Embracing Innovation Over Hibernation

There’s a fabulous piece making the rounds written by Seth Pinsky that was originally published in the 6/13/2020 edition of cnn.com. Pinsky, the former head of New York’s Economic Development Corporation under Mayor Bloomberg and the CEO of the 92nd Street Y, provides the cultural sector with exactly the right advice at exactly the right time.

Now that we’re starting to see the very beginnings of cancellations from larger budget orchestras that span the gambit of half to full seasons, Pinsky offers an approach that focuses more on innovation over hibernation.

…we must resist two natural but self-destructive instincts in response to the crisis — imposing austerity budgets that make it impossible to create new content, and giving what content we do create away for free. The former is understandable and the latter is noble — but neither is a recipe for long-term survival.

Pinsky provides some sobering real-world examples of what we can expect if we embrace the wrong strategy. Specifically, he highlights strategic decisions within the traditional print journalism sector that ultimately led to relentless revenue shortfalls and a stream of self-inflicted austerity measures, each of which only exacerbated the overall rate of decline.

He goes on to highlight some of the efforts implemented at 92nd Street Y and they are all worth setting aside the time to read.

But it was his reference to traditional print journalism that caught my eye.

Among the many outcomes I hope to see as the field moves through this environment is a renewed interest in collective action to maximize revenues and distribute risk.

When applied to print journalism, we’ve all experienced the frustrating user experience that comes with “free” content. I put free in quotations because it’s really anything but free. Sites have become littered with so many ads, nags, and trackers, all stuffed into design with the very worst brute force coding practices, they are painfully slow and infuriating to use.

Ironically, the very site that published Pinsky’s piece is also one of the worst offenders: cnn.com. Browsing the site is the digital equivalent to a root canal…but one where your dentist stops every few moments to scream advertising spots into your ear.

All of this is to say that when I came across Scroll, a service designed to pool membership dues and distribute to participating outlets in return for delivering ad-free versions of content at the original URL, I joined just to see if it could deliver what it promised (spoiler: it does). The revenue share model is pretty straightforward:

Scroll distributes your membership to sites you read based on their share of your engagement. Those sites make more money than they would from showing you ads and deliver you a faster, better experience. Every month, we’ll tell you where your membership went and which sites you supported.

Scroll’s distribution model becomes fascinating from the perspective of arts orgs joining forces to offer a centrally managed membership service that delivers content in a superior platform than they would be able to do on their own.

While orchestras should have been exploring alternative earned income via digital content a decade ago, one benefit of getting into the game now is they can avoid the debilitating trap that gobbled up journalism in the form of the “free” content conundrum.

Finding a way to implement something like Scroll for performing arts that delivers a higher caliber user experience and sets a baseline for content valuation should be more than just an idealistic goal.

Granted, there are plenty of devils waiting in those details but that shouldn’t stop stakeholders from garnering enough fortitude to move boldly into this brave new world.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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