Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Ballots and Beer

Here's the thing about Trump: I find him repugnant, but I also don't think he can get the job done. And those are really two very separate things. 

I'm not one of those "I'd like to have a beer with them" kind of voters; if someone is both a competent legislator and endearing, that's a darling combo, but I'm also open to the idea that I could find someone personally repellant and they could still be good in office. In general, our government works on coalitions, consensus and compromise, so it's beneficial to have a personality amenable to that, but that's not necessarily the same thing as me being enamoured with their public persona.

The reverse is also true. Someone can seem really nice and not get my vote because I don't get the whiff of potential accomplishment off of them. And by "whiff," I mean some combination of actual record of service combined with the kind of intelligence it takes to get things done. I want my legislators to have a talent for building cooperation, and, when that fails, a keen eye for Constitutional law and surgical precision for doing the greatest good possible within our often-cumbersome system of checks and balances. That's why Hillary and Barack got my vote, and not Bernie. Likeability and big ideas aren't enough in my books, for all that they can be inspiring. I need to be convinced that someone can actually do things beyond pithy promises.

Finally, I think there's something of an arranged marriage in all of this. Generally, I find I grow more fond of someone who gains my confidence through their actions; I'm more generous about their imperfections if I get the impression that they are trying to serve well and are open to input from their constituents. I don't have to love them to get into the bargain. Over time, the bond deepens if I feel that they are hardworking, dedicated, and trying to make steady progress.

But, I don't give them the job if I don't think they can do it. And that decision bears no relation to whether I'd buy them a drink. 

Monday, 1 August 2016

Poking and Politics

I've seen a number of posts floating around, talking about not losing friends over differences in political beliefs, and I think that's a healthy attitude to have. It's certainly not necessary to agree on everything to be friends--in fact, I think we often learn our most profound lessons from engaging with each other across divides in experience and perspective, and those divides can run deep sometimes. 

Social media is a different matter, though. There's a lovely sort of magic in being able to be in contact with people who've shared passing IRL encounters with us and allow space for a genuine affinity to grow. I've had many beautiful friendships grow thanks to years of communication over this worldwide web. There are people I primarily stay in contact with online who are truly friends and enhance my experience of life every day. 

But, a Facebook friend request does not a friendship make. It takes more than that. The deeper understanding and love that smoothes over disagreements is not necessarily there just because a network shows a connection. The blessing and curse of social media linkages is that they are potentially vast and superficial. 

That said--I find myself editing out people that comport themselves in certain ways online. People that use their digital presence to spread hatred. People who fixate on poison and spew it back out. People actively seeking out rage porn, amplifying the unthinking rage that's cynically stirred up by the nastiest types of demagogues. People resolutely buying timeshares in the post-factual economy. 

I actually think you can believe almost anything politically and present it in a reasonable way. That's how dialogue happens. Most people are not, in fact, crazy--they feel things for a reason. We all get excited about ideas and moments, and I think there's tremendous power in sharing the positives about what moves us. And, I admit, my patience has grown extraordinarily thin with the alternative. 

We're not all going to be sitting around a virtual campfire singing "Kumbaya" hand-in-hand anytime soon. We all have our bubbles, echo chambers and moments of preaching to the choir. But, we can all do our little part to tamp down on the hysteria that compulsive negativity breeds. It's more powerful to run toward something than to live in fear and constantly be fleeing bogeymen.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Playthings and Platitudes

Listening to KQED's Forum this morning drove it home: I cannot listen one second longer to men arguing that gun control laws would do nothing, have no impact, where the disease of mass shootings in the US are concerned. 

No. Just no. We have a supply problem, as well as a demand problem. Guns are cheap and plentiful here, including military-style weaponry designed purely for mowing down human beings at high speed. And all for the sake of self-righteous assholes who want to cling to their toys and their paranoid delusions of Minuteman-style patriotism. 

