A Piano in Every Parlor

A recent article by Drew McManus in The Partial Observer awakened some old contemplations. He wondered how classical music in the US fell so far out of favor and traces history for a possible answer.

I have often wondered along the same lines. At one point in our history, (only 70-80 or so years ago) almost every house had a piano in the parlor and people collected sheet music like they run out to get the newly released DVD. One would think this would be fertile ground for music, if not arts appreciation to grow. Instead, it has all fallen by the wayside.

One might blame technological advances and a shift to other forms of entertainment, but Europe has the same diversions available to them and they have maintained a fair ethic of interest in the arts in general. In looking back at some of my earlier entries on the history of the arts in the US like How Did We Get In To This Mess?, there are some answers, but nothing to clearly explain why we differ from our European cousins.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that people in the US work longer hours than their European counterparts and therefore don’t have the time to cultivate our abilities to process (or even attend) live performances. Instead we gravitate toward the more accessible forms of entertainment like television and the corner video store.

An interesting related note–(my thanks to Vinod’s Blog for bringing the above link and the following link, both from MSN to my attention) according to economist Peter Kuhn at the University of California:

�It used to be that when you got a college degree you could get a white-collar job and take it easy.It�s just the opposite now. It�s blue-collar folks who have more time for leisure.�

(Quote is about 1/2 of the way down in this article)

It makes me wonder if the arts should be restructing programs and pitching to the blue collar sector. They may not have as much disposable income as their managers, but if they have the time and inclination to expand their horizons a little, they could prove to be a good potential audience.

Arts Educatin’

I was having a conversation about arts outreach programs with the outreach coordinator of a dance group I had contracted to do a lecture/demo. With some synchronicity, the Artful Manager has also posted today about arts education.

Since I come from an organization that had a strong arts outreach program, I wanted to establish one here in conjunction with local artists and those I brought in from the Mainland and other countries. The outreach program coordinator also has a strong ethic in this regard as well.

In fact, her ideas were so ambitious, I had to rein her in a little. She wanted to have a week long series of events culminating in a performance that we bused kids in to. Since I am new here, I wanted to use the outreach to begin to establish relationships with local schools that I could eventually cultivate into something larger.

Following my philosophy of making it easy for people to say yes to attending performances, I want to take the performers in to the schools. This can be great or problematic. I have had cases where I have set up a program months out, reminded people two weeks, one week and the day before we arrived and still showed up to find out rooms weren’t set aside, teachers/principals weren’t told about the program and we ended up doing a lecture/demo in the hallways.

On the other hand, there have been schools that did everything but toss rose petals before us and were so enthusiastic about our presence, we had to remind them that we really needed to spend time in schools other than theirs.

But if you take performers to schools, there isn’t a need for the school to get buses, send home permission slips and take travel time out of the day. When I brought this up to the outreach coordinator, she wholeheartedly agreed. With the No Child Left Behind law, the schools she has dealt with are really eliminating any room for creativity and are mandating X number of hours each day for reading, math, etc and specifying rigid standards for how it should be taught and when.

The real problem then is that the schools who have the least amount of arts exposure and would benefit most are those in districts that have the most pressure to raise their scores and therefore have little time for frivolous programs like ours. The districts that do have the time tend to also be those who have allocated time for arts exposure. Still many of them could probably do with more.

The dance company’s coordinator was talking about how the focus used to be on underserved schools whereas now things have moved to drug diversion and family preservation (not surprising since the State Foundation for Culture and the Arts is now funded by federal drug money) Now granted, this new focus pretty much encompasses the underserved/at-risk population as well.

The message I had hoped to communicate with this outreach was really appropriate for this goal though. The dance piece was created as a cooperative effort by a very traditional Hawaiian hālau and a modern dance company. There were a lot of things that the modern dance company wanted to do that was not within the acceptable limits of the hula tradition and the modern company did not want to be restricted by the traditional aspects of hula or to hula at all in the creation of the piece.

Ultimately though, they created this incredible work of art which heralds the arrival of Lo’ihi, a new island off the southeast edge of Hawai’i. (In 30-50,000 years). The underlying message to kids today is that traditional (parents) ways and the new (children) are not mutually exclusive and both outlooks have significance to each other.

Hopefully I can get this into the schools!


So I was a little premature in some of my recent declarations. My bemoaning the fact that no one applied to be my assistant was a couple hours premature. Three people actually applied for the position on the very last day, though two of them didn’t have a complete application packet and so may end up disqualified if they don’t move their butts. (Given that I suspect one of the incompletes was submitted by a person we alerted to the requirements two weeks before it was advertised, this does not bode well.)

My other premature gripe was in regard to low ticket sales for the show. It seems word of mouth trumps two 6pm newscasts and thousands of dollars in advertising.

