Okay, So You Got a Gimmick…What Next

Since Drew McManus is the orchestra guy, I have waited a couple days to see if he would comment. It isn’t so much out of respect for him, this arts blogging business is so cutthroat after all, but simply because he is better equipt to comment than I.

But he ain’t sayin nothin so here I go.

In the Sunday, August 21 New York Times, (I am not directly linking to the article because in two weeks you will have to pay for it.), Daniel Wakin wrote a story about how different orchestras are dealing with slumping attendance.

He goes through the typical reasons people cite for declining attendance -lack of music education, short attention spans, modern media and Joseph Horowitz’s argument that there are too many concerts, among them.

He goes on to list what organizations are doing to attract people.

“The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a leader in what might be called the fun-factor area, has a Thursday night series that provides free dinners…”College Nite” concerts feature postperformance parties twice a year, in which students nibble appetizers and listen to a local band (not the symphonic kind)…The orchestra’s CSO Encore! group, for young professionals, is sponsoring a “Dressed to the Nines” party at the hall for opening night, when a Beethoven symphony – no need to say which – is on the program. At the beginning of last season, the symphony even sold “Paavo’s Baack” T-shirts, a surprising accessory to Mr. Jarvi’s intelligent music-making and serious demeanor.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is shaking things up too – shaking, but not stirring – with Symphony With a Twist, a series of four concerts preceded by martini bars and jazz in the lobby. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s version is called Bravo.

IN Houston the focus is less on the party in the lobby than the visuals on the stage. The Houston Symphony projects images of the musicians, arms sawing and fingers flying, and the conductor, baton a-waving, on large screens in the hall. (The Omaha Symphony, the San Diego Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra have all tried similar experiments, as did the New York Philharmonic.) “We have to recognize that this is a visual generation,” Evans Mirageas, an orchestra marketing consultant, said. “They are used to seeing things more than they are used to hearing things.”

Many who are hearing classical music are doing so as a secondary effect of seeing things – like movies and video games. Some orchestras are trying to build on that, enticing people into concert halls by playing a symphonic version of the score to “The Lord of the Rings” and the music from the “Final Fantasy” video game, among others.”

There are some organizations who are dubious about the benefit of such programs. Many programs place symphonies in a role subservient to the other material or misrepresent what the organization is all about.

It isn’t clear if these programs will actually increase attendance to to organizations over all. Cincinatti has seen some success, but results are muddied for other locations.

I was most depressed by the news that a Knight Foundation study found that “education – like more Web material, preconcert lectures and expanded program notes – did not appear to increase ticket sales at all.”

The question that came to my mind after reading the article was whether the organizations were making any attempts to cultivate an actual appreciation for their product. It just sounds like they are employing strategies that bring in a quick buck today but aren’t focussing on deepening attendees investment in the music.

In addition to all the other factors that may contribute to a decline in attendance is the fact that we live in a transitory society. If the orchestra is all bread and circuses in one city but the city a person moves to doesn’t offer flashy programs, then symphonies as a whole may lose an audience member.

It works both ways too. A symphony may not care about the next city down the line because it doesn’t benefit them. But if the only attraction for a person is social opportunities for singles in one city and your flashy social opportunities are more geared for families, you can lose that person as a patron as easily as if you had no program at all.

I am thinking that using Drew McManus’ proposed docent program (found here, here and here oh, and here) used to complement these programs would be very valuable.

In addition to reading his reasons why, you can also read my reasoning here and here. (The Artsjournal blogs recently under went a reformatting and I just discovered the links in my entries to Drew’s blog entries no longer work. I linked to the new locations in the previous paragraph.)

In Between Blockbusters

Courtesy of Artsjournal.com is an article on a topic I have covered before. (And yes, I know I started that entry the same way.)

The Chicago Sun-Times did a story on the benefits and pitfalls for museums presenting blockbuster art shows. While the temporary traveling shows bring in large crowds, more money and help fill out the museum membership, it also creates expectations from the public.

The question became, ‘What’s on at the museum right now?’ Well, what’s on at the museum is the extraordinary works of the permanent collection, which in their totality are better than any that can ever be brought here from someplace else.”

