Leaders Reframe False Dichotomies: Content Creators vs. Owners

Not a Zero-Sum Game, Part 1 of 3

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Small groups of artists and administrators across the orchestra and opera world openly discussed important questions outside the bargaining table in response to the accelerated rate of change around us. Thank you to the incredible panelists above. Hosted by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Center for Innovative Leadership; Facilitated by Aubrey Bergauer; Co-Produced by Aleks Romano.

The pandemic isn’t solely responsible for upending classical music. Rather, the pandemic has exacerbated and exposed symptoms and problems that already existed: limited revenue streams, narrow customer base, inadequate cash reserves, and a lagging digital presence. As an industry and at our individual organizations, we have an opportunity before us to recalibrate how we view our work, to leverage this inflection point to build a future that looks different — fuller and more robust — than before.

To explore what this fuller future might look like, the setup was simple: invite accomplished artists and administrators to openly discuss issues normally reserved for behind closed doors, private conversations, and the bargaining table. Discussions would take place over three days, with a different roundtable each day to explore and unpack a different false dichotomy in classical music. All of this was made possible by the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

“We have an opportunity before us to recalibrate how we view our work, to leverage this inflection point to build a future that looks different — fuller and more robust — than before.”

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You can view all three roundtables in their entirety for free, and this series of posts illuminates the top themes from each group. Let’s jump into day one: streaming and pro-bono work in a post-COVID world.

Asking Artists for Pro-bono Work is Sometimes Okay and Sometimes Not Okay

“Pro bono work is when a professional person takes a specialized skill and uses that to enhance the life of somebody who may not have been able to afford that.”

“Confession time: there was a point in my career where I realized that, you know, the part of the job that I really loved the most, the part that inspired me and got me up in the morning to go to work, actually wasn’t the playing.”

“Sometimes companies do take advantage of that concept to ask artists to do things that are really just work.”

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Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash

During the pandemic, artists have donated and been asked to donate their time an incredible amount. Is that ok? Well, according to this group, it depends. Context matters, the ask matters, and frankly, the timing matters. Some things that were ok in late March during the first few weeks of quarantine when our collective worlds were being turned upside down aren’t appropriate four months later. So how does an organization navigate this changing paradigm?

1. Consider the type of work. Is it the top skill an artist is usually paid for, i.e. performing, or is it something else? “In my job as principal with the symphony, I love doing that,” said one participant, “But the things I’ve become most passionate about recently are outside that. I do a lot of volunteer and board work, programs for kids of all sorts.” Other participants agreed with a growing passion for and willingness to offer time for their off-stage contributions.

2. Consider who is the beneficiary of the work. As said by a panelist, We often think of pro bono as doing something for a company, whereas I think it’s more interesting to spread that out to direct relationships with communities and artists.” Is the task you’re asking a musician to do for you to help raise money for the annual fund, or is it to “support artists who are suffering and out of work right now” as one person put it? Is it for “kids who are going to grow up and become subscribers” or “board members who are going to support us when the market comes back” as others said? This group made it so clear that if the work is tied to directly benefit the organization (read: non-artist expenses off the backs of the artists themselves), that’s not great. If it’s to support something bigger, outside the org, in the broader community, or related to making classical music accessible, the case is a lot stronger.

3. Consider the type of employee being asked. Salaried versus non-salaried makes a difference here. “If you are contracted to be an orchestral musician, you have a salary, which I’ve never had [as a freelancer],” offered one panelist. “If you’re somebody who is working as an opera singer, even at a major institution, you’re paid per performance, you’re not contracted for the entire season. And so it’s an entirely different thing to ask someone to do pro bono work who is a 1099 artist versus being a W2 employee, because you’re already guaranteed to be getting some kind of a payment for the work that you’re doing.”

We Must Invest in Digital Content

“Some of the stuff that we made early on [during the pandemic] is super fun, people loved it. But it’s not the quality of which you would ask people to pay for it.”

“We need to be competitive entertainment-wise, or we’re gonna die.”

“Digital is where we’re going to have to have a very, very defined structure of revenue. So I would say we have to partner on this, everybody together.”

