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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Masscult, Branding and Marketing

Mixed feelings about this. I don't think I'm as disgusted as everyone else is.

I've written about the need for Off-Off to rebrand itself and think in practical terms to reach and audience. That discussion garnered some fickle, light response... the idea of the "real artists" speaking in marketing terms somehow distasteful to some. Then comes word that the Neilsen system is being brought to Broadway and the consensus is that it's another sign of the assimilation of theatre into the (as George puts it here) "masscult."

I'm going to be straight up about my belief that rebranding (or renaming if that makes some more comfortable) "Off-Off Broadway" as "Indie Theatre" is a very good idea. We're quickly becoming a tree that is falling in a distant forest. The term "markets" and "popular" are just ways to say "What people are paying to see" and "Who is coming" and "What do they want to see."

The problem, truthfully, is that the people that use the tools of marketing are, generally, those putting a big red ribbon on derivative nonsense. Does that mean, therefore, that the tools are cursed, somehow cursed, untouchable. That because Disney markets Tarzan effectively... does that mean that those who want to bring a large audience to "Waiting for Godot" should attempt to do so with ancient methods? Just as new media is exploding, and the power of individuals to shape the public's perception is starting to move closer to the power of Gray Advertising... should we quickly switch to dusty typewriters when we could be using Macintosh processors?

In short: I do not equate all sorts of marketing and branding. I do think that using a derogatory term for smaller theatre in NY (Off-Off) harms it in a way that using a more complimentary and accurate term (Independent) will not. If that's the logic of the masscult...so be it.

There are places I think we should not go (like live commericals on the stage) so I'm not an absolutist at all. I just think we need to think practically and engage with the times such as they are.

As far as Broadway wasting tons of money on Market Research...let them. I do not care what they do to determine who goes to see Wicked. Broadway is about as artistically oriented a venture as the Billboard Top 100. Lots of people paid to purchase Ashlee Simpson's last album I'm sure. That does not make it music. We all agree there. Then again, a lot of people buy Tom Waits and David Byrne and Bob Dylan. And so they should.

So, I say instead of decrying the discussion about theater marketing, let's try to keep it on course and keep it honest. Let's identify that Broadway is moving further and further away from anything resembling what many of us actually do... and that's ok. We just need to make sure that in rejecting Broadway's core values (Mamma Mia!) we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We do need audiences.

If we naively think that the best way to capture audiences is just to do very good plays...that's a slippery slope. That logic means that Mammia Mia is good because many people come to see it. It isn't, and they do. Which means...tada...marketing trumps quality. Terrible, terrible sad truth. Which means if you have something you believe in, you'd better be willing to creatively market it if you DON'T want your friends and family to be your only audience.

There's no shame in the desire to bring people in the room to experience what you have to offer. To offer it to the right people, to people who will appreciate it, you need to know where they are and how to reach them. You have to help them find your play. There are crass and elegant ways to go about this...but it's the reality of an art that was always meant to be shown to a group.

So let's not treat market research as some sort of untouchable evil. It's there. Using the principles of modern media and marketing (perhaps without using awful yellow checklists) might do us all a bit of good.


Anonymous said...

Neilsen system - adj.

1)Destroyer of fresh idea of television since the 80's.
2) Invests in the idea of creating the largest market share by creating a homogenized product.

Sentence exapmle: Sorry Mr. Miller, based on our Neilsen system, people wouldn't want to see a show about a Salesman going through tough times...now this Musical thing, ya gotta nay of that.

Syn. Test Audience, Hollywood Happy Ending, Reality Television.

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

Freeman said...

Ah, Buddha Cowboy. But for some reason, there still is public television.

Jamespeak said...

This seems to be the most pragmatic assessment of the situation so far, Matt. Marketing has always been one of those "necessary evils" needed to get people to come see a show. I mean, the Nielson rating system (to me) seems pretty dumb, but hey, it's Broadway. You're right: if Broadway wants to waste tons of money on market research, that's fine by me.

I think by now the rift between what Broadway is doing and what people our level is doing is so huge as to defy comparison, like comparing The Simpsons to the comics of Daniel Clowes (i.e., I can't imagine Mr. Clowes watching an episode of The Simpsons and feel any affinity/rivalry/comparison/contrast with Matt Groening). Which is also, of course, fine by me.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear, Matt, m'boy. I'm as ooked out as anyone at the way those who are doing these kind of surveys are going about it (and cringe to think what they're going to produce as a result) but marketing of some kind is essential. It's like the Force. It can be used well or poorly, for good or evil. No sense rejecting it just because focus groups gave us "Little Man". I'm not sure that focus groups are exactly the answer, but let's face it, we're now in a situation where, with no attempt to creatively get your work noticed, they won't come, even if you build it.

