Well Laid Plans

At the risk of being derivative of today’s Artful Manager posting, I too would like to call attention to the Washington Post article on the planning process that went into the Arena Stage’s 2004-05 season. Since some of the themes of my past entries have been to bemoan the lack of space newspapers give arts writing and to champion making people aware of the process that goes into creating art, I was pleased by the article on both counts.

I thought the article did a good job talking about the myriad decisions that factor into season selection. I won’t mention all of them because they are outlined fairly well on The Artful Manager. A couple of things I wanted to note from my own experience though–

First, I was amazed to see the season selection starting so early. They started in September/October. Most places I have worked at have started taking suggestions and reading scripts around December, the holidays put things on hold so nothing happens until January. The whole process of balancing things has to be crammed into February because marketing needs to start printing up brochures for season renewal in the beginning of March. (more on that later)

Why don’t things start earlier? Well typically people are so busy with trying to get the new season started in September and October that they aren’t thinking about what they are going to produce at that time next year. The Arena has a leg up because they have a fairly large Artistic and support staff that provides the decision makers a little more free time to begin contemplating. Most theatres don’t have one dramaturg. Michael Kinghorn is listed as Senior Dramaturg which implies that there is more than one person acting in that capacity. (What is a dramaturg you ask? Glad you did, check here and here)

Don’t get me wrong, the Arena operates at a level where they need this size staff in order to endure the quality that their patrons expect of them. I just wanted to make it clear that the article was not representative of the majority of theatres though pretty much every theatre strives for the balance the Arena reached regardless of staff size.

The other thing I noted about the article was the absence of input from a marketing staff member. Marketing people aren’t always on a selection committee and even if they are, they may not attend every meeting. However, with the amount of time the process takes, (and it doesn’t appear that the Arena is very different), the marketing department is always clamoring for a decision to be made soon because there are brochures to design and mail, press releases to write and a resubscription campaign to launch.

I don’t know what it is like in other art forms, but in theatre if you have a season that only runs part of the year or if there is a portion that you consider your “high” season, you make tremendous efforts to start your resubscription campaign for next season before the last show of the current season starts (sometimes even the second to last show).

The reason is it is easier to get people to resubscribe when they are handed a brochure while watching something they enjoy. (Thus the reason many seasons end with a high energy musical or familiar classic. Arena is ending this year with Tennessee Williams, next year with Eugene O’Neill.) It is difficult enough to get people to subscribe at all these days, trying to start in the summer when they are thinking about things other than a show they saw months ago is insane. The decisionmaking and approval process on the designs and text of a marketing campaign is almost as involved as the selection process and compressed into a tenth of the time. It is no wonder marketing people intone “Are you done yet?” as their personal mantras.

One side observation on this last point-with the exception of one instance, in my experience if a show does well, the credit goes to the artistic choices. If it does poorly, the blame goes to marketing for not pushing it enough. This seemed to be such an undeviating trend that when I experienced the exception, I immediately approached the marketing director. Because it was just an atypical experience, I filed her obvious answer as reinforcing my “When I am In Charge” credo.

She said that while the executive director did tend to micromanage things more than she would like, both he and the artistic director were aware of and approved of all the marketing and advertising decisions and accepted responsibility for the result.

This may seem quite obvious. In most of my experiences, the top leaders would either nod agreeably at the explaination of why more money was being invested in promoting some shows than others or they would say they didn’t want to be bothered with the details. In both cases, the marketing director would be called on the carpet if attendance was disappointing.

This is essentially the main reason I won’t handle marketing anywhere I don’t feel my supervisors comprehend that artistic decisions and social trends can contribute to how well a show succeeds independent of how much effort and money is put into promoting it.

I would be interested in knowing if other arts marketers had similar experiences. Just click on my name at the end of the entry and drop me a line!

Billboards on Fire!

I came across on interesting donor benefit this weekend which seems like something a number of arts organizations could offer their supporters. My brother-in-law’s mother runs a social service agency. As part of a fundraising dinner/auction, she established a tiered system of rewards for donations similar to what an arts organization might offer.

A benefit of donating into the top tier was to have ones name placed on 3 billboards throughout the county, have ones name included in PSAs, in a full page advertisement in the program and on signage at the event. This reminded me of a chapter in The Guerilla Marketing Handbook by Jay Conrad Levinson and Seth Godin. They mentioned that it was possible to get billboard space fairly cheaply if you weren’t picky about where and when your information was displayed by taking advantage of gaps between contracts on a billboard. (Though certainly one could try to get specific periods donated.)

