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?
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.
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.
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.