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Exploring the digital opportunity for the arts

Rock for Rimbaud

The fifth in a series of essays reflecting on the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation’s experiences in the arts

The existence of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation (‘R&V’) and of its sister organisation (Poet in the City) have coincided almost exactly with the digital revolution, and the development of both of these new arts organisations was probably only possible because of the major changes taking place over the last 20 years. Suddenly it was possible to communicate electronically with thousands of people at minimal cost and to forge them into an online community of support for an arts organisation. Some of the most dramatic changes were the earliest: the ability to develop a dynamic database, the opportunity to send out emails en masse, the ability to establish a permanent digital shop window in the form of a well-designed website. As time has gone on the pace of change has accelerated and the picture has become more complicated. In 2022 it is not as easy as it once was to communicate effectively online. Emails are regularly filtered out or ignored, even when they are addressed to people who have actively opted in. And data protection legislation requires an organisation to operate with constant vigilance in respect of the personal information it does hold about its supporters. Social media requires an arts organisation to be present on several different platforms and to constantly generate appropriate messages and content in a way that is increasingly onerous and fraught with reputational risk. Most importantly, the question of how an arts organisation should (or can) monetise its web presence or harvest and exploit is data remains problematic and controversial. For many arts organisations the digital revolution now represents a significant additional drain on resources. It is now essential to ‘live online’, and to generate ‘rich content’, but there has been no corresponding growth in income to support this obligation. And some of the tools necessary to fully utilise the potential of the digital revolution to harvest data, profile customers, and target content at specific groups, are increasingly beyond the resources, capacity and even the appetite of small and medium arts organisations (‘SMEs’). After 20 years of thinking about and experimenting with digital media, this essay will set out some of the lessons we have learned.

Following the curve?

In his book, The Curve, Nicholas Lovell describes the new consensus thinking about monetising an audience online, based on a selection of successful examples. It is clear that an online community needs to be built on attention-grabbing content, or mobilised by a passion for the subject matter. If the content is appealing enough the web can facilitate a rapid growth in clicks and in followers. However, the growth in numbers must come first. Until an organisation has a loyal online following of over 10,000 people its options for monetising what it does are limited. Even then, the sort of product that works best is something which appeals to the ‘superfan’. It needs to be a signed complete edition of an artist’s music on vinyl, a limited edition T-Shirt, or an unusual artefact. Ideally the product is bespoke and high value. In practice a loyal following of thousands of people will still only generate a few hundred sales, so it is necessary for individual sales to be expensive if the object is to generate a significant quantity of online business by value. Many of the examples in the book describe artists who basically give away rafts of free content online in order to service their loyal fan base and in order to stimulate a small number of high-value sales to super fans, for whom a deluxe edition or a designer product is a ‘must have’ purchase. Hence its description as ‘the curve’. Only when numbers of followers begin to climb can such sales become commercially significant. It is obviously a formula best suited to luxury consumer products. In practice the opportunities for an SME arts organisation to monetise its digital presence are therefore rather limited.

R&V recently experimented with exactly this kind of product. It commissioned the UK’s leading architectural modelling company (Timothy Richards Ltd) to create a scale replica model of the ‘poetry house’ at No 8 Royal College Street in Camden, the property formerly occupied by the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. This is a beautiful artefact standing about 7cm tall and which looks very good on a desk, bookshelf or mantlepiece. It is well-suited for anyone interested in the poets, and is specifically designed to appeal to this ‘cult’ audience all over the world. At over £250 it is also undoubtedly a luxury bespoke item, and one produced in only limited quantities. An ideal product, you might say, for a passionate fan base, and ideally suited to benefit from the commercial logic of the curve.

Whilst in practice the model has covered its production costs and continues to sell in modest quantities it has not achieved anything like significant commercial success, let alone amounting to a reliable source of earned income for R&V. I do not think this is due to an absence of demand for the artefact. It is because the challenges of identifying and communicating with that potential global customer base is beyond the capabilities of a small arts organisation. The rate of sales relative to followers is roughly equivalent to the number of sales that used to be generated by direct mail marketing campaigns (that is somewhere well under 1 per cent). Only a campaign capable of profiling and reaching out to 10s or 100s of thousands of potential R&V fans online could fulfil the sales potential of this item. That has not stopped us from trying, of course. When I recently appeared on TF1, the French equivalent of BBC1 television, the model was displayed prominently in the background for the viewers. But the days when informal word of mouth advocacy online and on social media alone are enough to generate a critical mass for merchandising have effectively gone, if they ever existed. There is so much ‘white noise’ and so much content competing for our attention that it requires additional tools to break through to a mass audience. Hence the power of celebrity endorsements, influencers, social media campaigns, online advertisements and sponsored content.

