Sell Out (or how artists might be able to help build audiences without compromising their vision)

Times haven’t been this hard for arts organisations for many years – with yesterday’s Spending Review squeezing regional venues from all, sides:

Arts Council funding cut by 30% (15% to “front-line” arts activities)
While George Osborne claimed on the Today programme this morning that he doesn’t foresee any reason why the public should see the impact of these cuts, many of the country’s cultural leaders spoke out last night on The Stage website, claiming just the opposite. In fact on her Guardian blog today Charlotte Higgins suggests it may mean that ACE “will struggle to do any kind of job at all”.

Pressure on local authority budgets
With local authorities asked to make further cuts, venues who also receive substantial support this way are bound to take a second hit.

Individual spending
I think it’s fair to suggest that core audiences tend to be among the middle classes and, given that it’s the middle class who appear to be the most heavily targeted group in these cuts (to the tune of £10,000 over 4 years), this is bound to have an impact on customer spending. I don’t think people will stop going out as a result but we are at least bound to see a shift away from risk taking and a drop in regular attendance. 

So what to do?

Should there be a drop in regular attendance, there are a number of simple actions I think we, as regional venues, can make. If nothing else lower ticket prices (while it may cut margins) offer periferal sales but this will require cooperation from booking agents who may have higher (priced) expectations.

But longer lasting action in the removal (or at least reduction) in the perception of risk could deliver results.

And this is where we need the support of artists – descriptive but unattractive language, cryptic titling and beautiful imagery that says little about the work are all great but not helpful for attracting an audience:

Language – Over the last ten years I have often worked with artists, dancers and theatre makers who, when asked to write marketing copy will either send a synopsis or some copy that is a collection of impenetrable arts-speak with adjectives.

Titling – titles are about the most difficult thing for any of us. Those that prove unappealing to potential audiences include try to capture something buried deep in the essence of the work but ultimately say little about it; or even more difficult are titles that are a kind of in-joke, that you only make sense after the event.

Images – I’m sorry to say it’s about the faces – some slick design, a great composite, a shot of someones feet poking up from the bottom of a poster look great but they don’t make people want to see whatever it is you’re advertising.

I think there remains a resistance amongst most creative practitioners (though I accept less so as the years have gone on), to be at all sales or marketing driven and it’s receiving houses like ours that exist across the UK that would benefit from a little re-think in this regard.

A strong example recently was a piece that previewed at The Corn Exchange (also here in Newbury), recently this year.  Out of Joint’s The Big Fellah, has gone on to receive great critical acclaim – a truly brilliant comedy about a New York fireman who decides to join the IRA – the national press lavished it with 4 star reviews but i know the show didn’t sell nearly as well as it could have done here. 

And my feeling is that the title The Big Fellah, is pretty meaningless until you’ve seen the show. Considering a more meaningful option – such as The Republican (which would be a neat fit between the IRA and, of course,  the American political party) may have at least had more people reading the copy. But then the copy merely describes the plot, so potential audiences are given little of what to expect from experiencing the piece – other than it will be witty…

In short, the marketing doesn’t do justice to what is a great piece of new writing. The result is great reviews but disappointing audiences…

So I’m not really suggesting artists “sell out” in as much as compromising their work, nor even that the work itself needs to be marketing-lead, simply that now, more than ever, having an understanding of what (or more importantly, who) titles, poster images and copy are for, would certainly be a big help to those of us trying to bring people to see exciting work – especially in these difficult times ahead.

One thought on “Sell Out (or how artists might be able to help build audiences without compromising their vision)

  1. What refreshingly frank observations on the marketing of the creative arts and your ‘what to do’ strategies are spot on.
    Meaningful names are essential in conveying messages; creating enigma of your artistry is something we can no longer afford to risk, especially if it confuses our potential audience. Telling customers what they are about to experience will not destroy their enjoyment and honesty could increase footfall.
    If you are proud of your work why conceal your identity behind a cloak of confusion, mystery, in-jokes, jargon or arts-peak. One of my personal hates involves technical online forums where the contributors hide behind cryptic user names; if you believe in yourself and what you have to say, take the credit as a real person.
    With audiences looking for value, both monetary and aesthetic, it is the duty of the supplier to ensure they are not disappointed. Give your consumers good value and they will spread the word, but equally try to deceive by seemingly ‘clever’ marketing and it will destroy you.

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