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Prepare For The Swarm

Since I did a post on ideas that must go earlier this week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to draw attention to a document the Independent Sector put out on Nine Trends Affecting the Charitable Sector.

The document is only 6 pages long so it is a quick read, but the point that caught my attention was #4, “Swarms of individuals connecting with Institutions.”

Individuals will be more strongly aligned with causes and less to the organizations that advance them. As they become increasingly sophisticated at swarming, individuals will often sidestep organizations that are not equipped to partner with them. At home and abroad, swarms will direct their efforts at addressing market and government failures in new ways, with solutions that seek to either fill in the gaps where infrastructure is lacking or provide alternatives to existing services.

…Institutions will need to become agile in a variety of new ways: by listening deeply, responding in real time, providing platforms that enable and accelerate existing swarms, and by leading swarms themselves. In parallel, part of the sophistication that swarms may gain is a far greater ability to draw on institutional capabilities, which could be instrumental for sustaining their impact over time. Associations will face particularly strong pressure as technology makes it easier to connect with peers and access new information and resources with minimal overhead, both at a distance and in person.

As a result, the dominant culture of leadership across society will continue to gradually shift from central control towards broad episodic engagement; being adaptive, facilitative, transparent, and inspirational will be increasingly valued. Particularly in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, leaders will continue to use formal authority as an essential tool, but many will emerge whose power is drawn from informal influence.

While the Independent Sector document couches their predictions in terms that seem applicable to groups seeking change in social, legislative and public health areas, the same expectations may end up applied to the arts once people begin to realize success in these other arenas and begin to expand their ambitions.

The most obvious manifestation might be if professional-amateurs (Pro-Ams) wanting to share their work in a live interactive setting approach an existing arts institution looking for a venue at which to base their project and find that the organization is unable/unwilling to assist them. In that case, the Pro-Ams may develop an alternative method and bypass established entities.

Even though bloggers like myself often write about the arts field as if it is stuck in a rut and afraid of innovation, I actually feel that as a field we actually have a leg up on other types of organizations in the non-profit sector when it comes to being open to either helping someone realize their vision or partnering with them on a small scale to make it happen.

Maybe not on big stuff requiring major investment, but on things like experimental, site specific works in the local park (or parking garage).

The inflexible element will be one arts entities run into  perennially  – the spirit is willing, but the bank account is weak. The answer may be: “Yes, but next year when we can muster resources,” when the swarm members want to accomplish something with more immediacy.

There is no easy answer to that because you can’t just hold money aside on the off chance that someone is going to pop in with a proposal that matches what you can bring to the table. On the positive side, the swarm may be able to rally the necessary support for this one project.

The Independent Sector mentions the episodic nature of these efforts to mobilize so you wouldn’t be able to count on regular support, but the fact you were flexible enough to participate/partner may generate the informally based influence they talk about at the end there. That may be enough to allow you to solicit support from sources whose radar you had never been on before.

Who knows, maybe a local swarm will “direct their efforts at addressing market and government failures” in the arts.

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Prepare Now For Your Posthumous Career

If you spend any time even loosely associated with the visual arts, you have probably heard the argument that if you can’t tell the difference between a forgery and the original and if you get enjoyment from the work, what is the problem if it is a copy? At the heart of this debate is the question of whether value is based on something real or a delusion we all agree to participate in.

Fortunately, we in the performing arts never really have to worry much about this question because the provenance of a performance is generally never in doubt.

But that may not be the case for much longer. Thomas Cott’s unblinking Sauron-esque gaze caught this little story about a company that is developing a technology that will allow the dead to perform from beyond the grave.

Pop music fans who never had the opportunity to attend concerts featuring their favourite musicians may soon be able to do so, even if they died many years ago, thanks to the EU-funded REVIVOS project.

The project is developing a voice synthesiser which can analyse a singer’s voice and then reproduce it in a way that retains their original character and expression.


‘Imagine Frank Sinatra singing a modern Jason Derulo song but with the expressive style and timbre of Frank Sinatra,’ said Mayor.

Everyone knows Sinatra died when Jason Derulo was 9 years old and won’t mistake the performance as vintage Sinatra.