In other words a marketing campaign requiring effort, expertise, time, and expenditure. SME arts organisations face a problem of scale-ability in nearly all that they do. With its rapid commercialisation the web also falls firmly within this category. In practice this means that merchandising efforts need to be smart, scale-able and have sufficient reach if they are not simply to result in boxes of unsold T-shirts, special publications or artefacts simply gathering dust in a storage space somewhere.

An upside-down house?

R&V’s logo incorporates an upside-down house. If an arts organisation can develop a large enough following online there seems to be no obvious reason why it should not effectively turn the existing business model for an arts organisation on its head, effectively becoming an ‘ideas lab’. Great original arts programming might then be treated as a potential source for other products and services capable of creating income streams for the organisation. These might include a full design consultancy capable of drawing on ideas and expertise from the arts to craft new solutions in interior design, public art, product design and fashion. These all depend heavily on the arts and culture for their commercial success, so it is open to an arts organisation to deploy its expertise and its resources profitably in providing such design solutions. Far from detracting from the main values of the online brand and its followers, such design consultancy work could promote these values to a much wider audience whilst also making a profit. This idea has led to some of R&V’s most important and fascinating experiments including the development of an ambitious corporate learning and development programme using the arts to champion LGBTQ inclusion, and a creative collaboration with 35 students at the London College of Fashion designed to come up with concepts and fashion designs capable of commercial release. With imagination and some suitable strategic investment an arts organisation can use the curve to offer a range of ancillary products and services without detracting in any way from its core mission.

Passion-led content

In 2006 I watched a presentation given by a representative of Aviva, the insurance company, about their recent digital sponsorship of Dee Caffari, the British round-the-world yachtswoman. It was relatively early days for an online sponsorship and the promotional campaign associated with Dee Caffari’s solo non-stop voyage ‘the wrong way’ around the world that year was deemed to have been a great success. Using the inspirational story of her sporting challenge the sponsored website had rapidly attracted 100s of thousands of followers, many of whom visited the site daily over the next few months to monitor her progress around the world. In another first, Dee Caffari transmitted daily video podcasts from the yacht, and responded to messages of support, giving the website an urgent sense of adventure and audience engagement. However, as the representative of Aviva acknowledged during the Q&A, from a digital point of view the project had been a mixed blessing. It had become increasingly obvious that the sponsor’s role in financing the expedition was being ignored or taken for granted. All the focus of attention was on the heroic sportswoman at the centre of the story. When the Aviva sponsorship ended, the large online following established immediately migrated to Dee Caffari’s own website. The value of this expensive and ambitiously realised digital sponsorship to Aviva was therefore very hard to evaluate. This example illustrates well the fickle nature of online engagement. It works well when it is passion-led, but attempts to convert this into brand loyalty or consumer sales are rather more difficult.

One thing that seems indisputable is that online engagement is encouraged by rich content, and that arts organisations are particularly well-placed to generate such content. This capacity to enrich the lives of others has become much clearer under COVID lockdowns, as the normal rules of life have to some extent been suspended. R&V was not alone in responding to lockdown by creating a stream of rich arts content for its followers. This included regular weekly blog articles on a range of fascinating subjects, illustrated by striking images, and two series of music videos, each consisting of 10-12 films, again posted out weekly, and featuring up-and-coming classical singers performing songs from the chamber music and mélodie repertoire. R&V is (I think rightly) proud of this impressive flow of rich content, which was very important to some of its members under strange and difficult circumstances. However, once lockdown eased, the desire for this content tailed off quickly, and its production ceased to be either useful or sustainable. Essentially this kind of rich content online operates as a complete loss leader. It is certainly better to have it, if you can, but there is no direct line to be drawn from it to income growth. The web is (in fact) full of brilliant content performed by talented artists which attracts very few hits. Again, the content only becomes commercially potent when the audience for it achieves a critical mass. We are back to a much more familiar model. Unless your singer can be posted on an important internet platform, get a primetime TV slot, or receive rave reviews from a top influencer, the content is likely to languish at the bottom of the internet, watched only by close friends and relations or a small core fan base.

