Simple customer benefit schemes – learning from outside the arts?

This morning I got an email from Wiggle (the cycling/running/whatnot shop):

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The Wiggle ‘Platinum’ scheme is automatically offered to anyone who has spent over a specific amount of money within a specific period (more than £500 in the previous 365 days – that Platinum status is then activated for 365 days from the day when you meet the threshold and is maintained if you spend more than £500 during the subsequent 365 days). I needed to get a few bits anyway so I promptly went and spent £80 on new cycling and running stuff and lo my discount is secured for another year. This seems like a relatively straight-forward and easy-to-administrate way of encouraging customer loyalty and incentivise people to spend more whilst also giving an obvious benefit to customers.

It got me thinking about the various loyalty/membership/multibuy/etc schemes I’ve seen in the arts sector, which always seem fantastically complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that has been as simple to explain (the benefit, the criteria, the everything) as this example from Wiggle, whilst I understand that there will always be arts audiences who want priority booking and all the other benefits that usually come with being a Friend (or whatever the membership scheme is called) why isn’t anyone trying something ‘simple’ like this? It seems to be a straightforward way of trying to get people to spend more without all the extra complexities of a multibuy scheme or membership structure. People won’t always want to spend a load of money in one go (which is what multibuys often require) and not everyone wants the faff of joining a membership scheme (if all they want is a discount this seems like overkill). It seems like there’d be numerous benefits for venues, you’d reasonably expect it to trigger an increase in some people’s spend (to meet the threshold) then once that threshold had been met you might also reasonably expect those people to try events they may not have otherwise considered (thanks to the discount).

I may simply be unaware that people are already doing this? Are there any venues that say ‘once you spend £x within a certain period we will offer you % discount for the following number of days’?

Equally I may be blissfully unaware of the 100s of perfectly valid reasons why this would never work. Either way, I’d be interested in hearing what people more qualified than I think about this.

Digital Culture 2015: a few thoughts/observations

Just before Christmas the 3rd annual ‘Digital Culture’ report was released, this is a longitudinal study looking at the adoption and impact of “digital technologies” in the arts sector.

There seem to be a number of idiosyncrasies with the survey, namely that it tries to force everything into little Arts Council shaped boxes that have come straight off a funding application, also that the number of participants that have participated in all 3 years (240ish) is far fewer than those who have just participated in 1 or 2 of the years (350) – which renders longitudinal comparisons slightly tricky. But leaving all that aside, I read the report and have vomited up some thoughts on it all below. Something perhaps worth noting, I have only read the report, I haven’t taken a look at the raw data, thus my observations are made on the assumption that the analysis in the report is correct.

TL;DR:

Digital is apparently becoming less “important” for arts organisations, everyone seems to see it as a marketing thing and not much more than that. Those that are making the most of digital are those with more money, particularly NPOs who seem to be leaving the rest of the sector behind somewhat.

Headlines:

National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening

The above, not-really-all-that-surprising, quote is the main thing that jumped out at me (and seems to be the main thing that others have picked up on). Unfortunately this seems to be becoming applicable to more and more aspects of arts organisations’ activity, this probably points to deep-rooted funding inadequacies and entrenched sectoral issues but I’m not really qualified to answer either of those particular problems.

If you look at the “factsheets” for each artform covered in the survey it would appear that “business models” and “distribution are the two things that the organisations perceive “digital” least important for. Pretty much everyone says that it is “most important” for “marketing” and most artforms also seem to stick “archiving” in the “most important” box (I’d argue there could or should be a fairly tight link between distribution and archiving but hey ho, these are the labels they’ve gone with).

Interestingly, or misleadingly, the executive summary presents this as “Digital technologies have also become more important for revenue generation, with 45 per cent of organisations now reporting that this is important to their business models, up from 34 per cent in 2013” i.e. most organisations in the study do not see digital as important to their business models (which Chris Unitt explores, under the wider scope of “digital leadership” a bit here).