This is masculinity in crisis, folks. It's not about anyone else's safety, and it's not about rights. If it was, I wouldn't be scrapping away over here for rights to my own uterus while women are being gunned down by angry partners in the confines of their own homes. 

We're always going to have idiots. Mental health will remain a struggle for some section of the population at any given moment, always. Waves of hysteria and hate are an unfortunate feature of humanity, but we can temper their effects. No solution is perfect, but we could at least try. 

No more moments of silence. I want moments of action. I want Congress to stop cowering in the face of the NRA, to vote on bills closing loopholes around background checks and to reinstate the assault weapons ban. Now. 

BTW, if you're an argumentative dude thinking of fighting me on this, you're picking the wrong battle. I will straight up delete you. You're not a rebel, you're an accident waiting to happen. I'm done pretending this is a debate. I've had the joy of living in a country where I had virtually no fear of being caught up in a mass shooting, and the glory is real. No mass knifings, either. It's divine. 

There's a single argument for guns, and it's not weighty enough to balance the sea of bodies stacking up on the other side. I don't give a shit about your playthings, or whether you "enjoy" guns. I enjoy life. I enjoy days unmarred by catastrophic tragedies. My right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness is more important than your desire to cling to instruments of death. 

As an addendum, I'm sharing this--again. Because the USA still hasn't moved on in this conversation, and it's still the best rebuttal to the many protestations of the gun-lust set. We might not be able to stop every single tragedy, but we could take action now to make mass shootings prohibitively expensive. We can stem the tide. Other countries have proven this is the case. 



Friday, 22 April 2016

Details and Dreams

I just woke up from a dream in which I had shown up at a dance studio that means a lot to me, bags with me having just landed from a flight. I was hanging around the studio with friends, catching up on news from our lives, and discussing some mundane details like a discount on the tuition that hadn't gone through, but that I felt I probably didn't need anyway.

It felt joyful, and exciting. I felt invigorated to come back the next day, that I had something to contribute to the morning's circle. A new adventure had begun, I was back for an intensive, and I was so glad to be with friends I only got to see in this dance microcosm. 

This time, too, there was something special: I knew I wasn't there to take the test. I was just there for the ride. I felt easy about the whole thing.

I've got to say, it felt really good to feel that again. This was a dream in the truest sense, not in the waking world, "if you can see it you can be it" kind of way, but a deeply authentic emotional hallucination that was motivating and alive. I felt like I was there, and I was having a good experience with dance. I felt like I belonged.

It felt like the grain of sand from which I could rebuild an entire world. 

Also, it reminded me that my previous intensive actually was a good experience, in which I made new friends, had a great time working with other dancers, and genuinely reminded myself that my increasingly creaky body was capable of knitting together its years of knowledge with a week of hard work to produce a final product I was proud of. I'd had fun, and I had left the studio last time feeling like something magical had happened. Regardless of what happened after, I left feeling like some part of my spiritual home could be found in dance still.

I woke up to the rain hitting hard and fast against the bedroom windows in the house I'm building, remembering that at least one was open. I leapt into action, closed up against the inundation, and laid back down to savour that dream a little longer. To contemplate what it meant. To take that very real feeling of a fresh dream and see if I could blend its contours back into the topography of everyday life. To feel whether or how I could get back on the horse.

I'm going to hold this in my heart a little longer. Another intensive has just passed at that same studio, and I hadn't thought I felt much about that as it was happening. But, this morning, creaky bones and all, I find myself writing this. Thinking of my dancing ladies today.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Money, Matinees and Marketing

A discussion I've been hearing recently is that live performances are struggling because people simply don't spend money on that sort of thing, even if they think nothing of paying for something less ephemeral and magical with a similar price tag. I'm not convinced: I think people have the budget for this, and are using it. The question is: On what? (And--why?)

This matters a lot to me, not only because I enjoy these shows from the audience, but because I've produced small shows and I'm passionate about them thriving. Artists and productions are like fires--they all start small, and require certain conditions to flourish. The next exciting thing is happening in a little performance space near you, or maybe you're even making it happen. (Yes!!) 

