Opera America had asked me to speak at their annual conference this year, but of course the conference was canceled and moved online. So I made this video for the online conference, talking about the influence of technology on opera and how audience expectations evolve as they use technology. We’ve marveled at the speed of change in our lives over the past twenty years because of technology, but the lockdown has hyper-esacalated that.
When we do get back into theatres our expectations of an audience experience will have changed because of the ways we’re using technology now. Daily Zoom users went from 10 million a day before the pandemic to 200 million a day during. Our ease of using these tools will change us. An artistic experience is shaped by the context of the time in which it is experienced. So we won’t be able to simply “go back” to what things were before — it won’t fit our new context. Anyway — here’s the video. I’m participating in a streamed discussion using the talk as a starting point on Wednesday May 20th at 2PM Eastern on the Opera America YouTube channel.
Readers have been asking if I could post the text of this talk, so here it is:
Hi. I’m Douglas McLennan, editor of ArtsJournal.com. As you can see behind me, I have the requisite shelves of impressive books behind me in my office for a zoomcast. You might have seen that there’s a new Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility that even tracks and interprets what your video backdrops say about you. (so don’t look too closely.).
ArtsJournal track arts and culture stories around the world. And as you can imagine, our feeds are full of stories these days about how the virus and lockdown are impacting our culture.
This was meant to be a very different presentation when Marc and I talked some months ago. What I was planning to talk about then was how in the space of 20 brief years, technology has transformed relationships between artists and audiences. And that the ways people get, use and share culture has changed our art and the things we make. I don’t think it’s an accident that opera has experienced a creative boom in this period. It fits our time. It’s a synthesis of everything around us – a multimedia experience in a time when multimedia is endlessly fascinating to us. While it might not be obvious, I think much of this interest in opera has been driven by technology. And – I firmly believe that we’re at the very early stages of how digital technology will transform the art.
Let me explain. The arts of every era are shaped by the context around them. That includes the tools themselves – the technologies – , lights, projections, supertitles, video and so forth – but more important is how these tools change the nature of how we’re communicating and our expectations of those transactions.
This isn’t a recent phenomenon. You could say that a good part of the 18th and 19th centuries was about developing the technologies of musical instruments – valve technology, reed technology… harpsichords became fortepianos became pianos… This innovation helped drive how music was communicated. The ability to work in bigger halls, for example as instruments got louder and more consistent. And a bigger hall changed the intimacy of the experience and the culture of being together.
Before Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in the 1840s, information took weeks to travel long distances. The telegraph suddenly made it possible for the thoughts of a person on one side of the continent to be instantly delivered to someone at the other end. It was mindblowing magic in a world largely defined by physical distances. The telegraph changed everything – how wars were fought, business was transacted, politics was conducted and news was shared.
The invention of the telephone, and later, at the turn of the 20th Century, the radio, transformed mass communication from simple information sharing to expression, conversation. Jill Lepore, in her excellent book “These Truths” reports that until the radio most citizens had never heard the speaking voices of their leaders; to be heard in crowds, politicians had to shout. When FDR began his Fireside chats, his opponents cried foul – “it was if he was speaking directly into the ears of the nation,” they complained. It was intimate. It was persuasive, and it changed people’s relationship with their president.
The point is – technology is important for how it changes us socially. And the art that follows from that.
My original talk was going to be based on how digital technology has changed audience behavior and expectations. We’ve been dazzled by the pace of change, the disruption of everything, breathtaking evolution and need to constantly reinvent.
That seems so naïve now.
