Is This The Best San Diego Opera Can Do?

I popped onto the San Diego Opera website today to see what they were promoting for next season, or rather how they were promoting next season, and found this blurb for Nixon in China.

“Straight from the headlines and live news broadcasts of the day, Nixon in China pays musical witness to President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972 and goodwill meetings with China’s Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Premier Chou En-Lai. From serious political discussions to a toast-filled banquet scene where every toast tries to outdo another, with Chinese dancers and a fantasy scene with Kissinger, Nixon in China explores an heroic gesture by a sitting American President towards a burgeoning world power. Join us for a whirlwind diplomatic trip which changed history and an opera that has risen to the top rank of 20th century American operas and is arguably one of the most influential of the last few decades.”

I’ve written extensively about just how badly arts marketing sucks and as much as I’d love to write a lengthy discourse on this juicy example, I’m going to let you explore that on your own (this blurb makes it easy) and move onto a more important consideration: How can an opera company that nearly died for lack of new audiences publish marketing content like this?

Survival for San Diego Opera means attracting a sustaining audience and that’s going to require sophisticated, professional marketing. This is not sophisticated, professional marketing. This is an embarrassing example of the amateurish “that’s the way we’ve always done it” marketing that got San Diego Opera into trouble in the first place.

And the fact that this sort of marketing is being done mere months after the company’s near-death crisis raises an even more important question: Are there any executive leaders in the opera world who understand the difference between this sort of twaddle and the real world marketing that’ll be necessary to keep San Diego Opera and others like it from collapsing once and for all?

Before he became president, Nixon famously lost an early televised debate with JFK when the camera made him appear pale, sweaty and unshaven. He and his team quickly learned that the world had changed, that the candidate’s inherent appeal was not enough on its own, and that sophisticated, professional marketing was the key to survival.

If good marketing could sell Richard Nixon, opera should be a piece of cake.



“You Sound Like a Wanker”

If every senior arts executive did this on a regular basis, the arts would be successful beyond measure.

Alan Lane, Artistic Director for Slung Low theatre company in the UK, has taken to the streets to encourage regular people to come to his show. He’s talking to non-theatre goers face-to-face in supermarket car parks – and he’s learning a lot in the process.

One old woman responded to his pitch by saying, “You sound like a wanker,” which, Lane confessed, may have been justified. When he said the process could be “brutally humbling” I couldn’t help thinking there are a lot of arts execs out there who would benefit from being brutally humbled in their local grocery store parking lots from time to time.

Americans don’t use the word ‘wanker’ very much, but it’s the perfect insult for executive arts leaders because it literally means one who masturbates, but is used more generally to refer to someone who acts like a jerk as a result of being egotistical and self-indulgent. (The closest American colloquialism I can think of is the delightful Pittsburgh expression, ‘jaggoff,’ which has the same literal and figurative meanings.)

Are executive arts leaders egotistical and self-indulgent? Yeah, pretty much. If you want proof, just look at the communications arts organizations use to promote themselves, which are almost exclusively self-congratulatory, self-flattering, self-important and self-indulgent, or in other words, shamelessly masturbatory. Imagine any arts executive standing in a parking lot talking to ordinary people in the language of his organization’s promotional materials and you get the idea:

“For this landmark season, I have chosen six breathtaking works which epitomize our theatre’s range as a producing organization and reaffirm its unique place in the American cultural scene. Legends abound in Season 40, from the greatest writers of all time, to the most charismatic characters ever created.”


Read the article. It’s great. And if you’re an executive arts leader whose organization talks like a wanker or a jaggoff (go read your last brochure), maybe it’s time to visit your nearest grocery store and start learning how to actually communicate with people for a change.



Cockeyed Operamism

Yesterday, Speight Jenkins wrote this on his OperaSleuth blog. It was a great example of the way older arts leaders talk about audiences, and a cautionary tale for younger arts administrators who will be taking over for them when they’re gone.

I’m sure Mr. Jenkins meant well, but at a time when the survival of American opera companies depends on facts, numbers and rational strategic action, this sort of empty cheerleading isn’t very productive - especially when it comes from a respected executive arts leader.

Here are some tips for arts administrators who want to share good news about earned revenue and audience growth in their organizations:

If you’re going to say that sales are improving, provide numbers that illustrate the improvement. Your credibility will be greatly enhanced if you support your claims with actual evidence.

