Coming out of the pandemic, nonprofit arts organizations are struggling to make sense of digital programming opportunities moving forward. Some have altogether abandoned digital initiatives undertaken during the pandemic. Others continue to search for a sustainable business model for digital content.
According to a June 2023 Audience Outlook Monitor survey of over 8,000 arts patrons across the US, approximately half say they have ‘little or no interest’ in watching ‘online programs offered by cultural organizations, such as live-streamed programs and video recordings of recent productions.’ Another 45% say they’ll selectively watch digital content if the spirit moves them. Just 5% say they actively seek out such content. Results do not vary by age.
Earlier research during the pandemic suggested that most people viewed digital arts content at home on laptops and other small devices with native audio systems (i.e., not a premium A/V experience). Other research suggests that less than 10% of arts audiences subscribe to any of the arts-specific streaming services such as BroadwayHD, Met Opera on Demand, medici.tv, IDAGIO, etc.
All we can conclude at this point is that the marketplace for filmed arts content for personal consumption, either live-streamed or recorded, has not congealed at any sort of scale. Those who continue to produce filmed content based on live performances face an uphill battle. They compete in a saturated market overflowing with commercially-funded audiovisual content and free content from nonprofits. Up against heavyweights like Netflix, Disney, and aggregators of arts-specific content, nonprofits often find themselves in a seemingly unwinnable situation.
Yet, change is afoot.
Trailblazing initiatives like the Met Opera’s streaming distribution and the Paris Opera’s 3rd Scene department are great examples of the drive towards digitalization. These pioneers deserve recognition for their forward-thinking investments. As the digital landscape evolves, however, so do user expectations. Digital programs that once seemed cutting-edge are starting to show their age.
In transforming the performing arts for the digital space, we’ve managed to broaden access. However, the quality and emotional depth we’re accustomed to in physical spaces doesn’t translate as well digitally. For example, think about the last time you streamed classical music. Did it provide an intense, uninterrupted emotional experience, or was it just background music? Were you listening intently, or dividing your attention between multiple activities? Unfortunately, the consumption of streamed content tends to be very passive and tends to allow for distraction.
As we grapple with this challenge, two key questions arise for artistic institutions: How can we extend our digital offerings to provide a more enriching artistic experience? And, how can we strengthen our connection with digital natives?
To address these questions, we must consider the third evolution of the internet (Web 3.0). This evolution, currently underway, offers many paths towards elevated digital experiences. The digital world we live in is morphing into something more akin to the science fiction landscapes we’ve dreamed about – the “Metaverse” (a term borrowed from Neil Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash). Our virtual and physical lives are merging. According to a McKinsey study, “the Metaverse marks the transition from an attention-based internet economy to an experience-centered one.” In simpler terms, the internet is becoming a three-dimensional space, allowing for immersive experiences that go far beyond traditional streaming.
In simpler terms, the internet is evolving into a 3D domain, enabling immersive, multisensory experiences. Among many other things, these exceed the boundaries of conventional streaming. This evolution encompasses the full spectrum of extended reality (AR, MR, VR), and holds the promise of deepening audience engagement with digital content.
Streaming, broadcasting, webcasting, and all other methods of media distribution were not designed to hold or distribute the massive amount of data required for deep immersive digital experiences. I like to envision the future of digital content as a complex transmission system, a ‘Depthcast.’ The future is synthesized through the integration and synchronization of various technologies currently on the market. These include spatial computing, haptic technologies, artificial intelligence (AI), and tokenomics. Combined with advanced methodologies like immersive storytelling, specific co-creational activities, and strategic user remuneration, these advances hold the promise of a richer sense of presence and more engaging interaction with digital art.
Imagine wearing a high-definition headset and finding yourself on stage during an opera. You would have the ability to choose your position on the stage enhancing the visual experience. Digital text inputs overlay the image, providing you with information regarding the plot and characters.
Or, envision the possibility of experiencing classical music through the eyes of a renowned conductor or a soloist or moving around a room following 3D sounds in different corners feeling on your body the vibration of the different instruments involved.
Or, picture yourself virtually navigating through an important art exhibition in a museum halfway around the world, examining artworks in breathtaking detail and interacting with docents or curators. Imagine running your hands over a sculpture through digital touch technology. These imaginative scenarios may seem unlikely, yet all the necessary “ingredients” are already in place, waiting to be fused together. (If you want a taste of what the future might look like, I recommend trying the Bigscreen application on MetaQuest 2. For the first time, I felt the vivid sensation of being in a movie theater, and my level of attention towards the film dramatically increased.)
Apple’s recent introduction of the Vision Pro shows us the evolution of the user experience within the arts and entertainment. This XR interactive headset is set to further blur the line between the physical and digital environments. The headset liberates users from traditional interfaces. It also creates a multitude of opportunities for artists and producers to showcase their work in hyper-realistic 3D environments. Widespread adoption of this technology is still uncertain. Still, it clearly surpasses previous Oculus technologies offered by companies such as Meta, HTC, and Magic Leap. The high price point of the Vision Pro headset, at $3,499, is a major hurdle for now, especially with cheaper competitors on the market. However, less expensive models will almost certainly be available over the coming years.
As with all new technologies widespread public adoption isn’t instantaneous, over the past year, the Metaverse (or whatever you want to call it) in the art field, has experienced slow growth, and not without its share of speculation and hype. At times, this has led to misplaced efforts and missed targets, like the underwhelming Hong Kong Philharmonic Metaverse Concert. But other institutions such as the Helsinki Opera Ballet or the Royal Shakespeare Company have been quick to explore the digital frontier, using the lockdown period to scratch the surface of the Metaverse, and now finding themselves in a leading position.
Live, IRL artistic experiences have always held transformative power, creating transcendent moments of connection through the strength of performance. As we continue to meld our physical and digital realities, Web 3.0 harbors real potential to democratize these moments. As this unified system of technologies, content, and social norms continues to evolve, performing arts institutions capable of conceiving and creating immersive experiences and spaces may revolutionize the digital experience, finally doing justice to the complexity of the artistic product. The Metaverse, extending beyond gaming and entertainment, represents the next step in the evolving relationship between humanity and culture. As we forge ahead, the challenge for us all is to pinpoint the right opportunities and the appropriate moment to embrace this – inevitable – digital transformation.