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The depressing thing is that the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts (which conducted this report) clearly sees these things, particularly business models and revenue generation as the more important areas for the sector to try and focus on (judging by both the “guides” on the homepage of their website and the premise of the Fund i.e. “supports ideas that use digital technology to build new business models and enhance audience reach for organisations with arts projects“) so this points to either a failure on the part of the Fund or the sector in this area. Either the Fund failed to push money towards the right projects to achieve its aim of proving new business models that are adoptable and adaptable across the sector or the sector has proven itself incapable of understanding and utilising the findings that these funded projects have thrown up (I suspect it’s a little of both).

Bad stuff:

Basically, no-one has any money and this is stopping people from doing things. And the only people who do have money are the people who have loads of (or at least more) money anyway, for everything (i.e. NPOs, specifically the bigger NPOs):

  • more organisations have highlighted concerns around access to finance, with 73 per cent of organisations now seeing lack of funding for digital as a barrier to their aspirations (up from 68 per cent in 2013).
  • National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) are more digitally active, experience fewer barriers, have better access to skills, are more likely to be engaged in R&D activities, and are more likely to report positive impacts. There is also evidence that the gap between NPOs and the others is widening
  • significantly fewer organisations (especially smaller ones) report that they exhibit the R&D behaviours that the survey suggests correlated with digital success, such as experimenting and taking risks, and evaluating the impact of digital work” which chimes with the other finding that “Take-up of data-led activities has also stalled or fallen back, for example 43 per cent now use data to develop their online strategy, down from 47 per cent in 2013” given that data-led activities and effective evaluation share similar skillsets this possibly highlights a bit of a skills gap.

Perhaps related to the above was the finding that “respondents report a number of organisation-related factors which might inhibit use of digital technologies. More report there being no senior digital manager in their organisation, IT systems being slow/ limited and there being a lack of suitable external suppliers“. I think the first part of this is most important, if there is no senior, or at least dedicated, digital person in an organisation then digital is never going to get the attention or understanding that it requires (this also relates back to Chris Unitt’s post that I linked to early on digital leadership) and if an organisation has very limited funds then they’re not going to free up space on the payroll to employ a dedicated digital person – this issue is even further exacerbated when digital is seen as not important to business models and/or revenue. It’s hard to make a case for something that you don’t believe will have any impact on the bottom line when funds are tight. The point around there being a “lack of suitable external suppliers” is, frankly, untrue. Although if people are reporting this then clearly work needs to be done around making organisations more aware of the numerous, talented suppliers out there (although, again, if you have no dedicated digital resource looking at this then of course your understanding of the options available is likely to be limited or non-existent), everyone’s favourite Chris (Unitt) has, once again, done something useful to this end; a big database of suppliers, split by services offered – which can be found here.

Further on that “digital person” point, rarely if ever do I see digital people employed in anything other than an administrative capacity (which this report would back up). I understand that these skillsets (i.e. being able to input on the administrative or creative sides of a company’s activity) are (or can be) quite discrete from one another, maybe that’s because I’ve lived a sheltered life or maybe it’s because, as still seems to be the case, the arts sector very much sees digital as a “marketing thing” that shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near creative practice. Which is a shame and, I think, fundamentally shortsighted. Especially when you get to the point of “distribution”, if you as an organisation have no history or understanding of how to integrate digital into the artistic side of your work then how will you ever be able to meaningfully adopt any form of digital distribution for that work. Anyway, that’s possibly a thought for another day.

Lastly on this particular point, the basics still seem to being ignored on a fairly vast scale:

  • 40 per cent of organisations still do not have a mobile-optimised web presence
  • 41 per cent now accept online donations (up from 35 per cent in 2013)” – what on earth are the other 59% doing!? Most of them are registered charities! All the charities I am aware of accept donations online, through JustGiving or whatever.
  • 72 per cent are now publishing content onto their websites (77 per cent in 2013)” – I think maybe this was a poorly-worded question cos…like….content makes up the vast majority of what websites are. But, regardless this sticks out as one of the strangest things in the whole report…
  • outside London around 41-44% (depending on area) of organisations sell tickets online, compared with 54% of London organisations” perhaps this is such a strangely low statistic because they’ve lumped in organisations who simply don’t sell tickets for anything (museums and whatnot) but, taken on face value, this seems very surprising and worrying.