If you’re going to cling to the canard that older people will seek out your art form when their kids move out of the house, prove it with statistics. The stakes are far too high to risk the future of our institutions on a seemingly obvious but unproven hypothesis.

If you do use numbers to support your points, use them wisely. Saying that your education department is “twenty-five times more effective” is dubious hyperbole that undermines the credibility of any more reasonable numbers you might put forward.

If you believe that the current season’s subscription renewal rate is a predictor of an overall increase in sales, describe how those two things are related. A sign that core customers are content isn’t necessarily a sign that new buyers are beating a path to your door.

If you single out social media as an important tool, don’t say, “I know nothing about this stuff, but we have people who do it.” If you’re claiming that this is going to help generate sustaining audiences, you have a responsibility to know personally whether it’s capable of doing what you say it will.

There was a time when the unsupported opinions of seasoned arts executives carried a lot of weight, but with venerable institutions tanking and evidence mounting that traditional arts audiences are in steady decline, these opinions are increasingly subject to rational scrutiny. Older arts leaders who continue to speak the cheerful but vague and often irrational rhetoric of 20th century arts managers run the risk of sounding as if they don’t know what’s going on.

The only thing more powerful than the optimism of last century’s arts leaders is the business know-how and fact-based pragmatism of 21st century arts administrators who stand to inherit the realities their more wishful predecessors leave behind.

Community Engagement is a Lousy Way to Sell Tickets

Community engagement is NOT audience development. Any arts administrator whose livelihood depends on ticket sales and who doesn’t understand this is operating under a dangerous misapprehension.

Audience development (more accurately referred to as marketing) is about selling tickets. Community engagement is about engaging with the community. The two are related only in that they involve communicating with people outside the organization. Beyond that, they are utterly different things that don’t belong in the same administrative category. Executive arts leaders who put them in the same category risk doing considerable damage to their organizations.

Marketing is driven by dollar goals. Its value is determined by the extent to which it delivers a reasonable return on investment. Marketing may cost a lot of money to do, but it generates measurable results - far in excess of what’s spent - and those results typically demonstrate that the expenditure is worthwhile. There simply is no more efficient way to earn revenue than through smart, sensible, strategic marketing.

Community engagement, meanwhile, has no dollar goals. Its success is measured by the quality of the community relationships. Community engagement costs a lot of money to do, but since it doesn’t generate revenue, it doesn’t cover its costs and must be paid for by the organization or its funders. Engagement proponents suggest that new arts audiences will one day arise from engaged communities, but in the absence of clearly delineated goals, strategies and metrics, this is just wishful thinking that has no real impact on near-term bottom lines.

When arts organizations devote marketing resources to engagement efforts, they may be supporting noble causes, but they are steering valuable resources away from revenue-generating endeavors that are crucial to their organizations’ sustainability. Marketing directors could easily give chunks of their marketing budgets to homeless shelter painting classes, free concerts in the parks or elementary arts education, but that would be fiscally irresponsible. The marketing department isn’t a charitable arm of the organization; it’s there to sell tickets and earn revenue. If community engagement means that arts organizations are supposed to serve as pass-through community charities, that may be fine, but funneling the money through the marketing department is foolish and potentially suicidal.

But what about the mission? Shouldn’t the marketing department support the organization’s mission to become more fully engaged with the community? Yes! The marketing department should support the mission by generating the maximum amount of revenue it can, given the resources it has. The marketing department’s ultimate priority is to generate the sustaining revenue the organization needs to fulfill its mission. If that mission includes engaging with communities for the sake of engaging with communities, that’s all well and good, but the engagement activity should emerge out of a department that has been created and funded expressly for that purpose. Otherwise, it threatens to bleed resources away from, and therefore undermine, indispensable core functions.

