WITH RICH MEDIA
By Kevin J. Wong
NEW YORK, June 20, 2003 -- In the past few years since the lagging economy caused ticket sales to drop, members of the dance community have sought out a solution, a "magic bullet," that could help revitalize dance and raise its profile in New York City. There is one notable strategy that has barely been explored, and out of the many ways that media can be employed to garner publicity for the arts, it has proven itself to be especially useful and simultaneously underutilized.
This strategy is rich media. Simply put, "rich media" refers to the technologies people use to view media through their personal computers. "Streaming media" refers to a particular technology in which a computer user, using Real Player or Windows Media Player, accesses audio or film through a stream of data packets which are flowing from a streaming server somewhere on the Internet. When the individual uses Apple Quick Time, the content is actually downloaded to his or her computer.
Interestingly, marketers in the movie industry and Broadway have used this technology since 2000. Anyone who has visited Moviefone (www.moviefone.com) has seen film trailers online, and whoever has visited a Broadway musical's website has seen the technology at work. On Rent's official website (www.siteforrent.com), free audio clips of all the featured songs are available. When N'Sync's Joey Fatone did a brief stint in the title role, Rent's staff uploaded video clips of his rehearsals on to the website.
Other performance genres have also caught onto this trend, particularly music. The Klezmer Mountain Boys (www.klezmermountainboys.com), who fuse the genres of klezmer and bluegrass, have a website which offers full length audio clips, offering an easy way for the curious to sample their unusual mix of musical styles.
So it's a little baffling that dance, more so than other areas in the arts, has not picked up on the trend. Dance is live performance's most visual medium. As a physical expression of the body, viewers appreciate dance by witnessing the movement itself. Dance Theater Workshop, The Kitchen and Lincoln Center have created streaming video sections on their websites, but not many more. The majority of dance company websites, while offering nicely shot pictures and glowing reviews, seem threadbare by comparison.
In the past, some hesitation to embrace streaming media has been rooted in the limitations of the technology. First, there has been the issue of bandwidth: streaming is a technology that does not thrive at 56K dial-up speeds. That situation has been somewhat ameliorated by the growth of Broadband in the past few years and emerging technologies which adapt streaming to slower data speeds.
MEANWHILE, BROADBAND HAS BROADENED
Broadband is a method of transmitting large amounts of data at once by using cable, satellites, or phone wires. One type of Broadband, DSL, transfers data at high speeds over a telecom network. Average connections using DSL transfer data at anywhere from 1.544 Mbps (million bytes per second) to 512 Kbps (thousand bytes per second). For this reason, DSL is able to give much better results in rich media than a dial-up modem, which transfers at a far slower speed.
Although broadband used to be expensive and exclusive, this has changed within the last several years. The use of Broadband grew by 59% in 2002, and in the first quarter of 2003, DSL gained 5 million new subscribers. The promotion of broadband by companies such as Verizon has caused the monthly price for it to drop from $50 to $30 in the last year. AOL is currently in the process of converting all of their users to Broadband.
When totaled, 36 million people currently use Broadband in the United States, and the majority of these users live in urban areas. Since most dance enthusiasts live in urban areas as well, there are plenty of people with a fast enough Internet connections to take advantage of streaming media.
ADVANCEMENTS AT 56K SPEEDS
Thanks to the efforts of Chip Ruhnke, Chairman of the technology task force of the Streaming Media Alliance, there are two refinements in streaming technology that bode well for dance videos.
The first refinement is Square Pixel Streaming. The images that a user sees on his computer are made of pixels, and the ones most streaming technologies employ are mostly rectangular-shaped. What Ruhnke did was to develop square pixel streaming for faster transmission volumes at low bandwidth speeds.
The second of Ruhnke's refinements is Low Frame Rate Transmission, in which he optimized the technology for slow bandwidths by reducing the frame rate. The frame rate refers to the speed at which motion picture film passes through the projector. What would produce a loss of quality in fast-action movies actually has the reverse effect in streaming media. In streaming media, the jumps that one sees in low-bandwidth streaming is the result of the computer system struggling with a surplus of incoming data. The more frames, the more data that the computer has to process, so reducing the frame rate means less burden on the system overall.