For in one fell swoop in March, the pandemic changed everything. And on a massive scale that touches everything. Suddenly technology which was a big part of our lives already, has become the lifeline. As I’ve watched responses in the arts world to what has happened, I’ve come to see things sorting themselves into two camps: Restorationists, who believe that something bad has happened and we just have to survive to get through it and back to normal. And Opportunists, who understand that things will be forever different in some very important ways. I could do a whole talk about the ways Opportunists have thrived in crises and Restorationists always emerge weaker, but for now I’ll offer the three main reasons I’m in the Opportunists camp:
- The scale of the destruction wrought by the pandemic has completely overwhelmed our resources, and even if we survive, the traditional business models we worked under are no longer viable for at least the next year, and probably longer. Universities are losing half their students, Commercial real estate will crash as companies figure out it’s cheaper (and sometimes more productive) to have employees work from home, and any kind of entertainment or hospitality business will find the old economics won’t work in the new scale.
- Why would we want to return to a model that wasn’t working so well before anyway? On a whole range of issues, the old business models in culture had become creaky and insufficient in the digital age. Trying to rebuild it would inevitably result in a lesser version of something that already wasn’t working, so why bother?
- And this is the most interesting, I think: making change is always most difficult when you have to first dismantle the old. We’ve struggled with change in in the arts in recent years, partly because our legacies are so strong and so compelling. And so difficult to loosen our grasp on. Now that everything is up in the air and no one knows yet how it’s going to work, it’s easier to try new things, to fix things that weren’t working, to create new rules and make experiments. Some of our most intractable fights and debates have now been broken apart, making room potentially for new ideas. It’s at times like these that there is high tolerance for experimentation and innovation. And now is a time when some of our most intractable debates have broken loose and everything is being realigned.
There’s another reason to be an opportunist. Locked inside lo these months, we’ve all become more tech savvy. Know what the biggest increase in consumer spending was in April? Yes, food was up. But way ahead of the pack was technology. Your local Best Buy is having one of its best quarters in a long time as we all move online and up our tech game.
Zoom went from 10 million daily users to 200 million. Probably not a surprise to anybody watching here and exhausted by daily zooms. But here’s the thing – when people start using new tools, their habits change, their skills change, their sophistication changes, their expectations of an experience changes. You could still send a message by horse and messenger way back in the 1840s, but why would anyone do that after the telegraph was invented?
When we return to theatres, our expectations for the experience will have changed, maybe even without knowing it. So what to do?
Staying on the sidelines is not an option. When everyone jumped to the internet after things shut down, we got flooded with performances by orchestras separated and playing from their kitchens, bathrooms and closets. It was charming. It was also touching. The homemade qualities of these early online performances made them authentic, powerful. The rough quality signaled something bad had happened, we’re improvising, we’re adapting. Even TV network late shows opted for the shooting-in-my-basement look. It was by design – they wanted to project the authenticity that propelled YouTube and its “Broadcast Yourself” ethos ten years ago. But quickly the mosaic video became a cliché. And artists began playing with Zoom as a canvas. The language has been evolving at a startling speed and will continue to do so. I saw a presentation today by a company called Spatial VR that they’re calling “next-level Zoom” in which participants see one another and interact with objects. They suggest a possible future where performers work in VR, while directors, creators and audiences observe in video panels.
The other online response was to throw up treasured recordings from the archives and livestream them. There’s some marvelous stuff and you could spend every minute of the day watching. And that’s the problem. The web is flooded with great performances when every recorded performance can go online. Not only that – you’re competing with all of recorded history. What is so much more compelling about that Tuesday night performance in March? So viewership for online archive performances, two months into lockdown, has been declining. More important, few are paying for it.
Nonetheless – you can’t stay on the sidelines. First – the online language will have changed considerably in the next year and to come in late will be more difficult. Second, many theatres are going to be closed through the rest of this year, and when they do open up again, they may be with considerably restricted audiences. I envision the need for a hybrid digital/physical model where digital makes up for some of the reduced revenue from live theatre operations.
And there I said it. Revenue. A business model for your new virtual imperatives. Which brings me to the second part of my talk, which I’ll divide into two parts. 1. Artistic model, and 2. A Business model. The two are closely intertwined.
