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DT:TV Case Studies

The Britten Sinfonia Soniatory (AmbITion case study 2009)

Britten Sinfonia was founded 15 years ago and in the last 10 years it has moved from being a regionally-based orchestra to one of international renown. The orchestra and its staff very much feel proud of being based in the East of England and their public funding requires them to put on concerts in both Cambridge and in Norwich, but the orchestra has also been expanding, so during the course of the last 5 years they have established a series in London, one in Birmingham, and a residency in Krakow, Poland, as well as increasing their international touring considerably.

Their digital needs are varied: like any performing arts organisation they have to make sure they attract new audiences through their web presence. They also have a creative learning department, which itself is a mini incubation lab for digital innovations.

David Butcher, the Sinfonia’s Chief Executive, explains:

“In terms of the structure we have 11 people. There is me as Chief Exec, we have a development department (Director John Bickley) and a Marketing department (Director Claire Bowdler), with a marketing and development assistant. We have the orchestral department, with a concerts director, assisted by an orchestra manager who goes on all the tours, and a concert administrator.

“Sophie Dunn runs our creative learning department, with help from an intern. We have a part time artistic planning director. Then there is the finance department of 1½ people; the finance director and finance assistant”.
Although Britten Sinfonia did not get a great deal of funding from the Arts Council’s AmbITion project, the digital agenda has influenced how they work, and continues to do so. “The role of the Marketing team has definitely changed. I would suggest 50% of the marketing time is now spent on online activities., including updating the website, maintaining social networking links, adding listings etc. We are trying to encourage more people to interact with us online than on paper, so moving more to digital than print.”

Website development

“I suppose our biggest issue was that our existing website wasn’t working properly for what we wanted it to do. It wasn’t straightforward to find out what the orchestra’s main activities were, and when and how you could book tickets.
“We wanted to add media rich content to it and to get ourselves onto other parts of the web, whether that was through videos, pictures or podcasts or Facebook and so on. Our ambition was much higher even than AmbITion was able to fund, which I think is an important point to make. We would have loved to have a full time digital marketing post but we just don’t have the money at the moment.”

Prior to the AmbITion project, Britten Sinfonia had already delved into online digital tools. “We already had mechanisms in place for e-marketing (e-bulletin) and we had investigated putting different languages on our website. The process began with a tour to South America in 2007, when we put some Portuguese and Spanish content onto the website, started a blog, posted photos to flickr and recorded and posted some basic videos. Bill Thompson, the BBC web guru, advised us at the time of this tour, and very much kick-started our digital thinking.“We had some people in the organisation, especially the younger staff members, who were very keen to make it work. So the AmbITion funding definitely helped to move this on further, but we had already started the digital development process. Specifically, the AmbITion funding enabled us to develop a new website with the capacity to support media rich content, to develop some of this content and to develop members of staff’s abilities in this area.

“It’s certainly the case that, from a business perspective, with almost a promoter’s hat on, if I look at a conductor or an artist and their website is rubbish, we won’t book them. I am sure it is the same with orchestras. I look at other orchestra’s websites and some are really not good. Therefore that has tarnished them artistically, and prejudiced the viewer even before they’ve heard a note of the playing. So we have to be pretty careful. Times are changing. Our audiences can now find us both in the concert hall and online.”

Money makes the world go round

David Butcher has been frustrated by not having greater access to development funding to pursue the organisation’s digital ambitions. “We have managed to do most of it in house, with existing people. We have had a tiny bit of help from outside people, such as a former BBC producer who helped us with our podcasts, paid for from the AmbITion funding. We were also lucky that we got another grant from Arts & Business, where we threw quite a lot of money at how to do podcasts and blogs, and how to get the social networking up and running, all focused on the tour of South America.

“To be fair to AmbITion, the project was a great help in moving things forward in terms of encouragement but actually the cost we really needed was staff; someone to do the work. It was really disappointing that we couldn’t follow that through, because that could have been a real step change for us.

“The other important thing is that music doesn’t come free: there are copyright and fees issues involved. If I speak into a microphone and put it on a podcast, that’s free. But if you want to put music on or interview musicians, we need money for that. We just don’t have that, because the vast majority of our money goes on putting on live events. So there is a big issue that needs to be faced up to”.

David’s issue is a recurring challenge for many orchestras: where musicians are recorded they are entitled to royalties.
“If we take a two minute video for YouTube from a concert, the musicians will normally agree to it. But to put a complete concert on our website would cost. So if you look at our website, there is no example of what Britten Sinfonia actually does, which is concerts.

“I think it is a problem for all orchestras. It is something that has to be faced up to as technology moves on. We have started to put in musicians’ contracts that they might be involved in a podcast, but it is their playing that is the issue, because speaking doesn’t seem to be an issue. Musicians are protective (quite rightly) about their playing, because that is their source of income”.

Another AmbITion organisation – the Liverpool Philharmonic – has overcome this problem, but only because their musicians are all permanently employed. Britten Sinfonia’s players, by contrast, are freelancers. The issue is a vital stumbling block which is still awaiting a solution.

Competing with other Arts Council funded organisations for data

Another stumbling block for Britten Sinfonia involves the rights to the data pertaining to concert attendance. Because the orchestra travels around, they do not have their own box office and so are not always in control of the data that is collected from the audiences that attend their shows. This poses a significant problem for their marketing effort. Whereas they could freely email and market to audiences they have data for, not being able to retain contact details dramatically lessens the likelihood of repeat attendances.

“We promote our own series in Cambridge, London and Norwich, but we don’t have our own box office, because we don’t have a venue of our own. For reasons of staffing, cost and resources, we cannot run our own box office, and in any case it would make no sense in terms of scale for us to do so. We have very good relationships with the box offices we do use but there are still some data protection issues; we don’t have quite the level of day to day analysis that we would have if we had our own venue.”

