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Checking You Out Is Just Too Overwhelming

Earlier this month, Seth Godin made a post about discovery fatigue that makes me think that recommendations from trusted sources are going to play an ever larger role in getting people to initiate some sort of relationship with an arts organization.

Advertising, social media posts and other marketing efforts will still play a large role in informing and maintaining awareness in those who are already interested, but reading Godin’s post makes me think the initial impetus to investigate is likely to come from a trusted source.

Godin gives examples of how when new technologies first emerged, people consumed broadly, reveling in the chance to discover something new. But as time progressed, everyone felt overwhelmed by the number of opportunities afforded them and essentially retrenched and began focusing only on what they felt was manageable.

We come up with all sorts of excuses about our fatigue, most of them have to do with the fact that there’s nothing good on, nothing new happening, or we’re just too busy. I don’t think those hold water…

I think there are actually three reasons:

First, once you’re busy with what you’ve got, it diminishes the desire to get more.

Second, discovery is exhausting. Putting on a new pair of glasses, seeing the world or hearing the world or understanding the world in a new way is a lot more work than merely cruising through a typical day.

And third, infinity is daunting. A birdwatcher might be inspired to keep seeking out new birds, because she knows she’s almost got them all. But the infinity of choice that the connection economy brings with it is enough to push some people to artificially limit all that input.

In that context, I am appreciative to all those who continue to read and subscribe to this blog every week.

We have all probably heard the complaint that “there is nothing to do in this town,” and naturally thought of all our own events first and then enumerated all the other events including charity races, pancake breakfasts, antique car shows and farmers markets going on in the same weekend.

It may not be that there is nothing going on, just that there is nothing going on in the areas people have chosen to focus on. They may not be eager to look elsewhere out of fear of missing out on something that does pop up at the last minute, but it also may be a reluctance to add another area of interest to what is perceived to be too many interests.

Whatever the next big tech thing is will join crowded Netflix queues, Kindle reading lists, social media interests, family, friends and pets. If an ad or event listing manages to squeeze itself in there and pique the interest of someone who is unfamiliar with you, they may not be motivated to explore further in the absence of a recommendation of some sort.

Even then, only if it sounds like something they would enjoy enough to crowd their life up a little more. I often read comments from people visiting the U.S. from other countries that we speak in such hyperbole using terms like “awesome, fantastic, the best, amazing.” I wonder if we are essentially forced to use this level of enthusiasm as a default because anything less wouldn’t convince someone to invest their attention in something.

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Are Program Bios Adding Value To The Experience?

Earlier this week Samantha Teter had a piece on ArtsHacker about writing bios. She does a good job pointing out many important elements that should be part of a bio (including proofreading) and that one should use a different bio for different purposes.

However, recently I have been wondering if bios in a performance playbill are really effective anymore. Performers have been using the same basic format with the same basic content for decades now, but as we all know, audiences have changed during that time.

So among my questions are: Do audiences read bios any more? Is the content relevant to them? Has anyone thought to ask?

What are the purposes of bios? Do they serve the artists by providing recognition to individuals? Do they serve to strengthen a relationship with the audience? Are they effective at doing either?

Over the last decade I have often read suggestions regarding press releases and marketing content for the arts. One of the things most often criticized is the inclusion of long listings of accolades that the public has no way to judge the relevance of.

People know what the Tony Awards are, but nearly anything else is a mystery. While foreign sounding names like the Zhege Dongxi Prize and studying with Pierre Lapin at Le Jardin de M.A. Gregoire sound somewhat impressive, no one who is not an insider has any idea if this is a mark of excellence or something someone made up.

There is also the distinct possibility that even regular audience members may lack the connection to the arts field that past audiences did and do not recognize the prestige of names like Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood, and Stratford Festival.

If one actor lists a dozen shows they were in and another just lists a short handful, is the former more experienced than the latter? It could easily be the case that the former is just starting out and listing everything they have been in since high school and the latter is so experienced, it isn’t worth listing more than the last couple shows.

Does it help the audience feel more engaged in the event to know that the performer lives with their husband, kids and two dogs, Misty and Pepper?

I am not suggesting that bios be scrapped so that the organization can save on printing bills and relegate performers to a simple listing. Yes, I know some unions require the inclusion of bios.

