By Jim McCarthy Jun 12, 2009 0 comments

Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

It’s amazing what the human mind can do.

For the moment, I’m not talking about piercing scientific insights that improve life for the world, beautiful expressions of art, or clever innovation that builds a prosperous business.

I’m talking about the ability to deny reality in the desperate struggle to stay the same.

In normal times, change is gradual.  If you’ve ever been to the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, you probably remember the room where the august looking portraits on the wall slowly turn into scenes of (acceptably softened for Disney) terror.  All the while, you’re listening to some spooky narration, and only gradually do you realize the pictures are changing at all.

That’s how life is.

Most of the time.

This is not one of those times in history.  This is one of those other times when change is like a runaway Pontiac driving through a farmer’s market.  It’s fast, it’s destructive, it’s dangerous, and you’d better adjust to it right now.

I’ve said again and again that live entertainment is on its way up, but that’s primarily because of things for which we in the business can’t take credit.  Mega-trends in society are simply working in our favor, in the way that a place like Napa Valley happens to benefit from just the right climate for a wine industry.

But the problem is that in most other ways, the industry simply needs to be better.  When you read news about layoffs at a strong, smart organization like Center Theatre Group, you simply have to absorb the reality that live entertainment as an industry could blow its opportunity to lead because so many of the institutions in the business are committed first to preserving the past.

But nature won’t be fooled, and neither will the marketplace.  If the industry can’t deliver the goods, it will dither along, propped up by helpful societal forces, but unimpressive, on its heels and small-timey.

Changing this is complex, but not to hard to understand.  Here’s what needs to happen at every live entertainment organization where it isn’t already the norm:

- Marketing must be done with a patron/buyer in mind. Get out of your own kitchen and stop telling us insider-y details about the content you’re producing instead of plain talk about why we might like to be part of what your venue is doing.  What does your venue’s programming represent?  Who is likely to enjoy it?  If you don’t know, that’s a problem.

- You have to design the whole experience to be a delight. Just think: you’ve spent all this money and effort to get people there, and then, aside from the show itself, you put almost no thought into what their experience will be before and after the show.

- The content must be Its Own Marketing. There was a time that you could advertise a B+ show to success if you were a decent promoter.  Now, if you’re going to put a B+ show on the stage, you might as well put a few barrels of toxic waste on the stage.  You need something not only good, but interesting in and of itself.

- In sales, you simply have to innovate constantly. Venues are in love with the subscription model because when it works, it’s easy.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Your job is to figure out what does work, however hard it may be, and bring it into reality.

- Drop the pauper mentality. This mostly applies to non-profits, arts organizations and small theatres, but it’s a killer.  Whining about donations being off from large corporations is like complaining that you’re having a hard time getting replacment parts for your Wang computer.  Your mindset of poverty is making your venue a victim, and if you don’t get out of it, there’s an excellent chance that this recession will kill you.

But it’s amazing what the human mind can do.  Some people would rather close down shop than kick out the jams and do what actually needs to be done to thrive.

They’d literally rather die than change.

Well, there’s no time left to mess around.  Day by day, our society is more Gen Y and less Boomer; technology disrupts and tears down barriers in new ways; and this big honking recession is blowing fatal holes in the sides of ships that seemed unsinkable for generations.

So the choice is simple: fast and bold change, or not so slow decline.  Possibly even collapse.

Or to quote the movie Shawshank Redemption, you can either get busy living or get busy dying.

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