, but it would take the perspective of a female African-American writer (Danielle Purifoy) to round out the performance’s meaning.

The thing is, in my very first blog post over 15 years ago I linked to an opinion piece by Chris Lavin, “Why Arts Coverage Should Be More Like Sports,”  where he basically calls for exactly the rule breaking relationship the Carolina Performing Arts Festival has engaged in.

And, in my experience, many arts critics see themselves as critics first, story-tellers second. Some actually keep a distance from the performers, directors and theater executives to “”preserve their objectivity.” Getting the full range of stories that capture the drama of making art is difficult even if the arts organizations were interested in seeing that full-range of stories. I’m not sure they really are.

When compared to the open access a sports franchise allows, most arts organizations look like a cross between the Kremlin and the Vatican. Casting is closed. Practices closed. Interviews with actors and actresses limited and guarded. An athlete who refuses to do interviews can get fined. An actor or actress or director or composer who can’t find time for the media is not uncommon. How would a director take to a theater critic watching practice and asking for his/her early analysis of the challenges this cast faces with the material — the relatively strengths and weaknesses of the lead actor, the tendencies of the play write to resist rewriting?

I will confess that one of my first thoughts was whether this model could be sustainable –until, of course, I remembered this was one of the very first topics I wrote about on the blog and many places have found a way to sustain their sports reporting.

I think what would help make it sustainable is writers who are adept at the storytelling aspect of the job. Audiences are ready to accept the opinions of people on social media whom they have never met so the value of a certified objective opinion has greatly diminished.

When it comes to sports, people are more than ready to identify with a good story and argue its merits with their neighbors without worrying overly much about the objective truths of the matter. The arts are much more about storytelling than sports. There are no statistics about a dancer’s range of motion at the matinee versus the evening performance to bog the conversation down.

You can read the reviews on The Commons Crit page. One of the things that is somewhat confusing for the first time visitor is that there is no clear delineation between what appears to be preview pieces and the the reviews. The reviews have both the thoughts of the embedded writer and one-time writer in one place, but there are also other stories by the embedded writer about that same event. (Here is another such pairing.) If you are coming to the site to figure out what your experience might be, it can be difficult to determine, but that is an easy matter of labeling.

 

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