Good stuff:

Whilst this report cannot hide the fact that the sector on the whole isn’t doing brilliantly, there are pockets of good practice. This is usually to be found within organisations who have the time, money, willingness (or a combination thereof) to invest in digital things

  • it is the digital experimenters (those that are willing to embrace and take risks with technology) and digital leaders (those that place the most importance on digital) that are most likely to see positive impacts on their organisations – in the audiences they reach, the way they operate, and in their creative capacities.
  • NPOs have continued to increase the number of digital activities they are undertaking

A few other (mostly depressing) tidbits:

  • Over three-quarters (78 per cent) plan on introducing something new next year, with crowdfunding being the most anticipated activity” – it then, about half a page later, goes on to say “Crowdfunding and livestreaming, for example, have sometimes been more difficult and resource-intensive than expected
  • We moved to a new booking system which works very well except in terms of online booking. This relates to a lack of resources to integrate into our website, which is not fit for purpose. We need to build the ‘front window’ for the technologies we invest time and money in by developing a new website. The Garage [performing arts venue in Norwich]” – I’ve seen this in numerous sectors I’ve worked in, organisations end up lumbered with (more-often-than-not) legacy systems which were never conceived for the modern, interconnected technological landscape that we now have to deal with. Luckily there are a growing number of forward-looking suppliers in this specific area (i.e. ticketing) so that pretty much any size organisation should be able to find something that suits their needs/budget.
  • in many arts and cultural organisations, particularly the smaller ones, an earlier appetite for more digital innovation has been replaced by greater caution.” – whilst caution is, of course, a perfectly valid element of approaching new things if it is replacing an appetite for trying out ‘digital stuff’ then that is perhaps not good news

Other responses:

Hannah Nicklin also had a very worth-paying-attention-to rant on Twitter, a few excerpts below but it’s worth checking her feed for the whole thing:

I’d agree with all those points to a certain degree (although I think distribution can/should be important, just the best option hasn’t been cracked yet) and have written about them specifically in the past.

A couple of people also made the point that the model of funding works counter to the low-level, iterative, agile experimentation that NESTA apparently want to see (which, again, I’d totally agree with)

What to do?

I’m not sure this all tells us much that we don’t already know although I was pretty shocked by the lack of basic activity being undertaken by a significant minority of organisations. Maybe the Arts Council/whoever should be looking to raise the capabilities of the bottom end of the sector before it tries to do anything too fancy, the fact that you still can’t give so many organisations your money via the internet is pretty ridiculous. Narrowing this gap would surely then help to create a more solid foundation from which ‘innovative’ things could be explored. It also seems clear to me that funders should be looking to seed-fund projects which could benefit the whole sector and provide micro-grants to encourage experimentation, whether or not either of these things will actually happen is open for discussion though.

Around some of the issues such as there ‘not being enough/good enough suppliers’ I think there are simple things that can be done, I’m not talking about anything as OTT as the RAR (http://www.recommendedagencies.com/) but maybe something that is trying to achieve similar things, although I do think Chris U has almost achieved this with something a straight-forward as a simple spreadsheet (although why it took Chris – off his own back – to do this – about 3 years ago – is beyond me)

Oil tankers, learning, issues and NPOs

Big data, performance capture, digital commissions, audience engagement, new platforms, digital marketing. Blah blah blah. These are a few of the many “digital issues” that have presented themselves whilst I’ve been at Opera North.

I’ve already started and given up a few times on trying to write something that summarised what I’ve seen/done/learned over the last 3.5 years or so, here’s another try, I’m not going to go into too much detail because…it’s probably quite boring. So, here are just a few observations/thoughts from my point of view having worked at a National Portfolio Organisation for the last few years.

