by Ned Canty
Before becoming general director of Opera Memphis in 2011, I spent five years as festival director of the New York Television Festival. Founded in 2005, the NYTVF aimed to be the “Sundance of Television,” leveraging advances in technology to help uncover a new generation of storytellers. It debuted in October 2005, to great success. Two months later, YouTube launched, and instead of the marginal expansion of traditional talent pipelines we were aiming for, we found ourselves in the midst of a massive shift in how content was created, consumed, and paid for.
I have a vivid memory of sitting in a diner with a highly placed TV executive who was convinced his entire world was disappearing before his eyes. TV would be dead within three years, he said. In many ways he was right. Eleven years later, the traditional television business model is a distant memory, torn to shreds by webisodes, streaming services, and a universe of nearly infinite choice. His world is gone, no question. But what replaced it is a new golden age of television. I don’t know about you, but my DVR is bursting with absolutely amazing art right now. If the DVR is empty Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu are standing by to deliver a century of amazing storytelling. TV is dead; long live TV.
I think about this a lot when I meet with colleagues from opera companies in other cities. All of us are watching a slow-motion version of what happened to TV a decade ago. Business models that were stable for years are crumbling. Subscriptions, long the backbone of any arts organization, are declining. Audiences are buying tickets later and later, and in the case of millennials, often waiting until the day of the event to decide what to do on a Saturday night. More people today are cultural omnivores, attending a wide variety of events, rather than committing to a full season of one genre — something that makes perfect sense given the abundance of choices.
These shifts are happening quickly enough that decades of data on audience behavior are being rendered less and less useful each year.
Sounds a bit gloomy, I know. Like the TV industry a decade ago, assumptions about what works are being exploded, one after another. Luckily there is plentiful good news as well. Opera companies across the nation (Opera Memphis among them) are breaking records when it comes to attracting new audiences. Between our “30 Days of Opera” program, our Masterworks series and our Midtown Opera Festival, we reach thousands of people each year who are new to opera. The challenge is that, compared to their parents, someone who had a great experience at their first opera is not nearly as likely to commit to a subscription. Choose what to do on a Saturday night 10 months from now? Not likely.
So we find ourselves facing a time of change, where adaptability and nimbleness need to replace outmoded ideas of “stability.” In an age of rapid technological change and disruption, “stable” means “static,” which too often means “out of business.” Our goal, then, as a nonprofit arts organization, must be to adapt to the needs of our future audience. We need to continue questioning what creates value for an audience member, and not rely on old models. AT&T was sure that the most important thing to a phone customer was a clear, reliable signal. Many fortunes were made by the people who bet that convenience would trump reliability.
I wish I knew what the future business model of opera (or orchestral music or ballet, or whatever) looked like, but I don’t. All I know is that the human need for music, for stories, for shared communal experiences is not going anywhere. Opera has been around for centuries precisely because it has adapted to the times. If we embrace this disruption and use it as a chance to forge a new model, we can create the same sort of golden age we see with TV today. The business or production model of opera in 2030 might look completely different from that of today, or of 30 years ago, but the art will be better, more relevant, and more vital than ever before.
Ned Canty has directed productions at dozens of companies, including The Glimmerglass Festival, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Santa Fe Opera, and New York City Opera. Canty has spoken before the National Endowment for the Arts, the Alliance for Nonprofit Excellence, and dozens of civic groups in Memphis. He was recently appointed to the board of Opera America, the national service organization for opera, and was named a CEO of the Year in January by Inside Memphis Business.
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