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10 Big Challenges Facing Performing Arts As An Industry…

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One of the areas I’ve found myself returning to over and over again over the years is the performing arts. I got my start in the performing arts with the Seattle Theatre Group in Seattle where I saw the challenge of building and maintaining a subscription base and keeping your offerings fresh so that you maintained a vibrant and thriving organization.

Over the years, I have found myself working with the performing arts on programs around the globe and that initial challenge that we were dealing with in Seattle has only grown.

It’s tougher to get people into our venues.

It’s tougher to maintain some kind of challenging, rewarding, and profitable program to entice new subscriptions and keep old subscribers in the fold.

Its tougher than ever to have a thriving arts organization, especially when you are in markets that haven’t always embraced the arts as much as others.

With these challenges in mind, here are my thoughts on some of the most pressing issues facing performing arts, theatre, and other cultural programs.

1. We have to find a better way to talk about the value of the arts:

The logical argument goes that people should recognize how valuable the arts are to creating a civil society. How rich the arts make people’s lives. How the arts challenge and provoke thought.

The only problem with the logical argument is that all of this never scrapes the surface of most of the people we are trying to reach.

There is this myth that flows through so many of our marketing departments or our executive suites or our organizations that thinks facts will trump emotion. The reality is that emotion always wins.

Right now, too much of our arts and theatre programming and offerings don’t hit the emotional core of the prospective market we are trying to reach. And, in many cases, it doesn’t hit the people that are already inclined to be friendly to our offerings.

That’s why it is important to consider how we can find a better way to talk about the arts and the importance of the arts in our communities.

For me, the answer lies in some of the artists and artistic moments that are much more easily recognizable.

Think about listening to Eddie Vedder talk about the impact The Who and Pete Townsend had on his life, and you are immediately aware of the power of music to transform.

Or, if you had the chance to witness the power of The Gates installation in Central Park in the mid-2000s, you could easily see that art isn’t stuffy or something that is only for the high-minded.

2. Marketing is a real issue:

Too much of the marketing of the performing arts and theatre is reactive.

“Oh, great review! Let’s make an ad!”

This is pretty much one of the more common marketing techniques going.

The thing is if you don’t get a good review…what then?

You are doomed to empty seats?

Doomed to close early?

The fact is that marketing needs to be a proactive thing and it needs to be about building a relationship with your audience.

If you are holding your breath for one big hit show to save your buildings’ year, you are in trouble.

You have to be more creative and more proactive.

What can you do that exposes people to your building and your artists earlier and more often?

What can you do that isn’t dependent on rave reviews? Big stars?

3. Sales are the lifeblood of your organization:

As I said in the marketing section, we have to really become more aggressive in our sales and marketing efforts.

I know that budgets are tight in performing arts organizations, but the thing isn’t to cut back on sales and marketing efforts…it is to get better at them.

For too many people in these venues, the challenge of selling their own product has fallen to an outsourced solution…which is always terrible because if you don’t have your finger on the pulse of your customers and can’t sell your own product, all the other data points from your customers isn’t going to hold much water.

As arts professionals, we have to recognize that selling isn’t a negative.

We are all selling something in some way: a show, an idea, ourselves.

4. Pricing is never going to make everyone happy:

Pricing is one of the touchiest subjects in all of arts and entertainment.

It will always be.

Price too high and you are “elitist” and price too low and you leave money on the table.

Don’t generate enough revenue and you are likely hurting the programs you fund that will help drive demand into the future.

That’s the challenge of pricing, it isn’t a science but an art.

That being said, early revenue is best.

So we have to rethink the way that we price and encourage memberships. That bulk buy at the start is a key to stable revenue and even if we end up leaving a little money on the table, cash on hand is still king.

5. Strategy, strategy, strategy:

Because of the nature of the challenge, it is pretty easy to get caught in the always on, go and go and go mentality.

The thing about it is, that action POV is really about emotion.

Emotion is great, it causes us to take action.

But many of the challenges we are dealing with aren’t necessarily due to the effort or the amount of work we are doing. Most of the challenges are challenges brought on because we have to test new strategies.

So we have to force ourselves to take a step back from the emotionally satisfying work of always being busy and take some time to be strategic and logical.

That’s going to save us.

6. Rethinking the subscription:

I want to lump this into the development and fundraising conversation because it’s my blog, but also because I think we have a great opportunity to rethink the subscription model.

In working with corporations and clients in a lot of other industries, I am a big fan of bundling.

I love the idea of taking a bunch of things that have low cost, but high perceived value and bundling them together.

I think many of the subscription packages could be repurposed and rethought in ways that revved up the perceived value and enabled us to generate higher revenue numbers from our relationship.

7. Tell stories:

This goes back to the marketing example above, but we are in the marketing business…first and foremost.

But one of the big things everything we do should be focused on is telling stories, more and better stories.

Stories need to be at the core of every interaction we have with our customer base, donors, and teams because stories have a couple of really important attributes that are the core of our business:

  1. Stories help us make sense of the world around us: There is so much information and noise coming at us, we have a hard time making sense of everything. Stories help us make sense of the world.
  2. Stories are how we figure out what to pay attention to: We can’t pay attention to everything. We need a filter. That’s what stories provide.
  3. Stories help create the emotion we need to take action: No emotion, no action. Simple as that.

8. Communities are key:

I’m a big Pearl Jam fan. Which if you have been here a few times, you likely know.

One of the big things about being a Pearl Jam fan is that you aren’t just one of a crowd, you are one of a family, a community.

In the performing arts, we often lose sight of the ability that we have to grow communities around our performers, performances, and our venues.

But the key to long term success and stability is in the community that we create.

If you have had the chance to visit the Wooly Mammoth Theater in Washington, DC, you would see a building that has been thought about as a gathering place and a community center. With food and beverage from local producers, a cool bar and hang out space. The Wooly Mammoth has a space that is set up for community building.

But if you don’t have the same setting, you can still take advantage of this, in Chattanooga, Holly Mulcahy has offered up the community opportunities to connect with her and members of the symphony around wine, the arts, and other conversation.

The thing is that communities are huge tools in our tool belts.

9. Experience will trump all:

In my first job in Seattle, I can’t remember the man’s name now, but he said, “I’m going to hire you because you have a friendly face.”

And, that was important because he wanted people to feel welcomed when they came to the Paramount.

For many of us, we think that the show carries the day or that the show is the only reason that someone comes out.

But we have a lot more that we can offer than just the promise of a great show.

We can make each touch point a joy.

We can make the experience warm.

We can offer up educational opportunities.

We can spur conversation over drinks.

We can create experiences that wow our guests.

It will take effort and thought, but without we don’t have a chance.

10. Return the humanity to the art experience:

More and more, no matter what the industry, we try to create “scale” or “consistency” in every experience.

The thing about it is that that isn’t how art or life really works.

Sure, that McDonald’s hamburger I don’t want any variance in…

But when I am dealing with people and talking with people, I know that it isn’t going to be a completely sanitary environment.

I know that people make mistakes.

That every performance is new and that’s exciting.

I know that sometimes people have bad days.

On and on.

Our humanity isn’t something to be run from, squeezed out, or hidden.

In truth, the only way that the performing arts is going to be successful in the long run at expanding and preserving arts is through more humanity.

What say you?

Am I wrong?

What are the challenges you are dealing with? Did I miss something? Am I way off base? 

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