400 words #014: individual experiences

I have been thinking about the artist-audience experience quite a lot recently.

Originally I was thinking about how the audience experience exists when you are watching/reading/listening to digital cultural content. However this evolved to encompass the performer’s experience.

Without having an audience to react to how does that change the performance?

To be totally honest this thinking was triggered by something I was reading about how the notion of ‘home and away’ has no real bearing on the way football is being played at the moment (i.e. without crowds). Historically the ‘home advantage‘ has been pronounced, however the crowdless matches that have been played this year has questioned that.

In a cultural context, what does the absence of a physical audience mean for performers and artists?

I do think that this question has validity beyond the current crisis.

Digital audiences will never be ‘physically co-present’ and rather than bemoan that as never ‘being as good as the real thing’ I am interested to see how people confront that challenge in creative ways.

One thing that digital can be good for is to create a feeling of intimacy between the performer and the audience member. Digital experiences are typically enjoyed alone. Headphones and screens can bring you closer to an artist than you would ever be able to manage in a traditional setting.

It’s one of the reasons that podcasts can feel so intimate.

There have been recent examples of organisations trialling this sort of one-to-one interaction in a performance context.

This New Yorker piece on digital theatre audiences shows there’s clearly an appetite out there for this sort of more intimate/confronting experience (although it’s definitely not something I’d ever see myself doing).

Elsewhere, in a classical context, there was this example of orchestras in Germany playing to one audience member at a time, which I think could work very nicely as a digital thing.

What will you pay for? Education, education, education

Even before 2020 descended on us all the Royal Ballet in the UK was clocking up hundreds of thousands of views for their videos on YouTube that focused on health and fitness. This video from 2017 is the first in a series of “health and fitness tutorials for beginners inspired by classical dance”.

So it was perhaps not a huge surprise that in my recent Digital Works Podcast conversation with Sadler’s Wells’ Ankur Bahl he talked about the succes they have seen with the fitness and technique focused video content they have produced this year.

Still in the world of dance it has been interesting to see that companies like English National Ballet are launching fully-formed digital subscription programmes entirely focused around “training and workouts to enjoy at home”.

But it’s not just dance.

Examples in the wild

Elsewhere I have observed organisations seeing surprising levels of success around workshop, participatory and learning-focused activity delivered online.

Examples include Opera North’s From Couch to Chorus scheme, “a fun four-week series of workshops where you’ll learn all the best singing tips and tricks from a professional choral director from Opera North” (which has returned for a second, festive-focused term), the Globe’s Telling Tales Festival “a range of online and physical events” (the physical events have been cancelled due to lockdown but there are still 10s of virtual events to enjoy), and the Children Theatre Company’s Virtual Academy.

Outside the performing arts the V&A Learning Academy look to have been selling a lot of places for their online courses (if you look at their listings every course is currently sold out).

And something to note is that all of these examples are revenue generating.

Perceived value

Which got me thinking. It is perhaps more straightforward to move some of this sort of activity online than it is to, for example, capture/stream a fully staged performance. But what has been most interesting to me is that audiences are, demonstrably, very willing to pay for this.

Obviously the canvas of horrors that is 2020 plays a part in this. We are all stuck inside to varying degrees, kids are bored, people are wanting to keep themselves busy.

Workshops, learning a new skill, or working out are all antidotes to this.

And perhaps the perceived value, or value exchange, is more straightforward with this type of activity. Maybe it is clearer, or simpler. I learn a thing, or occupy the kids, and I’m happy to part with some money for that to happen. I am clearly getting something in return.

Value exchange for performance is more knotty and wrapped up in the expectations around what that experience has traditionally involved. Also organisations have, over the course of 2020, and for years before that, created an expectation that captured performance content should be free.

Delivering the type of education/participation work I’ve outlined above in a digital context is relatively new, so perhaps audience expectations or preconceptions around price and value haven’t yet crystalised in the same way.

Research to back this up

And there is some emerging research that supports this. LaPlaca Cohen’s most recent Culture Track report, “Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis“, found that learning-based activities are seen as “particularly valuable”.

A bar chart visualising responses to the questions "Have you done any of these online or digital cultural activities yourself in the past 30 days?" and "How valuable to you personally were those activities?". "online activities for kid"s and "online classes or workshops" were respectively rated as valuable by 76% and 68% of respondents

This feels like an exciting and underexplored opportunity for many cultural organisations.

Traditionally education, participation, learning, whatever you want to call it, has not been at the front of the queue when it has come to digital priorities. Usually the rationale is that these activities have not (traditionally) been revenue generating in the same way (or to the same level) as, say, selling tickets to performances or exhibitions has.

It would appear that assumption no longer holds (as) true.

Equally I have found that colleagues working in these teams are sometimes less comfortable or confident when it comes to thinking digitally. That seems like it has started to change over recent months, I hope we see much more of it.