Arts Marketing Sucks – So Let’s Change The Art

Arts marketing sucks.

Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s nothing I haven’t said here before.

It sucks because it’s old-fashioned, out of date, cliché-ridden and naïve. The language of arts marketing was developed for 20th century arts lovers who are now dead or dying, but we’re still using it on 21st century non-arts lovers who don’t find it relevant or persuasive.

It sucks because it’s narcissistic, presumptuous and condescending. If new audiences thought we were as wonderful and important as we constantly tell them we are, we’d be successful beyond measure.

It sucks because it lacks strategic integrity. Genuinely persuasive marketing is built on sound market intelligence and rational methodologies, but arts marketing is built on tradition, wishful thinking, creativity and the tastes and opinions of arts insiders.

It sucks because it’s artificial. Nobody talks like arts marketing. The language is so far removed from contemporary colloquial human communication that if anyone actually spoke it they’d be ridiculed, shunned or locked up.

It sucks because it’s meaningless. “Celebrate Live Theatre” and its cousins are perennially popular phrases that, in addition to being hackneyed and rhetorically impotent, suggests things that no human being would actually do – let alone endeavor to do by buying a ticket to an arts event.

It sucks because it’s off-putting. Orchestral concerts are about people gathering to listen to really good live music, but they might as well be about sweaty, overdressed men gesticulating with tiny white sticks. We don’t sell art, we sell the trappings of art, and for new audiences those trappings can be deal breakers.

It sucks because it’s all about us and not about them. Good marketing should be as much about the customer as it is about the product. Arts marketing is almost exclusively about the organizations, the artists and the events.

It sucks because it’s quasi-professional at a time when full-on professionalism may be the only hope for survival. There are a lot of people in the arts, including leaders who should know better, who still believe that marketing is a qualitative, common sense function that any creative person with a passion for the arts (a.k.a. amateur) can do.

So why the pointed diatribe? Because someone suggested to me yesterday – and this was by no means the first time I’d heard it – that the answers to our audience development problems lay in changing our programming to make it more appealing to new audiences. That if new audiences don’t want to buy the art we’re selling, we should produce and present art that new audiences want to buy.

Forgive me for for having the temerity to suggest that there’s nothing wrong with art the way it is, but if the marketing sucks, shouldn’t we fix the marketing before we start trying to fix the art?

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6 thoughts on “Arts Marketing Sucks – So Let’s Change The Art

  1. The argument that we should change programming in order to appeal to new audiences has so many holes I don’t know where to begin. First, it is elitist. You are assuming that “new audiences” can’t handle the same art as your current audiences. Second, you are assuming that it is programming alone that brings people in, when study after study shows this is not the case. And, of course, you are assuming that audiences are seeing your current marketing and choosing not to come just because they don’t get the art. That’s a lot of assumptions to get over. Considering how expensive it would be to change programming and how relatively inexpensive it would be to change marketing, why does everyone jump right to the programming card?

    Years ago, an organization I worked for programmed a choral work that was in Spanish. To the astonishment of my board, no Hispanics showed up. “I just don’t know what we have to do to please these people,” growled one of them.

    My second favorite example involves a failing Symphony in California in the early 90s, who created a “lite” season, programmed things like the 1812 Overture and Vivaldi’s Seasons, and invited people to wear shorts to the concerts. They even promised to give free sunglasses to the first 100 people, in “celebration,” I guess, of the fact that your Cali lifestyle doesn’t end when you enter the concert hall. It was a massive failure.

    Keep preaching the word, Trevor!

  2. The internet has ascribed to Albert Einstein the adage that insanity is defined by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. So it is with “arts management” and “marketing.” For my entire adult life and then some orchestra managers have been talking about how the audience is aging, new people aren’t coming in, the music has lost relevance. You would think that in over 30 years this would have prompted change. It has not.

    It is a strange situation in which modern orchestras find themselves. The musicians on the stage are more highly qualified than possibly any group of musicians in any country at any time in history. They have advanced degrees and in many cases started training when they were barely out of diapers. They consistently get rave reviews from critics. In short- they are not only highly qualified- they excel at their job.

