Open heart surgery on a national institution.
Harry Young the General Manager of Aldeburgh Music is self-effacing about his achievements, although never about those of his organisation. His pride in the charity he works for – based in the beautiful natural surroundings of the Suffolk fens – is clear, but he is also passionate about Aldeburgh Music not been seen as a one-dimensional classical music organisation for people who already know about classical music. “We’re a busy arts organisation and charity out on the Suffolk coast, with an emphasis on music, and we have 57 employees currently. We’re of course most famous for being the producers of the Aldeburgh festival, which was originally started by Benjamin Britten, and we’re now the proud owners and runners of Snape Maltings concert hall which was a converted malt house that Britten himself oversaw the development of in 1967. We have lots of strands to our work, a very strong artist development programme as well as eduction and outreach, and we do something like 550 events annually”.
Indeed a quick review of Aldeburgh’s output reveals not only art music programmes but education programmes for young people, a robust artist development scheme, orchestras made out of wheelie bins, and even outreach into prisons, as well as a Myspace with a positively psychedlic music video.
Part of how Harry wants to use technology relates to the communication priorities of the organisation: to guard against Aldeburgh being branded in people’s minds in a conservative light. In fact Harry is emphatic that Aldeburgh is not an “old” or “classical” organisation at all, but a new organisation: “From the very beginning when Mssrs Britten and Pears founded the festival it was always about new music and new developments, so keeping things new and fresh is in a way part of our heritage”.
Aldeburgh’s distinctiveness includes a strong artist development programme – looking after ages 8 to 25 and beyond, which feeds directly into the artistic programme. This isn’t just in theory: their recently retired artistic director was once part of the artist development programme as a young man.
Aldeburgh Music are contanstly trying to push the boundaries of what is music and what is art, performing new music, electronica, and putting on exhibitions throughout the year. Indeed, they have just launched a new space at Snape Maltings that has been designed specifically with having a flexible acoustic so they can play around with all kinds of what Harry calls “tricks and acoustical gizmos”.
Being so far outside a major metropolitan city is a challenge for them, and in this instance a very well developed website can help transcend that geographical problem.
But the real issues for Aldeburgh Music are underlying: underneath the artistic programme, even underneath the presentation of their website, and aside from the vast technical capacity they have in lighting, rigging, recording and sound engineering performances and events. They are the issues of systems; back-room systems, but nevertheless the functions that keep the entire edifice moving.
Aldeburgh Music is a sizeable organisation, which has partly grown up organically over the years, and with so many different functions going on, the organism as a whole needs to have unequivocal life support systems. These include the website as a key marketing tool but at the core are the Box Office system and the contact database or “Customer Relationship Management” system – CRM for short. Aldeburgh have been in the business of reviewing the health of these key organs in the living system of the charity, and have embarked on a transplant procedure. The danger is that transplanting an inappropriate replacement organ can mean the whole organisation going into cardiac arrest: “Getting this wrong could absolutely create catastrophe, and there’s at least one arts organisation in this country in serious trouble at the moment as a result of a box office procurement mistake, and so we’re very conscious of that” says Harry Young.
“Any organisation will need a database of some sort, but because of the nature of our work we have different departments all working very hard doing different things without taking the time to think if a co-ordinated approach would serve people better. And so we’re trying to see if there’s an opportunity to stop everybody using their own Access and Excel spreadsheets and to work more effectively.
But Harry’s desire to change the status quo is not about creating a theoretically more perfect technical one-stop-shop. There are very human reasons to make a change: “People don’t trust our systems at the moment. There’s an awful lot of staff who write things down in diaries and on folders and have to double check everything because what they read on shared companies servers they don’t necessarily trust. There’s a lot of people who use the same suppliers, same piano tuners, same accommodation but don’t realise they’re doing so, because everybody’s got their own little records tucked away, and we have an obligation to our funders to work as efficiently as we can. So I think that if we can a CRM and Box Office system everybody will buy into it because everybody was consulted on it. The benefits of increased efficiency could be huge and make a big difference”.
In order to see Aldeburgh through the process, the team used several thousand pounds from the Arts Council funded AmbITion project to pay for consultants to advise the path they should take.
As Harry says: “we’re undergiong a very comprehensive review. We are in the middle of the consultancy, generously funded by AmbITion which has allowed us to scrutinise our systems to ascertain where we have been inefficient, and ascertain what systems we can buy to help us work more cleverly. The organisation itself is changing heavily at the moment, with a lot of new buildings being opened which will allow us to increase by 40% the amount of space and events we can have here on the site. So we’re very excited about getting some advice and some consultancy on what systems we could buy that could help us to do our work better. In the period of consultancy it’s been a very useful exercise – they’re very good at talking to departments one by one and teasing from them their problems even if the deparments don’t know what their problems are.
