Friday, April 2, 2010

Marketing Culture to the 21st Century (Part I)

Some commonly accepted beliefs about audiences in this millennium need to be challenged.

As an article my Northern Michigan grandparents sent me from the Detroit Free Press (March 28, 4J) notes "Arts attendance is shrinking, audiences are aging, arts education has become an endangered species in schools and live music and museums face fierce competition in the age of the Internet and Digital Distribution" -- I don't think that's news to anyone, nor would many try to argue the first part of that.

But the notion -- and the acceptance -- that "the Internet" and "Digital Distribution" are truly competitive to brick and mortar (or more appropriately "strings and canvas") arts institutions needs a second look. Institutions that attempt to compete with the vastness of everything "Digital" are doomed to failure. The positioning is inapt and the perception given is that digital is viable competition. Instead the two can -- and should -- be positioned as complimentary.

Electronic media -- music, television, the Internet -- provides quick, tightly controlled information and entertainment where every viewer gets essentially the same experience, kind of like McDonald's: I can order a large #1 (No onion or tomato, please) in any of the 26 states I've visited and it will taste the same. Exactly the same. It will be served by people who look the same. Exactly the same. It will be eaten in a restaurant that looks shockingly similar regardless if you’re in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Yucaipa, California There are times when that's exactly what I need, want, or am craving: Others the homogeneity becomes dull and boring.

In those cases, one ventures into the world of local eatery: Perhaps a swanky Italian joint or a BBQ place where one quickly decides asking too many questions about the food preparation. There can be some wonderful--or terrifying surprises along the way, but each new discovery, each nuance contributes to a more satisfying life. In the same way, physical Culture provides a tremendously different and unique-for-every-patron-in-every-performance experience from their electronic counterparts.

I have a confession to make: For a long time I thought I hated classical music. Various "pops" experiences unlocked the door, but trying to listen to CDs or MP3s of recorded classical music turned me off just as quickly. A couple years ago I promised myself I would try "everything" in Cleveland once, and one weekend I happened into Severance Hall for Bernstein's Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) and the light began to dimly glow: I enjoyed the second movement enough to search it out on iTunes and was disappointed. The best recording I could find was no match for the dynamic range, texture, or sheer pool of energy and emotion in the hall.

(To be continued in Part II)

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