First – in my opinion, archived streaming productions, while nice for some superfans, at the moment is just giving away content that competes with a million other videos and will get diminishing views. Worse, few will pay for it. There are many reasons for this, but I’ll dwell on only one: these are what I call facsimile experiences – they were made for – optimized for – the stage, and watching them on a screen is a Second-best experience, more a documentary record of an event rather something designed in the language of the web. However interesting, they will never be better than second-best versions. That’s okay when a performance is historic – a night everyone wishes they were there for. But less than that… I don’t think so.
The closest analogy I can think of is the difference between a Great Performances PBS broadcast of a stage opera production compared with the Met Opera’s HD theatre-casts. Great Performances is the quintessential facsimile experience. The Met productions are produced by directors who think in the cinematic language of close-ups and camera angles. They’re intimate, the sound is glorious, and they speak movie. And they have a huge following. Screen language is just different from stage language.
And web language is different from both. The web has its own culture, which is different from stage or or movies. The web is participatory — the audience wants to see itself as part of the experience. The web expects you to speak directly to it. And to listen back. Not intermediated or encumbered by constraints of a traditional stage. The web is efficient at conveying information on many levels, but it doesn’t get blown up until it’s touched emotionally. Don’t tell us how great you are, show us a community that thinks you are. We’re blown away by amazing performances — the kid attempting the impossible skateboard trick, the singer nervously walking out on stage before a skeptical crowd (think “American Idol”) — when the performer lays it all on the line. We’re bored by the routine and thrilled by the unexpected. We crave being part of a crowd, but we’re compelled to try to stick out in it.
The tech platforms have been studying virtual culture and spend billions on trying to understand it. Look at what they’re spending those billions on in researching over the past decade and you’ll see it’s all about that line between the virtual and real worlds. What motivates an audience to go back and forth across that line. What does it take to get them to do it. There’s a reason the social media platforms are so addictive to so many. They’re rigorously designed to be.
Another good place to look? Gaming and sports. Both have massive online followings, and giant communities have grown up around favorite players and games. Observe the behavior in these communities and you start to see how they interact, what they pay attention to. They have their own culture.
But, you say – where’s the art? That’s your job, limited only by imagination. My point is that this is a distinct medium with its own culture – and you have to understand it to be successful.
Now the business model.
- The first is at the systemic level. When I travel, one of the first things I look for is listings of what’s on while I’m there. You’re probably not surprised by how challenging this is. Why the arts haven’t invested in a real search/events finder tech I don’t know. Now there’s an exponential increase in the number of online streaming events. And where’s the robust listing that presents me with things I’m interested in, allows me to learn about them, bookmark them and alerts me when they’re about to start. It should integrate ticket purchase and donation options, and the ability to upgrade for premium add-ons. It could keep track of me and recommend things I might like. Maybe it bundles experiences and allows me to buy packages. Instead, we learn to find lists of streams by organizations we follow, but they’re pretty anemic. InstantEncore tried a more comprehensive listings service, but it was cumbersome and never achieved wide use. This is a big project, but it’s worth pursuing. Actually, not just worth it, it’s essential. There’s a reason it’s my No. 1.
- So I’m on the Opera Philadelphia website for their excellent digital festival, watching Philip Venables’ “Denis and Katya.” Such an interesting piece, I think, dealing with storytelling and the culture of an online world. I’m enjoying myself and thinking – I’d like to give them $20. I click the “donate” button at the top and I’m immediately thrown out of the performance and onto a form where they want a bunch of information and my credit card, which I don’t have near me. You’ve just killed the impulse. Instead, why not a Venmo or Cash account where I can complete the transaction while I’m watching with a couple of keystrokes on my phone? How about a micropayment system? A Patreon fan page? In other words – you have to make it as easy as possible and offer as many ways as possible to help you out. Studies of online friction in transactions show the slightest speed bumps deter the majority of people. But more than that you need a mapped out digital payments plan that includes micro-payments, several levels and kinds of membership support, subscription support, freemium strategies, crowdsourcing as well as your regular ticket-selling models.
