How Do You Take Your Program, Digital Or Printed?

Last month, Washington Post Classical Music Critic Michael Andor Brodeur wrote a piece about why people like himself are unhappy with classical music organizations ditching printed programs. Most places started shifting to digital programs during Covid to cut down on opportunities to transmit the virus.

While we weren’t primarily a classical music venue, my team and I decided to go the digital route as Covid restrictions wound down for the purposes of saving money and cutting down on paper waste. For us that meant putting the program content up on lobby screens and providing QR for people to scan.

As Brodeur points out, the QR code option can be problematic because many people aren’t really adept at accessing and reading content on their phone despite the fact that it seems like everyone around us is always reading stuff on their phones. We would have a handful of large format printed programs on hand for ADA purposes and really annoyed patrons, but for the most part it worked.

For us the shift represented a modest budgetary savings and a reduction in paper waste, but for much larger organizations the decision can have a considerable impact. For the Bethesda, Maryland based National Philharmonic, it meant a savings of about $20,000. However, for the Kennedy Center which said they made the shift based on trash rather than monetary savings, there is a much greater impact.

The 1.5 million programs the center printed — for every event in its main spaces, regardless of genre — amounted to 250 tons of paper per season at an annual cost of nearly $400,000, according to Andrews. This doesn’t count the additional paper waste created for inserts, which primarily address corrections or updates, though are sometimes geared toward fundraising. (Those 1.2 million inserts could add an additional $200,000 to seasonal costs, Andrews says.) Not to mention the programs produced by renters of Kennedy Center spaces.

The change to digital has allowed them to bring program operations in-house rather than sending content off to Playbill. (I would imagine this is going to impact Playbill severely if others follow suit.) In addition to likely reducing the 60-70 day lead time required by having a 3rd party print their materials, this decision has brought other benefits to Kennedy Center:

Since transitioning to digital, the arts center has shifted program operations in-house, using its own stable of writers to produce essays, its own designers and its own proprietary platform to develop programs with a consistent identity across the board. This also allows programs to be scaled for the events they detail. (A one-size-fits-all program approach for both text-heavy events like operas and relatively straightforward rock or jazz performances was another source of waste.)

“It’s an evolution,” Andrews says. “It’s somewhat entrepreneurial, but at the core we’re using technology to streamline the process and reduce the total amount of paper consumption — because we are the Kennedy Center and these are big numbers.”

Many arts and cultural organizations aren’t as large an operation as the Kennedy Center so the same stable of writers who created content for the print program are going to be creating content for the digital version. Though the digital format provides a little more freedom to present information in different dimensions, orientations, and timing/ordering than print.

It may not turn out to be an issue, but one factor I haven’t come up against yet or seen anyone else address is sponsor and advertiser receptiveness to the digital format. With the print format there was always dickering about placement of logos and sponsorship content – inside cover, back cover, center break, opposite title page, etc., Despite the jockeying that went on, those placements may ultimately not be as important to individuals and organizations as they seemed to be. But I wonder if the loss of some of those options may reduce the perceived value and end up reducing sponsorship and advertising revenue.

Resisting The Corruption Of The Violin

Recently I have been seeing stories about violin scammers. People performing in shopping centers and other public places with signs asking for money. What is interesting about these stories is that the claim of a scam is based on the fact these people are pretending to play violin to a recording.

There are some warnings about using payment apps to give these people money with the implication that the scammers will exploit that information in someway. But the real focus seems to be that these folks are representing themselves as having a skill they don’t possess.

There are a lot of complex factors to consider here. It is great for artists that there is some recognition of the value of discipline and training and the sense that you are being cheated of something if someone is taking shortcuts to represent themselves as having invested time into developing a skill.

On the other hand, things have seemed to come a long way since the Milli Vanilli lip syncing scandals of the late 80s.  It is pretty much an open secret that many performers lip sync and maybe even feign playing instruments to a backing track. It is less of a secret that a lot of performers use some degree of auto-tuning, vocal distortion, music sampling, etc.

So why is it viewed as problematic, bordering on illegal, that someone hanging out in a shopping mall parking lot is not a skilled musician?  If you enjoy what you hear and are moved to give money, why should it matter if it is live or Memorex?

Could it be that the negative perceptions of symphonic music being generally inaccessible and surrounded by inscrutable traditions and practices also lend the music and instruments an aura of incorruptibility?   In other words, if you employ an instrument of this genre to create music, it reflects an authentic investment of sweat equity, untouched by the compromises and shortcuts of other types of music.

It may be worth a closer examination of the social dynamics to more clearly determine what is at play.  It may be possible to leverage this sentiment to the greater benefit of artists and arts organizations.   I think the past has already illustrated that it would be a mistake to try to place the artists on a pedestal.  In general, it appears people already place them there on their own. If you read the stories, people are open to giving to the people they find in parking lots and are dismayed when they find out the music is recorded.

Over the years I have written about the whole experiment of having Joshua Bell perform in the D.C. metro, something that still annoys me to this day.  Environment and context are significant factors when it comes to a willingness to participate in an experience. Even though a parking lot or flash mob performance seems informal, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make it successful for the audience.   I have written many posts about this, but perhaps the one that sums it up best covered a piece by Anne Midgette before she retired from the Washington Post.