I had never really explored this option when I was doing marketing and pr because the intermittent availability of low cost periods was not conducive to trying to promote performances and seasons. As a benefit of donation, there are better possibilities. The listing on my sister’s mother-in-law’s donor card says the billboard acknowledgment will occur during 2004. At this point, she has 8 months to make good on her promise. Depending on their relationship with the billboard owners, arts organizations could probably publicize a probable period an acknowledgment would appear by getting the owners to review when contracts expired or the times of the year when there are typically few clients looking to advertise.

Something I will certainly explore or suggest for exploration in my next job.

So, Where’s The Fire?

In an earlier entry (see the subheader “Demon Horses Unleashed!”) I had mentioned some blog entries on the artsjournal.com site that discussed why dull press releases were bringing about the downfall of classical music. The discussion was started by Greg Sandow on March 23 and both Andrew Taylor and Drew McManus picked up the discussion in their own blogs.

In his original entry, Mr. Sandow suggested making the headers on press releases more exciting and suggested something along the lines of “Two Headed Cellist Makes Debut”. As a minor tribute to his suggestion, I make the burning billboard reference here. At the time, I thought it was interesting and a lesson for all arts organizations and so referenced it in an entry.

It turns out, it is a topic that won’t die. On Monday, Drew McManus offered an additional entry on it. Mr. Sandow actually hasn’t stopped talking about it and wrote about it Thursday and <a href="Friday of last week.

This additional conversation on the matter gave me pause and caused me to review the press release writing I have done in the past. I certainly thought I wrote a good game in the body of each release, but in light of what Mr. Sandow discusses, I wonder if the titles were boring and if I had included facts that weren’t pertinent.

Honestly, these are considerations that are elementary in any journalism and public relations class. Most marketing and pr departments don’t have the luxury of having a skilled person who can examine releases for these things. They barely have the time to review someone else’s release to make sure nothing is misspelled and the dates are correct. Engaging style often takes a backseat and I think that is what Mr. Sandow’s point is.

In the arts, sometimes our best and only reminder of the basics we are supposed to be following come from independent sources. I appreciate that Mr. Sandow took the time to extend the discussion on this topic. It really didn’t catch me on the first mention, but it certainly has started me thinking now.

Media Mutations

I read a couple articles today about changes in the media. The first was about declining news coverage and the second, about the decline of beauty due to the arrival of HDTV.

The first article, entitled Audiences for US Journalists Decline, appeared in The Guardian.

The article began by saying:

Most American news media are experiencing a steady decline in audiences and are significantly cutting their investment in staff and resources, according to a report issued yesterday.

The study on the state of the US news media by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which is affiliated to Columbia University’s graduate journalism school, found that only ethnic, alternative and online media were flourishing.

“Trust in journalism has been declining for a generation,” said the project director, Tom Rosenstiel. “This study suggests one reason is that news media are locked in a vicious cycle. As audiences fragment, newsrooms are cut back, which further erodes public trust.”

This isn’t surprising news for many arts organizations who find that their local paper is cutting back on the number of arts reviewers on staff as well as the space devoted to reviews and stories. What this means for arts organizations is that they will need to find alternatives for disseminating information about their offerings.

In addition to reaching patrons directly through emails and websites, arts organizations might also identify individuals in the community who produce well written web based critiques of performances and direct audiences to them as they have referred audiences to newspaper reviews in the past. (The positive and negative implications for the relationships that might develop between a blogging critic and an arts organization are very interesting and one I will explore in a future entry.)

The good news of this study is that arts organizations can achieve the elusive goal of diversifing the ethnic make up of their audiences through newspapers. According to the article “Spanish-language newspaper circulation has nearly quadrupled over the past 13 years and advertising revenues are up sevenfold.” With suitable programming, there exists some opportunities to educate and attract new audiences to an organization through newspapers.

Since an organization is going to be producing press releases in other languages, it would be beneficial to offer a duplicate of the organization’s website in those languages as well. Just because more people are reading newspapers doesn’t mean they are ignoring the web.

The second article was from the Chicago Trib and was listed on Artsjournal.com. It talked about how make-up could no longer hide actor and tv personality’s blemishes from the exacting eye of HDTV.

I had a number of reactions to this. First, I was somewhat optimistic at the idea that audiences might buy HDTV sets to get current with the technology and then out of a longing for the illusion of perfection, would flock to the theatre where they could escape the gritty reality of their idols.

Then I got a little depressed wondering if make-up artists failed to find a way to hide the flaws, would a new, more stringent standard of beauty emerge. Would future movies and tv programs be filled with the very few people who were naturally flawless because it was easier than taking additional hours to make masked flaws look natural. These people would, of course, have extremely brief careers as age quickly began marking them up.

Then I got optimistic again. Perhaps after fruitless attempts to fool the new technology, actors and tv personalities would stop trying so hard and we as audiences would come to accept all the normal picayune things which detract from imagined perfection. Perhaps HDTV will help usher in a more inclusive standard of beauty rather than create a more exclusive one. This seems like one of those battles that you win by losing.

