Artists need to put a stop to the firehose of ‘free’

Net Results: Online performances have been welcome but could undermine industry

 The Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly opera recording stream is overwhelming. File photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

The Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly opera recording stream is overwhelming. File photograph: Richard Hubert Smith

 

When coronavirus first hit, and hundreds of millions of locked-down people needed inspiration, sustenance, and uplift, we went online and turned to the arts, and artists.

Across the world, the arts gave, and continue to give. Individuals – actors, singers, instrumentalists, dancers, writers and visual artists – the famed and lesser known, professionals and amateurs, provide thousands of collective hours of live broadcasts.

Artistic organisations, including the world’s great opera houses, symphony halls, galleries, and stages, as well as smaller regional and local venues and companies, have organised free online events. Others, such as the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, present free streams of past recordings, normally only available via subscription services online, or cable.

But as welcome as these interludes and events have been for audiences that cannot gather into a shared social space as before, the unrelenting free-ness risks tipping the entire arts sector into the same won’t-pay online conundrum that threatens other vibrant sectors.

Take it from us in the media. Survival opportunities narrow once you are stuck between the rock of audiences expecting free service, and the hard place of nonetheless needing both a business model and an online presence to avoid fading into invisibility.

The irony is that in our ongoing, upside down Covid moment, people have an unrelenting thirst for media and cultural content.

But “online” is tricky for the arts. Too many organisations are diving in without forethought to a pool that may eventually be drained dry.

We know cultural sectors are battered. Live performance is all but eliminated, although apparently not for houseplants (2,292 of them filled the seats of Barcelona’s beautiful Liceu opera house this week, serenaded by a string quartet playing Puccini).

A recent report from the independent body, the National Campaign for the Arts in Ireland, proposes a recovery plan while setting out some grim details. “It is estimated that organisations will lose €2.9 million in income per month of shutdown and the economic impact of the shutdown to [May] is estimated at over €10 million ... 19,000 days of paid work have been lost ... A potential income of €6.4 million will be lost from cancelled activities to the end of May this year. Over 12,000 events have been cancelled.”

Most venues need to be half-filled just to break even. An expert advisory group to the Arts Council noted in a report last week that “socially distanced performance at 10-15 per cent of normal capacity is unsustainable”.

This will not improve any time soon. Broad national financial support for arts groups, such as the €25 million in arts and culture stabilisation funding from the Government to the Arts Council announced last week, is critical.

But the arts won’t grow, much less survive, on public supports. Performance and visibility, maintained through an effective online strategy, will be crucial, too.

Those strategies, at venue, organisation and festival-level, have got to move away from the dead-end of “free”, not least as approaches taken now must dovetail with shifting audience profiles and preferences that already were having an impact on live performance.

A comprehensive online strategy offers the opportunity to grow audiences and subscriber services, and reimagine ways to connect creatively, too, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. But not if the content is endlessly devalued by “free”.

Now is the time to experiment. But take it from a journalist: stop the endless free

For example, while generous, the Metropolitan Opera’s free nightly opera recording stream is overwhelming. It’s a firehose of free. I love opera, I love these artists and performances. But because there’s a constant free supply, I don’t value setting aside the time to watch, because there’s more free content along tomorrow night.

The opera and its performers are devalued. What I’d appreciate more is a single, weekly, modestly-ticketed opera. I’d pay for that, and watch it.

That’s a strategy some arts organisations are starting to trial. The Royal Opera House in the UK has begun some live, audience-less music and dance performances on Saturdays, for about €5, with the stream accessible to ticketholders for a further 14 days. The Europik Festival next week (europikmusic.com) sells individual performance and full festival-pass tickets for once-off live viewing.

In the past, in the real world, the UK’s National Theatre partnered with commercial support to offer heavily subsidised theatre tickets for some performances. These were hugely successful in bringing in new audiences and filling houses.

That’s a promising template for arts organisations right now. Give us your recordings, your back catalogue, and new live performances for a Covid world, at a fiver or a tenner. Keep it available for a week or two for those of us who can’t make the original broadcast.

Or, make the live performances a one-off stream that helps us once again be part of a collective audience at a single moment in time.

Now is the time to experiment.

But take it from a journalist: stop the endless free. Once Covid-19 has passed, you may not be able to climb back out of that hole.

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