Referencing Joshua Bell in the DC Metro, she wrote:

In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport..

and then later:

Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences…

Time To Review Programming And Rental Procedures

Many people probably heard about a Minnesota venue cancelling Dave Chappelle’s show hours before it was suppose to occur.  Something similar happened a few weeks ago at a venue on the other side of my state where a comedy show with different comedians was cancelled the day before it was supposed to occur.

This has gotten me to thinking that art and cultural organizations need to be doing a better job developing and implementing policies and procedures. Putting aside the question about whether these shows should be cancelled,  the decision to cancel shouldn’t be made so close to the performance date. Regardless of the content of the performers’ show, cancelling anything so close to performance time is irresponsible, unprofessional and bad for community relations.  (I know how complicated it is move venues and re-seat people having done it during Covid. The fact the Minneapolis show was immediately moved to another venue suggests the decision and arrangements were made earlier, but only announced the day of.)

The organization on the other side of my state flubbed things even more by issuing a statement that said the show was cancelled due to the content and then issuing another statement saying it was because the proper paperwork and deposits were not received.   This sort of mixed messaging is an indication that there is not a good crisis management plan in place. I am not suggesting the social and political views of a performer constitutes a crisis, but if you have a plan to have one voice addressing your roof falling in during a performance or an entire cast testing positive for Covid after a week of shows, you have a process for communicating tough decisions.

I suspect the venue in Minneapolis was already generally aware of the controversy surrounding Dave Chappelle and the clamor of protest got to a point where it outweighed the benefits of hosting the show.  For most other programming, whether it is a solicitation to book a performance or for an outside party to rent the space, it is important to be very clear about the content and requirements of the proposed event. This is a good policy for reasons almost entirely unrelated to opinions about political and social issues.

Ninety-nine percent of the issues that have occurred in venues I have been involved with have been related to technical requirements. Often renters are too vague about their plans and technical needs or show up and add a ton of things they never mentioned before, resulting in a higher bill because we have to scramble to find equipment and staffing at the last minute. Most of our rental contracting has been held up because the technical director doesn’t have the information he needs to accurately estimate the event.  There are definitely people who neglect to submit deposits and paperwork on time, but we address that well in advance of the show.

Similarly, our biggest concern with shows we book is lack of technical details on one hand or assurances that the show will fit in our space despite misgivings. Agents and production offices 500 miles away are motivated to contract a show and leave it to the people on the ground to work around problems far too often.

We have declined to present productions or rent our venue due to technical concerns far more often than for content. Content needs to be reviewed and considered alongside technical requirements in a holistic process. Things shouldn’t reach the contracting stage if there are issues, much less be a matter of discussion a day or two before.  I suspect our colleagues on the other side of the state saw the opportunity to generate some rental revenue and didn’t really pay attention to who it was until the protests started a few days before the performance.

As for the policies and procedures you put into place, that is a matter for discussion with involvement from internal and external constituencies and some legal review. Those policies are going to differ for each organization and community.

Toward A More Artistic European Union

As promised, I am following up on Monday’s post about about the first European Union (EU) wide survey of performing arts.

I wanted to note some of the recommendations made in the study. One of the most significant was to facilitate employment opportunities across the entire EU. The study noted that every country focused on their national performing arts entities.  Additionally, Covid restrictions have delayed the training and opportunities for younger artists to gain practical experience.

Among their proposals are to create more opportunities for artists to work across borders:

To address these concerns, the study calls for theatres around Europe to create so-called ‘third spaces’ at venues to support young artists.

Such a space would connect with theatre schools and academies to programme the work and support young artists to enter the professional theatre scene after graduating.

Similarly, the study suggests creating a ‘European Theatre Showcase’, potentially as an element added on to the European Theatre Forum, to offer a long-term perspective and provide the next generation of young artists from Europe a “much-needed industry networking space.”

Something that caught my eye were multiple statements that seemed to indicate a stark separation of interaction and dialogue between schools and training programs and performing arts venues. It hadn’t occurred to me that this might be the case given that universities can often be among the most prominent producers and presenters of performing arts in the U.S. (Association of Performing Arts Professionals which is essentially the national conference for presenters started out as Association of College, University and Community Arts Administrators (ACUCAA)) Among the proposals in this area were in regard to moving toward common standards of training and accreditation so that students were more easily employed in other countries.

Other proposals to facilitate cross-border employment included amending tax laws which often double-taxed artists; addressing sexual harassment, work environment, gender and racial disparities; mainstreaming the employment and depiction of sexual orientation, gender identity, physical and mental ability.

Another section discussed funding sustainable construction/renovation and practices with an eye to cutting energy consumption and impact on the environment.

It was interesting to read about all the factors that need to be navigated and sorted out among EU countries. Differences regarding discrimination, harassment and social standing of arts wasn’t particularly surprising. Nor was the idea that most countries focused on supporting their national arts entities.

There were many more administrative and legal hurdles noted than I imagined. If you have ever visited a European country and watched people breezing through the exit for citizens of Schengen Area countries while you queue up to be examined at customs, it is easy to think all these issues had been long settled.