The future of content (or why we should stop listening to consultants and start reading cyberpunk)

Benjamin Franklin and printing press. Charles Mills/1914/Wikimedia Commons


All across the country people are clamoring for artists (and the writers who cover them) to create new models that will be financially viable in this new economy. The answers so far have reminded me of a running joke we have in the performing arts.

It goes like this:

When you ask a new person (a board member, an intern) to brainstorm ideas for how to sell more tickets, the first words out of their mouth will inevitably be, “Why don’t we put up posters in coffee shops?”

If you ask a theater director the same question, you’ll hear “Hey! Why don’t we perform a segment of the show at the mall/Rotary Club/local High School/local Rock Club?”

The Marketing Director’s tactic of choice? “Let’s lower the price!”

And recently, in media circles, there has been a lot of talk about how to save the press by moving it online. The most common suggestion: “I know! Let’s do a newspaper subscription. Only, like, ONLINE.”

Why do these suggestions crop up, again and again? They recur because they arise out of the core temperament of the people making the suggestion. An artist loves nothing more than to put on a show – so of course their first idea for promotion will be “let’s put on a show.” A marketing director is fulfilled by the sight of a full house – no matter what price is paid for the seat. And a publisher likes to curate the content you see (for a fee) – we each push for the model we understand, the one that fulfills the desires that drew us into the business in the first place.

But these models are failing, all around us. And our solutions (more pop music at the symphony! Boozy cheap theater nights for young/gay/nerdy people! Subscription based websites!) are sourced from the past, variations on our last ten great ideas. They’re based on great research, but they are failing to improve the crumbling bottom lines of our institutions.

Despite this, the average person consumes significantly more creative content than at any other point in human history. Film studios look to the theater to generate their blockbusters and Oscar phenoms (Mama Mia! and Frost/Nixon, anyone?). YouTube daily demonstrates the hunger people have for narrative entertainment (even of the cheesiest and most amateur kind). People rely more than ever on reviews (when you add reviews from sources like Yelp! and Citysearch in addition to Monday’s paper). In short, it’s not the audience that’s failing us. It’s the business model.

And we have to stop throwing the same 5 sensible solutions at the problem. Pay-to-play internet subscriptions of pre-determined content don’t sell to people who are used to getting any information they want online for free. Relying on the generational wealth of industrial scions is not going to keep working – their grandchildren have stopped showing up for foundation board meetings long ago (most of them are too busy taking playwriting/kite boarding/flying lessons). And I’ve never heard of a business sector that successfully discounted its way back to profitability.

So what WILL work? Probably some things we haven’t tried yet.
To drill down to those solutions we are going to have to stretch past our comfort zones into places that make us all a little uncomfortable. We’ll need fewer sensible (but ineffective) ideas and more truly weird ones. After all, it was Robert Rauschenberg, the brilliant and highly successful collage artist who said, “Being right can stop all the momentum of a very interesting idea.”

So where should we turn for ideas on how to create the structures that will fund the next generation of media and performance? Looking to the past isn’t working. So perhaps we should look to the researchers of the future. With that in mind, here are my seven weirdest and most uncomfortable ideas about new models for delivering the content we create….all largely cribbed from my favorite cyberpunk novelists: Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Who better than the creative geniuses who predicted the internet we now live and breathe on to predict how the artist and the critic might be able to thrive in this (pardon the overused sci fi pun) brave new world? So here goes:

1. Slacker task force. Let’s make underemployment a lifestyle upon which we can capitalize. Convene a task force of Portland’s laid-off or underemployed writers, marketers, designers, managers, IT professionals, webmasters and strategy experts. Give them one year “fellowships.” Invite them to rehearsal and editorial meetings. Give them access to your content. Let them use their unemployed time to research and field test some really weird ideas on behalf of the publishing and creative communities (and maybe build relationships that turn into fulfilling jobs). Give them all free classes in our art forms to jump-start the creative process.

2. Tear Down the Silos.
Let’s remove the barriers between professional and amateur, creator and critique. In another 10 years the technology will exist for us to follow Neal Stephenson’s lead in The Diamond Age and let people pay to virtually “perform” in their favorite roles opposite professional actors through their Wiis, something like Rockband for dance or theater (which reminds me. Why haven’t the symphonies ALREADY done this? That technology exists RIGHT NOW.) Professional performers get paid to “ract” (reactive acting) with the amateurs and the amateurs can pay to receive professional level reviews and/or coaching. Theaters can sell “modules” of their most successful productions where audiences can relive and recreate the experience while putting themselves center stage. Will they want to see the live professional performance after they’ve tried it out themselves? Good question. Have those Nintendo football games increased or decreased fan loyalty to the real teams?