Anonymous said...

But for some reason, there still is public television.

True. But public television is still driven by market considerations; PBS wants to promise funders an audience for their support statements (which are as much little commercials as any 15-second spot ad). A show that might appeal to fewer people, no matter how worthy or how underrepresented elsewhere, is still unlikely to find a place on the schedule. I wonder if such excellent non-fiction television as the Bronowski, Galbraith or Kenneth Clark shows of the 1960s and 1970s would find a home there today. (Let alone the plays and foreign films that ran regularly on PBS through the 1970s.)

We're not asking the question whether this so-called "new idea" (which is really a very old idea, traceable to Madison Avenue in the 1950s) is appropriate to an art form that can't compete, in numbers or profit possibilities, with mass entertainments like film, television or music. By welcoming this sort of thing, even just to try it, we're throwing in the towel when it comes to thinking about other approaches: we're not even trying to innovate, we're only copying what all the other art forms are doing and not recognizing what is unique about our own.

And ultimately the work will suffer. Mark my words. The brilliant resurgence of American filmmaking that took place in the 1960s and early 1970s stalled after Universal's first effort at mass marketing (tremendously successful) with Jaws. Top-40 programming in the 1970s similarly ground innovation in rock music to an almost complete halt. (Punk and new wave were soon commodified themselves, and their life spans were egregiously short.) And until HBO (no commercials, not much worry about ratings; subscribers paid a premium) could program things like The Larry Sanders Show, network television in terms of drama and comedy was a wasteland.

We've already learned the lessons that this kind of corporate marketing strategy has led to in other fields. Do we really need to learn them again in the form we've devoted ourselves to?

Anonymous said...

I agree with hunka.

Now on to the real debate:

New 'Batman' names its Joker
Heath Ledger to take on role of criminal mastermind...

Can we neielsen group think this ?

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

Freeman said...

Buddha Cowboy -

For a man who decries the influence of popular culture, you should did find out who the new Joker was DARN fast. :)

George -

I think that maybe the disconnect between our views is that you're looking at all marketing speak as leading down the same path... commercialization and compromise. I think that those who compromise do so for their own reasons. If you intend to compromise, marketing isn't the culprit.

Beyond this...the model for media consumption is changing as we speak. Because of the rise of the internet, YouTube, viral video, Netflix, TiVo, Ipod and the legitimacy of formerly exclusive cable programming... the idea of quality is actually coming BACK into vogue. As the prime movers of content (the networks and major newspapers) lose advertisers and viewers, and as viewers are more selective and specific about their content choices...we have a democratization of media and media consumption.

Less and less, in fact, is the question about compromise of the work in favor of market forces and more about whether or not your content is deliverable and interesting to a dedicated niche.

This means, obviously, that if we are aware of this and take advantage of this and pay attention to these trends (not shut ourselves in the libraries and close our arms) we may wind up the beneficiaries of a market that is suddenly accessible to us.

Look no further of an example of the new access, branding and marketing than... blogs. I'm sure The Most Wonderful Love was the beneficiary of extra buzz because of this blog. I'm sure Theatre Minima will benefit from the existence of Superfluities.

Not all marketing is bloodless and decided upon in boardrooms anymore.

Freeman said...

Adding to that: That's not to say I don't agree that doing crass market research through the Nielsen system is something to applaud. But whatever is going on with Broadway is just getting more disgusting, and that's not a surprise.

I agree that corporate marketing has created some cultural missteps. My point is simply less extreme: Some Marketing Can Work.

I think "Indie Theatre" is an example of good marketing. So are blogs. Bad marketing would be: "Our research shows that 80% of the old ladies in Albany hate Cats. Could we call it 'Dogs' instead?"

parabasis said...

i just wanted to drop in quick to say that Matt, I was going to write a nearly identical post, and you took the words right out of my fingers.

I think we should use what's useful about masscult, and bend it to our own devices. I think artists are afraid of being coopted by said masscult. Let's coopt them instead.

Anonymous said...

I agree.
It's always a two way street.
Also with many blogs, I feel this environment is very conducive to support theatre that isn't of the "commercial" bent. I like that I can get more honest coverage (Pig Farm) from you folks, and spread the word to avoid certain shows or not avoid certain shows. This will take some of the bite out of the future marketing ploys. If we support the "indies" we should be fine.