Nor am I saying that all bios are useless. I spent part of today reading bios of the speakers slated for the Americans for the Arts conference in Chicago.

I am just asking, outside of tradition, do we know why we still do this? If we do, then could we do it better?

If we want audiences to be excited by our organizations and what we do, would it be better to have a big color picture in the program of the artists conducting a workshop or in rehearsals, instead of pages of text?

Perhaps QR codes with the names of the individual artists could be placed around the margins of the image so that people could scan them and learn much more than 50 words about the artist by visiting their social media page packed with images and videos.

If the purpose of listing bios is to provide artists with recognition that they wouldn’t otherwise receive and it has to be done in the traditional format, then are there any changes of content people might suggest?

Think about it this way. Everybody gets their name in the credits at the end of a movie, but even if people stay and try to pay attention to the list, it is nearly impossible to pick individual names out even if there is someone you are looking for.  Someone working on the movie probably has a better chance of being recognized as people scroll down on the IMDB listing than they will in the movie theater.

Teaser trailers at the end of Marvel movies keep people in the theater, but they probably don’t help improve an artist’s exposure and recognition.  By making  considered changes to program books, arts organizations might actually have the ability to raise the profile of artists, if only by a smidgen and provide a more meaningful experience for audiences.

I am just not quite sure what those changes might be. Something to consider, though.

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It’s Just Something I Was Trying

A few weeks ago I posted about an orchestra in Bremen, Germany which is based out of an elementary school. The situation has been something both the students and musicians have found to be constructive and enjoyable. In addition, the partnership has helped improve the reputation of that part of town.

In reaction to this story, there were a few “we should do that here” type of comments made in a handful of places. Recently, I was pleased to learn that a somewhat similar program exists in Cleveland where some music students of the Cleveland Institute of Music live in a retirement home.

The arrangement was born out of a lack of housing at the Cleveland Institute but has grown into a more formalized program. Students from the institute perform for, and occasionally with, residents of the retirement home. The students take their meals and interact with the other residents. On the whole, the arrangement seems to have had a positive and somewhat therapeutic impact on the lives of the regular residents.

So this is great! Music students will gain a better understanding of potential audiences!

At least that was my initial reactions until I recognized, as we often joke/bemoan, residents of a retirement community are the main demographic attending symphony halls and chamber concerts.

While these students may potentially develop insights and skills for better interacting with potential audiences, the truth is arts students live, work and play with those on the lower end of the coveted “young people” age range in university dorms and apartment complexes for years at a time and don’t necessarily develop these skills.

To a greater or lesser extent, we all live among members of our target demographics, but it doesn’t guarantee we will learn to relate with these groups and talk about our work in a way that interests and engages them.

Perhaps part of what is required is to take a page from Bremen and Cleveland and just go out and practice in plain sight.

I say practice because a performance in the park, flash mob in a train station or shopping center can have enough formality associated with it to prevent people from approaching you lest they disturb you. While being a familiar figure frequently visible in the park or other common area, pausing and restarting your practicing, can incite some curiosity and conversation.

The years one is in school probably provide the best opportunities an artist has to understand how to present themselves and interact with their peers.

Operating within the context of an educational environment may give both the performer and the observer the most permission they will ever have to ask stupid questions and give awkward answers. In other words, both get to learn to talk about the arts.

There is a lot of conversation about the need to teach arts students to be entrepreneurs, but I am thinking an important part of that might be requiring students to spend X amount of time each month practicing their discipline outside of rehearsal studios and practice rooms in places like dorm quads, university center lounges, sidewalks, green spaces etc.

During this time, they should be departing from discipline and orthodoxy of the classroom to play along with music on a boombox, create an impromptu soundtrack for actors performing a scene, paint/sketch an interpretation of the music/dance/acting piece being performed.

You know, essentially embodying the cliched movie plot of the kid who has the skills to be great, but wastes their talent rebelling and involving themselves in some expression of pop culture.

Except this time, it is instructor approved effort in experimentation, collaboration and conversation.

After a few minutes of playing with an idea, they can turn to any spectators and ask “what do you think?”

That can be the start of a conversation that can gradually contribute to the development of both performer and spectator. If the spectator says, “I don’t know,” and the performers says “I don’t know either, it was just something I was trying,” that is perfectly fine because it gives everyone involved permission to be imperfect in execution and understanding.

