Imagine the following scenarioYou travel down a deserted road in a beautiful rural area. Your watch beeps 2 a.m. as you arrive at a red stoplight. You look both ways and no cars, pedestrians, or small innocent wildlife appear in sight.
What do you do? You wait, but for how long? 10 seconds? 30 seconds? Would you wait more than a minute? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
At some point, you give up. You triple check that it’s safe and drive through.
BAM! You broke the law. You’re a criminal. How could you do that? I know, I know, you’re going to say “Clearly the light is broken!” and “Yeah it’s the law but it makes no sense to keep sitting there.” And, of course…you’re right. That’s exactly what consumers in the music industry said when that world was first shaken up by a rash of people ripping and illegally sharing music.
Music fans felt that they were being wrongfully charged. If you wanted a new hit song, you had to buy the entire CD or album. And prices only ever seemed to go up. When CDs originally came out they were more expensive than albums. While understandable with new technology (the quality was better) over time, their price continued to rise, even as the underlying costs continued to decrease. In fact, at some point it was cheaper to digitize on CDs than it was to make an album. Consumers knew this, and felt that this was an old industry controlled by a few people who were incredibly wealthy, thus giving the “Robin Hood” feeling.
Do people have a “price for honesty”? People will be honest if they believe it’s in everybody’s best interest. Fans weren’t trying to rip off artists. They didn’t like the music companies. Enter Apple. Apple creates a very easy way for you to pay 99 cents to get that song you want. It’s not about destroying the creators, but removing the gatekeepers. Apple’s model changed that industry forever, and the industry continues to evolve. What does that mean for creators?
BREAKING DOWN THE GATEKEEPERS: MUSIC
Long ago, in a world far, far away I was a young rock and roller with a Gibson guitar. Our band would go to Hollywood and play, but we were so young our parents had to drive us, hauling our equipment, while we forced them to hide while we were playing so we didn’t look uncool. It was fun and cool and everything a teen in high school could want. We loved playing music.
Knowing this was the life for us, we decided to record an album. But in that far away world here’s how it went: we saved up a bunch of money to get a huge reel-to-reel tape and went into a garage (an ACTUAL garage) to record, which got us something that was just kind of “OK”. So, we did what everybody was doing back then. You save more money and maybe, just maybe you could afford to get into a recording studio. Then you save even more money so you can try to get a producer.
It was expensive, time consuming, and frustrating, but we did it. We had to, because at that time the radio stations controlled music distribution, and the radio stations had very lucrative deals with the record companies, so record companies were the gatekeepers to the world of radio. There were a few independent stations at the time, like KROQ, where you could give over a demo and if they liked it they would play it, but that was a long shot. Going through those gatekeepers was the only reliable way to get your art out there. It was the only way for us to live the life we’d come to love.
Today, the world has changed. There are many ways for young musicians to have their music heard, to get their art out, to be in the world of music, and do what they love. Sound Cloud, YouTube, Spotify, Pandora, Apple, or whoever, we’ve now put control of this process in the hands of the many rather than in the hands of a few. The only gatekeeper here is you and the amount of work you’re willing to put in with your own two hands to find and connect with your audience.
A new question pops up with this freedom of distribution. Now, as a young artist you can no longer say, “It’s those three people at the record company who don’t like my music!” If you are actively promoting your art, and people are not responding or listening, it means you haven’t connected with your audience. In no way do I assume this an easy task. Trying to achieve this solo proves daunting and incredibly lonely. Therefore, artists must find their community. That community may be a massive entertainment company or a grass roots online global tribe. Who is your audience? That’s the new gatekeeper.
NEXT UP ON THE GATEKEEPER CHOPPING BLOCK: FILM
In the 1930-40’s the U.S. government sought to break up the monopolistic practices of the major film studios. At that time actors, writers, directors, producers, and other creative departments served as employees hired by the studios. The studio boss held the ultimate key to the gate and the consumer waited passively for content to appear.
Then, whether right or wrong, the government brought an anti-trust/monopoly challenge against the studios, and they were told they needed to break up. The studios agreed to remove the exhibition portion by divesting their ownership in the movie theatre industry but they held on to distribution and creation.
Over time, the studios realized that distribution holds the least risk and returns the biggest profits. They started to make fewer and fewer movies internally, and focused on making big, profitable movies. Just like today, the studios are focusing most of their effort on the blockbuster, or the “tent pole” movie.
Meanwhile the world of the independent film ebbs and flows in terms of financial success for filmmakers. With the growth of the independent ecosystem as film and acting schools turn out exponentially more artists, opportunities have expanded across genres. Still, the studios ultimately controlled entry because of the massive cost involved in making and distributing films. Not today!