And as long as you have air conditioning and something intelligent to say, I'm there !

Buddha Cowboy - NYC

Anonymous said...

Oh, no, don't get me wrong, as I think I mentioned over at that whateveritis that I run, I know full well that I'm a part of the industry, such as it is, myself, and I'm not against marketing per se, only that marketing which determines product rather than the other way around. This latter is where the risk lies, and where it always has. And entirely agreed about the value of this new media like blogging as a marketing tool for ourselves, Matt.

And I agree with Isaac that it's possible to use masscult subversively. But that requires a distance from it, a critical perspective, that I find lacking in too many theatre artists. All present company excepted, of course.

Anonymous said...

The term "off-off" is moot. The Fringe killed "off-off," and you could argue it was a mercy killing. There isn't an off-off scene anymore, just a bunch of tribes separated geographically and by aesthetic. Recently, though, a "blogosphere." The Fringe brought a savvy marketing sense, and flair to a very insular and experimental scene. And then everything went Frankenstein.

I've seen and written and produced many of what I call POP CULUTRAL AND/OR PROFANITY LACED PLAY TITLE.

Why oh why can't we keep that sense of flash, and danger, and hip but make it smart, real, artistically fulfilling?

And you know, All in the Family was pretty good shit. I like Star Trek. The Daily Show has many moments.

Let Broadway figure out who the demographic is. Maybe advertisers, investors, producers will ask Broadway "Yo, why aren't people age 18-35 coming to your shows? They spend money!"

Maybe they'll come looking for the theater artists who might be making theater those people want to see?

Oh god, I'm a voodoo economist.

Trickle down.

I hate myself sometimes.

Freeman said...

I do agree, for my part, that plenty of Market Research is antithetical to good work. And that there are many producers and playwrights out there ready to tailor there work to market research, as opposed to use marketing to support work they think needs to be heard.

jones said...

Two things.

1) PBS remains a place for smart television because, compared to network or even cable, there's no money in it. Labor of love, funded by rich people who want to make sure that it continues to exist.

2) When tourists come to New York, they want to see a Broadway show. They don't really care what show it is. They want to go back home to Iowa and tell their sewing circle they saw a show on Broadway. Theater in the New York area needs to stop thinking about Broadway as competition, because a massive percentage of the Broadway audience wouldn't come to see it even if they knew about it. When all is said and done, the problems of New York theater are similar to the problems of theater ANYWHERE, getting LOCAL asses in seats. New York just has a lot more people trying.

One thing I'd suggest is for individual Indie Theaters with similar sensibilities to stop thinking of themselves as lone islands and band together. Imagine if you had three or four theaters, all different companies, who sat down at the beginning of the year and planned their seasons together to create a nice overlap. Pooled their resources to take out larger newspaper ads. Coordinated joint auditions that could be really pushed to get a greater pool of talent to choose from. Swapped ads in the program, saying "Hey, thanks for coming to see Indie Theater. If you liked this show, there's another show over at Theater X in a month that we think you'd like. Here's a dollar off coupon."

Small theaters just don't have the time or resources to do the marketing push you're talking about. But GROUPS of small theaters totally would.

Let's face it. When many people complain that not enough people go to see Indie Theater, what they really bemoan is the fact that nobody is coming to see THEIR Indie Theater. Were you to remove the selfish aspect, and try to promote the whole thing as opposed to focusing on each show as it comes along, you could start to get somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, still contend that as artists, either you chase fashion or you don't.

If you don't chase fashion, and make the art the speaks to you and that you think is important, then you have courage. And vision. But don't get depressed or ground down if the fashion of the day doesn't think agree with how you feel about your work.

If you chase fashion, you might never get the hosannas afforded those who are more obviously obscure/experimental/unique/whatever. But that doesn't matter, because you want an audience. A big one. And tens of dollars.

And this dynamic, I think, exists in countries with generous state subsidies. Either you are with the crowd, or you're not. Both paths are more crooked, and winding, but I like to believe that they arrive at the same destination, ideally. The creation of art that is relevant to it's day and to the people observing it.

Anonymous said...

That was me. Clicked the wrong clicky-thing.

Anonymous said...

Making an effort to learn about your audience, even with market research, sounds like an "avant populi" idea to me. There's lots of ways to respect your audience, but you better pick at least one of them. You better!