- When we get back into theatres – six months from now? A year? It may be under reduced circumstances if we’re still social distancing. The old economics won’t apply if we can only sell half or a third of the tickets. That suggests to me we need a hybrid livestage/virtual strategy. Streaming tends not to cannibalize the live audience – it allows those who already have a relationship with you to participate. They will still want the stage experience when they can do it. When the NFL started broadcasting its games on TV, it had a rule that blacked out the local market if they game wasn’t sold out 72 hours in advance. What they discovered was that local broadcasts greatly increased the fan base. Tickets are so expensive that most fans can’t afford more than a couple games a season. If they didn’t have the chance to see their teams free every week, they would soon lose interest in following the team and probably wouldn’t be buying tickets at all. So they eliminated the blackout and offered a progressively better TV experience. That worked so well, the new generation of stadiums has adopted a lot of the tech used for TV broadcasts. So what does an “enhanced” webcast of an opera look like? How about when I mouse over a singer it tells me their name and gives me details? How about the ability to look up plot points or history as the performance goes on? And while we’re at it, I want to see the rest of the virtual audience on the side so I can feel like I’m part of the community and feel like this is an “event.” Maybe an offer for a ticket to the theatre comes up while I’m watching? Or a quiz that lets me test myself against other viewers? An online guide I can turn on or off? The point is – enhance the experience and give me ways in and I might like it more and I’d definitely be willing to pay for it. Supertitles were transformative in how audiences could pay attention. I happily plunk down money for the Met HD theatrecasts. There are some things I like better about watching a performance this way than when I do into the opera house. What’s the online enhancements that will hook me? Now’s the time to experiment.
- While we’re at it – when I go back into the theatre, and boy do I want to go back to the theatre – (by the way – I think all of this digital content is going to make the in-theatre experience that much more cherished), I’m going to come back with changed expectations. What’s the technology I’m now used to at home that is going to help deepen the experience? At home I can pause the performance stream, I can open another window and find out information about a performer or history of the production. Or even keep the performance going in background. Will the live in-theatre experience force me to have only one experience? 5G is going to transform the information embedded and accessible in the things around us. How could I use that to deepen my engagement? 5G will eliminate online latency issues allowing performers to collaborate from distances. How might I build that into the experience?
- I think we’re going to come out of this with a kind of “Slow Food” kind of moment. Pauses are good. Interruptions are good. Missing something is good. It makes you value them more. In the 60s we were besotted by fast food – it was quick, it was predictable, and it was addictive. After a decade or two, people started to realize that it also wasn’t very healthy, it didn’t taste all that good, and it left you unsatisfied. Thus was born the Slow Food movement – valuing artisanal, locally sourced food prepared fresh. Slow food was about creating a culture around food – where it came from, how it was made, where and with whom you’re eating it. We were already seeing signs of digital fatigue before COVID – all that content flying by your eyes on the screen. It leaves you numb, it frags your attention span, it’s empty calories. So a return then to physical experience. In a space. With other people. And artists. In many ways we’ve taken that for granted, made it routine, made it too easy, too ordinary. When we enter again into a physical artistic space, how do we make it an experience that is none of those things for an audience?
To wrap up – I think this is a destabilizing time. A time of existential crisis for many of the institutions and artists we love. But at the same time, it is the Big Bang moment for innovation. Many of our most celebrated and cherished programs and institutions and accomplishments came out of previous crises. The world is aching for leadership right now – and that too is the subject of a whole other talk – and those who step up to provide it and lead the way will come out of this strong. Those who just wait for the bad times to be over, I’m afraid will be crushed. The art – opera – will endure and change and reinvent. People have a deep visceral need for creativity and hope and to be together. Now more than ever that’s as true as it’s ever been.