Can Digital Pay Dividends?
BY KATHERINE CASTILLE
As it became clear the COVID-19 pandemic would wear on for months, many choruses launched digital initiatives to keep their music and their message in front of their audiences. Those with digital strategies already in place have stepped up their efforts. Others are just beginning to navigate this new frontier. All of them are learning valuable lessons about what digital content their audiences want and are willing to pay for.
“What we’re doing with online content—I think it’s really a lifeline,” says Christine Gevert. As founding artistic director of the Connecticut-based ensemble Crescendo, Gevert is one of many choral leaders grappling with how to create meaningful art and generate revenue in a world where singing carries new risks. “We’ve suddenly taken on a much bigger workload,” producing two to six new audio recordings each week. On days when they’re posted on SoundCloud, she says “I go to bed at 3:00 a.m.” But every week she receives glowing emails about Crescendo’s recordings and thinks, “‘OK, let’s keep going.’”
Though many organizations have been distributing online content for years, the pandemic has heightened the importance of digital revenue strategies, providing the choral community with a new imperative for creativity. Some organizations are selling individual tickets and subscriptions to specific online events, while others are shifting to a monthly membership fee that includes access to events plus additional content to connect audiences and creators. To maximize access, some groups are providing free content, and others are offering tiered price points or pay-what-you-can pricing. “We’ve been changing our schedule and plans constantly,” says Alexander Blake, founder and artistic director of Tonality in Los Angeles. As the ensemble explores new ways to serve its audience, Blake has realized that the current situation is an exciting opportunity “to find and keep community connection by opening up the inner workings of what we do, which of course is very different right now.”
Learning While Doing
Many organizations that are unfamiliar with digital content creation face a steep learning curve—starting with the technical demands. With the bottom line in mind, many choruses take the DIY approach. Gevert, a graphic designer hobbyist, found resources online and is training singers to use the collaborative virtual studio app Soundtrap to help produce Crescendo’s weekly recordings. Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, VOX Femina, and Tonality all utilized production talent within their ranks for video, audio, and film production, respectively. Two of Cantus’s singers have shouldered nearly all of its audio and visual production needs as the ensemble releases via Facebook and YouTube its COVID-19 Sessions, music recorded while the eight-man group quarantined together in Iowa at what they have affectionately dubbed Camp Cantus. Another Cantus singer has tracked down rights so that music can be digitally distributed legally. Co-artistic director and tenor Paul Scholtz describes the working atmosphere of the Minneapolis-based ensemble as “a can-do attitude from everyone and an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Though using internal talent reduces expenses, it doesn’t work for every project. To anchor its season, comprising three online events, VOX Femina’s artistic director, Iris Levine, reimagined a performance she’d been working on for over a year. At the beginning of November, she and the ensemble premiered composer Andrea Ramsey’s five-movement Suffrage Cantata via subscription on YouTube as a 45-minute film. Rebecca Wink, the L.A.-based chorus’s executive director, says the requirements to meet COVID regulations for its live recordings, such as COVID training and acrylic shields for each participating artist, as well as hiring a third party for production, “added an enormous amount of expense” beyond a typical concert. In part due to the expense, the ambitious film project may not be replicable, so the group is planning different content for its two subsequent events. For other ensembles, a combination of in-house and third-party production is the best balance between quality and expense.
In addition to budget adjustments to accommodate production expenses, Wink and Levine have found that timelines must be much earlier for the necessary pre- and post-production. For the November 1 film premiere, VOX moved up its schedule by two full months. Not only does it take more time than you think, “post-production is exhausting,” says Matthew Guard, artistic director of Skylark in Boston. “There’s so much time that’s not actually music making. It can feel like an assembly line.” Groups of Skylark members are quarantining together to record a whopping 37 digital programs that are based on their artistic interests and will be released throughout the season on a members-only section of Skylark’s website.
Organizations must also determine new revenue models based on limited experience. VOX’s ticket prices are usually $32–40. For its three online concerts this season, staff decided on pay-what-you-can pricing, with a $10 suggested donation. VIP tickets for $20 give access to post-show conversations and more. Wink admits the pricing was based on educated guessing. “We didn’t have precedent for this. People aren’t used to paying for digital programming, so we decided to go lower and hope for a much broader reach.” They set revenue goals based on typical live concert numbers, the lower ticket price, and larger potential audience. So far, most sales have been for VIP tickets, and most pay-what-you-can tickets are going for at least the suggested amount. After focus group feedback revealed people wanted to pay less than $20 for digital content, Skylark priced its membership fees at $18 a month, with a $9-a-month option for students and others with limited income.
