The recent FringeArts Festival in Philadelphia saw the largest number of virtual dance performances in the region since the start of the pandemic, but were any of the dance companies actually profitable from their venture? To be fair, dance companies have participated in the Philly Fringe with live events in the past that for the most part have operated at a loss or barely broke even. For many, it was a chance to self-promote as well as to showcase new work, and perhaps even reach new audiences.
The sad truth is we are now in the final quarter of 2020, a time when Fall dance season and holiday productions normally abound on the live stage. With the virus once again beginning to peak with what CNN has dubbed as the “second and third waves”, it seems we are far from out of the woods and more likely in it “for the long haul”.
As arts and dance in the region continue to struggle to remain open, it is perhaps time to step back and examine if virtual events are viable and sustainable as a business model to keep dance companies and studios afloat, while maintaining their audience/customer base. Let’s face it, we would all like to shift back to live performances and face to face interactions. Virtual events are not “the great alternative” but a necessary means during these difficult times. The dance community has generally been adaptive, exploratory, and creative in this new reality.
At the heart of the matter, is whether anyone is actually generating a profit from virtual events. A small sampling of those willing to reveal their budgets and income from virtual events over the past three months indicates that companies and studios are averaging 20-25% of their pre-pandemic revenue stream, which is not sustainable for paying rent, utilities, staff, and artists. Most companies that transitioned to virtual stated that there has been an ongoing learning curve and that most of their time has been about adapting and creating for this platform. Less than 5% of the companies actually focused on the marketing of their virtual event with the usual exception of a post on Facebook or Instagram.
Another significant issue has been the number of free events or pay what you can offerings. While companies and studios felt this was necessary to maintain the community and connection to their audiences, it has in fact made it even harder to transition to a pay model. Another argument was made in the community that people simply did not have the disposable income right now to spend on the arts. It was not viewed by the public as a priority. I would argue to the contrary and that we have simply not posed it as such! The overabundance of free offerings along with just sheer “Zoom burnout” has all but laid waste to any hope of a profitable business model. So where are we left?
Simply put, we need to develop a better business model! I do not propose to have all the answers but here are some suggestions to get the conversation started…
- Stop giving away everything for free. The general public can afford to pay for events that they find of interest and engaging. If you wish to help fellow dancers and artists, offer a discount but do not give everything away for free. If someone is having a real hardship, given the current economic state of things, you can always offer private accommodation.
- Use a subscription model for all events and classes whenever possible. Rather than selling the one-off performance or class, consider bundling a performance with virtual classes or workshops to offer greater value. Bundling means selling multiple opportunities throughout the entire year to see performances, attend discussions, and take classes with your company. You can offer the option of regular monthly automatic payments or a slightly discounted one-time payment for a full year in advance.
- Offer better content! This is not a criticism of individual creativity that has been put forth, but instead what has been packaged for sale on the internet. Simply posting and charging for YouTube videos of past performances is not going to drive audiences or create sales. The re-hashing of recordings of Zoom screenings and content will also not create the required engagement to bring in audiences or promote a subscription-based model. Content needs to be professionally created, entertaining, creative, thought-provoking, engaging, interactive, personalized, and fun! Yes, this takes an investment of time and money but so have live performances, masterclasses, and workshops.
- Create more professional content! While dancers and artists may be completely professional in creating for the stage, it does not necessarily translate in creating for film or virtual offerings. The virtual landscape is noisy and competitive. The availability of smartphones and low-cost app editing tools have made it even harder to stand out. Your video content needs to be seen as professional and offering value. This means at least some investment in cameras, editing software, lighting, and sound equipment. While you may have the creativity needed for such challenges, you will also need the expertise and budget required to manage the production process from conception to completion. If this is beyond your wheelhouse, it is best to seek outside expertise and perhaps even barter for services.
- Build a community beyond family and friends and fellow dancers. This is a case that I have argued for over fifteen years of running PhiladelphiaDANCE.org. It is now more vital economically than ever before. Virtual events have the possibility of expanding our communities, unlike live events, as there are no geographic borders. We no longer require audiences to be within driving distance of our theaters or studios. While the virtual audience has become more expansive, the community you build needs to be more personal and interactive.
So how is that accomplished?
Consider offering rewards to your subscribers as opposed to discounts. For example, subscribe to all three performances, and you are rewarded with a special VIP party and the opportunity to socialize with the director, choreographer, and dancers in a special Zoom session. Attend 5 regular classes and you get to participate in a free master class with a special guest artist.
Whenever possible offer networking opportunities. Now more than ever we are socially isolated and welcome opportunities to interact and connect with others that share like-minded interests. These can be anything from online happy hours to virtual socials or special events. Guests should have an opportunity to get to know each other and interact around your virtual offerings.
Offer opportunities for personalized interactions. For higher tier subscribers, you can offer anything from behind the scenes virtual tours to special contests and give-a-ways, or one on one time with artists or company members. I have even seen one model where a student who signed up for 10 or more virtual classes would have the opportunity for one on one individualized instruction session. In another case, those who donated a designated amount along with their purchase of a ticket to a virtual event would have the opportunity for a private fifteen-minute conversation with the choreographer or lead dancer. The key here is to be as creative with the opportunities as you are with the performances and classes.
Dance companies and dance studios have made an incredible tilt to virtual in a very short time period. As I stated earlier, there has never been a more creative group of individuals that have adapted and tackled issues under the most difficult of times. This may not be enough for economic survival. From board members to arts leaders to individual artists, we all need to strategize and create better business models to make up for lost revenue from live programs. I know many of you will cringe, when I say that we need to consider revenue models first and then build creative programs around that model, but it may be the only solution for our survival if the pandemic lasts for even another year.