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Helping The Rising Tide Lift All Boats

I have been following The Producer’s Perspective, the blog of Broadway producer Ken Davenport, for a number of years now. While I don’t have solid evidence, I suspect he is not like other Broadway producers. He is often curious to learn about the audiences for Broadway shows, where they are coming from, what motivates their purchasing decisions, etc. While this may seem like basic marketing surveying, the information doesn’t really exist so he is often sending people to query folks standing in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square.

Taking some inspiration from Zappos, he decided to create a toll free number to have his office staff answer questions about Broadway to help dispel the notions his surveyors and focus groups discovered people have.

Well, that’s exactly what I thought . . . so then I wondered . . . why doesn’t Broadway have a hotline? Why doesn’t it have a toll free number that people can just call to find out stuff? Ivory Soap has one. Coke has one.


Yep, we created 1-855-SEE-BWAY (733-2929) to help answer your questions about Broadway.

It’s staffed by a bunch of the nicest Broadway theater lovers you could ever imagine (they also happen to be my staff, in a very Zappos-inspired “we all answer the phone including the boss” structure), and we guarantee we’ll get you the answer to whatever question you have about Broadway theatergoing.

Need to know what’s playing? Need to know at what times? Price of tickets? Suitability for kids? Location? Parking? Restaurants nearby? Sure, we got that. And if we don’t, we’ll get it for you. Promise on our autographed original cast recording of Company.

Oh, and before you ask . . . no, we’re not selling anything. This isn’t about us trying to make any money. This is about a service that should exist. And needs to exist if we’re going to grow our audience (just like Zappos increased theirs).

I bring this up not so much to promote his service (though I think it is great thing to offer) but to wonder if this signifies that arts organizations are moving toward a more collaborative “tide raises all ships” approach and a way from a competitive “ne’er the twain shall meet” stance.

About six years ago I wrote about an effort by the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to provide people with information about all the performing arts in town rather than solely about themselves. I am not sure if they sustained the effort, especially when the economy got worse, but I took the fact that they were even considering it as part of their business model as an encouraging sign.

This year I am partnering with three different groups to present as many shows. In the past, we have partnered with maybe one other organization and the sharing of responsibilities (and revenue/expenses) was not as extensive. I am not sure about next year, but I hope to continue similar relationships even with the additional work it entails.

There have also been times I have assumed other organization’s obligations so that the show can go on. Perhaps as involved as I am in this type of activity, I am seeing a trend…or wishing for one, where it doesn’t exist yet.

I am all for making the effort to turn it into a trend though.

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Info You Can Use: Crowdfunding Legislation Update

Thanks to Ken Davenport’s post on the subject, I discovered the bill to facilitate crowdfunding I wrote about at the end of October is nearing approval. The House (H.R. 2930) approved the measure early in November and the Senate’s proposed bill (S. 179) is in committee.

As discussed in my earlier post on the subject, the existing rules for inhibit small investments made by many people because S.E.C. rules kick in after threshold of 500 people. These bills provide a little more leeway.

William Carleton has a good comparison of the passed version of H.R. 2930 and the proposed S. 179. Of most immediate concern to most people will probably be that where the House bill places the per investor, per year limit at the lesser of $10,000 or 10% of annual income, the Senate bill caps investment at $1,000. The North American Securities Administrators Association apparently agrees with the Senate on this point.

At that level, and given the level of required reporting and investor notice, I wonder if it will be worth it to too many people to attempt crowd funding in this manner. But again, I am thinking in terms of the investing prospectus one receives. Presumably, there will be less information to provide to investors in the case of crowdfunding efforts.

Trent Dykes at The Venture Alley provides the details of the House bill. I was particularly interested to see what sort of protections an investor had against fraud.

Not that it isn’t enough motivation to defraud, but you can only raise $1 million annually using the exemption provided by the bill ($2 million if you provide audited financial statements.) In addition to providing warnings of risks to potential investors and sending a collection of information and reporting to the S.E.C., one protection people will have is that the money will be held in escrow by a third party until 60% of the target amount has been raised. Presumably, if the amount has not be raised by the target deadline, additional arrangements must be made to retain it. There are also provisions that ensure the people handling the offering and cash management are qualified to some degree. People with a history as a “bad actor” as determined by the S.E.C. will be prohibited from offering investment opportunities.

As I am not an expert in investing law, I don’t know how vulnerable these arrangements are to fraud. Presumably, moreso then your typical investment opportunity. Individuals will just have less of their personal fortunes exposed to the fraud.

For some people in the arts, this might offer a viable alternative to the non-profit model. I imagine the return on investment might manifest as a hybrid of traditional donor benefits and cash. Providing preferential treatment to encourage people to remain emotionally invested in the organization in addition to paying out cash dividends will probably help keep them financially invested in the company.

Hopefully the limitation on the investing level will insulate arts companies from demands to operate themselves to maximize investor return. Even if the cap is set at $10,000, people aren’t going to be getting immense returns enriching their bank accounts (at least not for a few years). Who knows, perhaps a company will realize so much success thanks to this, they will grow to the point the will be subject to regular S.E.C. investment rules.

Now that this form of investment looks to pass the hurdle of legislation, how long before the arts community will pass the mental hurdle of considering anyone who uses it to finance their operations as selling out their purity and ideals?

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Change Content For Specific Audience? Good Question

Last month, Ken Davenport over at Producer’s Prospective issued a “you make the call” challenge to his readers and it ended up the most read and commented on post of April. People were still adding their opinions as of last Friday. Here is his scenario and challenge.

I have a division at my office that sells group tickets to Broadway shows. A few weeks ago we got an inquiry from a group of 500 people that was looking for a show. Yep, 500! That’s 1/3 of a big Broadway house, which means quite an impact on a weekly gross….