Do Audiences Value Digital Content?
Audiences must also learn new ways to engage with the art, and many arts fans are reluctant students. A study conducted by the research firm YouGov for the streaming service Primephonic found that 70 percent of American classical music fans surveyed had not watched a live-streamed event during the pandemic. Two-thirds of that majority said they are either unfamiliar with the concept of live-streamed events or don’t understand how it works. “The data is telling us there’s a generational gap in comfort levels navigating to live streams, with older patrons sometimes feeling less comfortable,” says Alan Brown, principal of the research and consulting firm WolfBrown. “Arts groups will need to simplify the process as much as possible.”
The Primephonic study also found that only half of those surveyed indicated willingness to pay for live-streamed events. The top two reasons for this attitude are the lack of live performance atmosphere and poor audio quality. Brown offers this advice: “It will be essential for arts groups—especially orchestras and choruses—to coach people on getting the most out of their at-home listening experiences. Helping them connect a new Bluetooth speaker to their computer or smart phone could make a big difference in the quality of their at-home listening experience.” Experienced professionals also note that shorter is better when it comes to digital programs. Los Angeles-based events producer Allison Pieter told the trade publication BizBash she recommends “no more than half the time frame of your in-person gathering.”
An ongoing study conducted by WolfBrown paints a rosier picture for digital experiences. While the survey of more than 250,000 arts attendees reveals that “25–30 percent are just opposed to the idea of digital experiences,” according to Brown, “a large percentage of audience members accept that digital content will be their only interaction with arts programming for quite some time” and are satisfied with digital content until live performances resume.
Digital Advantages and Strategies
Most organizations have opted to keep ticket prices low for digital experiences, both to acknowledge they are different from live events and to make their art more accessible. Instead of goals based on capacity and revenue, choirs are casting the net wide, shifting focus to access and awareness. This long-term strategy involves developing relationships now that result in earned and contributed revenue later.
“This virtual environment presents challenges, but also some exciting opportunities,” says Crescendo’s Gevert. Because digital experiences can be streamed to thousands of viewers at the same time and are available for extended periods, they give choruses the ability to reach anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world. According to executive director Joseph Heitz, Cantus usually earns two-thirds of its annual revenue from a vigorous local and national touring schedule. To make its three online concerts for fall 2020 more accessible, including a live-streamed, audience-free concert in November, the group established a suggested price of $20 per household per concert, which Heitz feels is a good compromise between offering content for free and the $20–30 price points other organizations are offering. For its October digital concert, the ensemble reported 35 percent of ticket buyers were outside Minnesota. Additionally, 20 percent of purchases came from people who had never purchased a ticket before. An even bigger access coup is Cantus’s free, wildly successful COVID-19 Sessions, which the group began recording at the onset of the pandemic. At 1.7 million views to date, “it’s exceeded our expectations,” says Heitz. This hyper-accessible content builds audience, providing strong leads for future purchases and donations. Other choruses have also used digital initiatives to increase their reach. Guard estimates that 15–20 percent of Skylark’s memberships are from outside the Boston area, and VOX’s Wink reports 47 percent of ticket buyers being new to VOX, and 33 percent are outside of California. “We’re getting new people from all over the country.”
Blake thought about what people can get digitally that they can’t get at a live event, landing on process and letting the audience get to know the singers. Using Patreon, an online hub for paid access to content, Tonality is delivering exclusive music-video style content to patrons who subscribe for a monthly membership fee ranging from $5 to $10. Monthly subscribers are also offered a series of interactive Tonality Talks with composers, artists, and leaders from partner organizations to deepen emotional connection with the group. Subscribers get to be part of Zoom conversations and see the ensemble’s videos before they are released to broader audiences via Facebook. Based on subscriber feedback so far, Blake says it’s working, and as content rolls out to the broader public this fall, he believes people will be pleasantly surprised by the new approach.
