Art in a Time of Covid
Digital Revues in Review
Going beyond the building blocks of VOD, content libraries, and streaming to explore the acceleration of accessibility and digital habits.March 12, 2021
The struggles of pivoting from in-person to digital content have been well documented by journalists, bloggers, and even lowly digital producers such as yours truly.
Long distance participation in cultural events isn’t new - I have fond memories of listening to classical concerts or operas as a kid on Sunday afternoons. We can’t honestly say that the call for digital content and accessibility is novel, but the pandemic has forced it to become a mainstay of the arts and culture sector. “On demand content.” “Digital libraries.” “Streaming.” Thanks to the events of 2020, these are the buzzwords of our day. So it stands to reason that the theme of 2021 will be how to construct comprehensive, accessible, and complementary digital programs, while also finding the right balance between direct income and an investment in relationship building.
The Building Blocks
In the fledgling days of the pandemic, many organizations had to survey the tools readily available to them to find the fastest way to maintain patron interaction. Most organizations record productions for internal archive purposes, but this footage is rarely created with public consumption in mind. Orchestras have known for a while that their content often suits a fixed camera filming approach, and many already had existing digital libraries for patrons to access. Dance and theater on the other hand found themselves with piles of unreleasable footage. It’s understandable that most people would flock to creating a content library. In a normal season, digital libraries have the lowest barrier of entry for production: ensure that the recordings already being created are high enough quality for public consumption.
However, some of our core associations with live performance have nothing to do with the content. I have vivid memories of planning travel to venues, waiting in anticipation for the curtain to rise at the allotted time (even knowing that it wouldn’t), laughter, murmurs, and the obligatory cough from the balcony at the quietest moment in the show. The event is not an insignificant contributor to our experience. To recreate some of this, organizations have turned to streaming live or prerecorded content. Livestream events happen at a set time, and many extend the feeling of community by providing a chatroom for viewers during the performance.
While each of these tools is powerful using them without skillful application and considered intent is the equivalent of using a chainsaw to fillet a fish - they technically meet the requirements, but mangle the actual goal. On demand libraries can become an unexciting dumping ground. Livestream technical difficulties can be too stressful for patrons to wrestle with, given that the savviest user can do everything right and still miss something due to internet issues. You wouldn’t produce a season based on the first 5-10 plays you read in 2021 — you would curate it, carefully selecting programming, timing, and marketing so that it can be engaging to your patrons and presented in the best light. The same should be true for how you structure your digital content: “good enough” isn’t the same as “good.”
The subscription model is very familiar to arts and cultural institutions as a way to build relationships, and bankable income, and — due to the timing of the pandemic — was one of the first aspects of the business which needed to pivot. So it makes sense that many organizations would look to apply this model to their digital content. However subscriptions don’t just represent a higher initial cost for patrons, they also require a commitment from organizations to deliver on the program they market. Traditionally, organizations had an entire season to deliver on their promises. However, in today’s binging market, releasing a season of content at once means having to go through the cost and process of producing an entire season in a truncated amount of time. This can be very unappealing to organizations, especially when they are turning to digital content as a supplement to other methods of income that are currently greatly reduced or eliminated entirely.
Even for organizations who maintain a staggered content release akin to a regular season have to commit to meeting expectations in an area that they are unaccustomed to. If two shows into the season you realize that video editing is taking a lot longer than initially anticipated and you need to make adjustments to the schedule, or there are simply new technical difficulties you have to learn troubleshooting for, it’s much easier to make these tweaks when you haven’t already taken someone’s money. Once you start selling a subscription, it becomes more difficult to make changes based on your learnings without also creating customer service issues. No one wants to be punished for the crime of venturing into unfamiliar territory especially when there are few alternative options available.
But subscriptions aren’t just about immediate financial gains, they are a key driver in patron loyalty and retention. Some organizations are providing access to digital seasons as a benefit to donors and subscribers. By adding digital benefits to subscriptions and donations while in person events are still limited, organizations are able to preserve their value to both existing and new patrons. Even if the initial expenditure for organizations is high, by not focusing as much on the immediate cost/benefits, the long term investment in relationships can return dividends in the long run.
Single Tickets / VOD
Not every patron can be a subscriber. That was true before the pandemic and it’s even more true now: everyone is strapped for cash. Neither patrons nor organizations can commit to long term investments, and for these users a new form of single tickets has emerged: video on demand. This removes the pressure from both parties to commit to the costs, and logistics of programming a pile of content, and instead focus on individual events.
Unfortunately video on demand revenue is much more difficult to forecast than subscription models. While single ticket patrons have always purchased tickets closer to show time, now that patrons don’t have to plan things like travel or accommodations, purchases are often made right up to the minute an event is starting or about to become unavailable. So the revenue stream from this type of structure is much less predictable. However, it does increase the convenience and accessibility to patrons who can’t, or don’t want to, commit to a full season of content. This doesn’t mean these patrons don’t understand the value of the content or organizations they’re supporting. In-cart donations are just as effective whether the main item in the cart is a Broadway show, or pass to an upcoming livestream. In fact, preliminary studies show that 10% patrons who purchase a ticket to a digital event also make a donation, and just like subscriptions these users will remember what they did and enjoyed during the pandemic.
It’s been nearly a year since theaters becan to shutter, and even if the current plans for reopening hold, the return will be trickle not a pour. Organizations have to make a decision about how to build a versatile digital program, or be eclipsed by competitors who have invested in their audiences during the pandemic, and continue to keep the light on even after the current health crisis has subsided. Patrons will not stop craving digital experiences either due to distance, financial restrictions, accessibility, and convenience. The pandemic has not created a new need, it’s accelerated an emerging call for digital accessibility to arts & culture and forced users to start forming digital habits.
The performing arts are more than just real estate - it does not have to be “location, location, location.” Instead we should continue to focus on what’s always been at our artistic core: emotion, evocation, and connection. Relying on digital content without a carefully considered program structure will ultimately create a lot of work with little return for your team. Content is an investment in relationships, it always has been, because those relationships are the ones that cherish the art and give back to the business. When you strip out all the digital buzzwords, the balance between subscribers, single ticket buyers, and your one-off donors, is the same now as it was before. The only difference, is now everyone is aware of it, and (pun intended), watching.
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