Where to start? Let's take a look at spending on socialising and entertainment in general:

Firstly, if I think of the money my friends and I spend on entertainment out and about, the largest portion would have to be on drinks. I'll just divide that out as a category, because it not only encompasses sitting in a bar with friends, but also the extras one might not calculate into the cost of going out to a gig. (Where drinks will certainly be purchased, but are not part of the upfront costs, and so unlikely to be one of the barriers to buying a ticket. Besides, a lot of my heathens will pack their own flasks anyhow.)

Food is probably a close second. Hey, we like to eat and drink! Who doesn't?

I would say that third is some combo of live music, and I'll throw bands and DJs into this together. It might even make sense to count festivals here, if the festival is something like Outside Lands or Coachella, where music is the front-and-center attraction. I spend quite a bit of money in this category, for both large and small gigs, and a huge number of these shows sell out; there's demand.

Comedy shows and theatre (drama, musicals, etc.) are probably floating somewhere below live music for most folks, and I'll lump burlesque into that category, too, even though these three have their own strengths and challenges in luring audiences. Many of these shows are well-attended, too.

From here, it whittles down pretty quickly. I personally spend a big chunk on dance shows, between a San Francisco Ballet season subscription and a tendency to splurge on other interesting nights out to see work by smaller companies. I have a handful of friends that are also very game for splashing out on dance, but I've learned that it's not for everyone: a person usually learns to watch dance, and shows can be intimidating to someone who finds it very serious or laden with cultural expectations. However, dance does definitely attract passionate audiences.

In the miscellaneous category, let's place author readings, talks, poetry slams and the like. I certainly know people spending money on these things, though it can get a bit niche and sceney. (A bit like me with dance, probably.) Again, passionate but focused audiences.

So, in my experience, in my friend group, people are spending money on all of these things. In San Francisco, in Oakland. Further afield, in New York and London, too. People have a budget for it, and they're using it. 

If people are spending this money, and you are selling tickets for a show, why are they not spending it on you? A few possibilities:

1. They don't know your show exists. In my experience, this is the #1 challenge, closely followed by #2 (below). If you are a small company that does shows on an infrequent or irregular basis, people are probably straight-up missing the fact that you are doing a show. 

     If you are promoting your shows only or primarily via Facebook, it is very likely that only your friends know that it's happening, and they can't be trusted to sell out a room for you. 

     You need to market your show broadly enough to catch the many people who are curious and willing to spend money on interesting things going on in their city. They're out there. How are you trying to find them? Even if you have your own website, and your event is the first thing they see when they land (recommended), how are you getting attention there? Flyering the places where you and your friends hang out is probably not enough, either. A well-rounded marketing strategy is crucial, and if you're not good at this, it is worth your while to talk to someone who is.

2. They don't think your show is for them. What's your demographic? Where are they? What kind of things do they like? Even big, touring theatrical shows are not, in fact, for everyone; shows that are family-friendly might be trying to remain attractive to an audience encompassing a lot of ages, but they market themselves to some decision maker to get those families through the door, and they book shows in certain cities for a reason. Who is your person? 

     When you figure that out, it becomes much easier to reach out to those potential audience members directly. You can leave flyers in their favourite haunts. You can use targeted online ads to get your beautiful digital poster in front of them and lure them to your website. You can get yourself on the radio and tell them how cool and experimental your project is. And they know you're talking to them. Amongst the many, many options people have for spending their dosh, you want yours to resonate with them personally.

3. You're in the wrong place. This is a tough one. If your show has a big cult following, you can probably get away with a pain-in-the-ass venue that's way off the beaten track, not accessible by public transit, has no bar and no prospect of seating. However, if that's your show, you don't need to be reading this post: Somehow, your audience has found you, they feel involved (important!), and they are probably doing the exact right word-of-mouth marketing for you that can at least temporarily sustain your show. They maybe even like that the venue makes things hard, because that lends an air of exclusivity. 