EngagementAnd what about engaging with the community to sell tickets? Can’t we attach dollar goals to our engagement efforts so they’re more productive? Yes. Absolutely. But that’s not community engagement, that’s sales. If you are doing sales, you should call it sales so there’s no confusion over how and why you’re doing it, or what the relationship is between the investment and its projected return. Say, for example, your sales department has decided to target law firms (sales) but your executive director says you need to focus on community center bingo games (engagement). Because you’ve elected to do sales, you’ll have financial projections on hand to explain why the law firms offer a dependable return and why the bingo games, by comparison, no matter how warm and fuzzy they may look on the grant applications, are not a fiscally responsible use of your departmental time and resources. (If your ED insists on the bingo games and says it’s a mission-oriented priority, make sure she agrees to cover the sales shortfall from someone else’s budget.)

I wrote last week about a job advertisement I saw for a “Chief Marketing and Community Engagement Officer,” which was a perfect illustration of the damage that can be done when arts organizations conflate marketing and community engagement. Engagement should have only the most tenuous relationship with marketing, but here they were combined into one person’s job title, which means this job is a train wreck in the making. Who knows where else this is happening or how deeply this engagement-as-audience-development misconception has penetrated the industry?

I sense Doug Borwick‘s hackles rising right about now so let me says this: Community engagement is an absolutely essential idea that is destined to become a saving grace for struggling arts organizations. Traditional arts institutions have allowed themselves to become disconnected from the communities they serve and reconnecting through meaningful engagement is likely to be their best chance for survival. And, yes, community engagement will one day eclipse marketing as the ultimate way to make arts organizations optimally responsible to, and thus more relevant, useful and valuable to, their communities.

But engagement is a large, expensive undertaking that can’t be handed off to the marketing department just because they’re the ones who talk to people outside the organization. And it can’t be a buzzword that’s cavalierly slapped onto someone’s job title to make the foundations believe their mandates are being followed. And it can’t be just the next fad that academics and policy wonks talk about at industry conferences but that organizational leaders shove in a corner and ignore. Community engagement is a gravely important responsibility that traditional arts organizations will have to take seriously – and make room for - if they’re going to survive. And it’s something the funding community will have to be prepared to pay for for a very long time because right now, and for the foreseeable future, it does not pay for itself.

There are a lot of things that smart arts marketing professionals can do to attract new audiences, but until community engagement proves itself capable of delivering reasonable monetary returns, it doesn’t belong on the list.

ARTS JOB: Chief Marketing & Janitorial Officer

This morning I saw an ad for this regional theatre job:


I was stunned. Marketing and community engagement are two entirely different things so it was shocking to see them combined into one position. Might as well advertise for a “VP of Finance & Catering” or a “Box Office & Costume Shop Manager” or a “Group Sales & Technical Director.”

Given how dependent community engagement is on contributed income, I could see a “Chief Development and Community Engagement Officer,” but marketers have too much on their plates to waste time on qualitative programs that offer no tangible outcomes. At a time when audiences are in steady decline and venerable arts institutions are tanking for lack of earned revenue, making marketers do community engagement is breathtakingly counterproductive.

If you’re an arts marketer who’s thinking of applying for this job, here are some questions you should ask during your interview. If they have trouble answering them, run away as fast as you can.

How does your organization define community engagement?

Is this engagement activity expected to deliver measurable results?

Are these results expected to generate a reasonable return on investment?

May I see a copy of the current community engagement budget?

What return are you currently projecting on this investment?

Can you offer examples of engagement activities that generate acceptable ROI?

Will my performance as an engagement officer be measured in quantifiable results?

What metrics do you currently use to measure engagement success?

If it turns out they do define engagement in terms of measurable results, they’re not talking about community engagement, they’re talking about sales and that’s what they should be calling it. Connecting with people in the community to persuade them to buy tickets is called sales. Engagement is about connecting with the community for the sake of connecting with the community and talking about how, some day, if the communities have been successfully engaged, community members may become people who decide they want to buy tickets – or not.

Engagement advocates like to talk about engagement in relation to audience development, but there is no evidence to suggest that engagement will result in sustainable paying audiences for traditional, revenue-dependent organizations. If you’re going to be asked to do both marketing and engagement, you must know in advance how your performance will be measured because engagement isn’t likely to deliver quantifiable results, and all the energy you divert toward engagement will take time and resources away from sales and marketing, which actually do deliver quantifiable results.

Engagement is a popular fad in the cultural sector right now, especially among funders who like to encourage and support engagement activity. So I’m guessing this organization created the title to appeal to its funders, or they decided they liked having a popular buzzword in the title, or they just don’t understand the difference between marketing, engagement and sales.