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Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

The question I’ve been asked more than any other during this pandemic is how to monetize digital content. And every time my response is that you can’t monetize something that isn’t differentiated, doesn’t have an established market, is widely available from other sources, and isn’t of a quality level for which people are willing to shell over money. The roundtable put a finer point on all this, starting with the need to up our content quality bar.

Let’s start with what high quality is not. The group was clear that high quality is not living room concerts and not archival footage of past performances. “I don’t like archival performances,” commented one artist. “To me, you’re a voyeur, like you’re watching an experience happening, but you are not actually the audience. With film,” they continued, “the audience is the person watching the screen. And if you are creating the content with that in mind, you are going to have so much more success.” Another panelist agreed with the need to approach digital content as its own medium: “I think there are huge possibilities if we’re thinking of the actual genre that we’re working with here.”

For most people in classical music, at least if this roundtable is any indication, the issue isn’t if we should better produce our online content, it was who will do it and how. As one panelist explained, “Part of the trouble is as individuals, 99% of us don’t have the skill, the equipment, time, or the interest to learn how to take our craft, which we already know — playing music, playing an instrument, singing, whatever it is — and take it to this other form. And most of our orchestras don’t have people on the staff that know how to do it either.” Another musician said we can’t sit around and wait either, “You’re capable of more than just doing that [playing your instrument]. Plus, you can’t sit on your hands and wait for your management to take care of this for you. You have to be an advocate for what you’re doing. And that’s going to help your management succeed also.”

Almost every classical music organization in America has work to do here. As a side note, this is why we need trained musicians in offstage roles as well. We desperately need producers, directors, and editors with strong musical backgrounds. And we need an institutional commitment to invest this way. I know in a time of economic upheaval this is tough.

Finally, if anyone reading this thinks that investing in digital content will somehow hurt the core of what we do in classical music, think again. I leave this section with this player’s analogy:

“When MTV (Music Television) first came out, people were in an uproar and saying, ‘You know, your art should not need a flashy video to support it or make it legitimate. This is horrible, and MTV is going to be the end of creativity, and Video Killed the Radio Star…’ And what happened? Did art fall apart? Did it end? No, of course not. It created something brand new.

I’m not saying that MTV is the end all be all, but it was a portal for massive change… So why are we so resistant to those changes happening? Because it’s happening again right now. This is part of the streaming thing, and actually, we’ve moved past whether or not streaming is going to happen because we cannot unscramble that. It’s here. It is our reality. The question is where are we right now? And the challenge for all of us is to say, what are we going to do with this opportunity?”

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Know the Market

“I think that we have to put a little bit of our market value in the in the thing itself. It’s not just about the community, we have to know that we are competing in digital.”

“To the Beyoncé community, the Beyhive is a thing. And you know, if we want to have similar impacts, I think that we also should be thinking more in this community-oriented way. I would say, ‘embrace our Geekdom as classical music people.’”

“I really believe in in five or ten years, we’re going to look back at this period and actually be thankful that it pushed us forward in a way that we should have been doing anyway. And I think now we’re really going to do it.”

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Photo by CardMapr on Unsplash

Fortunately and unfortunately for classical music organizations, the market for digital content has already been established. Fortunately because we don’t have to be pioneers in figuring this out, and unfortunately because the truth is that people are conditioned to not pay a lot for digital content. Netflix, for example, costs $12.99 per month for tons of Hollywood-level produced offerings. Low price for incredibly high quality options. That model works economically for Netflix because of scale. And every other streaming service has enforced this, whether they’re operating at scale or not. Classical music organizations have nowhere near the budget, variety of content available, or users that any of these services do, and that’s why monetization is difficult for us.

To know this is to be able to design for this. It’s one thing to say we need to invest in our content, but if we are not strategically developing an audience — developing fans that eat, sleep, breathe what we do — we are wasting our time and resources. “It’s very much like a TV network,” concluded a panelist. “This is actually a strategy that exists. The NBA has NBA TV, they have ESPN; the entertainment world has Bravo. There are so many things the entertainment world created to be able to have a fandom experience.” Whether we’re comparing the need to scale — grow a fanbase — to network television or to Beyoncé’s Beyhive, the group is right: these strategies exist already in other parts of the entertainment industry and can be emulated.