     For the rest of us, though, a venue should not be a hurdle to attendance. It needs to be easy to get to; if your audience drives, you need parking; if your audience takes buses or trains, you need a stop nearby (and your start and finish times should take public transit hours into consideration); and, ideally, your venue should have the amenities your audience expects, which are likely to include seats and a bar. 

     Let's not forget stagecraft, either: your performers need a safe place to store gear and get changed, and, ideally, you have a stage and lights (so everyone can see) and decent sound. Personally, I think this is the most challenging part--venue hire can be prohibitively expensive, so it's easy to understand the appeal of less-stellar options, and crazy property markets in big cities tend to shut down performance spaces shockingly fast. However, it's worth your while to get this as right as you can for the people you're trying to attract. There is somewhere your show can work.

4. Your audience is not engaged. This is the hardest thing to hear, and I thought over and over again about nice ways to say it. It's every artist's nightmare, so we tend to either do everything we can to avoid thinking about it or we mentally (and emotionally) jump straight to it and crawl into a hole when the prospect pops up. 

     However, the news is not all bad. From a marketer's perspective, this might just mean you're not talking to the right people yet--you haven't found your audience. Redirect to #1 and #2, and see if things improve. 

     On the other hand, it might be worthwhile to ask yourself if you've really designed your work with the audience in mind. While a lot of the story told about a piece might revolve around the artist's personal journey, to make that intimate impulse engaging to witness often requires thinking about what part the audience plays in the work. (Or, if you genuinely don't give a damn about them, an extraordinary amount of charisma will be required to make up for the fact that you're ignoring their potential to contribute.) 

     How are they going to be changed by your performance? What story do you want to tell them? On the other side of the fourth wall, your audience is not there to be some mute witness. Why are those people there--to learn something, see their friends, hear their favourite songs, feel cool? What's their motivation?

5. The price is wrong. And maybe not for the reasons you think. This doesn't always apply, but there are definitely instances where setting the price higher does a magical thing: it can increase demand. Your ticket price can be a signal to your audience about quality, exclusivity, rarity… For the right audience, a high price is the right price, and it can create a literal buy-in with regard to the experience itself. (The catch, of course, is that you have to deliver; maybe in terms of atmosphere, social factors, high production values, or whatever your audience indicates it values in your show.) 

     There are, of course, times when the price might be too high--if you over-promise and under-deliver, which sometimes happens, that's not such an awesome experience. The price could also be wrong because of the venue, which is part of what makes #3 so tricky: if the place is too big, you might be paying for seats you can't fill, and if it's simply too lavish, it might be a risky place to try a new show on a shoestring budget. However, if you know what experience your audience is paying for, you'll be better equipped to balance what they value against what you need to charge, and you can be clever about communicating why your show is a good deal.



All of this is trial and error stuff, testing hypotheses and trying to improve the approach. The stakes are high when you're putting money, time, blood, sweat and tears into an endeavor, and it is--without a doubt--hard stuff. It's part gamble, part passion--but, hopefully, it can increasingly entail a businesslike technique to help art flourish. Have no doubt--people are spending money to explore their cities and be touched by compelling work, and the thrill of discovering new artists is immense. What can you do to help them find you?

Monday, 19 October 2015

On Professionalism

A little rant: So, a friend just shared an AirBnB experience that went wrong and keeps going wrong-er, thanks to an unprofessional host. This fellow in question dropped the ball, and is now coming back with excuses that he is not a hotel professional. 

And, you know--he's actually right on that part. He's unprofessional in every sense, because even though he's signed himself up for the business of catering to guests' needs, he's actually just some schmoe who's making money off of a property he has access to, regardless of his lack of ability or expertise in the hospitality sector. 

He is not a professional. 

