As arts coverage fades, how will local arts organizations attract audiences?

After having launched my career as an arts reporter at The Ann Arbor News in 2004, I had become, over the course of nearly 12 years, the only long-term staff entertainment writer left standing in Ann Arbor when MLive Media Group announced a round of layoffs on January 6, 2016.

This time, though, my name was on the list, too.

Beyond my own personal circumstances, the layoff meant that artists/local arts organizations would take yet another hit in regard to press coverage, and thus find it even harder to share their triumphs, struggles, ambitions, and events with the community. Yes, the rise of social media has made it possible for arts organizations to be in regular contact with their subscriber list – but how, without minimal press coverage, will they now reach beyond that?

“I’m not spending money with news sites that don’t support the arts.”

The region’s biggest and oldest arts presenter, University Musical Society (UMS), appeared to see the writing on the wall way back in 2009, when the daily Ann Arbor News newspaper shut its doors (and the more online-oriented rose in its wake), and out-going arts reporters at the Detroit newspapers were no longer being replaced. In February 2010, UMS launched a website called UMS Lobby, where visitors can contribute their own responses to shows, or read, listen to, and watch bonus material about visiting artists on UMS’ roster.

Up until that time, UMS could count on an Ann Arbor News preview and review of every event on their calendar, but as that practice gradually fell by the wayside, UMS started producing more of its own content for UMS Lobby – either internally, or by hiring it out.

“The only other thing we did in anticipation of this, and perhaps a little earlier than other organizations in the area, is that 4 or 5 years ago, we created a full time video producer position,” said Sara Billmann, UMS’ marketing and communications director. “The idea started when we did that documentary about the 100th anniversary of Hill Auditorium. We realized how hungry people are to listen to someone talking, whether it’s an expert or an artist, so we decided we should have someone internally focusing on making videos.”

The drawback of UMS Lobby, though, is that it lives apart from UMS’ main website, so UMS is now in the process of a re-design – targeted for a mid-April release – that will pull content from the Lobby site and integrate it onto the UMS site.

“So people who are discovering us for the first time will be exposed to that content, too,” said Billmann. “In 2010, we had to do it separately to establish it. But it’s a different world now than it was 6 years ago, as crazy as that sounds. … People at that time weren’t as ready to listen to the ideas and opinions of those who weren’t professional critics. … The world’s gone into a different direction now.”

Billmann noted that they’ve recently poured more of UMS’ promotional budget into public radio and inserts that arrive between sections of The New York Times, both of which have proven effective.

“I’m not spending money with news sites that don’t support the arts,” said Billmann.

“How to create the next generation of theatergoers is what every theater is struggling with.”

Meanwhile, the Purple Rose Theatre’s managing director, Katie Doral, noted that the 25 year old professional company has, in recent years, hired social media interns “to learn everything we can about marketing through social media. It’s certainly more cost-effective than a billboard or magazine ad.”

The Rose has also tried to extend its reach by using inserts and postcards in areas like Lansing and Toledo, and advertising in smaller community newspapers based in Tecumseh and Adrian. “We’ve been trying to track them to make sure we’re spending our money in the right way.”

The underlying problem, of course, is that the online traffic numbers that appear too insignificant, from a business perspective, to a modern news organization are nonetheless highly significant and meaningful to the arts organization being covered.

“It just seems so crazy to me,” said Doral. “In a city like Ann Arbor, how can anyone say the community doesn’t care about the arts? They have such a rich arts culture there. … And we’ve had a great year so far. … Our last two shows (Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple and Jeff Daniels’ Casting Session) have been big hits.”

Indeed, The Odd Couple has sold extremely well despite the fact that Northville’s Tipping Point Theatre is producing the female version of the classic play simultaneously. Instead of grumbling and hand-wringing, the Rose and Tipping Point did what more and more marquee arts organizations are starting to do: collaborate.

Upon spotting the programming coincidence, Rose staffers reached out to Tipping Point’s marketing director, and after discussing how the distance between the theaters would likely prevent the cannibalizing of each other’s market, they asked, “How can we maybe use this to encourage people to see more theater?”

According to Doral, they came up with a cross-promotion, whereby those patrons who saw both productions would be entered into a drawing for prizes like tickets or concession discounts. “We’ve gotten a great response,” said Doral.

But like many arts organizations these days, the Rose has to strategically tailor its marketing plan to each project. When it took on an ambitious, large-cast world premiere zombie drama by Michael Brian Odgen, titled 2AZ, the Rose sought out underground periodicals and college newspapers, and set up a table at Comic Con, hoping to tap into The Walking Dead crowd. Unfortunately, this “outside the box” marketing approach didn’t attract enough ticket buyers, and the (generally well-received) show closed 5 weeks ahead of schedule – so while the Rose remains staunchly dedicated to “add to the canon of American theater” (Doral’s words) by producing new work, risk is simply part of the business.