Tupac Shakur’s productive posthumous career was subject of some skepticism and many jokes, but the fact that enough recorded material existed to produce additional albums means it is easily within the realm of possibility that counterfeit performances can be created thanks to this developing technology.

Mozart’s widow passing off his work as first and final drafts in order raise its value when she was selling it is a centuries old example of how the market for performance works can be manipulated.

People probably record more images of themselves in a single day than Shakur did in his lifetime. It wouldn’t strain credulity if people claimed they had recovered bits and pieces from rehearsal recordings when they actually manufactured entirely new material based on an idea they had last month.

Some artists may want to be careful what they eat if their significant others start assiduously collecting and storing digital files of their work!

So the question comes again. If you were a fan of the artist, enjoyed their newest work and couldn’t discern that it wasn’t an authentic performance until the scandal erupted, were you really cheated?

The other issue that concerned me was whether the 3-D aspect of this technology might cause an even deeper investment in revivals and adaptations of existing works than we are seeing now. Except in the case, it might manifest as a “revival” of performers.

There are already cases where concerts feature performances with holograms or recordings of deceased musicians. What if a movie studio decides they want to license the likeness and voice of Christopher Lee to harness his gravitas for their movies rather than cultivating new talent?

A few years back Ian McKellan warned that the decline of the repertory theatre as a development ground will result in the lack of great actors like himself, Judi Dench and others. There is a chance that recordings of his performances might exacerbate that situation.

The estates of some artists won’t allow it, but others may be pleased to know they can provide for their loved ones after death and establish guidelines in their will for how their likeness may be used.

Heck, some living performers may license the likeness of themselves in their physical prime and live off that in their old age.

While this may seem to be a cynical view of a technology that can certainly have some groundbreaking implications, I can’t help but be depressed that the angle taken in the story is “Hey! We can bring back the greatest performers you are nostalgic for and lend a patina of class to today’s performers.” Rather than, “Hey! We can cultivate, develop and engage people to be more proficient in their pursuits.”

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What Non-Profit Arts Idea Must Die?

Last week I was re-reading a Brain Pickings post I had bookmarked months ago about the book, This Idea Must Die: Some of the World’s Greatest Thinkers Each Select a Major Misconception Holding Us Back.

I planned a post asking my readers what idea they thought was holding the arts back. But before I did, I wanted to get a handle on what I thought was holding us back.

Even though it is in the news often these days, I don’t think forbidding people to use their phones, etc in a performance is holding things back. While it is certainly a point of contention right now, societal expectations of behavior in a performing arts space have evolved over time. I think we are in one of those transitional phases right now and suspect things will stabilize around a set of norms in the next decade or so.

The same with the idea that a performance must happen in a dedicated space or a physical space at all now that virtual options are available. Performances have happened in amphitheaters, pageant wagons, tennis courts, saloons, theater/concert halls, site specific spaces, warehouses, etc, etc. Again while there is currently a lot of angst about the setting, timing and modes of delivery, these factors have been acknowledged and things seem to be progressing, albeit with fits and starts.

Something that did occur to me as a factor holding the arts back was the idea that an arts organization must be a non-profit. There has been a lot of talk about alternative models that are available, but few people have pursued them. While some people will organize themselves as a for-profit entertainment company, the vast majority of people who dream of starting a company seem to default to non-profit.

In that respect, Drew McManus’ Venture Arts Incubator is one of the few places that is specifically saying we will help you develop your arts related business as anything but a non-profit.

With all this percolating around in my head, I had something of an ah-ha moment with Vu Le’s Nonprofit with Balls post about changing the term non-profit sector to something else.

Some of his ideas are more appealing than others. I am partial to the terms “Mission-Driven Sector,” “Public Benefit Sector” or “Community Benefit Sector.”

In the end, Vu suggests the non-profit sector faces more pressing concerns like mismatches between funding priorities and actual needs, overhead and poor work-life balance to be worrying about what the sector is called.

While this is true, a number of the other problems he mentions are related to perception and can be at least partially alleviated by a change. For example, for-profit sector discounts the work of non-profit organizations; people think non-profits–and their employees–aren’t allowed to make money.

