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?