On the creative side, you can make an entire movie with your smartphone! If you want to move up, a 4K camera, an editing station, and numerous other high-end graphic production tools enable you to create studio-like productions at a fraction of the cost.
Building our community and reaching our audience with sites like YouTube and many others (need others) opens the same doors that musicians blasted through a few short years ago.
Creation or distribution no longer hold us back. Viewership now becomes the gate we must open. How do you get seen? That’s where you need to be creative. The silver lining: word-of-mouth drives good content. With good word-of-mouth, you’ll grow exponentially.
Today, the ecosystem has exploded. The amount of content is astronomical and open to the masses. Amazon, Netflix, and HBO, who are now in content creation (and distribution), are the new theatres in the sense that they’re online but when you look at television, movies, or YouTube, for example, they are all following elements of the old studio model. Someone creates, someone distributes, and someone watches. The key, and the difference, is in finding your audience segments. We can begin to reverse the old model if we already know some data about our audience. Audience data can help determine budget and content creation. That’s where companies like Netflix, Amazon, and HBO shine. They have a lot of data on their subscriber base, and they can estimate their potential revenue.
GREAT, WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH MUSICAL THEATRE?
The answer, EVERYTHING! From the simplest standpoint, musical theatre blends in music, which we’ve already discussed, great stories, and connection to an audience on an emotional level. The theatrical gatekeepers traditionally held the key to audience connection. If you wrote a play and wanted it to be seen you found a theatre or stood on a street corner and performed to passersby who might or might not drop coins in your hat. The challenge in both models relates to audience size. We have always considered live theatre connected to a specific distribution mechanism. For Broadway, the “Great White Way” symbolized the end goal. We followed the mantra, Broadway or bust. Unfortunately, most of the time it was bust on the way to Broadway or make it to Broadway and then bust. Nine out of ten Broadway shows will lose some or all their money.
Today the art form of live plays and musical theatre productions on Broadway sit at the same intersection that music and film occupied a few years back. We’re looking at that red light, or the gatekeepers, and asking how as artists can we reach our audience and most importantly sustain our financial career? Most artists don’t care about being rich; it’s a nice by-product but almost never the end goal. Most financially successful artists still work no matter how much money they have in the bank because they must make art. It’s in their DNA. They love the art form and want to be part of the community that enhances and changes lives.
What does this have to with Apples and Orange Studios?
I see today as one of the most exciting times in the history of our art form. Through Apples and Oranges Studios and our THEatre ACCELERATOR we will release a continuous stream of open-source content to move our art form forward, sideways, and 360°. Sounds interesting, but how do we achieve this? Looking back to the key tenets that significantly impacted the world of music and film, we focus on the three most important points:
1) Content creation
2) Content distribution
3) Audience engagement or building community
The art of content creation itself remains similar. The difference we propose relates to the approach in audience engagement. We create by engaging the audience early in the process and by putting the story at the center of the universe (we’ll expand even more on this in upcoming blogs).
When I present this topic live, a hand often comes up at this point and someone asks, How are you going to change the reliance on physical theatres? I simply say, I’m not going to change anything about the current physical theatre structure. I love the live theatrical experience. Instead I’m looking to expand the opportunities to create multiple emotional connection opportunities for story and song.
Using existing technology such as YouTube, YouNow, and other web platforms, artists can share and potentially monetize their intellectual properties. From that point we can leap to exciting and groundbreaking new opportunities in augmented and virtual-reality experiences. We sit at the explosive and early stage of developing technologies capable of expanding and opening new doors in the relationship between audience and artist. This includes everything from the traditional theatrical model where we can use these emerging technologies to enhance the pre-and post-live theatre experience to new mechanisms that take us outside of the traditional four walls of Theatre.
Finally, audience engagement and building our community holds the key to our long-term success. This circles back, and relates directly, to content creation. When artists have a supportive community, each new project need not start at Ground Zero. In some ways this ties back to the days of the Renaissance when artists maintained a healthy living through patronage. In those days, the patron may have been monarchs who could chop off the artist’s head if they didn’t like the show. Today, we have a global network of distributed patrons. We also have the tools and technologies to reach and communicate with that audience. The same process that we found working in music and film forms the blueprint to build our strong foundation for the future of musical theatre.
Putting our artistic soul online and on the line can be scary. We may find our virtual head being chopped off by a vicious social media post. That part of being an artist has not changed. There are people who will love your creation and people who will strive to kill your creation and snuff your artistic fire. However, surrounding yourself with a community that supports the process and connects with your vision ultimately protects the artist’s spirit.
I dedicate myself to expanding and educating this new frontier. We may run an occasional light, but that should never stop any of us from traveling the artist’s path.