I am aware that this post strikes a fairly pessimistic note, so, first, here are some positives:

  • the sector is built on, and functions because of, some extraordinarily talented, enthusiastic and hard-working people.
  • the collaborative spirit which enables so much “stuff” to happen within the arts world is just the sort of thing that’s needed to be able to confront and harness digital.
  • there are some people doing genuinely interesting, clever and great things.
  • the evident frustration that appears in this post is because I can see the potential that exists, not being able to see that realised makes me very sad…and annoyed.

1. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is just going to keep getting wider. I first wrote about this quite a while ago (Building Digital Capacity in the Arts), my experience of working directly in the arts sector extends to my time at Opera North and when I first started here I was shocked and worried at the sheer lack of digital skills and knowledge within the company and more widely within the sector as a whole. This lack of understanding and awareness seemed fairly all-pervasive and no-one really seemed to have much of an idea how to address it. The Arts Council certainly didn’t (I’m still not convinced they do, even if they now seem to be acknowledging that it may be a problem) and any of the limited money that was  available was sucked up by the (mostly larger) organisations who had some apparent understanding of the problem, or at least an idea about how they might approach tackling it. I get this, allocating money to things where you’re fairly sure you’ll see success is understanding, but is just (as an unintended side-effect) solidifying the skills/capacity gap that already exists and, in my view, making it even worse. Also the money seems to have gone towards funding, frankly, unimaginative projects and, until recently (admittedly Native is good and getting better) the sharing of any outcomes was…limited to say the least, and in many cases completely non-existent. But more generally there is still a huge issue with fundamentally basic understanding of the opportunities (and threats) that digital offers and how to grasp (or confront) that and there seems to be no real momentum towards addressing that…which I would say is a problem. Referring back to the 2011 post I’ve linked to above I certainly don’t think we’re at a point where “digital capacity” in the sector has been built to a level that could be described as resilient…

2. The arts sector is its own worst enemy. I could ramble on at length here but I think what I’m trying to describe is how the structures and processes that are inherent within the sector, the union agreements that govern ways of working and the historical practises regarding “how things get done” are just too out-of-step with how the world now is. I am fully aware that artists need protection, intellectual property is hugely important and rights exist for a reason. But all of these things need to be addressed in light of how the “landscape” currently is, not how it was 20 or more years ago. I know that the level of change we have witnessed over the last decade has happened at such a pace that means lots of people feel intimidated and scared but hiding behind restrictive and outdated working practises and agreements won’t hold back the tide, it will simply mean that by the point that the impetus for change becomes irresistible many people and professions will find themselves in a position of almost complete irrelevance or that the level of change required will be crippling, far better to be flexible and realistic and roll with the punches than try to out-Canute Canute.

I still really think that this quote is so relevant, and I’m annoyed I didn’t jot down who it was from: “an industry has to nearly collapse (like media, TV, music) before it realises the power of digital” – imagine if the arts sector could try and get ahead of the curve, being brought to the brink of collapse doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable for anyone.