Achieving a critical mass

Even where a critical mass is achieved by a small or medium sized arts organisation, it is not necessarily obvious how this online success can be mediated into new sources of income. For instance, one UK regional arts centre responded to lockdown in March 2020 by converting itself into a sort of online TV studio. With the help of local government funding it was soon generating great online musical content, recorded live and produced to a high quality. With the main emphasis on local up-and-coming bands, the organisation was soon attracting much larger audiences than anticipated. An online music festival at one point attracted a worldwide audience of over 7 million people. A lockdown service intended to service a local audience in troubled times had unexpectedly gone global. A great opportunity, and a necessary starting point for commercialising content online, but nevertheless a challenge for an SME arts organisation, which now faces the daunting challenge of maintaining itself as a major online digital music channel. Elsewhere I have written of the pressing need for investment in scaling up arts organisations, and the need to invest in the digital opportunity is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Success on this scale demonstrates the potential for arts content to create new audiences and deserves to attract investment, so that sources of earned income can be properly explored, whether in the form of terrestrial concerts and festivals or in the form of music sales, merchandising or artist agency services. Whatever the products and income streams being envisaged the main challenges are perhaps the leap of imagination required by the arts organisation, and attracting the strategic investment required to make it happen.


The web provides unprecedented new opportunities for the crowdsourcing of content. This enables a completely new type of relationship between an arts organisation and its followers in which the latter can play a driving role in determining the content presented. R&V already operates in a way that would have been unthinkable before the digital age. The vast majority of its content arises as a result of its own community coming forward with suggestions and ideas. It is necessary to get away from the idea of the arts organisation as the expert curator (or gatekeeper) and of its audiences as mere passive recipients of the work that it produces. The ‘community’ following an organisation like R&V includes many people with their own expertise, passions and know-how. Instead of being merely a curator of cultural content, an arts organisation now has an opportunity to become a broker and developer. Instead of being merely an audience, members of the community now have the opportunity to function as a great source of knowledge, ideas and creativity, as volunteers or as sub-contractors. To a very great extent a digital arts business of this kind can be driven by customer demand. This model also mandates a much more open and transparent relationship between the organisation and its followers.


Crucially, an arts organisation must encourage its followers to participate in action in the real world. The digital revolution has changed everything about the way an organisation relates to its followers. And yet, all too often, it continues to be treated as simply an ‘add on’ to traditional means of engaging with audiences, the subject of a separate digital strategy. Conversely, some organisations pursue the equally unsatisfactory idea that it is possible to have a business that functions only online. The arts and culture demonstrate that the real opportunity lies in the combination of online content with terrestrial products and services. One of the most interesting examples of this has been the Secret Cinema brand, which has even persuaded its customers to pay in advance for tickets to events the theme of which is unknown. The message is that the customer can trust the organisation to create great content, which they will love. This is a wonderful example of how a strong arts brand recognised for authenticity and quality can operate in the digital world. It also demonstrates the appetite amongst online followers for real-world experiences where they can participate in person at a live event. Put another way, rich online content is not an end in itself but merely a taster designed to create a larger audience for the arts and culture experienced at first hand in real-world settings including concert halls, public squares and festival stages. Far from real-life experiences becoming less important in the digital world it is likely that they will become even more important as a higher percentage of our routine transactions become electronic, and as our need for connection with our fellow human beings in the real world become stronger.  

Expanding the horizons of the real

What we mean by real-world experience is also expanding. Music fans are now quite happy to watch a band perform at a festival by means of large overhead screens, as well as through amplification. Fans who are sitting as far as half a mile from the stage can enjoy close-ups of their favourite artists, their faces, their costumes and their hands playing musical instruments, and this is still regarded as a live music experience. There is also a growing appetite for live digital streaming. When I was at Poet in the City I organised such a ‘split’ event at Kings Place with the poet Seamus Heaney and my team and we were astonished to discover that the digital audience in hall 2 enjoyed the event even more than the live audience in hall 1. Satellite audiences are able to see the twinkle in the eye of the famous poet or actor, the intricate tracery on her dress, and get a view that is much better than that attainable from the back row of the circle in the actual theatre. Not without reason these audiences also believe that they are experiencing a live event. This belief seems to have much more to do with our ability to experience and respond to an event collectively with others than it does with actual proximity to the performers. This is an important insight, and a great opportunity for the arts.