“To avoid the situation where we could be sold some software by someone who’s a very good salesman rather than the one that actually we need, the consultants are doing exhaustive benchmarking and helping sort the wheat from the chaff. We have made expensive mistakes in the past by buying software systems that are impenetrable, unworkable and require huge amounts of training.
“Part of the report we will receive from the consultants will tell us whether our inability to use a certain software package is actually our own fault or whether it’s been the software’s fault.. and we’re not too proud to admit if with a bit of extra training we could have made life a lot easier with what we already have. But I strongly suspect that they will concur that we have spent years trying to make something work which isn’t really workable: that’s one particular bit of software… Our Box Office system has been very successful for us but is quite clearly creaking and is coming to the end of its life and there isn’t quite the same support there that there was 5 years ago. Part of this process is trying to find us a new Box Office system and a new CRM system, that hopefully can speak with each other. Perhaps a bolt-on event management package as well. But all of this is hugely risky and we’re under no illusion that changing all these extremely important packages comes with great risk. And so, rather than ditch a box office system that we know works but that is creaking and suddenly buy one because the sales man was particularly convincing on any one day could potentially put our entire organisation at huge risk if it wasn’t to work out for us. So, we wanted to get the best possible research, and that’s why AmbITion’s been great for us.. to make sure we don’t make an expensive mistake.
“The technology is shaping how we relate to each other and we don’t have experts inside our organisation to look at that; that’s where the consultants have been invaluable. I feel much more confident now than if we hadn’t had the consultancy that we’ll be buying the right one”.
As part of safeguarding the process, Harry has ensured there is a high level of contact between the consultants and his staff, and secured a high level of buy-in from all the people who will end up having to use the system. Even so, he is still realistic about the outcome: “I think the transition will be extremely uncomfortable to start off with. I wish there was a month in the year where we could suspend box office bookings, or where we don’t need to be fundraising, or we don’t need to be planning for concerts 18 months ahead, but we do; so we will be in a period where without everybody’s complete buy-in it could be uncomfortable, but I think everybody knows it’s necessary and I think we’ve involved everybody throughout this process and so everybody knows we’re got to give it a go.
In some ways, Aldeburgh Music’s new website, which Harry does not see as quite so risky, is a less fraught process: “with the website we went through quite an exhaustive tendering process and we found an excellent website designer who worked in conjunction with our regular designers. There’s an awful lot that we do here at Aldeburgh, and we suspect that many of our audience aren’t regular viewers of websites… and so to a new audience we have rather a complicated message. So instead of listing all our departments and giving a great long history we wanted to keep it as simple as possible to try to give browsers an understanding of how projects unravel, how they’re planned and how they evolve. So obviously we’ve got a What’s On page and we’ve got a Contact & Find Us page, but what we’re trying to do with a Behind The Scences section is allow a browser to see how we are rehearsing and planning and project managing an event or a concert or an opera that’s going to emerge in a few months time, with regular podcast and interviews and so on, to create a bit of anticipation about things that are coming up in a way that isn’t elitist and doesn’t create any sort of block.
We have a lot of brands “Britten-Pears this”, “Britten-Pears that” and we want to make things as transparent as possible so as to not frighten people away.
This approach – of increasing the transparency of an organisation through detailing how the organisation works, and not simply showing what it produces, has a key analogy with the development of web technologies, which have not only facilitated such transparency through Youtube videos, podcasts and so on but provide a model of participation and democratisation which young audiences, especially, increasingly expect to be reflected in the way organisations operate.
Harry’s prior problem however has been finding a designer who he feels can respond in the right way:
“We feel there’s a real problem getting designers who really understand arts organisations, and what we’ve done this time is to stick with our regular designer. We spent a long time trying to find a web designer who not only understood our sector but understands our ethos”.
And the ethos of Aldeburgh is indeed quite wide: other online prescences include Myspace, Facebook, even an audio jukebox. “Some of programme is more suited to that audience than others, but funnily enough those pages are used a lot by our international friends. We’ve got a strong network for example across North America, and I think they’re an essential tool. And we have to continually communicate to users of those networks that we aren’t a stuffy, classical music organisation based out in the sticks that simply performs Britten’s work, because that is absolutely not what we are. But I think we’re getting good at communicating that because certainly our work is excellent in that respect but it’s a constant challenge to communicate that. We actively market the MySpace and so on to young people, who we give little pocket-sized membership cards to.
While still not at the stage of closing up, Harry is confident that the patient is stable and the transplant operation is proceeding without mishap. His advice to other arts organisations is simple in essence: “I’m very happy with the way we’ve done it, to seek the advice of experts, and consult the staff. We’re going to be spending 6 figures, so it’s a big responsibility. And we haven’t stuck our money into quick fix gizmos”.