3. Digital strategy isn’t really a thing. I got quite uppity about this a while ago (Digital Strategy, why how…wait, why again?) but I’m still concerned by the number of quite important and seemingly intelligent people I see yammering on about “digital strategy”, my issue is with the way that digital is thought of, and talked about, as a separate thing, a new tool that we need to work out how to hold and to hit stuff with. In my opinion it is more and also completely different to that, it requires new terms of reference, or at least a more sophisticated understanding. My thoughts were articulated far better than I could ever manage in this piece from Paul Boag, Are We Thinking About Digital All Wrong?. Paul goes further (and writes far more coherently) than I did. Here are a few excerpts from his piece: “when I write about forming a digital strategy, I am not referring to a strategy for using a tool. I am talking about forming a strategy to adapt to the fundamental changes that digital has brought upon society” in my post I talked about understanding digital as “a layer”, I didn’t quite get to the level where I was discussing understanding and adapting to the level of impact the digital change has had on the world, although I should have. “I am often surprised at how resistant managers are to adapt their companies’ structure to accommodate the new reality of digital. They persist in trying to squeeze it into their existing mental model by making it an IT problem or a communications tool” – now I’m not sure Paul has any arts clients but this description could easily be applied to the arts sector, maybe it is due to lack of understanding (I think it probably is) but until this is addressed I’m worried that, once again, opportunities will be missed. I think the best excerpt I could grab from Paul is: “The key is to recognize that digital-focused thinking will not be required forever. One day, companies will not need Chief Digital Officers, the way we no longer have Chief Electricity Officers. We also need to recognize that the most important role of a digital team is not to own and implement a digital vision, but to facilitate company-wide change and to educate colleagues about the potential of digital in their areas of responsibility.” In many ways the things I am most proud of having achieved at Opera North are the changes in understanding and approach to digital. I am not claiming that Opera North is a “digital first” organisation, it most definitely isn’t, but the most fundamental changes I’ve overseen have come through intangible things such as a shift in discussions so that digital  is (in some cases) just considered as another channel through which the company performs/communicates/reaches people. It is by no means the same as being in the same room as an audience but that brings both pros and cons, and the fact that people are at least beginning to understand that is going to have the biggest and most long-term impact on the company.

4. Real change is a slow process. This is perhaps stating the obvious but the pace of change in the arts sector seems glacial (and that is putting it mildly), the reality of funding cycles and all that jazz means that the sector moves to certain rhythms and stimuli, none of which are particularly urgent. The last funding cycle was…5 years I think, the next will be…3? The impetus to do anything outside of this natural, externally-imposed timeline seems non-existent. For example it is only now, with the next round of funding applications happening, that ACE is beginning to talk about enshrining some level of commitment to “digital stuff” in its funding criteria. Maybe this viewpoint is skewed by working at a fairly large NPO organisation but at times it feels less like trying to turn an oil tanker and more like trying to turn a fleet of…whatever is bigger and slower than an oil tanker.

I’m not sure I’ve arrived at any particularly earth-shattering conclusions, I don’t think I ever expected to. As I say above, change is occurring, it is just a very (very) slow thing, maybe I’m just impatient, and undoubtedly my sight of what might be possible inevitably feeds my frustration and leads me to be a grumpy bastard. Hey ho. Good luck to the arts sector and all who continue to sail in her, I will watch from a not-so-great-distance with interest.

Leadership in the arts sector

I was reading Sunny Widmann’s piece on leadership in the arts sector (Getting Unstuck: Developing Skills to Climb the Leadership Ladder)

Marc Vogl, who works with arts and culture organizations in his role as Principal of Vogl Consulting, aptly describes the problem as a clogged and leaky pipeline. Basically, there are a small number of leadership positions at the top, often held for many years by the same people (that’s the clogged part) and therefore more junior employees are stuck at their current level, growing increasingly tired of waiting around for these positions to come available. Eventually, financial realities of working at a nonprofit and the monotony of a static career path push workers to leave the cultural sector (that’s the leaky part).

This rang pretty true, even just looking at the 10 organisations who receive the most cash from ACE you can see a pattern (FYI, never do this research, it is very very tedious):