The second week of the show was a little better than the first–Thursday performance had 40 tickets presale, we sold about 100 at the door. Friday performance had 50 tickets presale Thursday night, 80 sold by the time the box office closed for the afternoon–then we were swamped by an unexpected 250 people at the door. We hadn’t brought staffing on for those numbers so we had a very long line and ended up holding the show for a bit. Saturday night we were smarter–we had 100 sold in advance and about 300 people showed up at the door. We had the right staffing so there was no line.

This brings up the fairly recent question about how performing arts organizations can get people to purchase a little earlier. Many theatres hate the fact that no one is buying subscriptions. At this point, I would be okay with that if they would only buy a week or so ahead of time.

It makes it extremely difficult to balance good customer service with economy. If you cut back on staffing for a night and you get swamped, then people have a negative impression of you because the service suffers. However, if you are paying a full staff and few people show up, then there is negative impression left on your bank account.

The box office manager suggested having one price in advance and another at the door. In my experience, saving $2-$3 in advance hasn’t been an incentive to buy in advance. However, she clarified and suggested we have a higher flat rate price at the door for everyone. Instead of $22 adults, $15 students, and then $25/$18 at the door, she is suggesting we charge $25 for everyone at the door. Given that most people claim a student/senior/military discount when they purchase tickets, saving $10 might be an incredible incentive to buy early.

On the other hand, if people aren’t thinking about what they are going to do until the last minute, they won’t know they missed the opportunity until they pick up the paper/go on line and suddenly discover they have to pay $10 more, the pricing structure becomes a huge disincentive to attend.

What I and all the other theatre managers want to know is–when are most people making their decisions? If it is on Wednesday, then this is a strong incentive to buy early. If it is 5pm on Friday, then this is a strong incentive to go rent a movie.

Beware the Agent!

So, a little cautionary tale to relate here about agents, artists and presenters. I had the experience where an agent didn’t return an executed contract after having it for 4 months. I made a couple calls to prod them to send the contract which was for a performance 2 months hence telling them I couldn’t process a check request without it.

A few weeks go by and I start advancing the show with the performers and mention the same thing. Turns out the performer had recently left the agent because of poor service like this, but unfortunately, since we started the contract with them, we had to continue. (And by the way, when I first called to bug them about sending the contract, the agent directed me to the new agency who then took a while to realize I didn’t have a contract through them.)
I explain how my ability to pay them will be hampered by not having the contract.

Five- six weeks out the agent calls and tells me they don’t have a piece of the contract so I rush the material to them hoping to expedite the process of getting the contract back. (In the meantime, they are calling for ticket counts three times a week) A month out, I speak with the performers again extending my dire warning. They give me another number to call and bug about the contract which I do.

Two and half weeks out, the performer calls in frantically because the agent who has had the stupid contract for 6 months now apparently hasn’t read it in all this time and makes a mistake about the agreed upon fee. I call the agent to clarify matters and she encourages me to send the deposit in (I have started intoning my warning about not being able to pay them now because I have said it so frequently of late.) A week or so out, the performers finally get the contract rush through signing it and filling out the required materials and though they aren’t supposed to, send a copy of the contract to me and return a copy to the agent.

Unfortunately, it is really too late to send the paperwork through in the normal manner. However, the performers’ rep threatens that they won’t show up if I can’t guarantee I can have the check for them. I don’t blame the performers for not wanting to risk their cash flow by having to wait for a check to come a week or so after they perform, but all the same, we sent the contract in nearly 7 months before at this point.

To make matters worse, the agent has pretty much crossed out half the contract, including the Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity clauses which tend to be something that state governments are sensitive about. They didn’t technically apply to this situation, but still at the time, I didn’t know if it would go through the system swiftly or not. It would be tough enough to push it through without those potential stumbling blocks.

I spent a day chasing people around campus, calling secretaries and assistants asking to be alerted when people got out of meetings and requesting that the person in question not be allowed to leave their own office. (These folks are the ones that really run an institution as everyone knows!)

Somehow I managed to get all the approvals I needed and get the checks processed. However, it is a cautionary tale about the performing arts. Here was a situation that wasn’t my fault in the least and that I warned about in many instances, yet it was made my problem nonetheless.

There is little recourse for either me or the performer against the big agency. The performers can’t threaten to take their business elsewhere, they already have, and the agency is so big, they really don’t care if I never do business with them again.

We actually had a letter of warning that we sent back with the contracts 7 months prior warning about this as well. There doesn’t seem to really be a solution to this for the future other than to become the greasy wheel and call the agent everyday starting a month or so out if the contract hasn’t been received.

I know that I said nice things about agents that I met at the WAA conference. They were mostly folks who were in small to medium size agencies and were interested in keeping good relations with everyone involved. This wasn’t my first dealings with the behemoth agencies, but it was the worst indeed.