How the internet is changing the marketing of the arts

Around the turn of the century, online blogs and digital magazines began to serve as a bridge between traditional cultural organizations and the computer age. Often begun as places where former newspaper critics, journalists and wannabes could continue to work, they have largely found acceptance from both cultural organizations and their audiences.

Now a new trend is beginning to emerge, that of full-fledged Media Centers hosted by the organizations themselves. Foremost among these is the Boston Symphony Orchestra which has been quietly building up its Media Center for a while now.

Barrington Stage, Jacob’s Pillow Expand Efforts

Soon to join them in the Berkshires is Barrington Stage Company which recently received three grants to support their New Generations Grant for Future Audiences. Supporting this initiative are Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation and Theatre Communications Group. The innovative videos, slideshows and other multi-platform efforts of David Sernick – who only joined the company last summer as an intern and is now (thanks to the grants) full time – has set a new standard for the Berkshires. As with the more sophisticated companies, Barrington Stage long ago realized that just being on Facebook and Twitter is not a real internet marketing plan, it goes much deeper in its complexities. And you have to really work it.

Similarly the marketing of Jacob’s Pillow under Mariclare Herbert included their own channel on YouTube that enabled their website and mine to embed preview videos of upcoming performance snippets. Last month they debuted their materials, largely Pillow talks and special events that most people never get a chance to see or hear. For example there is a discussion on Copyright and Fair Use that is enlightening. You can explore their page here.

This week I published an advance story on the Metropolitan Opera that contained both a slide show of the upcoming November 13 telecast, and a video excerpt that was not just embedded, but is actually hosted by my site via high quality Vimeo. How many readers have the updates and bandwidth to take advantage of these new technologies is a question I have yet to answer.

At the same time, the use of cellphones and texting devices is on the upswing. One reason was chosen to host Berkshire on Stage was to enable us to keep up with the impressive widening of internet capabilities without actually having to be a code warrior. Goodness knows I have struggled with basics like C and HTML 1-5 over the years. It’s a lot to ask someone who is 71 to keep up with innovations pioneered by a 17 year old computer whiz.

From Blackberry to Android and iPhone, our hosts at WordPress have built up a following of over a million mobile users. They just added Nokia smart phones, too. As they point out, “Cell phones are becoming our new personal computers, always with us and always ready when something needs blogging about. Each day thousands of posts and responses are written and posted using nothing but a wee phone keyboard and a built-in camera.”

Some of my colleagues worry that the growing trend of hosting media rich environments in-house could foretell the obsolescence of our various websites as we move from hosting original content to shared videos and images. I believe that the written word is unlikely to lose its interest to a subset of readers who value sophisticated opinions rather then cut and paste content.

Still there is the question as to whether the long-form review will prevail. Short, concise capsule descriptions can be quicker and more efficient. But there every word counts, which is ultimately more work, but it may be the answer to the explosion of content we all want to read. There are millions of us writing now, and I count myself lucky that you are reading this with so much else to choose from. And the new forms of writing for future, even more time-pressed readers is unlikely to be developed by us older hands.

Why are we here?

Of course this begs the question of why we are here. For me at least it all comes down to a love of the arts combined with the challenge of finding warm paying bodies to fill otherwise cold, empty seats. Every organization with a stage needs more people buying tickets. In the Berkshires true sellouts are rare, and often as many as 40% of the seats go unsold, especially on weekday nights. If the typical theatre company needs to raise 50% of its budget to cover costs, and yet 40% of the seats go begging, one answer is clear.

It doesn’t help to just reprint the always upbeat press releases nor to limit ourselves to after-the-fact reviews. In the arts, as in sports, every outing is different, and the home team does not win all their games. They just have good years and bad, and it is the critics – and the audiences – who tell them if they are on the right track or if they have lost their way.

What is odd, even disturbing to me is that some companies don’t value their publicity and marketing people very highly.

Boards. they can drive you crazy, but you can’t survive without them either.

Let me tell you a story. When I was at the Boston Ballet (ancient history) and sold out the subscriptions while cutting out-of-pocket costs by more than a third, I still had one board member, the generous Mark Goldweitz, a real estate developer, ask me this: how can you justify spending a thousand dollars for a Boston Globe ad to get a few hundred dollar subscriptions when I can opt for a twenty buck want-ad to sell a million dollar building the next day.

Another story. At the Boston Symphony many years ago a matron from Prides Crossing, Judy Gardner, patted my hand and rejected a $100,000 promotional package proffered by Steve Mindich of the Boston Phoenix because that newspaper “had those classifieds.” She was referring to the papers notorious advertising section with gay and singles ads. No matter that it also had a much younger audience which spent a lot of money for tickets and whom the BSO was desperate for. “Besides,” she said, “You’re new here, and when you have been here ten years I will listen to your sugggestions.” The hand patting was humiliating enough, but with nobody in the BSO administration willing to take on the torpedo from Prides Crossing I was quickly out of there.