Then there is the corresponding belief by non-profit staff that anything less than an 16 hour day shows lack of commitment. Besides, lack of free time helps you save what little money you make since you are too exhausted to do anything.

Yes, superficial changes by itself is not meaningful change.

Except those of us in the arts know that superficial illusion can be absolutely convincing and influence perception. After all, we have people trying to plug their phones into fake outlets. And how many actors who have played doctors have been asked for their medical opinions by fans?

For those who follow politics, I probably don’t need to tell you how many misnomers are applied to laws, policies and positions to make them sound more appealing.

The perceptual issues associated with the terms non-profit or not-for-profit certainly aren’t the only ideas that we need to have die. But if nothing else, a more effective marketing and PR campaign is needed, if only to convince our current and future selves/employees that we are deserving.

So while we are on the subject, what other ideas must die?

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Demand Pricing and Extraction Mindset

This story has been getting a lot of circulation today on social media, but I think it was Thomas Cott who first linked to a story about how a new law in Washington State will prohibit the use of “ticket bots” to buy up all the tickets for a show and then resell them all at higher prices.

In the comment section someone complained about the law saying the venue likely undervalued the tickets if people were willing to pay the reseller’s higher prices. Someone responded noting that perhaps the venue was actually trying to make the show affordable for a wider range of people.

Since the subject of people moving from the corporate world to head up non-profit organizations has been on my mind recently, my first thought was that these two people represent the difference in philosophies between the for- and non-profit sectors. If more people transition to non-profit management, this could be the subject of increased tension.

Except, it is already a focus of debate in the non-profit arts community. There are a number of non-profits who have started to institute demand based pricing for their shows as unearned revenue continues to diminish.

Even organizations that have no desire or technical capability to effectively implement demand based pricing are increasingly pressured to use it. I regularly get contracts that say if the artist is getting a piece of the gate, we will be required to establish milestones at which we will employ demand pricing.

Seth Godin had a post a month ago in which he addressed this exact situation which he termed the extraction mindset.

Thirty years ago, I asked the fabled rock promoter Bill Graham a question that I thought was brilliant, but he pwned me in his response. “Bill, given how fast a Bruce Springsteen concert sells out, why don’t you charge $100 a seat and keep all the upside?” (In those days, $100 was considered a ridiculous sum for a concert ticket).

“Well, I could do that, but the thing is, I’m here all year round, and my kids only have a limited budget to spend on concerts. If I charged that much for one concert, they wouldn’t be able to come to the other shows I book…”

Bill wasn’t just spreading the money out over time. He was investing in a community that could develop a habit of music going, a community that would define itself around what he was building.

Now this was 30 years ago. It is difficult to be sure rock promoters are employing this same mindset anymore.

Though I was actually faced with the same question regarding an annual Christmas show by a national act we present every year. Someone suggested given that we always sell out and have the date for the next year set before the current year’s concert starts, why not sell tickets for next year when the curtain comes down this year.

Problem is, people are so rabid about getting the same seats they had the year before, we were concerned we might force them to decide between buying tickets for the following year or buying Christmas presents. Better that we wait and not put them in that sort of bind.

Godin goes on to talk about the two different economic mindsets that exist today.

The promise of our connected economy was that it would reward the good guys, the long-term players, the people who cared enough to contribute. The paradox is that this very same economy has become filled with people who are easily distracted, addicted to shiny objects and too often swayed by the short-term sensation or by short-term profit.

I think most people embody both mindsets and unless they are really mindful of their actions, don’t necessarily see a conflict between them. People will take advantage of the low prices and convenience of shopping on Amazon and religiously show up to the farmers’ market on weekend mornings because they also value personally connecting to their local producers.

There isn’t necessarily a contradiction in this approach if there aren’t any local companies that make sleeping bags and vacuum cleaners for them to connect with the way they do with the beekeepers, farmers and candle makers.

Even without contractual obligations, when it comes to setting pricing it can be a real challenge for arts organizations to balance economic necessity with access. If you have 1000 seats, gauging whether an additional $10 a seat is going to be an impediment to audiences can mean a difference of $10,000.

If the show sells out easily, there is a lot less labor and expense involved in making that $10,000 than if you have to approach someone for a sponsorship, or write a grant application and final report.

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