Of A Certain Age

I came across a mention of the Performing Arts Research Coalition (PARC) study, The Value of the Performing Arts in Five Communities. This is an interesting study and will probably fuel a number of future blog posts.

The mention I saw today was in regard to the report’s finding that attendance at performing arts events was not strongly tied to age. The report says:

In contrast to education level and household income, age is not strongly related to attendance levels. This finding is interesting because popular discussions often assume that performing arts audiences are mostly composed of older people – a “graying” of attenders. Our findings, however, indicate that in some communities the 65 and over age category is the one with the greatest percentage of nonattenders. Austin again is an anomaly among the communities in the study. Although the relationship between age and attendance is not strong, it is negative. This indicates that in Austin, performing arts attendance is greatest among young people, with attendance declining among older age cohorts.

That put me in mind of a blog I wrote. I keep a file on my computer called “Good Ideas” where I put copies of articles I find on the web that I think might be of use at some point. (Though many times I find I only realize the value of an article months after it appeared and have a terrible time tracking it down again!) I looked in my file and found the entry I recalled was from Terry Teachout’s blog, About Last Night.

He quoted an article by Eric Felten about why it was pointless for advertisers to focus so much on the 18 to 34 male demographic and quoted a passage directly related to the arts.

A few years ago the Chicago Symphony commissioned a survey that found the average age of its concert-goers to be 55. But the orchestra’s president, Henry Fogel, didn’t fall for the actuarial fallacy. Instead he checked similar research done 30 years earlier and found that the average age at that time was also 55. “There is simply a time in one’s life when subscribing to a symphony orchestra becomes both desirable and possible,” says Mr. Fogel, now president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. Acting on this insight, the Chicago Symphony is wooing boomers who, though they may still enjoy their old Beatles records, long for a new musical experience. The orchestra has targeted new subscribers by advertising on, of all places, a local “classic rock” station.

Mr. Teachout goes on to talk about the fact that he himself didn’t become interested in visual arts until he was 40.

The study and the article gave me some reason for optimism. Certainly my tastes have evolved on many fronts as I have gotten older. As an avid reader, I have noticed that I am now intensely interested in books that bored me at one point. My taste in music has changed as I have gotten older. While I am not terribly interested in ballet and orchestra music, perhaps I will be at one point.

If these things are true for me, then there is a strong possibility that they will be true for many people my age. People may age and become more interested and open to experiences in the arts and resupply the older folks in today’s audiences. (From the study, it doesn’t sound like there are as many older folks as we think there are so that is heartening as well.)

Mr. Teachout points out however that he was already predisposed to find pleasurable experiences in the arts. He questions if it is wise to expect people who have never been exposed to the arts to grow into an appreciation of something that is unfamiliar to them, especially given the increased disappearance of school arts programs.

Indeed, most of Mr. Felten’s examples are about television programs and ads that fail to capture their target demographic and perhaps snag older demographics instead. Cars and television programs aren’t alien to 18-34 year olds. They may not have the means and interest in purchasing Volvos and watching 60 Minutes right now. However, when their interests and bank accounts mature, they won’t perceive too many barriers to their enjoyment and acquisition of things they previously regarded as the province of older folks.

Can the same be said of the arts? If you never laughed at a silly play as a child or were never moved by one of the more familiar classical music or opera piece as a teen ager, how likely are you to make the choice to attend an event when you get older? If you feel intimidated by your ignorance of the etiquette and dress code of an arts event, how willing are you to chance going to one without at least some advice from a friend?

Certainly, there are other elements that contribute to attendance that might influence someone who has never attended to start–friends who patronize an organization or the ability to make social contacts that will advance ones career, for example. But arts organizations can’t afford to depend on people’s friend’s and social/business expectations to drive audiences to their doors.

It seems to me that community outreach becomes more and more important these days. It also would seem that the interests of all arts organizations become more and more intertwined. Not all arts organizations can afford to send programs into schools and community centers. Almost all organizations can eventually benefit from the exposure a community gets to the arts if Mssrs. Teachout and Felten are correct.

It might behoove organizations who can’t afford to do outreach to lend some occasional support to those who can. Perhaps it is administrative support, contributing to study guides, constructing travelling sets, helping to book presentations.

Of course, it would also benefit organizations if they did as the Chicago Symphony did took a look at their audience very closely and determined if there were some untapped channels through which they could reach the non-attendees in their target demographic.

Thinking about what these untapped channels to the right people is going to be one of the things I mull over for awhile. I don’t know of many concrete examples like the one given about the Chicago Symphony and classic rock stations. I would love to hear of any unorthodox approaches other people have taken.