If spectators jump in to participate in some way, that is great because it provides the basis of a conversation between people who have a connection to the performance/interaction.

There is always the possibility that a spectator will launch into a scathing critique in an attempt to humiliate the students practicing. That is something else all artists need to learn to deal with.

Chances are, the face to face encounter won’t be as harsh as a criticism on social media. Though instructors need to recognize the potential for their students to be recorded and belittled on social media.

Really, unless they are trying something extremely ambitious, kids wiping out on their skateboards or while attempting a parkour move are much more interesting fodder for a video of Epic Fails.

Even if no great, incisive conversations ever develop from an arts student’s efforts, just the fact that it made seeing an artist perform/create as normal as seeing a skateboarder can have a long term positive effect.

There may even be a greater impact if it is a high school/college age peer performing/creating masterfully. After all, a teenage skateboarder is a lot cooler and impressive than a 45 year old skateboarder (Tony Hawk notwithstanding.)

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Investing In Social Outcomes

Non-Profit Law blogger Gene Tagaki had a post on LinkedIn a couple weeks ago about Social Impact Bonds. These bonds are a fairly new approach to funding non-profit activities. While I think they could be a viable tool for funding the arts, I had some reservations about them as well.

The biggest difference between a social impact bond and the current practice of government entities providing grants to solve the same problem is that a private investor is involved in the process.

Here’s how that might work using social impact bonds:

  1. A government agency identifies a social problem and commits to making a payment, but only if the targeted social outcome goal is met.
  2. An investor interested in addressing the social problem makes an investment which will may result in repayment with an additional return on its investment, but only if the social outcome goal is met.
  3. A nonprofit organization is paid by the investor, delivers services to achieve the social outcome goal, and provides a report back to the other parties.

Typically, an intermediary develops the SIB, raises capital from the investor(s), selects the nonprofit service provider(s), and selects an independent assessor that will determine if the social outcome goal is met.

Among the benefits to this approach that Takagi lists are:

  • Government payments only for agreed upon social outcome results, generally shifting government funding from short-term relief to longer-term impact.
  • Greater development and use of metrics for impact assessment, which may contribute to a favorable change in the way government funding works in its selection of service providers, models of service, and evaluation criteria and protocols.
  • Investors screen nonprofit service providers for those most likely to deliver the targeted social outcome result.

The shift toward long term impact rather than short term goals would definitely be a boon for most arts organizations. But the potential for service providers to be chosen on the basis of independent analysis using different criteria can be very appealing.

Arts organizations which are well positioned in communities investors wish to impact and who specialize in providing the services desired have the potential for receiving all the funding they need to do the job rather than funding in proportion to their budget. If organizations are chosen based on effectiveness rather than prestige, smaller arts organizations may be more likely to benefit as well.

The potential downside of this approach is that because it is an investment, the desire for a return may dictate many elements of the program.

  • Diversion of more cost-efficient direct government and philanthropic funding of sure-bet programs to address social problems…
  • Investors may dictate strategies of service provision to maximize their opportunity for a high economic return on their investment instead of a high social return.
  • Funding will be restricted and likely prevent nonprofits from using such funds to build the necessary infrastructure to support new or expanded programs to achieve the social outcome result.
  • Funding for innovative and long-term strategies may be stifled by investors willing to fund only the strategies with the most proven track records of success and/or easily measured, short-term returns.

Even if your organization doesn’t participate in a Social Impact Bond program, I foresee some potential repercussions in government granting and funding taking their cues from investors. If a government entity sees that companies are investing in certain programs, they may either view it as a type of imprimatur of those programs without doing any research or developing any criteria of their own. Or the government entity may wish to curry favor or stimulate greater investment in the community by supporting investor agendas with grants and favorable rules.

Part of the process to be qualified to invest in a Broadway show is that your personal wealth be such that you can afford to lose money. That is essentially what Takagi suggests in the analysis at the end of his piece. Only true social investors who are prepared to lose money or only gain a small rate of return in order to effect a social good should be allowed to participate in the Social Impact Bond program.

I bring up the Broadway investment scheme because the same potential for damaging investor influence exists there but the agreements have been structured so that it is clear the majority of investors don’t have any say in the way the show is executed. A basic framework exists that could be applied to Social Impact Bond funding.

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