  • Royal Opera House
    • CEO: Alex Beard, in post less than a year but previously in senior roles at The Tate for over a two decades
  • Southbank Centre
    • CEO: Alan Bishop, in post since 2009, previously the Central Office of Information and Saatchi & Saatchi. Artistic Director: Jude Kelly, in post since 2005, previously artistic directo at the West Yorkshire Playhouse 1990-2002
  • Royal National Theatre
    • Artistic Director: Nick Hytner, in post since 2003, previously – The National Theatre
  • English National Opera
    • CEO: Loretta Tomasi, in post since 2005, previously senior role at ENO, previously to that a senior role at Really Useful Theatres for 12 years. Artistic Director: John Berry, in post since 2005, previously senior roles at ENO
  • Royal Shakespeare Company
    • Executive Director: Catherine Mallyon, in post since 2012, previously senior role at the Southbank Centre. Artistic Director: Greg Doran, in post since 2012, previously various roles at the RSC and in theatreland (hopefully he’ll never read that summary)
  • Opera North
    • General Director: Richard Mantle, in post since 1994, previously General Director of Scottish Opera
  • Birmingham Royal Ballet
    • Director: David Bintley, in post since…can’t quite work out but it’d seem to be at least since the late 1990s/early 2000s. CEO: Christopher Barron, in post since 2005, previously CEO at Scottish Opera.
  • English National Ballet
    • Executive Director: Caroline Thomson, in post since 2013, previously senior roles at the BBC. Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo, in post since 2013, previously – ENB/Royal Ballet
  • Welsh National Opera
    • Chief Executive and Artistic Director: David Pountney, in post since 2011, previously Intendant of the Bregenz Festival from 2003.
  • North Music Trust (essentially: Sage Gateshead)
    • General Director, Sage Gateshead: Anthony Sargent, in post since 2000, previously senior role at the BBC.

Now don’t get me wrong, these are huge organisations that require stable leadership from people who have experience leading similar-sized organisations, that’s perfectly sensible. HOWEVER in relation to my thoughts earlier this week about the lack of understanding and ambition in relation to ‘digital stuff’ in the sector I think this is potentially a big problem.

The reality is that digital simply did not feature in the world all of these people ‘grew up’ in, you could argue that good leaders would draw on the experience(s) of those around them to assist them on issues they didn’t have a view on. However I really think that such a fundamental shift in understanding is required that is just not going to be forthcoming from people whose experience for the last 15-20 years (or longer) is in running medium/large arts organisations, in an environment in which digital has never figured. Now of course there are exceptions to this, I’m not going to go into them here.

This lack of input from people whose whole lives haven’t been spent within the sector strikes me as a real problem. I’m sure it isn’t unique to the arts sector but of all the people I’ve listed above I can only see 2 who genuinely have experience at a senior level working outside the sector; The Southbank’s Alan Murphy and ENB’s Caroline Thomson (maybe 3 if you count Anthony Sargent but his BBC experience was…a long time ago). That’s 2 (maybe 3) out of 15 which is…not very many. I’m fairly confident that this is replicated across most arts organisations, now of course you could argue that the arts require a particular set of skills and experience that you can only get by…running arts organisations (although I guess this is far more true for the role of Artistic Director or whatever). Equally I am not, by any stretch, saying that this is the one reason for the lack of urgency around this issue in the sector, there are far more issues at play and nothing is that simple. However I am fairly sure that this lack of external expertise cannot be helping anyone tackle this particular problem and I think it is becoming clearer by the day that the arts sector probably can’t tackle it on its own.

Am I being completely naïve? Are there, in fact, lots and lots of organisations who have convinced fantastic people from outside the sector into senior, permanent positions (I’m not talking ‘associate whatever’ because that can mean…absolutely anything – including precisely nothing)?

You would maybe expect ACE to set the agenda, or at least try to help guide, on such an important issue. However given what I have seen, read and heard over past few years ACE have just as much problem understanding it as anyone else hence their eagerness to try and adopt things like live broadcast into cinema on a sector-wide basis – equally does this new-found love of broadcast (albeit in a mildly different form) come from the fact that ‘Baz‘ comes from a broadcast background so this is simply a solution that he can get his head around? Which, in a way, I think comes back around to making my point for me, people’s solutions to problems are invariable based on their own experiences, if you have no experience of digital solutions, interesting digital projects and all the rest of it, and all your peers come from precisely the same background then, really, are you going to be able to understand this threat/opportunity and react accordingly? I’d argue you probably aren’t. And that’s a real shame.

What’s the solution (I’ve been told, rightly, that I can’t just moan, I have to suggest solutions too)? I see the main problem at the moment being one of a lack of understanding, a lack of skills and as a result of this, a lack of ambition.