GADGETS ARE CHEAPER NOW
As the widespread ability to use rich media has increased, the price of the technology to create it has dropped to the level of consumer electronics. Digital camcorders currently sell over a vast price range, but you can suit your digital needs for $250-$800. The software needed to edit digital film is free; Imovie comes installed in all new Apple computers, and Windows Movie Maker comes installed in all editions of Windows XP. Even those with old computers have free access to the software, and both digital editing programs are available on Microsoft's and Apple's respective websites.
ANOTHER 'RICH' POSSIBILITY
Aside from streaming media, dance companies also ought to consider Macromedia Flash as a rich media option. Flash is a technology that presents a successsion of images in a type of moving slideshow. Of course, these images can be created with a digital still camera instead of a camcorder, which makes using Flash a cost-saving measure. Flash can be produced with a musical underscore, and in many cases, this is an acceptable substitute to video. Flash has quick download times, and over 516 million people possess the software to view it, according to Macromedia's official website (www.macromedia.com). Even though the software that is needed to create these programs is slightly expensive to buy and challenging to use, there is an abundance of people for hire who can use it with ease.
HOW CAN RICH MEDIA BE MOST EFFECTIVELY USED?
To most effectively apply rich media to dance promotion, it's not enough to have video streaming from the dance company's website. The dance company needs to bring the video to the prospective buyer, and to do this, they need to offer the video at the point of sale. By linking their video to a ticketing website, dance companies will be able to reach a far larger audience.
However, having a video floating in cyberspace is not enough. No one will find the video without being brought to it, and the key to making rich media a viable sales tool is to shepherd prospective buyers to it. The key to all this is targeted e-mail marketing.
Everyone is familiar with mass email, and most people resent spam. However, it's interesting to see how much arts ticketing is already driven by e-mail. Anyone who is culturally engaged is probably already on several opt-in lists, meaning that he has agreed to accept email from certain arts organizations. Targeted email marketing is largely responsible for the growth of Internet ticketing in the arts from 30% in 2002 to 50% in 2003.
Now that Rich Media has entered the mix, there will be another co-factor to consider in segmenting the Dance market; whether the patron is someone who uses streaming media in buying decisions. Many do not even realize they are users of streaming media for arts ticketing. My employer's wife denied she had ever used a streaming site even though she made her last movie ticket purchase after perusing the trailers on Moviefone.
For that reason, there is great practical wisdom in ensuring that we identify dance patrons who are streaming media users. The easiest indicator would be if a buyer has made a previous purchase from a streaming media-equipped site. Dance companies need to work together and create a database of customers who have taken advantage of rich media. No single institution working on its own will gather a marketing list large enough to yield appreciable results, but cooperative action, at least at this startup stage, can.
A SUCCESS STORY
The very first project of The New York Ticket Wire (www.nyticketwire.com) exemplifies the success of a targeted e-mail marketing campaign combined with rich media. All the aforesaid elements--streaming media, flash animation and web-based ticketing--were integrated into a comprehensive package for a March, 2001 production at New York's La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. The system was devised by Jonathan Slaff who, in addition to being La MaMa's press agent, is also Chairman of the Arts and Entertainment Task Force of the Streaming Media Alliance (http://www.streamingarts.org).
The production which was served, "Silence, Silence, Silence" by Theatre Mladinsko from Ljubljana, Slovenia, was an other-worldly, imagistic work of movement theater. At the time that this web-based campaign was built in 2001, no other dance webpage had ever taken advantage of rich media. To see the page which was designed for this campaign, click to: <http://www.nyticketwire.com/silence>.
The streaming content originated in Ljubljana, and it was connected to the "Silence, Silence, Silence" page of The New York Ticket Wire by a simple web link. Web designer Mary Hawkins created the companion Flash animation in New York and mixed publicity stills with audio from a VHS tape of the production. Targeted emails were written by Mr. Slaff. As a marketing effort, the campaign was extremely successful: out of the 3000 people who received email solicitations, 11% followed the link to the website, and 4.5% bought tickets to the performance. This means that over 40% of the people who clicked through to the webpage bought tickets, an unexpectedly successful rate of fulfillment in any industry.
