With theaters shut for the foreseeable future, performance artists are in a bind. Many have migrated onto digital platforms, as evident by the abundance of dance shows and dance classes that have popped up as online dance resources in recent months. Some are offered once as a ‘livesteam’, while others live ‘on demand’ for a few days or weeks. And a good portion of dance is offered freely, only requesting donations, so patrons can determine just how much they can afford to give during this crisis. The industry has optimistically extolled the virtues of digital dance, but we must also shed light on the largely unspoken challenges of bringing dance online from a business perspective.
Let’s re-cap. Many hopeful industry articles have proliferated the benefits of bringing dance online. In addition to allowing dance enthusiasts to safely shield at home, the biggest positive outcomes are:
1. Digital dance, particularly free dance, has the potential to give a much larger population access to dance (performances and education).
Lockdown is a prime time to grow the global dance audience, who (fingers crossed) will make trips to the theaters when they reopen and sign up for a stack of dance classes. These dance newcomers will remain loyal arts patrons for the rest of their days, and naturally, pass on their love of dance with all of their offspring and friends. The end.
2. The dance world can embrace technology by creating new work specifically for camera (aka: screendance), and more importantly, the audience sat in front of the screen.
Dance artists can continue to innovate with a variety of filming techniques and programs that react to dancers’ movements or represent dancers’ movements in intriguing ways – like Alexander Whitley’s Celestial Motion free Guardian VR [virtual reality] app. The possibilities are vast for tech-savvy artists.
If you’re interested in the intersection of technology and dance, read our interview with Another Kind of Blue director, David Middendorp, conducted just before his futuristic Flirt with Reality show came to London.
3. Virtual dance, performed outside of traditional venues, has much lower overhead costs than dance staged in theaters.
A reduced threshold for funding means dance artists (particularly those without stacks of grants and heaps of donations) can create work and chuck it online for the masses to consume. And, as a bonus, audiences will be able to see very diverse works from diverse creators with diverse casts.
Simply put, there will be an abundance of exciting and creative dance! Whoo hoo.
But before you start dancing with glee, let’s re-frame in terms of supply and demand. An overwhelming majority of companies and studios have rushed online to provide digital products and services for free, for donations or for a small fee. The world has shrunk when you can view Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain (celebrating Aborginal culture in Australia), Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (about black experiences in the USA), the Royal Ballet’s Anastasia (by famed British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan), Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s Moon Water (based on a Chinese proverb) and pieces from Ballet Hispanico’s The Power of the Latina Voice, whose work by female choreographers documents Latinx experiences – without leaving your couch – or paying a cent? [All of these shows were streamed during lockdown without a pay wall, and this is just a fraction of the available online performances.]
While that sounds magnificent, this is actually the first in a list of cons (addressed in the same order of the pros, above).
1. Anyone can post their work online, but with immense competition, not every company will necessarily grow their audience.
How can a new company compete for attention when put in the same digital league with the most renowned dance companies in the world, those that manage to attract and retain the most talented artists? While friends are family may venture online to watch the shows put on by their loved ones, it will be extraordinarily hard for small companies to grow their audience in an already saturated virtual market. Ordinarily they wouldn’t be put in the same bracket as the big non-profit arts organizations, since they aren’t located in the same area; but now they all share the same overcrowded digital dance landscape.
This is also true of dance studios that are offering classes on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram (Live and TV), Zoom and whatever else. If you’re a dancer, you can probably list a famous studio and rattle off a few celebrity choreographers. And if you’re training online, why wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity to take their classes? The Dance Awards Live event, hosted by Travis Wall and featuring all manner of popular dance glitterati (a handful with So You Think You Can Dance backgrounds) quite nobly requests participants: “Please remember… nothing compares to the in-person and virtual training that comes from your local dance studio. They know you best! Please support them!” But this plea’s very existence demonstrates how easy it would be for dancers to drop their local dance studio alliances, while chasing their wildest dance dreams.
2. Not everyone is interested in digital dance – and how can we support the additional artists (non-dancers) involved in productions?
You may manage to gain a few extra followers, but some of the arts diehards are not going to tune into livestreams. I read a tweet by a regular operagoer almost boasting about how she hadn’t tuned into any of the free videos from the Royal Opera House. It was a while ago, but the essence of her statement was that watching a performance through a screen is just a sad, specter of attending a live performance.
Even those who eagerly tuned in at first will eventually notice the novelty of watching dance from the comfort of home fades.
Digital dance may only remain in the ‘new normal’ for a reduced population. And, even if everyone carries on watching the shows, what is to happen to all of the physical theater spaces and studios in the meantime? And how can we continue to support the other artists that work on live productions, like costumers, lighting technicians and set designers?
3. As the digital publishing industry well knows, the number of eyeballs inspecting your work doesn’t linearly translate into profits. It’s essentially free to post things online, but where will the profits come from?
When you bring a business online, particularly an arts-based one, you’ll realize that people feel that anything offered online should be free. Hence, pirated movies, music and television shows. Hence, readers simultaneously complaining about pay walls on respected news sites (like The New York Times) and the poor quality ‘journalism’ that comes from the free websites. Hence, professional photographers reporting their profits shrinking, since buyers head to cheaper stock photo portfolios – and stock photo companies, in turn, have cut their commissions (like Shutterstock in May 2020 [who only pay 40% of the photo cost once sellers accrue 25,000 image license sales… and reset sales counts annually] and Alamy in 2018, following their 2010 pay reductions for a huge 20% cut in less than a decade). Plus, there are plenty of free images from aspiring photographers looking for exposure (Pixabay, Unsplash, Pexels).
