Another lifetime ago we were in the Manufacturing Economy. We made things. Then we were in the Transportation Economy. We outsourced making things and brought whatever we needed to us. Then it was the Experience Economy. We created entertainment around the things we buy (how we justify paying $4.50 for a 50-cent coffee). Now we’re in the Attention Economy. In the infinite choice marketplace, ideas and products only get traction if they get noticed.
The American arts economy is run as though we’re still living in the Manufacturing Economy or the Transportation Economy. That is, most arts organizations and artists believe they’re in the business of making things.
Of course they make things. But these days everybody makes things. There’s an abundance of everything out there, so making things, even if they’re very very good, means less than it did 30 years ago because there are many other very very good things to choose from.
In the Transportation Economy, scarcity dictated opportunity, and getting the word out about a product could build an audience. In the Attention Economy where we can get what we want when we want and how we want it (metaphorically, if not in actuality) we grab for what inserts itself in our path. The issue isn’t access, it’s overload. How do we sort out things we want from the overwhelming mass of “stuff” that engulfs us?
If you believe your business model is the classic consumer transaction (I make the performance, you buy the ticket) then you’re done. Sorry. That’s a Manufacturing Economy mindset, and while it worked when choices were limited, now that you’re competing in the infinite marketplace offering 8000 or 8 million choices, it’s increasingly unlikely that your “audience” is going to choose you as often as they did in the past.
In the Attention Economy it isn’t enough to be the best orchestra or theatre or dance company. People aren’t comparing you with other orchestras or theatre or dance companies; they’re measuring whether classical music or theatre or dance is something they want to choose at the moment. They’re deciding whether they want an active or passive experience; they’re trying to determine what level of social encounter they feel like today. They’re weighing whether they want a predictable, known, comfortable quantity or whether they want to be adventurous and try something new. They’re figuring out whether they want to learn something and are willing to work for that or whether they’re looking for pure entertainment that costs them little. Price matters – if it’s going to cost, it’s got to be better than the free alternative. It doesn’t matter that there are 47 varieties of spaghetti sauce on the shelf in front of me if what I really want is pesto.
The choice is bewildering. Paralyzing, even. You can’t compete with such overwheming choice with a consumer transaction model, no matter if you’re the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera or the Guthrie Theatre.
One of the big lessons of social media is that community matters. A lot. People make their choices about culture based on their community. Peer word-of-mouth is a much more powerful driver of cultural choice than newspaper reviews or advertising. How do you fight infinite choice? Build community rather than audience. Give people reasons to engage with you, care about you, so when they’re making choices it’s more than just a consumer transaction. Nothing new about this. Amway, the mega-churches, the Barack Obama campaign all understand this.