  • Clearly the money available in the arts sector is never (or very rarely) going to be able to attract the top, top digital talent, quite simply they are always going to end up at the big tech and media companies. So why not try and forge links with those companies? A ‘geeks in residence’ (Scotland, Australia, England) -type programme at a far more senior level than has already taken place would be an interesting avenue to explore.
  • I also see increasing the digital capacity of the sector as a whole as an important step that is needed, and quickly (this is something I’ve talked about before), this will ultimately ‘filter up’ and eventually result in leaders who at least have some knowledge in, and understanding of, digital.
    • And by this I DO NOT mean anything like the ‘digital capacity in the arts’ programme that has been run over the last 18 months
  • Alongside all this is the wider need for the arts sector to start to have some proper career development/progression opportunities for people, I know the AMA are trying to set the agenda in this area in relation to marketing and comms and there seem to be similar moves in fundraising, I see a need for this in relation to digital as well. But I am not just talking about courses for people to learn how to send emails, I’m interested in the artistic implications/possibilities that digital presents, we can’t just focus on upskilling the ‘support/admin’ side of the sector and leave the artists behind, that would almost be worse than doing nothing.
  • Unrelated to leadership but: there needs to be more digital ‘messing about’ as a matter of course, I’m not convinced that as a sector we’re particularly good at trying things out and being happy if it doesn’t quite pan out as expected, and then learning from that. This sort of low-level, iterative play would then help to at least build some momentum around digital thinking and start to provide a foundation for people to start to understand the possibilities and what might, or might not work.
  • Also digital needs to stop being talked about as just a distribution channel. Yes, that is one of the potential applications but it is by no means the only one and it’d be short-sighted and narrow-minded to only pursue this.

So, what do you think? Does the arts sector have a problem with a lack of diversity in its leaders? Is this lack of diversity then having an effect on things like digital ambition across the sector? I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts.

important p.s. although this doesn’t relate to my point about digital, only 5 of those leaders (out of 15) are women. 1/3? That’s pretty disgraceful.

Digital success…?

NESTA recently announced the beneficiaries of their £500,000 Digital R&D fund (details here). I’m not sure exactly what the aim of this investment is (the stated aim is for the projects to “harness digital technologies for the benefit of the arts and cultural sector” which is suitably woolly as to cover a multitude of sins) as I have variously heard it is aiming to explore new business models, use new technology and/or encourage arts organisations to think in new ways about the ‘potential of digital’.

Whatever the purpose is I don’t think there is enough information available yet to be able to make a judgement about whether or not the 8 selected projects represent a diverse and thorough range of initiatives (my sense is that they don’t but I’d like to be able to actually rationalise that feeling).

Harnessing digital technology

So I was pondering on what examples already exist that could be framed in terms of ‘harnessing digital technology’. An obvious one (to me at any rate) is the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, however, as I am discovering with many things in the arts, it is not quite the panacea that (some) people seem to see it as. This article in the FT (from March 2011) looks at the numbers, and the striking thing is that the project hasn’t broken even yet – striking but perhaps not surprising, after all the set up costs for such an initiative must be large, even when you take into account things such as the fact that the cameras are all remote-controlled (thus removing the need for individual camera operators and the cost they bring with them). However it is when you realise that the project was only ever feasible because Deutsche Bank are the sole, exclusive sponsors (again this partnership is perhaps unremarkable because the Berlin Philharmonic are an incredibly reputable, incredibly German cultural brand that it makes sense for a large financial organisation to be involved with) that you realise this isn’t really a transferable model, how many brands are there that carry the prestige of the Berlin Phil? How many banks are there (or organisations of similar financial means) that’d gladly sink considerable sums of money into such a venture?

Commercial reality

Anyway, at the risk of descending into negativity my point is this: the true commercial potential offered by digital developments to arts organisations is the opportunity to reach larger/new audiences HOWEVER the infrastructure required to deliver artistic content at a high-enough quality, in a way that can be monetised, in a way that is accessible to the largest number of people is still incredibly costly. Yes the advent of YouTube and every phone having a videocamera built in is great, however this will not produce content that audiences will pay for. Digital advertising, having a good website – these will reduce some of your overheads but you are unlikely to see exponential commercial gains.