Live streaming of the arts

It is surprising that the ability to live stream arts content has not already transformed the ways in which the arts are consumed. It is now perfectly possible to simultaneously live stream an event from a venue in one part of the country to multiple other venues across the UK and abroad. If the signal is strong enough and is not interrupted an arts event can be enjoyed by audiences in Truro and Kelso at the same time and (subject to the time difference) in Adelaide. It is also possible to capture performances of plays, operas and concerts at high quality, using television-style multiple cameras and skilful editing, crafting a ‘perfect’ performance of the content on video and then replaying it later for live audiences on cinema screens worldwide. Both techniques have already been deployed successfully by the likes of the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House, both reaching wider audiences and creating new sustainable income streams for these institutions. When it first opened in 2010 the new London venue at Kings Place already had such camera technology installed and had the capability of capturing live content at a broadcast-able level of quality. By 2022 the technology is now so ubiquitous that even small arts organisations are able (theoretically) to ‘narrow cast’ their shows to other venues. Nor is there any shortage of venues crying out for rich content. There are cinema screens, community centres and village halls all over the country where great arts content could be profitably screened. Such content could be used as the basis for local arts clubs and community get-togethers and can generate healthy income for those venues both from ticket income and bar sales. In fact, the economics of such events should be very attractive, allowing much wider audiences access to great arts content at a much-reduced rate, and at a venue only walking distance from their home. The success of a limited initiative like the Somerset Village Halls initiative suggests that a systematic programme of arts distribution to such local venues would release significant suppressed demand and would help to bring together communities (this initiative has since been cancelled, along with Somerset County Council’s entire budget for the arts).

That this sort of digital distribution of arts content has not yet happened on any systematic level suggests both an institutional failure in how the arts are funded, and an almost complete lack of suitable arts investment. SME arts organisations, in particular, are so strapped for cash that, even now, the costs of staging live events in such a way as to capture the arts content on film and audio for wider dissemination in beyond them, let alone the investment required to distribute and coordinate the presentation of this content at other venues around the country. Effort still needs to be put into building networks, ensuring high-quality recordings are made, and maintaining the integrity of the original arts content. There also needs to be some innovative legal and contractual work done to ensure that the intellectual property rights in the original performance facilitate the wider commercial dissemination of the content to everyone’s benefit. Investment is also required in marketing and promoting these new platforms and this new content to audiences in each satellite location. Or, to put it another way, someone needs to invest in scaling up the live-streaming proposition in order to realise its income-generating potential. The occasional experimental ‘narrow cast’ is not going to achieve the kind of step-change that is required. When the problem is finally resolved, as surely it must be, live streaming could become the basis for an important renaissance in audiences for the arts, with no barriers preventing people from accessing the very best arts content locally. Arguably the digital revolution in the consumption of arts content online has barely begun.

A new kind of hub for arts content?

Using great arts content to generate a large following online is just the starting point. An arts organisation must then move on to engage actively with this community, deepening the relationship further, and convert people to a new relationship with the arts and culture. Despite all the challenges and unresolved questions, we can perhaps begin to see the outlines of a new approach to the arts made possible by the digital revolution. Before her premature death in 2011 the singer Amy Winehouse recorded a famous acoustic set in The Chapel in Dingle in Ireland, a tiny venue with room for only about 20 audience members. The object was not to hold a public event but to use the venue as a recording studio, to capture a great artist at the peak of her abilities, and to do so in optimum circumstances. Priority was therefore given to cameras, lighting rigs and sound quality. The small audience was only there to provide some friendly crowd scene, warmth and applause. It was programme making, pure and simple. My understanding is that the intention, even back then, was to reach new and wider audiences via the web. For me the lesson from this is clear. At the very least arts organisations should now seek to capture great live arts content in as many different media as possible (including video and audio as a matter of course, if they can) and should seek to deliver that content on as many different platforms as possible (live, terrestrial broadcast, streamed narrowcast and online). None of this comes for free, and a real transformation in the arts depends on strategic investment both in content and in the delivery of content. But we can nevertheless see how the arts organisation can potentially use digital means to become an entirely new kind of hub for arts content, and an inspirational platform for reaching out to new audiences and converting them to a new relationship with the arts

Posted on:Tuesday 15th March, 2022