The group continued to talk about the relationship of pursuing fans/users/clicks to the content we produce. It’s not selling out to desire to grow a massive online audience; it’s knowing the market so we can position our product within it. “We have to have realistic market value so we can be relevant in the digital world to create a stream of revenue. And I do pursue clicks a little bit because…in order to get to monetizing Facebook today, you have to have 30,000 views per day for 60 days in a row.” Raise your hand if your organization has achieved 30k+ views every day for the last two months. Let this be a reality check for everyone in classical music reading this: we are measurably not there.

No business makes money without fans, and the more of them we have — like, super rabid fans — the more money we are going to make, online and in-person. So what do we do? If the equation thus far is that we need fandom in order to monetize our content, but we don’t yet have those droves, and we still need to be investing in high quality content in order to grow said fanbase, how do we get there? We have to find other ways to realize this revenue.

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Digital content is nearly impossible to substantially monetize without audience scale. So why invest in it? Because it’s a gateway to other product purchases, like ticket sales and donations. This is a strategic model that builds over time.

“It’s more about keeping people engaged,” an artist said. “And I think that’s great. For what it’s worth, I think we have to start thinking about ‘what is the quality that would help us bring in some money, whether that’s donations from wealthier donors, or whether that’s something that’s really popular that a lot of people pay 10 bucks for, or whatever.”

In this equation, fandom leads to monetization — eventually. The more people engage, the more that fanbase grows, and over time, it absolutely is possible to hit those large numbers and eventually begin to realize a revenue stream from digital platforms. The Dallas Opera’s TDO Network did it — 30k+ views for 60 days straight, now over 9 million views total on Facebook — and they’re starting to see this source of revenue for the company materialize. The important thing to know is that it didn’t happen overnight, because this is critical to the next phase of the discussion: the compensation structure for artists who participate in creating this content does not support this strategy.

Figure Out New Ownership and Payment Models

“This pandemic has turned up the volume on what’s broken and dysfunctional in our models, and we can realize that we’re capable of so much more if we just allow ourselves to get in alignment with that.”

“Contracting often is very prohibitive against making recordings.”

“I believe that music is a collaborative art form. And so we have to rethink our models of ownership in general. And that’s something that I hope that we continue to evolve as we get through this crisis together.”

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Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

There’s no way to sugar coat this: our current contract structures, both orchestra CBAs and individual artist agreements at opera companies, make everything we’ve talked about thus far prohibitively difficult. The payment structure completely breaks the equation above, meaning the current system calls for a costly investment up front, which flies in the face of a model that requires fan growth over time in order to achieve revenue on the backend.

In tying market to cost and revenue structure, a panelist said it like this, “I want to make a very big emphasis during this conversation on the reality check of the market value of everything that we are doing. Because right now classical music, at least in the United States, works not in relationship with ticket sales or real money from the consumer. It is basically paid for by a very specific group, a very small group that associates with an organization and pays 70, 80, 90% [of the budget] sometimes.” In other words, that very small group is our donor base. While on one hand, that’s precisely why we are nonprofits — because earned revenue does not fully cover our expenses — on the other hand, donors are being asked to cover more and more of those expenses each year. This is a problem when we are not feeding that donor pipeline, which we do by growing engagement (fandom) among prospects, ticket buyers, and ultimately donors. Again, the big revenue is on the backend (donations), when the current structure requires the investment on the front end (current contract agreements).

“I guarantee you no one in [my orchestra] has ever made a significant amount of money from recording…I get that $200 check in the mail every summer for however many recordings and that’s about it,” said a principal player at an orchestra in the top 10% of budgets nationwide. “The point is that there’s no question the genie is out of the bottle,” he continued, “The discussion we were having about where the market is, I think is true. And what do we do about it? For all of us, it’s a little bit like jumping off a cliff to totally change the IMA [Integrated Media Agreement]. I’m not that expert; I’m not in the room hammering that out. But for me, it’s a maybe a little bit of a hop off a curb for a huge potential upside in the health of our organization and the health of our art form.”