A solution? Probably not

What I would dearly love to see, as I’ve hinted at in previous posts (rants) is some realisation by funding bodies/people with lots of money that sensible investment in truly adaptable/adoptable/transferable solutions is what needs to happen. Broadly the ‘digital needs’ of the arts can be summarise as: need to find more people to see our stuff, need to make it easier for people to see our stuff, obviously it is far more complicated than that but I think you can probably boil everything down to those two points (which, on consideration might actually be just the one point from two slightly different angles).

The internet is, ultimately, people and content driven. Have good content, tell people, people watch the content and tell people, who watch the content, who tell people and so on. It is easier than ‘real’ life because of the removal of geographical restrictions and the joys (ease) of having content delivered straight onto a device that can be taken with you more or less anywhere, but if you don’t have content, if you can’t tell people about it, it is fundamentally useless to you.

Noone really has the financial capacity to invest in the kind of setup enjoyed by the Berlin Phil, there are some companies doing good stuff (Digital Theatre spring to mind) with multiple organisations, but even these companies are relatively small and simply don’t have the capacity to provide a sector-wide solution (e.g. Digital Theatre can turn a production around in 6-12 weeks – which is fast but is still only 4-8 productions a year). And the problem with the allocation of these pots of money (e.g. this NESTA fund) is that they seem too often to just serve the needs of one organisation by providing them with the cash to buy in their own setup rather than by actually providing a sustainable solution for the good of the sector.

Something that we’ve been involved with recently at Opera North perhaps moves more in the direction I see as providing actual, long-term solutions (as digital developments aren’t just a set of problems/opportunities for today that can be solved one-by-one, they are ever evolving, therein lies the issue). The University of Lancaster, along with Newcastle Uni and the Royal College of Art was awarded a £4m research grant (more info) to “set up a Knowledge Exchange Hub in collaboration with the BBC, Microsoft, MediaCityUK, FutureEverything, Tate Liverpool, Opera North, Storey Creative Industries Centre, The Sharp Project, Lancaster City Council, NESTA, National Media Museum, Manchester Digital, Arts Council England and over 30 small and medium sized companies working in the sector, such as Stardotstar and Mudlark.” surely this kind of inter-organisational relationship-building should be the focus of investment, allowing the sharing of existing expertise/resources rather than funding pale imitations throughout the sector?

My frustration again and again is at seeing this strange belief that reinventing the wheel is something to be applauded and rewarded. E.g. Don’t fund the development of a new video-sharing platform when the proposed outcome will only benefit a handful of organisations AND, more importantly, there are a large number of very good, widely-used video-sharing platforms already in existence that, with the best will in the world, you have NO chance of overcoming – 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute, you cannot and should not try to compete with that (in addition are you proposing to try and match YouTube’s rights agreements with the PRS et al? Unlikely). In this particular instance, if you can’t beat them, join them. Seriously.

To conclude

Anyway, where was I? Ah yes, the arts sector is wildly trying to jump on the back of the mental digital dragon and ride it off to the end of the rainbow where there will be pots of gold (that metaphor made my brain hurt), but it seems to be going about it in a very strange way.

Instead of trying to identify the key things that’d benefit the sector, increase revenues, increase audiences (and in turn be able to fund some of the, all too frequent, vanity projects I see again and again) there seems to be a concerted effort to salami-slice the money available and put it into low-impact, limited-focus initiatives that ultimately will be of little use to anyone. Surely it’s better to fire off a few, large, well-aimed arrows rather than chuck a load of pins at the wall and hope in vain that one of them sticks?

But then, if it was the other way round I’d probably be moaning that it was only a few initiatives being funded with lavish amounts of cash. Because I’m grumbly.

Post-script

Of course my ramblings here don’t really cover how to utilise digital developments in artistic endeavours. That’s a whole different point. I have, on purpose, focussed on the issues that I see as the biggest missed opportunity.