I wonder if some Berkshire board members might have a poor understanding of the marketing and PR jobs and the people who sell their tickets. They can be worth their weight in gold. Perhaps they have never seen a great one at work, and if the bright ones are not rewarded they quickly get offers from others who know their rarity. Surpisingly, several organizations actually use interns to do this job thinking PR is a smiling face and mumbo jumbo. Of course it is not, and these pretty young things usually write awful press releases and do a terrible job following up on media requests. One sends out press releases detailing casts but not the roles the actors will play.

Another company has a marketing person who helps out selling drinks, manning the box office and designing lights. A real team player, this staffer probably wonders why he doesn’t have time to get everything done. In another company their performers play dual roles, so emails are not answered in a timely manner if they are in rehearsal and opportunities get missed. This happens when the role of selling tickets – and earning income – is undervalued and not clearly understood. And the pay is so low that once someone good comes on board, they are soon enticed elsewhere. Real super women and men are always in demand.

But despite the difficulty of finding and keeping good people, there has been slow improvement. One of the areas that seems to capture everyone’s fancy is the internet.

Looking at the BSO Media Center

The BSO Media Center makes the orchestra’s video content—interactive features, audio and written program notes, and digital music—readily available in one place.  Last summer the BSO launched its iTunes application, giving iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad users access to the BSO, Boston Pops, and Tanglewood wherever they go.

As I write this, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is launching “Inside the TMC” at This new Web TV episode will explore the rich history and educational activities of the Tanglewood Music Center (TMC). “Inside the TMC” features highlights from last summer’s TMC 70th anniversary celebration, video clips of TMC master classes with BSO musicians and guest artists, and rare archival footage of the TMC throughout its history. This new Web TV program will also feature TMC rehearsal and performance footage of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, led by James Levine.

A Walking Tour of Tanglewood, presented by BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe, will be included as well.

A Changing Environment where sharing is best

Some organizations still try to hold on to all their materials tightly, and only offer them to visitors to their own websites. Inhibiting their availability quite simply slows their growth. There isn’t a gallery or performing group that isn’t looking for new audiences. And in time, donors. There are few people who will make contributions without seeing their work first, and developing givers means first developing audiences.

Sites such as Berkshire on Stage, Rural Intelligence, and Berkshire Fine Arts, all make enormous efforts to do just that. Indeed, together, they do far more arts reporting than the two Berkshire dailies or the increasingly irrelevant weekly Advocate.

In the case of Berkshire on Stage, we download the material to our computer and then transfer it to our own hosting sites, giving appropriate credit and hard links to the sites or events involved. In this way a synergy is created that piques the interest of our readers.

As the internet continues to evolve and expand at a breathtaking rate, we will try to infuse our articles with snippets and samples of the works under discussion. We hope that you will find this approach helpful in deciding what shows to see and help you invest your ticket dollars in events that turn out to delight and inspire you.

And as always, we will be interested in your reactions to our previews, interviews and reviews through the comments you make.


Top illustration courtesy of

4 thoughts on “How the internet is changing the marketing of the arts

  1. Larry- thanks for a timely and insightful post – I very much agree with you about the role that an effective, paid, professional PR and marketing person/staff has in making these organizations successful and the ongoing difficulty of convincing boards and administrations to invest in them appropriately. In particular now that one can track conversions and the effectiveness of advertising on the web so perfectly, it’s becoming easier for those staff members to defend the investment, but few of them do it yet. I’ve always tried to be as quick, free and liberal with the theatrical photography I do as that is its only and main purpose – to get out there and sell tickets! Great post.

  2. Great thoughts Larry. And, I agree with you and Kevin that the status of the Marketing/Communications people in most arts organizations has never been high. I’m always struck by how few move into senior management/executive director slots, though in many ways they have broadest view of the scene.

    The next big question facing performing arts organizations and the internet will involve those pesky copyright and union issues. Here at From the Top our web presence is significant and even though we have rights to utilize performances that are recorded for our radio program, we bump into obstacles in dealing with podcasting, and secondary rights.

    Curious times.

    David Balsom

  3. David – I agree about the rights issue – to some degree it’s time for Equity to move into the 21st century and realize that the time when there was a lot of “value” in a filmed or videotaped performance as a “broadcast” product has long passed – production values for television and film have rendered such recordings pretty moot as resale products. On the other hand, the popularity of the Met HD broadcasts would indicate that there is a monetization model here that other theatrical forms should be allowed to explore. It’s painful to have to chafe under the draconian restrictions of Equity’s rules regarding what/when/how theatre can be recorded. In the age of youtube, it’s primarily (from my point of view) an opportunity to build audiences and break down barriers to entry.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about the hurdles equity presents when creating multimedia promotional material. To only be able to utilize 30 seconds per scene in a play like the crucible which only has 4 scenes is very challenging. Actors always ask after I film something if I will make sure they dont look stupid and I want to respond with,”I could do a better job if I could show more of you.” I think that we will see changes in B-roll rules in the near future. At least I hope so.

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