Blockbusters, in Cuno’s view, prepare people to visit the Art Institute in a specific time frame and then vanish until the next big show — which doesn’t allow for the sustained visits over time that are necessary to engage with art in more than a touristic way.

In another part of the article, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art likens the touring shows to the quick fix one gets from drugs like cocaine or heroine. You feel good immediately after the show, he says, because your attendance numbers are up and you are flush with money. But then the next year, you don’t approach those attendance numbers with your regular exhibit and you go looking for another blockbuster.

Yet the more special shows you do, the more you dilute the value of what you offer every day in the eyes of the community.

Others like Field Museum CEO John Carter feel that the competition for discretionary income and time necessitate making mission subservient to market forces. “You’ve got to build an argument as to why they should come and participate in this experience, and if you’re only offering your permanent collection, there’s no call to action,” McCarter says.

Since my background has been in performing arts where every season offers different shows from the last, I am probably not in a position to speak with any expertise. However, it seems like the mere existence of your facility should be a call to action. Every museum I have been to and returned to has been because it is there. I have never been to a blockbuster show. (But then again, I hate crowds.)

I suspect though that the real impetus behind programming blockbuster shows is the cost of staying open. Just depending on members of the community to return every handful of years probably doesn’t bring in enough money. Museums need blockbuster shows to bring the same people back on a consistent basis every year or every other year.

Another worrisome development for museums is that big corporations like Clear Channel Communications are getting into the business of handling these blockbusters for a cut of the gate. While it reduces the museum’s financial risk, it also means the museums have to hand over control of their building to the corporations.

However, in recognition of the fact that the whole process may not be healthy for the museums in the longrun, some are taking steps to gain control over their ravenous addictions. The director of the Art Institute is

“…going to be a weaning of the museum off of exhibitions of a narrow range of subject matter with all the attendant hype around them,” he says. “Instead, we’re going to have exhibitions of a different kind, attracting fewer people in number, where the emphasis is on the benefits of scholarship and the patron experience over that of financial return.”

Now That’s The Way!

I am approaching the end of the process of writing text for my next season brochure and I am trying to keep my descriptions interesting as per my earlier entries (here and here) in response to Greg Sandow’s post back in March 04 about keeping press releases interesting. He has actually since posted some examples of how to write interesting releases and I bookmarked that entry for further reference. (He is really passionate about the subject and he really expounds on the theme in his entries ranging from May 25 to June 15)

I found a place that does an excellent job of bringing a sense of joy and fun to Shakespeare, Moliere and Shaw. I have to admit to being jealous of their writing skills. About 3-4 months ago, someone handed me a brochure for American Players Theatre in Spring Green, WI. I really only had a little time to read it then. But I took a look at it today for layout ideas and I was really impressed by the writing.

You can get a sense of what they infuse into their work from the play descriptions on the website, but ironically they have much more in this brochure where the space is more expensive.

For example, the website and brochure more or less have this to say about Moliere’s Tartuffe:

Here’s classic comedy with a French twist. Welcome to the drawing rooms of Gay Paree. To the household of Orgon, a rich bourgeois who’s become a bigot and prude in middle age. One ridiculously laughable dude.

His family’s up in arms over Tartuffe, a flimflam man of criminal bent whose current facade of religious fervor has Orgon totally bamboozled. All in the family, including the maid, get in on the act, trying to warn their master. He’s being taken for all he’s worth by this shifty devil. What an hilarious disaster.

Wait’ll you catch the scene where Orgon’s own wife is used as bait to entrap this lascivious rat, who’s blinded by his own irrepressible lust for her. Delight in the bite of the spoken word. Ogle at the sight of breathtaking costumes. Your kids will definitely dig it. The villainy at play.

But the brochure includes irreverent notes on Moliere like “The church was so POed at Moliere’s lampooning of social and religious hypocrisy that for years his bones were denied sanctified ground.” There are about 250 words writing in this way about the play and the director’s approach to it. It is notes like this that help audiences understand the background of the show and what they are going to see.

But what I really loved about the brochure was the way they presented their ticket policies, subscription plans and just plain invited people to attend.