3. Instaprint media. This is straight from William Gibson’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. Not every one will have a personal computer or an iPhone – there will still be a digital divide. Bridge the divide with kiosks in every 711. They’ll be like vending machines for media. You click the three or four subjects or individual writers that interest you and it spits out an instant printed paper that contains the latest, all designed just for you. The customer gets to sample from a world’s worth of delicious content, subtly expanding their world view with each $ .50 click. The publisher gets to completely bypass mass production. And the content creators have an account that fills with penny after penny of residuals as a world-wide audience is turned on to their work.

Think future, not past/Wikimedia Commons4. Insta-inspiration. Call it a manifesto. People should have 24-hour access to art. ESPECIALLY when bored at work. So build a micro app for people’s desktop computers and/or phones that downloads a random local work of art, piece of writing, or three-minute video snippet of a performance any time you click on it. Have it cost a nickel to click. Keep the feed random but let people express preference for the writers and arts types they prefer. Use the feed to send special offers to patrons who repeatedly express preference for your art form. Send the nickels to the writers collecting content for the feed.

5. Create paid national ratings/reviewing firms. Car companies and service professionals do it. Why can’t we? Critical feedback is essential to the ongoing work of creating art – what if we disentangled it from the generating audience function? Let’s put our top echelon of reviewers to work traveling the country seeing work and critiquing it, then sell the subsequent reports directly to the theater companies. What would you pay to find out how your work stacks up nationally through the eyes of the best critics and artists in the field? What would you do to be reviewed side by side with the New York, Seattle, and Atlanta versions of the same production?

6. Sell live broadcasts of each other’s performances to arts subscribers across the country. If you couldn’t make it to Chicago to see the world premiere of August: Osage County, would you pay $10 to have a high-quality live feed of it downloaded to your computer or your cable box? Especially if you knew $5 of it would benefit your local theater? I would. Let’s get off our “we’re fundamentally different than film and sports” high horse and start stealing the ideas that work.

7. Make performances WAY more social.
Stop preventing people from socializing during a performance. Charge a premium for silence and focused attention, but give people with social agendas easier ways to participate. How about closed-caption lobby feeds that let people hang out in the lobby bar with their date and watch the show from three different angles while texting to their friends about funny moments? Make your money from those people on booze instead of tickets.

8. Micro Financing. Do what Obama did and create thousands of “community organizer donors” instead of a few big donors. Theater companies around the country are using social media to microfinance specific projects, particularly new work. How does it work? Lots of patrons buy a “share” in the production, giving them early access to the development process and the opportunity to participate or vote at various stages in the process. You get financing for your project and they become your strongest word of mouth proponents (after all, your success literally becomes their success). Ask in $15 and $20 increments. Ask in $10-a-month increments. But ask a lot. Make the process of donating entertaining in and of itself (see idea #2). Watch as people max out at $1200 over the course of several months.

Will any of these things work? Heck if I know.

What I do know is that the time has passed for incremental change, minor modifications, and the slapping of one more patch on a system that worked brilliantly for 100 years but is now faltering faster than we can fix it. William Gibson refers to 1911 as the last time society changed, all in the blink of an eye. That change wasn’t catastrophic (unless you were a steel baron or a horse and buggy distributor). But it was global and it was FAST.

That revolution was about transportation and power distribution. The coming revolution is clearly about content – who makes it, how it is distributed, and how its creators will be compensated for their work. As writers and art-makers we are poised to be in the absolute heart of that revolution – primed to bring our work even closer to core of humanity’s definition of itself. To get there, we may have to re-frame our own definitions of our purpose: decentralizing access to our creative output, decriminalizing the more social aspects of creative consumption and empowering our audience to become art-makers and critics themselves, all while re-committing to the act of creation in its most original terms. Creation, after all, was always a matter of slinging a divine spark into a maelstrom of chaos, in the hopes that something deeply…human…would emerge as a result.

Trisha Pancio is the public relations & publications manager of Portland Center Stage and a Portland writer