At the same time, I'm thinking about the black cabs in London. I love them. I don't give a damn if they're more expensive than Uber, they know where they're going, way better than I do. I give them an address, and they don't plug it into an iPhone--they reference their incredible bank of knowledge about the twists and turns, legalities and logjams of an ancient city. They are professionals. They come with training, knowledge, regulation and vehicles that are built like tanks to withstand the rigours of city driving. 

They are professionals, and they are precious to me. 

While I think there are some wonderful things about the "sharing economy," I approach it with a high degree of skepticism, because what things like Uber and AirBnB often do is create parallel markets for poor versions of services that used to be mostly fulfilled by professionals, but are more and more often done by people that don't necessarily know what they're doing. 

When this is obvious and part of the reason it's cheap, when you know you're getting no better than your mate doing you a favor in exchange for gas money, fine. But, as time goes on, we're losing both our lowered expectations and the notion of professional accountability, because "sharing" services increasingly encroach upon professional territory. And I think it's lame. 

Sure, there are some great, even professional, drivers on rideshare services, just as there are lovely folks running their bed and breakfasts via AirBnB. But, we should never forget that these are likely to be amateurs, playing at professional games. (And, I should add--things like taxis and hotel rooms have long been carefully regulated, in no small part because of the serious risks involved with insufficient responsibility around such services.) There's a good chance they don't really know what they're doing, that they lack communication or conflict resolution skills, and that they might be brand new to a game they shouldn't be playing. 

In bellydance, we talk about the line between being a professional and a hobbyist, what rates professionals should charge, and what professional conduct means to our business. We can easily identify the numerous ills that come from getting this wrong. There is a fundamental difference, and individuals may transition from one side to the other as their knowledge and commitment grow. It's the same for any profession, I think. 

While I salute the experimental nature of the "sharing economy," I mainly want to see those experiments stay small and push the real professionals to be better. While I don't resent anyone making a bit of money moonlighting in something new to them, they should be wary of impersonating an educated expert by stepping into the commercial shoes of someone who is actually expected to know what they're doing.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Hanging Up

I'm having a heartbroken afternoon, and I'm pretty sure it's because I'm not going back to Burning Man, at least not for a very long time. It keeps coming back to one thing: the phones.

Somehow, that change over all the others has cut me deep. Hearing people bitch about poor reception. Daily updates about what's going on in the outside world. People sitting around camp staring at shit on the internet. It all feels like vandalism to something that means so much to me. 

It used to be so magical--that long journey out, following mountain roads and rivers to the place where an alien landscape took hold and the data connection died. This was the process of going to another world, one that was temporary and beautiful and that you could only visit briefly. (Really, they are all that way.)

Maybe it's that I'm a forest creature stuck living in a day-to-day where people are zombies staring at screens all the time, breaking conversations to answer noises on a machine, not idle for more than nanoseconds before the boredom tick of scrolling on the phone takes over. The pointless treadmill of meaningless novelty, hitting the button for connectedness and missing it the whole time. That burns me; my own abstinence is imperfect, and has no impact on the tide coming in on me, anyway.

I love those places that remain sacred, untainted by those bastard toys, their nagging for attention and indulgences of narcissism. Maybe it's time to let go of the idea that Black Rock City can be one of those places. But, man, it hurts. 

I'm going to put my energy into creating new worlds. I'll find other remote places teeming with feral energy. I have other things to do in life, so it seems a bit silly to feel so sad about outgrowing this one. But, it's been precious to me for a long time. All of my adult life so far. I've fought this corner. The wild experiment changed me. 

It might turn out that I miss hitchhiking on art cars and making possibility in the starkest dry dust too much to stay away. But, for the foreseeable future, I think it's time to accept that I can't stand in the face of this change and hope for a pivot. Maybe I can find a new way to be involved with this crazy place, where I can pitch myself into projects with other folks that want to shine up the immediacy and involvement in our ephemeral, imaginary city.

For now, though, I can tell you this: Convenience is death to purpose.