“How to create the next generation of theatergoers is what every theater is struggling with,” said Doral. “There are so many factors: ticket price, a show’s subject matter, transportation to get here. We’ve talked about having a night once a month where a shuttle bus in Ann Arbor picks people up near The Ark and takes them to a show here. We’ve talked about a flex pass, where younger students can come in and sample so many shows a year. Hopefully, they’d learn to love us and want to come back, and later become patrons and donors.”

Doral notes that a grant the Rose received in support of a 25th anniversary script preview tour –wherein actors perform scenes shows in different parts of Southeast Michigan and answer questions, alongside longtime artistic director Guy Sanville – has paid off in big ways. “We’re seeing how many of those people are turning into ticket buyers,” said Doral.

But this large-scale, special community outreach event isn’t something the Rose can do each year, so they’re also putting more time and effort into video. This can be a tricky venture, since some properties (like “The Odd Couple”) restrict the use of any dialogue for promotional purposes, and the actors’ Equity Union have their own rules about how much can be filmed. So the process often feels like a puzzle that needs solving.

“Right when we post them, though, we get lots of shares and comments,” said Doral.

“I’d love to start a blog, but I also love to sleep.”

The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile, has beefed up its social media presence; strengthened its relationship with Detroit Public Television and classical music radio station WRCJ FM 90.9; prioritized small group performances at the Ann Arbor’s Farmer’s Market; and written their own previews and profiles to send out in e-newsletters.

The bulk of this effort falls to A2SO marketing director Emily Fromm, who started her job just as The Ann Arbor News broke ties with longtime entertainment free-lancers (like fine arts writer Susan Isaacs Nisbett).

“Guest artists we bring in for concerts really need previews and reviews,” said Fromm. “That’s part of why they come. ...We want the musicians to have that, but that’s just not happening in Ann Arbor right now.”

To counter the press coverage gap, A2SO has increased its focus on community outreach programs, and designed programming that targets different age groups. KinderConcerts – short, 30 minute concerts at local libraries – have provided a good point of entry for many families.

“And once those little ones grow up a bit, they become interested in things like our instrument petting zoo, and maybe our Disney concert, and then our Pops concert,” said Fromm. “At the other end of things, we have a chamber series at the JCC at 1:30 in the afternoon, so patrons don’t have to do any late night driving. And the cool thing this year is that when we have a soloist at a Saturday night concert, they’ll often play at the chamber concert on Monday afternoon. Lately, the shows have sold out.”

Fromm’s approach, in broad terms, is to make the orchestra feel more accessible. For instance Fromm will ask musicians to don party hats and eat cupcakes for a pre-rehearsal photo meant to drum up interest in A2SO’s annual Mozart Birthday Bash concert. “I’d love to start a blog, but I also love to sleep,” said Fromm.

In terms of buying ads, Fromm said, “It’s either great or it’s just nothing. … Digital advertising is not for us. It’s just not our strong suit. That may change one day, but our audience prefers newspapers.”

Kerianne Tupac, marketing and communications director for University Productions at U-M’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, said that her department is focusing more advertising dollars in print monthlies and radio, and investing more time and money in social media (including the hiring of a videographer).

“The communication landscape is changing so fast these days that it’s a constant struggle to stay on top of what is the ‘in’ thing while still maintaining the efforts that have traditionally worked,” Tupac wrote in a message. “And while some of the new efforts (social media) may cost less monetarily, they make up for it in personnel time required. It's a conundrum that I'm trying to work through as best I can.”

Tupac mourns the loss of press arts coverage not just from a marketing standpoint, but also because reviews offered U-M’s performers-in-training with valuable feedback, while providing a space, too, for the community to have a performance-sparked conversation.

Clybourne Park was a wonderful play to ignite conversation, but it was difficult to convey that through the media without a voice behind it,” said Tupac. “The best praise I heard from the show came from a colleague of mine, who came to the show with her husband. She has a busy life with her family, so getting out was something special. She told me that afterwards, she and her husband shared an incredible conversation as they went home about what the play had been speaking (or not) about. Her words were ‘The ride home wasn't long enough.’ We need those voices shared.”

The Ark’s marketing director, Barb Chaffer Authier, also says social media now plays a crucial role in communicating with the community, while paid advertising’s impact has shrunk. “Putting more resources into paid advertising doesn't have the impact on ticket sales that actually engaging people in thinking and talking about the events does,” said Authier.

Even so, Authier knows that established news sites draw a lot of visitors on a daily basis, so even if a site’s arts coverage is scant, the promise of all those “views” is pretty hard to dismiss.

“We have continued to spend our advertising dollars on traditional media,” said Authier. “We still have patrons who look to those sources to know what's coming up, so it feels risky to just give up on advertising there – maybe even more so now that editorial coverage of our events is rare.”   

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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