For the twenty-first century artist, technology represents more than just an innovative tool; it redefines the possibilities of what artists can do and how they connect with audiences.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Margo Drakos recognizes the transformative powers of technology in the performing arts. Margo is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, former assistant principal cellist of the Pittsburgh Symphony, and co-founder and chief operating officer of Instant Encore, a technology-based company that provides artists and arts organizations the tools they need to succeed in a digital world.
I recently interviewed Margo and asked her about how technology is transforming the way we experience and think about art, both from an artist’s and audience’s perspective. Her experiences and insights are valuable for arts professionals of all kind; I hope you’ll find the conversation as stimulating as I did!
Michael Mauskapf: Tell me a little bit about your background, and how you ended up at Instant Encore.
Margo Drakos: I went to a music conservatory at 15, and was fortunate to graduate from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I got my first job when I was 21, when I became principal cello of the Oregon Symphony, and then three months later I was hired to be assistant principal with the Pittsburgh Symphony.
When I was there, I found that it was the most unhappy I had been. As a student, I felt as though I lived in a utopian bubble, then I found the reality of the workplace for an orchestral cellist was not all I had hoped it would be. So I left Pittsburgh and joined the American String Quartet, taking on residencies at the Manhattan School of Music and in Aspen. It was wonderful, but I became frustrated by the obvious disconnect between performer and audience, and the relevance of this work to our broader society.
So I went back to school for fun, studying International Affairs at Columbia. While there, I thought a lot about what it meant to be a steward of the past, and to reflect on what it meant to be an innovative performer. Around that time, I had the good fortune of meeting Bill Stensrud, who provided the financial backing for Instant Encore, along with some wonderful young engineers, and we started to explore how one might create a powerful platform that would enable fans to be connected to the artists and organizations that they love—anywhere, anytime. I decided to leave my performance position, and that’s how Instant Encore got started. I didn’t have any ‘grand plan’ at the time, but it turned out to be the right decision.
MM: How would you describe Instant Encore to someone with little or no tech savvy, and how would an arts organization benefit by using its products?
MD: At the 30,000-foot level, we’re an online platform that provides twenty-first century tools to arts organizations or individual performing artists who can really harness the power of the internet to connect with fans around the world. We created the only classical-music-specific digital asset management system, which basically allows a company to manage any kind of digital asset—event listings, audio for streaming or download, video, news, blog, photos, whatever. These can all come through our system, either automatically or with very little work, and they can be published in real time through an organization’s own website, a mobile app [for Android, iPhone, iPad, or iTouch], etc. And mobile apps act as mobile websites, which a lot of people don’t realize. This information can also be instantly shared via Twitter and Facebook accounts. So we’re an aggregator and publisher of an organization’s custom content through all of their platforms. I believe having your content updated across all platforms is critical to get the most out of the technology, you can’t be managing all of that constantly, it’s an ineffective use of staff time.
One example that often helps people conceptualize what we do involves organizations’ YouTube channels. Imagine you take that channel and embed it into your own partner account on Instant Encore. It’s going to automatically tag any videos in your channel with specific tagging fields. Those include presenters, venue, the genre of music being performed, artist, conductor, all of those fields are tagged automatically through our system. And anything else you add in the future to your YouTube account is automatically tagged in our system. Why is this valuable? Well, when the New York Philharmonic adds a new video to YouTube, it’s automatically added to their mobile app, they can send out a real time notification to fans, it can be added to Facebook or Twitter, all without staff time. It’s a very streamlined way to make sure content gets updated.
MM: The live arts sector is facing some pretty persistent challenges – funding cuts, declining audiences, a new participatory culture. What role does technology play in helping arts organizations face these challenges? What opportunities does technology open up that will help these organizations not only survive, but thrive?
That’s a great question. I think that we exist in a society that wants what they want when they want it. They want to have access to everything in a very personal way, and they want to be able to share that with friends and family. They don’t only want to be able to access things, they want to be active participants. That’s a very important concept that the performing arts community as a whole needs to be looking at, and they’re starting to. Everyone from Fortune 500 companies on down is navigating new technologies that cause disruptive change in how we live and connect with others, redefining how we express ourselves. For the performing arts specifically, there’s so much competing for our time, and there’s such a constant flow of content and activity, which is dramatically changing how arts organizations connect with consumers and recruit audiences and sponsors. Just look at the twenty-first century live event model, which emphasizes connection and engagement.
Over 50% of the U.S. is on Facebook, and the average person has 103 friends and posts three times a day. Forty-eight hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. How do we discover interesting art and share it with our community when there’s so much out there? From an Instant Encore standpoint, we are thinking about how you enable people to become expert participants, to connect with artists either prior or during an event, share that event experience with friends instantly, be recognized and validated for their effort, have immediate opportunities to re-engage the performers, and so forth. When you look at the democratization of access and of our culture in general, this is doable and extraordinarily exciting. What Instant Encore is trying to do is helping organizations understand that they shouldn’t be spending money on expensive back-end stuff, or having developers build them custom tools. You should use effective tools that are already out there, and then bring in developers to help you customize on the front end and spend time and money on that. Don’t be a technology company when you’re a performing arts organization. Be savvy about technology, and use tools like ours, which can help integrate sponsors in a much more meaningful way, above and beyond putting their name on a program or sign. These tools allow you to do targeted integrated marketing, they enable people to see what event is happening and purchase tickets to that event. It’s about being able to plug in your mobile device and hear a pre-concert talk on the way to the show, or pressing a button and being able to access a program or news notification. We’re just the facilitator.