So, as you can see, it is very hard to pass on the actual cost of digital art to the consumers, since they’ll usually be able to find a cheaper, decent alternative. (Or a pirated one, whatever.) ‘But what about other monetization streams?’ I hear you wonder. Well, I’m glad you’re curious, because I can tell you a lot from experience about the difficulties of thriving in a digital landscape.
‘Can’t you just, like, stick ads on your website and YouTube page? I hear some people make a fortune on YouTube – like that PewDiePie guy.’
Right. So, in order to become successful on YouTube, you’ve got to churn out content continuously. (The YouTube algorithm rewards users that post regularly by showing their content more frequently and prominently.) Luckily, if you’re a dancer, this can be dance-related. If you’ve got the creativity and drive to post a short piece every day, that’s super. But your time will get sucked into this, rather than going into a larger more meaningful work. Plus, you not only need to post the dance, you need to market it well – get people to click on it, remember? And the kicker, you will only earn $3-5 USD per 1,000 views, as recently calculated by Influencer Marketing Hub. How many hours will it take you to earn your first $3? And then to duplicate it?
You can join an ad network for websites, too. But attracting readers takes a lot of grit, which can go into Search Engine Optimization (but you can only write about semi-popular topics and Google changes their algorithms), social media marketing (too much of this will still have the same soul-draining effect as listed in YouTube above, also with constantly changing algorithms) and purchasing ads for your own channels, which is a big investment when your own profits are low. Plus, most websites are text-based, so chances are, a social media platform will be a better fit for most artists.
But, back to YouTube, don’t just listen to my speculations. Read what the YouTubers confess about their struggles in this article by The Guardian: Why YouTubers are Feeling the Burn.
‘So, YouTube is out. What about posting pictures of yourself with various loot on Instagram? Images are quicker to produce than videos. Plus, you can hawk your own products, too.’
I’m sure you’ve read headlines about Instagram ‘influencers’ making off with thousand-dollar contracts for single posts in certain clothing and posing with other products: accessories, beauty products, smoothies, etc. First, you need a huge audience; and building an audience takes time. (Good looks and a professional photographer don’t hurt, either; and average looks don’t help.) I’ve already blathered on about how hard long it takes to attract a significant following, and I ask you to remember that this precious time is removed from the time you’d otherwise be training or creating art.
We aren’t making bank, but we are on Instagram, if you’d like to come visit.
And once you’ve cracked the code to attract and retain an enormous following, you can think about making and selling your own products. It’ll take many meetings and lots of legal reading; but Kylie Jenner, of the Kardashian clan, did it (probably with loads of very expensive help). Regardless, she launched Kylie Cosmetics – valued at $1.6 billion in November 2019 – but Forbes speculates she fudged the company’s tax returns to make her company look more profitable than it was. This article in the New York Post uses this finding to explain why this marks the end of the Instagram influencer business model. If it wasn’t working for Jenner, who has fame and an incredible amount of resources, how can this sort of business possibly remain viable for others?
‘Or what about incorporating affiliate links? Amazon has definitely been making a profit during lockdown.’
Yes, you can earn money from sharing Amazon links when you join their Associates program. You still need a large audience, and then you actually need to get people to purchase things. And, like the stock photo companies, Amazon has recently been criticized for slashing their commission rates. For example, the 8% commission for furniture sales shrunk to 3%, according to CNBC.
If you haven’t come to the conclusion, yet, the bottom line is that making money online is not easy. Sure, you might post a viral video, but you’ll need a consistent audience for consistent income. And, while videos of influencers and marketers selling digital courses on how to follow in their ‘successful’ footsteps abound, it will take time to learn about the strategies and implement them, all while producing content and trying to make fulfilling work – while not earning a cent.
I don’t have an elegant solution for monetizing online dance shows and classes. There isn’t one. Not in a world where some people live according to one of Jack Sparrow’s roguish, pirate-y quotes: ‘Take what you can, give nothing back!’ Not in a world where people steal from Little Free Libraries and try to sell the books for a profit. Not in a world where people find it hard to assign performing art a monetary value, especially online – and especially-especially when their own financial situations aren’t secure. (Oftentimes, it is artists supporting their own community!)
In acknowledging the extraordinary difficulty for artists to survive their online migration, we are stuck lobbying government officials who can allocate a budget to struggling non-profits and arts companies. It has felt incredibly frustrating, living in an echo chamber where everyone is shouting that ‘the house is on fire – do something quick!’ But there’s been very little reassurance for artists from the government. For us, regular people, we can sign petitions, stay connected and educate occasional theater attendees about the plight of the performing arts industry. While we’re aware of the dire situation, others may be oblivious.
I fervently hope digital audiences remember the joy and relief that dance and theater shows have brought during these difficult times. The arts community graciously gifted the fruits of their labor to the people. Now, the big question is, how will the audience repay them?
The challenges for the online dance industry aren’t easy to swallow. Had you considered them before? And how do you aim to make a living with your art? Let us know in the comments below.