Inspired by the recent growth of Broadband and the lowering of streaming costs overall, New York Ticket Wire will be reborn on a wide basis starting July 1, 2003. For a simple and low package price, a team of artist-technicians will digitally capture portions of a dance production, including footage of the individual dancers and occasional interviews (including the choreographer and producer), and edit the material into a short presentation. This presentation will then be encoded in four speeds for three players (Real Player, Windows Media Player and Apple Quick Time). Lastly, it will be placed on a streaming server and packaged into the New York Ticket Wire ticketing site. An opt-in mailing list will be maintained to foster relationships with repeat customers. The streaming content will also be available by web link for use on the dance company's website or for any other use.
ELSEWHERE TODAY IN NEW YORK
Another New York resource that will strengthen the use of rich media in the arts is StreamingCulture (www.streamingculture.org), located at the Graduate Center for the City University of New York. Founded by Dan Arthur, StreamingCulture is a project of the Graduate Center's CUNY New Media Lab. With an awareness to the needs that non-profit organizations have, StreamingCulture is currently working on two primary projects.
One is to make an archive of artistically significant dance productions by first digitalizing historic film and video and then streaming it as a worldwide resource. The second is to promote streaming media for dance marketing. StreamingCulture exists under the principle that "intellectual property rights of arts and cultural institutions are always a top priority," and they currently work for 20 clients. These include Lincoln Center, Opera America and The Kitchen.
On their official website (www.thekitchen.org), The Kitchen has archived five months of past performances, half of which have streaming audio/video clips attached to their descriptions. This serves as publicity for their theater, and it also is a type of art preservation; a way to document and save each individual dance long after it was performed for an audience.
Dance Theatre Workshop is also taking advantage of streaming media. Operating out of its new state-of-the-art building, a new department, DTW Digital, will allow artists to put a five-minute video clip on their streaming server for a price of $150 for the first year. When discussing streaming media, Aaron Rosenblum, the Box Office Manager for Dance Theater Workshop, says, "It's where technology is going. We believe here at Dance Theater Workshop to keep dance up with technology. There is a synergy with art and technology, and we're trying to advance that." In the past, Dance Theater Workshop has also used streaming media to give a tour of its new facilities, and it plans to have its video clips site up by the time the new season starts.
WHAT RIGHTS ISSUES ARE LEFT?
Streaming technology is being used in real time to "webcast" business meetings, university lectures and worship services to audiences of varying sizes, but for now, the cost of streaming whole events live is prohibitive for most arts organizations' budgets. There has also been little demand for it, since the usefulness of streaming for arts events has primarily been seen in archiving concerts and serving them up on-demand. We are not yet in a mass-market situation, where significant-sized audiences will tune in for dance concerts which are streamed at a scheduled time. When we reach that point, market forces will require that we settle many outstanding questions of performers' rights. "Webcasting" (of live concerts) and pay-per-view (of recorded ones) will each present its own set of rights problems.
So much for program matter, now what about promotional uses?
According to both Dan Arthur, head of StreamingCulture, and Lisa Curtis, Chair of the Intellectual Property and Copyright Task Force of the Streaming Media Alliance, artists ought not be too concerned about rights issues in the use of streaming media for advertising and marketing purposes. No one can foresee a time when videos which are created to publicize dance concerts will have an economic value greater than their publicity value. So piracy is not an issue. Marketing messages, unlike pay-per-view videos, are created to be given away, not sold, and their effectiveness depends upon reaching the widest possible audience. Their struggle to get noticed in the first place gives most arts marketing a sort of Henny Youngman refrain: "Take my marketing message. PLEASE take my marketing message." Most well-crafted marketing messages contain only a sampling of the original work, so the notion of a work being "stolen" from them is farfetched.
When all is said and done, marketing Dance with rich media is a viable option that ought to pursued for a single reason: if a picture is a thousand words, then a video is worth a million. Rich media marketing is definitely a wave of the future. At a wireless symposium given by the New York New Media Association, an executive described targeted rich media marketing as "The Holy Grail" of the wireless business model. I'm not a hyperbolist, so I won't apply that to dance marketing in this article. However, you'll excuse me if I keep it in my mind. [KW]
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