Blake also believes that programming relevant art has become even more central to Tonality’s mission to promote peace and understanding through choral music performance and that investing in that mission now will pay off later. The group’s videos connect people to relevant topics like the election, social justice, and climate change, which Blake says has “resonated with people. And now they are connected to Tonality for the future as we reimagine content.” Mendelssohn Chorus is hosting community chats to connect with community members, including equity, diversity, and inclusion conversations. Gardner says, “We wouldn’t have had the space for that before. What happened with George Floyd has sparked a global reckoning, making it essential for these conversations to happen.” Thinking about “how we can meet this moment,” Cantus created a platform for Black artists to bring their lived experiences and artistic visions to audiences with its online series Championing Black Voices. “Folks need the power of art-making right now, and music can build bridges,” Scholtz says. “The causes don’t go away after the concert is over,” adds Blake. “If your choir is about all the things that choirs can be—connectedness, community, engagement—that is what will help people succeed in this time.”
Organizations can build a revenue strategy on connectedness established through delivering meaningful content, says Erik Gensler, founder of the digital arts marketing firm Capacity Interactive. In a recent webinar, he offered this advice: Build long-term loyalty by giving people content they love 70 percent of the time, and earn the right to ask for a purchase or donation 30 percent of the time.
One bright spot in Primephonic’s study is that 60 percent of respondents indicated willingness to donate to arts organizations. This is good news in light of the gap between earned revenue from digital options and typical live event revenue. Mendelssohn Chorus surveyed past ticket buyers about content and pricing based on what other organizations were doing, deciding to sell individual tickets for $6–12 and subscriptions for $20–50. For its 2020–21 virtual season, it is producing five curated conversations and four virtual community sing events. “In any given year, our earned revenue makes up about 25 percent of our income,” says Gardner. “This year it is 8 percent.” The ensemble plans to focus more on donations this season to help alleviate the projected gap. Heitz says Cantus’s model “capitalizes on people wanting to help. We’re leaning in to contributed revenue by restating the value that Cantus brings to our community.” Crescendo is planning two donation appeals to fund production and weekly distribution of new recordings as well as two virtual concerts and five live-streamed or pre-recorded conversations this season—all available free of charge to the public.
Several groups reported successful digital fundraising efforts on the front end of the lockdown. Using Facebook, Tonality raked in 113 percent of its goal in a two-week campaign. Capitalizing on the familiar American Idol format, Cantus reimagined its previous, live “Cantus Idol” fundraiser as a series of short online events released on its website, Facebook, and YouTube. Viewers could choose which finalist videos to watch over four rounds of competition spread over three weeks. That flexibility and spreading out the content over a longer period of time were both big positives, making the content easily accessible and building buzz leading up to the finale. The result was a record-breaking celebration of the group’s 25th anniversary.
The digital revenue picture will become clearer as choruses mount this season’s first fundraising campaigns. Results of Crescendo’s first appeal will be in by the ensemble’s December online event, but until then, Gevert says it’s challenging to forecast contributed revenue for the season. Wink feels confident that VOX’s small-yet-mighty family of supporters will see them through this season, but wonders, “how long people are going to be willing to support this digital version of what we do.”
Is live-streaming the answer? Do highly produced music videos or mini-documentaries hold more promise for the bottom line? Or will an intriguing new approach emerge? Brown envisions “an international consortium of choruses to collaborate on a season calendar” of digital programs for a monthly or seasonal fee, and participating organizations could share the revenue. How will choruses’ digital strategy evolve once the pandemic is over? Is there a hybrid live/digital revenue model that will take earned revenue to new heights by reanimating the live performance experience and expand reach through digital presentations? The artistic exploration has just begun.
“I kept seeking the ‘right’ answer, but nobody knows.” Heitz says. “This moment calls for a lot of experimentation.” Many organizations emphasize the importance of trying new things, gathering feedback, and adjusting plans accordingly. Blake says, “we’ve shifted how we do what we do, but what we do hasn’t shifted. Why do you exist? Let that answer lead, and it opens up so many doors.”
Katherine Castille is an arts professional with 20 years of marketing, communications, and fundraising experience. She believes that working in the arts means being an educator, advocate, and storyteller. Katherine is a soprano soloist in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and member of the National Lutheran Choir.