This past week I came across a New York Times article featured on ArtsJournal examining the remarkable success of the indie Jazz label, Pi. The article demonstrates that Pi is bucking trends in the music industry. It is managing to not just keep its head above water at a time when many music labels are struggling, but it is having tremendous impact despite being a relatively small Jazz label focused on the leading edge of its artform.
Here are a few keys to Pi’s success (which I gleaned from the article):
(1) Unlike many labels that flood the market with product (often as a hedge against the uncertainty of not knowing which will succeed or not), Pi releases a handful of albums per year and is highly selective in choosing which artists to get behind. Virtually everything it releases meets with critical acclaim. Because it has earned a reputation for consistently putting out great albums and has a very clear niche, it has a devoted (and growing) fan base.
(2) Given its limited release schedule, and the limited revenue potential of each of its releases (these are not mainstream artists), Pi keeps its overhead low. Its owners are pragmatic and disciplined. By staying small they have been able to maintain artistic integrity.
(3) Pi has a long courtship with an artist before it makes a commitment. Once in, however, Pi invests deeply in the development of its artists and ensures that each receives sufficient resources, attention, and support from the label. This is a critical factor in the label’s remarkable track record and reputation.
Pi’s strategies are serving both its artists and its customers.
Given an overabundance of product and seats to fill on any given night in many communities (relative to current ‘demand’) and (sorry to say) the not-quite-ready-for-primetime-quality of much the so-called ‘professional’ work that is produced and presented in the US, it’s worth considering the lessons of Pi (which are not new, of course).
It seems that more than a few overleveraged and underperforming professional nonprofit arts organizations need to both better differentiate themselves and hold themselves to higher artistic standards; to right-size their institutions and reduce fixed costs given the amount of income they can reasonably expect for the forseeable future; and to provide more time, attention, and resources to artists and to the development, production, and thoughtful promotion of artistic works.
I’d much rather live in a community with a sustainable number of boutique arts organizations than one with a deluxe mall featuring four high-end department-stores (the ‘flagship’ orchestra, theater, opera, and ballet companies) that suck up the majority of the resources and a bunch of strip malls made up of undercapitalized retail chains and mom-and-pop shops that either saw their best days in 1985 and haven’t been able to make improvements since, or were formed in recent years and (while perhaps promising) are struggling for attention, customers and capital.
I seriously fear that the strip mall nonprofit arts sector is our future. There are arts boutiques out there, but in many cities they are few and far between and seem endangered.
How and why so many arts organizations in the US have grown to unsustainable levels in recent decades is a topic that requires more reflection than I can give in a blog post. However, I will say this: it often seems that capacity building in the arts sector is (1) aimed primarily at securing the administrative futures of arts organizations and (2) resulting in an erosion of quality and distinction in artistic processes and experiences, today. I by no means wish to suggest that the answer to an overbuilt sector is to starve it into a more sustainable state; but it is reasonable to think that we need to seriously rethink how existing resources are distributed (within and among institutions).
We tend to think of a ‘sustainable state’ for the arts and culture sector as being one in which existing arts organizations have achieved equilibrium and can crank along in perpetuity. This is wrongheaded: even if we could achieve a state in which all existing organizations could secure adequate resources to keep running year-after-year, the lack of creative destruction in the sector would eventually lead to its stultification (oh wait, we may be there now). This is one of the consequences of letting some institutions get ‘too big to fail’ (and too big is relative to the size of city you are in and the other arts organizations in your market): the majority of arts sector resources get sucked into the incumbents and rather than creative destruction (reinvention of those firms or their replacement by younger, more innovative ones) we end up with plain old destruction (losing the boutiques and watching the big organizations calcify).
Pi may or may not last for another 50 years (much less beyond the lives of its owners/founders). But while it exists it is having positive cultural and social impact. That’s more than we can say about many professional nonprofit arts organizations in the US.
Generic strip-mall image by Mark Winfrey, licensed at Shutterstock.com.