Continuing the NBA analogy, another panelist offered that their revenue streams are “not only ticket sales or endorsements, but with the NBA, everybody’s going back because there’s TV rights. There’s digital exploitation rights. And that’s how you put money back on the performers. So in order to do that, I need contracts. I need to have a pathway, legally, that allows us to go further and create and expand.” In other words, a solution to explore is reworking ownership. Right now, the deal is that artists are paid a sum up front, and then the organization owns the content with some tiny percentage of sales going to the artist after that (hence the small residual check mentioned above). The NBA’s digital exploitation model gives less or no payment up front for media capture, and instead ties the royalty payments to the success of the content. This move to joint-ownership of the final product can work for everyone, because “when you feel like you have a piece of have ownership of that thing,” another panelist commented, “not only will you put more effort into making it great, but you could allow for the potential success of that thing and not necessarily mean an upfront $10,000 fee or whatever.”

There are other areas of the entertainment industry we can pattern after besides professional sports. “We can borrow contracting procedures that are already in place from the film and TV world in order to decide what is the proportion of money that you get up front and then what is the percentage of royalty payments that you get going forward for each stream of the performance,” offered an artist. “And I would also say that for audio recordings, nobody is making money from streaming audio right now, and the way that big concert artists like Beyoncé, or like Katy Perry, or whoever make their money is through touring. So the intent behind an album release is to drive traffic towards the live event. And I think we can shift our thinking about it so that it’s not like the recording should still sound good enough that people want to hear it, but that once they hear it, they’re gonna want to come see the thing live.”

That idea of flipping the purpose of digital content from an end goal in itself to a vehicle that drives live attendance segues to the final theme of the roundtable.

Conclusion: Nothing Replaces the Live Experience, But We Can Complement It

“I think creating new experiences that make the music better in this [digital] form — and perhaps can only exist in this form — can complement live performance and not just be sort of a reminder of ‘live is cool when we can do it.’”

“I think a lot of our difficulties as an art form come from fear of losing what we’ve had, and I hope for us that we let go of that fear and embrace the future, because human beings have been making music together since the beginning of time. And we’re going to keep doing that no matter what. And we don’t have to be afraid that it’s going to go away.”

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Photo by Wan San Yip on Unsplash

Live performance is what we do best as professional arts organizations. Nothing can or will replace that, and we do well by using everything discussed in this post and in the full roundtable to help people feel comfortable paying for a ticket to come see us live. As one panelist articulated, “People do not go to things that they don’t know what they are, right? That’s why you have Yelp reviews. That’s why you have Amazon reviews. That’s why you can star things on Spotify. That’s why people use Spotify — they want to try it out before they’re willing to pay $100 to go to a concert. And I think that we’ve done ourselves a disservice in some ways by cutting off what the experience of classical music is, because we don’t have it built in to [easily] make good recordings of it, and to find a way for those recordings to be shared in a way that is equitable for everyone.” That panelist completely understands the equation.

Maybe a final way to say it — to reframe the false dichotomy — is this, “Engagement versus marketing and clicks. Why do those two things not go hand in hand? If we build a community and an audience, we will drive clicks and we will drive revenue. Think about these things not as diametrically opposed.”

Lastly, I said this as I was facilitating this roundtable, and I want to underscore it again here: talking about the need to change the economic model for digital content is not meant in any way to suppress earning potential; rather, it’s just the opposite. Anybody who follows my work knows I want all of us to make more money. I get really excited when I think about it this way, because it means that by reframing our approach, there is a scenario where the pie can get bigger for all involved. Which was exactly the topic in part two of this series, continued here.

About the Author

Credited by Southwest Magazine with “redefining the classical concert experience as we know it,” Aubrey Bergauer defies trends and then makes her own. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple its donor base.

Praised by Wall Street Journal for leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically advance every facet of an organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across typically siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, and in the community. A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, Bergauer now shares these ideas as founding executive director for the Center for Innovative Leadership at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in addition to her consulting work and speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. aubreybergauer.com

Working to change the narrative for symphony orchestras.

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