The group came back and said there was one show that they specifically interested in. “Great,” we said and started to place the order.

There was just one problem.

The group explained that there were a few moments in the show that they thought were objectionable, and unfortunately, because of the mission statement of the organization, they would not be able to book their group (of 500!) if those moments were in the show.

Insert dramatic chords here.

The “moments” weren’t specifically plot-related, nor would they involve a great deal of work to alter them.

But would the show make the alterations to satisfy this group?

Insert more dramatic chords here.

Obviously there are a lot factors that would be involved in this decision, like when the group is looking to come (what time of year and what performance during the week), how well the show is doing, how much the group is paying, etc.

But if you’re a commercial theater producer, the question is whether you would be willing to ask your creative team to make the changes to their work to accomodate this bonus to the bottom line?”

The responses to this challenge fell into some general camps- Sure if it isn’t that complicated; What about the fact that 1000 other people paid to see the original show? (sub-set response to this was, Sure if they want to buy the whole house); The artistic choices made were deliberate and that vision should not be compromised, stick to your guns; If you do it once, you create a precedent to do it again.

A couple of interesting points made by a commenter going by Julia was that shows often compromise their content on the basis of an audience’s physical situation: modulating strobes for epileptics, adding illumination for signed performances, captioned performances, audio described performances. Each of these changes the appearance of the performance from the original or alters the experience of other audience members who are not targets of the services.

I haven’t really addressed the issue of changing an artistic choice based on audience feedback since discussing Neal Archer Roan’s tough decisions about Bach’s St. John’s Passion and anti-Semitism. Since the discussion was still ongoing over on Davenport’s blog, I thought it might be appropriate to draw attention to the issues and get people thinking about how they might handle it.

Of course, if we are all to be honest, how we say we would handle it often diverges from how we actually handle the situation when faced with its impact on our own reputation and budgets.

One question I would add to the mix. Are you more likely to make the change if your show is on Broadway or presented by a non-profit organization? Broadway has much more profit motive to their show. The saga of Spiderman with the never ending previews, the rewrites and reissues have shown that Broadway is open to revamping content in response to criticism. (I am surprised no commenter on Producer’s Perspective mentioned that.) While they do it for more than one show, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility a permanent change might not be implemented if appeal to a wider market was perceived.

On the other hand the income from 1/3 a house means a lot more to a non-profit organization than a Broadway show. Though most Broadway shows have less flexibility in doing so, that Spiderman could afford to shutdown for a few months for rewrites is fair evidence that Broadway probably has a little more ability financially to refuse the change on principle alone.

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Grouse: What You Do When Your Salary Is Too Meager To Afford It

It looks like it was a weekend for griping about performing arts. Ken Davenport at Producer’s Perspective opened the floor on an atypical Saturday post asking people to share their gripes. He promised to make it a monthly ritual if he got more than 10 responses and he easily passed that mark. A summary of the comments in one sentence would be – “How can they charge such high prices for tickets, yet pay me so little if I can shoehorn my way into a position at all.” There are a few complaints about audiences thrown in for good measure. The general source of the comments seem to be people living in and around New York City with a few people coming form other places. The tenor of most of the comments will be familiar to you if you work in the arts at all and are familiar with the New York City scene. Those aspiring to careers are following the same path those before them followed. This includes tales of people both inside and outside the business wanting them to work for fun or for experience.

My initial thought was that Broadway won’t change because it doesn’t have to and that people need to look elsewhere for their experience. While a similar situation is just about as institutionalized outside of New York City, those organizations are at least marginally aware that they need to find a better way to run their business and interact with their employees.

Which brings us to the second post I came across. Barry Hessenius posted an entry on his blog noting that essentially every job description for an executive director and senior management of an arts organization seems to be taken from the same template without any effort to acknowledge the actual specific needs of their organization.

He provides a tongue in cheek translation of this:

“The successful candidate will be a strong leader with excellent management and interpersonal skills. S/he will have the proven ability to build productive relationships with a broad range of internal and external constituencies, and have the demonstrated ability to work collaboratively with the various segments of the community. S/he will be an experienced supervisor with the ability and willingness to mentor staff and encourage staff development. S/he will foster an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration among staff and volunteers throughout the organization. S/he will have a strong working knowledge of programs, production, board relations and operations. S/he will have excellent financial management skills and a track record for achieving budget goals…”

Into this:

“We want someone smart enough to help us figure out a cool vision for our future (that one is stumping us); someone who will attract great talent to the staff (though we can’t pay the staff very much) and whom the staff (despite working conditions that are hardly ideal) will love and follow anyway (someone who will hopefully get them to perform above their potential, because actually we’re understaffed by all reasonable criteria). We want someone who can make various factions of the board (currently somewhat dysfunctional and at each other’s throats) work harmoniously together and take on an ever greater workload (or in the alternative someone who will assume the board’s workload for them because it’s highly unlikely they will do much more than they are doing right now – which isn’t that much). We try not to micromanage, but we still do. We’re looking for someone who can get the best out of us, but someone enough like us so we are comfortable with them; someone who will push themselves, but not necessarily push us too hard. Did we mention that we want someone who can raise a lot of money? “

I have only excerpted a small portion of his translation so you will want to visit the entry to read the whole thing. I have also excerpted a portion of his sample job description. Trust me when I say you don’t need to go to the entry to read that. You have seen it many times before. I did a verbatim Google search on a couple phrases from Barry’s sample and found a number of job listings using them. I understand a desire not to reinvent the wheel, but if you are looking for the same person as everyone else, most organizations are bound to be disappointed. There are only so many of those paradigms to go around. The truth is, most organizations are indeed looking for someone a little different from the rest.

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