Performing Arts Digital Lab update

Yesterday the COC hosted an update session on the Digital Stage initiative and one of its key components; the Performing Arts Digital Lab  (PADL).  This is a joint project of the COC and the National Ballet) and yesterday’s update curiously coincided with the Federal Heritage department announcing major funding for the next stage of PADL.  I’m not going to report on the update in detail because all the materials and the session itself will be archived at coc.ca/digitalstage.  (All the stuff prior to yesterday is already there but yesterday’s material wasn’t at time of writing)

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What I want to do is reflect on where we are and maybe pose some questions which were only partially addressed yesterday.  First let’s refresh on what PADL is and isn’t.  It’s not a response to COVID or a fast-tracked attempt to produce better streamed content.  PADL was well underway before COVID and it has at least three more years of development ahead.  The focus has always been on how digital technology can be used to streamline the content creation process and present potentially new kinds of content in new ways.  There has been some emphasis on accessibility but the idea of a staged, live performance was and is always front and centre.  Hence “Digital Stage”.

While I don’t think COVID has changed the mission or scope of PADL it as changed the world in which it will be realised.  I’d venture that more people have watched more “arts” content digitally than ever before and that by a large margin.  One consequence of this is that people are more aware of what’s out there and what works for them and what doesn’t.  One consequence, of this is that people are asking themselves what “live” means and whether it matters.  The conversations I’ve had on the subject all suggest that, for at least some of us, “live” means people coming together  physically to simultaneously make and experience art.  And it matters a lot.  For us, a pre-recorded show is not “live” just because it has a show time and a concurrent Facebook chat.  It’s not, I think, “live” even if it’s a simulcast.  That’s just television!  So for me, and many others, getting back to the theatre is very important.  But how typical are we and will we in fact see a continuing demand for “television” at a higher than pre COVID level and a consequent reduction in live audience?  I don’t know.

So what does this mean for opera companies (and other content producers)?  First of all I think it brings into focus the question that really should be at the front of anyone’s mind when they are thinking about incorporating technology into their processes and that question is “Who are we?”  Or as a marketer might put it “What’s our value proposition?”.  I think what’s tricky here is that there may be two answers; a “local” and a “non-local” one and it’s probably best not to confuse them; especially for smaller and regional companies.

It seems to me clear that only large and rich or very niche companies can hope to compete in non-local space.  Only they will be able to afford the sort of technologies that can create “different for digital” and/or offer the kind of casts and productions that will attract a large on-line audience(*) (and even they may struggle to monetise it as long as there’s lots of free content in competition).  There may be a “sympathy buy” right now for streamed content from second tier players but it won’t survive COVID.  That means that the “who are we?” question needs to have an essentially local answer and the marketing needs to be focused on the value of “live” like never before, whether and whatever technologies are being deployed to support that.  It’s quite possible that successfully selling the “value of live” is necessary for the survival of smaller opera companies performing standard rep.  A major shift to digital consumption would likely wipe out the regional opera company as effectively as radio and television wiped out variety theatre.

There are alternatives of course.  Perhaps the answer is to leave the standard rep to the large companies and focus on something different that would have a value proposition locally and non-locally.  Tapestry is an example of a model that could be successful in that way.  The post COVID world will see a return to theatres but it will be in a different competitive landscape.  All opera companies but especially the smaller ones will need to adapt to survive.

(*)To be fair I should point out that one feature of PADL is the creation of a regional network and hub to allow smaller companies to access otherwise unaffordable technology.  That’s nice but it is  regional (which basically means GTA) for unsurmountable technical reasons.  There are clever people at the COC but none of them have found a way around the limitations of Special Relativity.

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