Keep in mind this brochure was sent out in the cold of winter.

Pop thy sunroof mama. and take golden rays along for the ride.
You are hereby invited to utilize this brochure as ice scraper, snow shovel, defrost and deluxe heater combined. Clear the windshield of your wintry mind, Feel fiery breath upon shivering bones. Leave behind the frigid Hiber Nation zone. Uncoil. Unwind. Time to don less clothes. The looser, lighter, softly silken supple kind. Pack the car with family, friends and food….Stroll up the hill to your comfu cushioned seat. The stars emblazoned overhead and afire with intensity on the stage at your very feet. You laugh. You cry. You embrace the joys of being alive. Into the arms of summer you’ve definitely arrived.”

Man, if I got a brochure like that evoking dreams of the summer ahead, I would be on the mailing list and looking forward to its arrival in the winter.

Now check out these–

Scandalous Savings and How They Relate To Your Inalienable Rights as a Chosen One.

You are a very important person to us. Among only a privileged few chosen for this critical role. With summer in the wings and stakes so great, your purchase of tickets now is intensely catalytic. Propels us forward, quickens the pace. Electrifys the place….(Explaination of discount on tickets)…Seize the moment from time’s incessant march! Ignite the Box Office phones, Crash our website. Burn out the fax. It is your right. Your might. Launch us into glorious summer. Beat the deadline of April 8, 2005.

Really great stuff in my mind. I wanna go to Wisconsin this summer!

My submission deadline is too close right now to change my season brochure but I am going to make it my purpose over the next year to integrate Greg’s tips into my press releases and take a lesson from the American Players and fire the imagination and infuse my writing with a sense of fun.

I know I can do it. I have the sense of humor to write that sorta stuff. I just have to get over the idea that my writing has to be poised and professional–sensually exciting without resorting to sensationalism, ala my Demon Horses Unleashed! entry, to try to catch newspaper editors’attention.

You Must Be This Smart to See This Show

I don’t know if you have been reading about this new book that is out, Everything Bad Is Good for You in which author Steven Johnson proposes that pop culture, TV and video games are actually making us smarter.

I had an idea that either might be an empty marketing ploy or a subversive, yet effective way to get people to attend shows depending on the degree of subtlety in the execution.

One of the barriers to attendance often cited by people is that they don’t know how to act and don’t know if they will comprehend what is going on. However, these people are getting an unstated, perhaps implied message from an arts organization that this might be the case. This is based on being unfamiliar with the method of delivery and the inscrutable traditions surrounding the viewing of the work. All the attempts at outreach and advertising lower ticket prices fail because of an unspoken, perhaps implicit message that people aren’t up to handling the experience.

It may be counterintuitive, but I was wondering if explicitly delivering that message might be the answer. (Bear with me.) I wonder if it might be effective to program a show that is intellectually challenging, but readily accessible to most audiences and then promote it in this unorthodox manner.

The arts organization, perhaps in collusion with the media might put out the word that the work is somewhat intellectually challenging and that only people who are smarter than average might enjoy it. Underscore the fact that one definitely need not know anything about the arts or how to act to enjoy it, in fact it is being held in an less formal alternate space, but an attendee should be fairly intelligent.

In recognition that intelligent people come in all shapes, sizes and economic backgrounds, you are keeping the price low so that these folks can enjoy this performance.

If not presented in a condescending a manner or laid on too thick (you don’t want to be too obvious about employing reverse psychology nor do you want to imply your regular audience is stupid), people might rise to the challenge. People tend to think of themselves as at least slightly smarter than the next guy and might feel motivated to test out this theory by attending. It is one thing to have someone use body language to imply you are unworthy–it is difficult to figure out how to combat a non-verbal statement. However if someone states you might be unworthy if you can’t meet a specific measure, there is a clear course of action to prove otherwise.

Creating a series of such events for smart people can serve as an entree (and a channel for empowerment) for new patrons to the more sophisticated world of your “mainstream” programming. I have already suggested a “garage band” approach in a posting in an Artsjournal.com discussion (mirror on my site here because I couldn’t include the links in my commentary.) I think this might be the way to promote that type of program.