Lately I’ve been thinking about how the value proposition of live performance has shifted over the last decade. The dominant model (for the greater part of the last century, anyway) has been that a theater is rented by a performing arts organization, which in turn rents seats in said theater to consumers for a few hours to watch a “show.” A “show” is the economic incentive the company creates to encourage audiences to pay for the experience of renting seats in a rented theater. Capital passes from the consumer to the theater to the performing arts organization, because audiences can only access the entertainment value promised by a good “show” by way of buying (renting) a seat. Thus, arts organizations’ fixation on getting “butts in seats.”
The value proposition of a “show” is complicated when performing arts organizations attempt to leverage platforms that the consumer owns rather than rents- an Internet-connected device like an iPhone rather than a seat at the theater- to monetize a “show.” Performing arts organizations traditionally have attempted to use the same economic incentive that sells tickets- a “show”- to sell a consumer access to a digitized copy of that “show.” The organization re-purposes content that historically pulled capital from theatrical audiences to pull money from online audiences.
The difficulty- or one of them, anyway- is that the value chain of an online performance is exactly the reverse of a conventional theatrical performance: instead of the arts organization selectively permitting performance access to the consumer, it is the consumer that selectively permits access to themselves. No longer are performances exclusively available to audiences through theaters- an organizational technology ready-made and purpose-built to sell tickets. Rather, arts organizations desperately seek consumers’ permission to place their content on consumer-owned platforms. The consumer owns the platform (an iPhone, computer, Internet-connected TV, etc) that performing arts companies seek access to, has no need for intermediaries, and functionally has access to their choice of any media experience imaginable. Arts organizations must appeal directly to consumers repeatedly and with renewed meaning to convince consumers of their digital value. Few arts organizations do this well, thus the tragicomedy of dance companies convincing themselves that canned content designed for the stage is worth $12.99 to experience on an iPhone.
It’s not. Giselle is royally terrible to watch on an iPhone. (Unless this Giselle is aesthetically designed to be experienced on your iPhone, which I have not yet seen). In fact, Giselle may *never* be made to be effectively consumed on an iPhone, which is no tragedy, but an expression of the truism that some stories can only be told a certain way. Let us not make the mistake of confusing the impossibility of translating a piece of content from one medium to another as proof of the superiority of one medium over another.
Conservatively, there are hundreds of millions more iPhones on the planet than there are stages in the world. The economics that drive value and capital through these devices is mediated by the Internet, and the Internet does not adhere to the economic expectations governing how performing arts organizations sustain themselves by renting theaters to rent seats to consumers. The dominant paradigm of content consumption is arguably shifting, at least in part, from theaters and public spaces to iPhones and private spaces. Arts organizations vested in their own survival must find ways to articulate their value to consumers accordingly.
I am interested in the means by which organizations actually accomplish this. How can performing arts entities deal with the seismic translation of one paradigm and performance modality to another? Is it even possible? The iPhone (to stick with one of any number of possible platforms) is an example of a kind of Internet-driven consumption that has only come into existence within the last decade. Relative to the centuries-old value chain of theaters and “shows,” the iPhone has catalyzed some very, very sudden shifts in consumer behavior. With this in mind, how can arts organizations manage the platform expectations of digital media- which are fluid and incessantly mutable- when they were conceived at a time when theatrical stages were the static norm? How can arts organizations market themselves to an audience no longer accustomed to conceiving of designating a specific time or specific place to have an creative experience, but instead feels entitled to curate the time and space of experiences for themselves?
These are the questions I hope to address- though not answer- through the Lasky Thinking Groups. There are no answers to be found, and none should be expected. These discussions represent an opportunity to explore the plastic nature of American culture- in all its dynamism and conservatism- and articulate a future for the performing arts in a moment when that future is far from guaranteed.