Thursday, 27 April 2017

A failure of SHIFT — there wasn’t much buzz

Why I'm writing these posts about SHIFT *a festival featuring orchestras from around the U.S., coproduced in Washington by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, with all tickets affordably priced at $25): 

Because the festival wasn't marketed well, wasn't promoted well. And will come back next year, so a look at its problems could be helpful.

And because the mistakes are instructive. Others can learn from them.

Four lessons:


Use common sense.

Think really hard about how your marketing will look to your target audience.

Plan your marketing when you plan your programs. Not because you only want to do popular programs, that will sell tickets easily. But because you need to know where you stand, how many tickets the programs you plan are likely to sell. If you don't like the answer, you can adjust the programs, adjust their marketing, move performances to a smaller space, or — if you can afford this —  accept fewer ticket sales.

But at least you'll know. And you'll have a chance, long in advance, to set things up as strongly as possible.

In an earlier post, I asked if SHIFT was a success or a failure.

Looking only at the concerts, and leaving aside an assortment of community events, this is what we saw. Four orchestras played. One nearly sold out the more than 2000 seats in the Kennedy Center concert hall. Two filled about half the seats. And the fourth sold way less than half.

That's not a success, even if half-full houses seem to be the norm in DC these days. But if one concert nearly sold out — and the audience cheered — then there's hope!

So call SHIFT a work in progress.

One thing that failed

And this, I fear, is a biggie. There was no advance buzz. As far as I can tell, people in the Washington, DC classical music world weren't excited. They weren't talking about SHIFT. If you asked them, they'd say they'd go to the concerts. But there didn't seem to be much interest.

Worse than that, there was, if anything, a kind of anti-buzz — skepticism about the festival, doubts that it would succeed.

The reason for the anti-buzz was very clear. SHIFT was positioned as a continuation of the Spring for Music festival in New York, which brought orchestras from around the country to Carnegie Hall, with all tickets $25.

And which was perceived as a failure.

So why continue the failure in Washington?

More on that next week. About how it was a promotional blunder to link SHIFT — or let it be linked — to Spring for Music. And how that could have been avoided.

But there was another reason SHIFT didn't get much buzz

And that's because — quite apart from any Spring for Music link —  it wasn't conceived clearly, and it wasn't promoted well. Starting with its name, SHIFT.

What does that even mean?

Contrast Nissan's famous "Shift" ad campaign. I'd see their commercials, and the meaning of shift was always clear. It was used in many ways. Like "Shift the way you move." I get that. This was a car commercial. Nissan has changed, the commercial implied. Now it has great new cars. So if we drive one, we'll shift — drive differently, move through life differently.

And then of course there's a  subliminal reference to something we all do when we drive, shifting gears.

But "SHIFT: A festival of orchestras"? What does "shift" tell us there?

Nothing that's immediately clear.

Deciphering the word

I think I know what "SHIFT" is trying to say. Orchestras have changed. They're energized, vital, doing new things. They're alive in their communities.

Or, in other words, they've shifted, and we should shift what we think of them.

But how does SHIFT, as the name of a festival, without any further context, tell us that? There's a thought process going on, but we don't know what it is. We have to guess on our own.

So of course the festival didn't generate buzz. We didn't know what it meant, what it was supposed to accomplish. Or why we should care.

Which would have been easy to fix! Just tell us what's going on. In direct, lively words we can all understand.

A modest suggestion

For instance — as I said in my earlier post — they could have called  the festival "Orchestras Unleashed."

Let's not argue over whether that's a great name. Or whether it described what the SHIFT producers had in mind.

Just consider its virtues (or the virtues of another name like it).

It's clear. It promises something. Promises something we might like to see. People in the DC classical music world, I think, could have gotten behind it.

Plus, special bonus — it might have helped WPA and the Kennedy Center plan their festival more sharply. Much easier to build on a clear idea than a vague one.

Next, the buzz killer — linking SHIFT to Spring for Music.

Re the SHIFT idea:

Maybe WPA and the Kennedy Center wanted to do the kind of hip marketing Apple is famous for.

But Apple's ad campaigns are simple, and hit home very strongly. Take what I think is the most famous one, "Think different."  When it launched in 1997, anybody buying a computer knew what it meant. "Be different — buy a Mac! Everyone else has a PC." 

Not that those words ever had to be used. The message didn't have to be spelled out. And was reinforced by photos of artists, thinkers, and social figures — people like Maria Callas, Einstein, and Gandhi — who really did think different(ly).

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