    Management, on the other hand, is frequently populated with people who have no training in arts management, or management at all. In some cases they may not even have a college degree. They feature development departments that fail to meet their goals year after year. They don’t use their resources wisely and run deficits. Their staffs are inexperienced and rarely have any training in the field coming into the job, and turnover is high because pay is low. Yet consistently, whenever there is even a hint of financial problems it’s not the management who have failed to do their job who are penalized, it is the musicians. The musicians who are exceptionally qualified and excel in the performance of their duties. (Think about this for a minute: Musicians do well, Management takes the credit, Management does poorly, Musicians take the blame.)

    Just as you criticize management, with which I do not disagree, don’t forget to size up the musicians in the orchestra when you apply Einstein’s definition of insanity. For my entire adult life, just as management has been complaining about dwindling audiences and revenues, musicians have been expecting management to change. Maybe that’s the real insanity. Maybe the problem is that the musicians are unwilling to see the reality that management either doesn’t want to or doesn’t know how to change, and it’s time for musicians to step up and take control. Over this period they have excelled at their jobs. That’s the qualification nearly all board presidents posses, and they certainly think that’s enough. Maybe the musicians should step out from the stage and believe that they are just as qualified. For my entire adult life musicians have been waiting. I think it’s time to stop waiting.

  3. Ellen, playing devils advocate here a bit . . . couldn’t you make the argument that is is “elitist” to assume that programming other than “traditional” is the only programming that is correct? That said, I could not agree with you more that program changes are not the answer.

    I would be interested in knowing what other reasons people gave for coming to the arts. The article suggests that the “trappings of art” associated with art are part of the snobbery and problems, yet is seems you are suggesting that those very trappings are a big reason that people are going at all.

    I for one used to go to the symphony all the time. Now, a combination of budget, distance, and most importantly a spouse totally uninterested in symphonic music has caused me to stop going. What marketing could induce me to get season tickets? Probably nothing.

    But I was sorely tempted to go a few times when a club I am in had a package of tickets combined with pre-concert seminars and drinks/discussion afterwards.

    I don’t know. As a marketing professional and musician the discussion and problem is intriguing.

    • Yep, Damon, I agree with you. I don’t use elitist in the sense of wealthy white people looking down on everyone else (although that is how it is often manifested), but any group who feels that their programming is superior and that attracting new audience means lowering their standards — whatever those standards might be.

  4. As a definite novice in the marketing field, I am surprisingly enthusiastic about all forms of art and always want to be involved in any way possible. That simple statement, is in itself, the most likely reason the general public is available to accept artistic involvement at any cost. Figuratively speaking of course. I refer to myself as an artist, as I am a creator of art in all it’s various forms/ mediums. So, when you speak of marketing as a motivating factor in creating attendance or involvement, I then begin to understand the iimportance of implementing the changes needed to excite and stimulate the masses to take part in the essence of the arts. I, for one, am all about the packaging! So much so, that if it’s visually pleasing, I dont care whats inside. Yet, not so with a performance. For example, when I read the present roster of shows available, I am bored to death with the choices.I mean really, how many seasons can one experience “Stomp”? Might it be the simple need for a change of venues to spark our interest in it all? Or, maybe just the packaging and presentation as its own art form has become staid and dated. Any way you look at it, nothing is generating enough public participation to keep the arts a thriving force in todays society.
    Sustainable, forceful, invigorating, educational, and most importantly,inspirational.
    Any way you look at it, something uniquely refreshing and original must always be happening to incite our interest in getting up, going out and being prompted to make that proverbial ticket purchase a reality!

  5. I agree, as everything should be considered in a Macro view in terms for audience development. Not just new programing. There has to be interactions with the audience online and in person, in a consistant mannor for development. From there you can build trust and continued involvement from your audience. It is stated well in a post here…http://audiencedevelopment.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/everything-needs-to-be-considered-for-good-arts-audience-development/

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