Whatever the title’s genesis, smart marketers would be well advised to steer clear of any job that asks them to do both marketing and community engagement. If you’re good at filling theatre seats and earning revenue (a.k.a. selling tickets), look for an employer who’s serious enough about marketing and sales to give you a job with an accurate, sensible, professional name.



Yes, Andrew, Classical Music Advertising Does Suck

After nearly three years of pissing in the wind on this subject, it’s nice to see this article by Andrew Mellor bearing the headline, “Why Does Classical Music Advertising Suck?”

In the article Mellor says of opera advertising, “It follows the industry’s favorite communicative norm: conceived by people who already love the art form for people who already love the art form.”

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been pointing out for a long time just how badly arts marketing sucks, so it’s nice to see someone else chiming in, however fleetingly. Mr. Mellor has addressed the surface-level issue - arts lovers talking to arts lovers - but unfortunately he misses the root cause, which is executive arts leaders who have no professional marketing expertise making amateur marketing decisions.

norma-desmondTo answer your question, Andrew, classical music advertising sucks because the executive leaders who run the institutions - and who choose the ads you’re likely to see in the tube stations - want so desperately to believe they’re talking to people who love the art form, they’ll talk to them whether they exist or not.

And if it turns out they don’t exist in sufficient numbers to generate a return on all those insiders-talking-to-insiders ads, they can do what arts leaders here in the US do: blame the educational system for not producing enough insiders who want to respond to the advertising they like to do.

Disclaimer: The Artsjournal link is where the headline “Why Does Classical Music Advertising Suck?” appears. The New Statesman article seems to have gotten a tamer one. Not sure why they differ.



Has Gelb Given Up The Ship?

On June 7, 2014, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said, “We are getting a newer audience, a younger audience, but there aren’t enough new audience members to replace the old audience members who are dying off.” He mentioned this in relation to certain cost-cutting measures that he believes are needed to avoid bankruptcy. Feel free to mark this as the day that American opera admitted defeat and began planning for its demise.

When the leader of the world’s largest opera company says his audience is in irreversible decline, and that the only hope for survival is to start shrinking the organization, it’s a fairly clear sign that American opera is on its way out. The ship is sinking, there’s no land in sight, and the only way to stave off catastrophe is to start rationing supplies.

The fact that such a comment can pass without stirring up a furor in the arts community is testament to how bad things have gotten in the last few years. If Gelb had said five years ago that sustaining audiences were unlikely to materialize, he’d have been roundly rebuked by an indignant and still optimistic cultural community. But he says it today, mere months after the demise of New York City Opera and the crippling crisis at San Diego Opera, and nobody bats an eye. Opera is dying. So what else is new?

Does Gelb really believe there aren’t enough new audiences to replace dying audiences? Who knows? Diminishing ticket sales and disappointing returns on simulcast programs could certainly support such a perspective. But I suspect this recent admission is really about posturing in preparation for upcoming union negotiations. Warning everyone of impending disaster and then blaming the unions is a great way to gain advantage before heading into battle: “The hull is breached, a watery grave is immanent, and the unions are gobbling up more than their fair share of the rations!”

The problem with this strategy is that Gelb has embraced a “new audiences aren’t going to happen” prophesy, and in so doing may have invested himself in its fulfillment. Can the leader of an opera company who has announced to the world that new audiences can’t be found, and who may be planning to leverage the crisis to cut costs, really be expected to devote his energies to finding and satisfying new audiences?

Sadly, this “no new audiences” meme has evolved in just a few short years from a whispered worry into a facile excuse (Ian Campbell said it when he tried to waltz off the deck of his sinking ship) and now it’s a political football. But the real tragedy is that when leaders like Gelb and Campbell speak so publicly about their lack of faith in tomorrow’s audiences, they give the rest of the world permission to agree with them. If the opera world’s veteran insiders are telling the media that the ship is going down, why would any new audience member (or donor for that matter) want to to climb on board?

Is it true? Are opera audiences in irreversible decline? No. Of course not. Arts audiences are abundant and more than willing to respond to organizations that treat them with deference and respect. But the worst way for arts organizations to attract future audiences is for industry leaders to go around telling the world they don’t believe they exist.