MM: You mention the participatory, 2.0-kind-of culture we’re living in. Technology has the power to open up the relationship between artist and audience in a new, porous way. From your experience in the field, what organizations or individuals are blurring the relationship between artist and audiences in an exciting, boundary pushing way right now?
MD: It’s a little too early to tell for sure, but the ones that are interesting case studies include the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who is trying to face major challenges in new and interesting ways. They’re experimenting with the delivery of free content to their community, both locally and globally, and they’re engaging with Google and other companies to look at how to structure digital sponsorship using mobile and web, which is very exciting. From a participatory standpoint, the best example is the YouTube Symphony project. We had a hashtag set up on Twitter [#YTSO], and that pulled in tweets from all over the world in real time. It was extraordinarily popular, and we got lots of positive feedback regarding how participants loving being able to experience the event while using social media, all in a centralized location. That ended up being the number one trending Twitter hashtag during the event, for nine hours. Any organization can do this, for an opening gala or whatever. Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center, which has a very traditional audience base, is doing live video streaming. I was really skeptical that it was going to have any real penetration, but they have about 1,000 people watching events online, and considering their demographic, I think that’s kind of astounding.
A lot of these tools are new, so organizations have to take a real risk and internalize the technology on all levels. That’s one of the biggest challenges, you have to work across marketing, across development, and it should ideally work with the artistic administrative community within the organization as well. They’re almost never involved, but they absolutely should be. The Sydney Symphony has a corporate sponsor that is covering their mobile and live video streaming of events, imagine if you have that and a call to action on behalf of the organization that rewards patrons for sharing their passion and support with others. If you’re at a live event, and you can get a $10 discount to a local restaurant after meeting with the guest artist, that’s an easy and enticing thing to do with easily available technology. How much does it cost to reach x, y, or z people, connect with them and make an event relevant to their daily life experience?
MM: What are some challenges that arts organizations face in terms of the implementation of new technologies? How might we overcome them?
I think one of the challenges in this field right now is that people know that they need to fundamentally change, that they need to adapt transformative new practices, but very few people are doing that. At Instant Encore, we have a very robust platform at this point, so we’re simplifying and streamlining our product offerings, offering bundled pricing and implementation options to make the barrier to entry really low. At this point, I would say that the market either will adapt these types of technologies wholesale or they won’t—it’s not clear yet what will happen.
So is this a situation where the technology is too far ahead of the industry to be implemented successfully?
I think it was too far ahead of the industry when we started. Today, I think you see a lot of organizations who are struggling, and when you struggle you resort back to old habits. That means cutting marketing, cutting other budget items, looking for other short term solutions. At the same time, they also want to build everything themselves. When organizations realize they need a mobile website, they’re contracting developers to build them custom sites, not realizing the opportunities available to them. The organizations changing right now are the organizations that have been hardest hit by the economy, but that means that they are in a really precarious situation. It’s an interesting time for arts organizations, and I don’t think the reality that wide reaching change is necessary has sunk in yet. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, because it’s not. You’ll have new types of organizations, learning institutions who emphasize new skills and a new mentality. But that’s a difficult pill to swallow for a lot of managers and artists.
MM: You started introducing apps for music organizations when most people still didn’t know what an app was. Twenty years from now, where does this technology go in terms of breaking down the barrier between artist and audience. What’s the next big frontier?
What I’m waiting for is organizations ready to experiment and go on this journey to discover what is relevant to their community. There’s no one-fits-all solution. You have to look at who your constituents are, or who you’d like them to be, what are the issues in your state or city, and how does your organization add value to that community. You have to look beyond the wealthy donors who have traditionally bailed out performing arts nonprofits; they won’t be around forever. I think that’s the real question for these institutions. The technology is there, but that won’t solve the community connection problem overnight. Technology is a very powerful, paradigm-shifting tool, but the artists and managers of these organizations need to be the ones reaching out to their communities. It’s not just about pushing content out.
Technology can also change the concert experience, although I don’t think it has to everywhere. There’s something beautiful about going to an event and having to completely give oneself up to the experience, in the moment. I don’t think everything has to turn into a party. But I could imagine that, just like you have on live streaming now, if someone doesn’t want to be talking about what’s going on in real time, they can opt out of that experience. I imagine that most institutions will have their own channels for live streaming, as the barrier to entry is now so low. Distributing content through a mobile or web-based channel costs practically nothing. At the same time, I think you’re going to have people who want to be very involved in the artistic process. There will be an evolution that will allow participants to take part in an intimate artistic environment while still providing opportunities to engage and shape their own experience through the technology.
Michael is an ArtsFwd Blogging Fellow.