Respecting your audience doesn't take lots of money. It doesn't require questionnaires and focus groups. So here's something to blog on: how do I learn to respect my Indie Theatre audience on my Indie Theatre budget? Once you figure that out, you won't have to worry about your Indie Theatre imprimatur, because everyone will be kissing your ass.

Now who here has seen Mamma Mia? Are you so sure it's not good?

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I'm surprised this sort of tool hasn't already been in place for some time for the big Broadway ventures. Going to see a big splashy musical is the theatrical equivalent of reading trashy novels at the beach. Audience members who have the taste and inclination for more unusual stuff can certainly find out what's going on via the magic of the Internets.

The Broadway climate has become more and more like blockbusters, with advance ticket sales reported as though those figures are indicators of quality.

Art said...

I have seen Mamma Mia.

It is not good, and... yes, I am sure.

It is, however, feel good. Only because of the infectious popular music of ABBA. The rest of the show is abysmal: Unfunny jokes, and a ridiculous story line written around the songs. (The kind of show 11 year old girls would put on in their basement.) But man, it gets people on their feet in that theatre.

Without the proven popular ABBA Soundtrack, this musical dies like a rat in the road.

I am one of the supporters of finding a way to implement new media into not just theatre marketing, but theatre itself.

But I want to be very, very clear. We cannot give one inch on legitamizing things like Mamma Mia.

There are already stealthy attempts from all sides to blast through the already crumbling lines between popular-commercial entertainment and art. Books like Everything Bad is Good For You are a prime example.

Here is the question: Could Mamma Mia have been good? No. Mamma Mia started as commercial concept, Mamma Mia started as product development. Mamma Mia started as a focus on "delivering to the audience."

Compare to Urinetown. Urinetown started as an artistic endeavour.

Freeman said...

A couple of strong points have been made so far. Let me see if I am getting them together:

Kyle notes that regardless of your method, it's important to learn about and respect your audience.

George agrees that not all marketing is evil, but that it's too easy for the culture of corporate style marketing to corrupt an artistic endeavour.

Devore thinks that, essentially, whether one markets or not, artists are either chasing fashion or ignoring fashion. Both have pitfalls and both have rewards.

YS says that we should not acknowledge the legitamacy of any process that is fundamentally about product development (as opposed to artistic development).

Isaac sees an opportunity to coop marketing techniques from the "masscult" and use them for better purposes. He also acknowledges that it's a fine line between coopting and being coopted.

James feels that there is a fundamental difference between Broadway and Indie Theatre (or what have you) and that we shouldn't fret too much about what goes on in those boardrooms.

Jones sees the issue in a similar way to James... don't worry about Broadway (which markets to tourists) and think about how to get local interest in the ENTIRE scene, as opposed to individual productions.

Col notes that Broadway already has more in common with Hollywood than it does with smaller theatre, and that box office rules there already.

Am I missing/mischaracterizing anything? How can this all come together into something coherent?

jones said...

If you want the bite-sized throughline, what you're looking at is a desperate need to Build A Community.

A community shares ideas, back and forth, to best meet everyone's needs and desires. I think maybe the resistance to "marketing" is assuming that marketing is a one-way affair, throwing information bursts at people and hoping it works. Whereas there is a form of marketing that is more about teaching the uninformed about your product, and at the same time learning from them what you can do to make the product better.

My mind is too muddled to further expound, but what we're looking at is this: Use all the Tools the big boys use but only in the way you'd use them on your best friends.

Or: there's nothing wrong with having a Gimmick, so long as it's Sincere.

Adam Szymkowicz said...

I am not against live commercials. Provided you star in them, Matt Freeman

Adam Szymkowicz said...

Also, I wholeheartedly agree with whoever said small theatre companies should band together and pool resources. And I think we need to concentrate on creating an audience. 13p is a good model. I am more likely to see their next play than not because they have a good story to tell and they are well produced and there will probably be something interesting going up. I think forming a collective of theatre companies (like 13 p formed a collective of playwrights) is the next step. Let's call them The Collective for the purpose of discussion. And the excitement will be that all these exciting theatrical events are going on under an umbrella (or a brand).

"What are you doing Friday?"
"I don't know. What's the Collective up to?"

Etc. Thoughts anyone?

Jamespeak said...

Question: how many people here are aware of the Community Dish?

Anonymous said...

"Lots of people paid to purchase Ashlee Simpson's last album I'm sure. That does not make it music."