When a member of the public buys a ticket to a Britten Sinfonia concert, they agree to receive mailings from the venue, rather than Britten Sinfonia. The orchestra is able to communicate with those audiences through third party mailing houses, but not to access the data directly. It is therefore a challenge to stay within data protection laws whilst trying to maintain good customer relations.

“More than half of the concerts we do now are completely promoted by third parties. Some venues are so reluctant to give us audience numbers afterwards – data that we are obliged to collect for our reporting back to the Arts Council – that we have to do our own head count and estimate from the ticket prices and our own revenue what types of tickets were sold. They say it is commercially sensitive, so they won’t tell us.”

In lieu of access to data about their audiences, the Sinfonia has to resort to other means.

“This is why we need to develop our social networking contacts, email lists etc. People can find us at concerts if they want to stay in touch. They can also sign up for paper-based leaflets or email communication through the website. People are encouraged to forward our Patronmail onto their own friends. On Facebook we are going up and up all the time.

And in Poland?

“The Filharmonic Hall takes care of the marketing. It is a delight to go there, because it tends to be full anyway, so the Hall doesn’t need to do much advertising, or capturing of audience data. By putting translations in Polish, we’ve upped our Polish Google ranking and are getting more visitors to the site from Poland. In the future we hope to include more media rich content in Polish as well as in other languages as is appropriate to our tour schedule – in 2010 we will include Dutch translations in association with a tour to the Netherlands.”

Podcasting the message

The organisation has started using audio podcasts to give more information to audiences, especially before concerts. Creative Learning director Sophie Dunn is in charge:

“We see our podcasts as a learning opportunity and a way of developing our audiences’ knowledge and enjoyment. I felt that we could do more in the way of informing audiences about the music we were playing and the preparation they could do before a concert so they knew what they were going to hear or see, and things that they could listen to. Until few years ago, we didn’t have programme notes online, but now you can download the programme notes before the concert, and read in advance about what you are going to hear.

“The podcasting was initially subcontracted. We worked with a BBC producer who has given me some training, and now we are doing it much more ourselves, but he is still helping us with the more advanced editing. It’s mostly audio; we have got a digital video camera, but we haven’t quite got on to video casting yet”.

For her part, Sophie feels she has learnt a lot from just experimenting with technology. “I’ve never been so involved in websites as I have in the last few years. I’ve learnt how to edit together a simple film or podcast. All of these things I hadn’t done before, which has been good for my own professional development. It is also a realisation that there is a lot of potential in the internet. You can then start doing amazing things. The LSO, for example, offers masterclasses to children in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, learning from a trumpeter sitting in a studio in London. It does make you realise that there are huge things you can do through that medium, with the right resources, money and people and so on.

“We have of course got a presence on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, flickr, various places. That came from Bill Thompson, whom we first met almost three years ago, and the discussion with him is what started everything off. It was as a result of that conversation that we started to investigate MySpace, podcasts and blogging and so on. It was a period when we wanted to refocus our marketing in general, and to concentrate on the website. Then, when Ambition first came along in January 2007, we all got very excited because there was an indicator that we were going to get a substantial amount of money and what we really wanted to do was employ a digital marketing person to add to our team of people. This looked like a really exciting opportunity.”

Creative Learning

“Our aims are to enable our existing audiences learn more about the music that we are playing, and to bring musical opportunities to people who might not access them through the more traditional means. Orchestras as a whole have had education programmes since the late 1980s and, as an Arts Council regularly funded organisation, we need to maintain an active education programme. Traditionally, it would have started with musicians playing in schools and doing master classes and coaching and that still happens. Now, orchestras work more and more with prisons, businesses, the elderly; there’s a huge range of people that we work with.

“Our mission statement is to bring the joy and stimulation of live music to people who might not otherwise access it due to geographical or economic or other reasons.

“We want to bring high quality music to as wide an audience as we can. Some of the ways we do that might be through a concert, or it might be through learning activities. There are composers who enjoy working with children and that forms part of their creative studies. So last year we had a project, where we had a professional composer, who wrote a piece where most of the music came from the children she had worked with. It is all about generating new and creative ideas, whether it is working with 5 year olds or professional musicians.

“We do reach different audiences that way. The question is then, can we convert them into audiences for our more traditional concerts, hence the use of “youth friendly” media such as myspace and facebook. If you are seeing creative learning purely as an audience development activity it’s a long game; the 9 year old taking part in a project now might not become a regular concert goer until later in their life, and developing an ongoing customer relationship with them will hopefully reap rewards in the future. But I would absolutely see Creative Learning activity as having a value in its own self as well.”

Investing in technology

Sophie Dunn has also overseen how the organisation has got to grips with digital hardware and software: “We bought a Mac book on the advice from Bill and in connection with going to South America, because we wanted something portable that we could take photos with and blog and so on. I have used that on occasion to interview people. We have got a couple of things on YouTube that way”.

“We have done projects with the Apple Mac music technology applications Garageband, Logic and the free software programme Audacity. Lots of recording, slicing things together, manipulating, that sort of thing. We bring workshop leaders in to do that, because I don’t in any way claim to know enough about that or to teach other people, though I am learning.

“We also use music technology with particularly hard to reach groups like pupil referral units and young offenders. If you go along with a string quartet to that kind of group and set out to do a “classical music project”, they are unlikely to want to listen. But if you can get them to mix some samples on the computer, and bring in professional musicians for them to work with – and tell them that actually this cellist just happens to have been on tour with some famous pop star and now they are here and you can work with them – they can start to appreciate what it is to work with live music and orchestral instruments. We had some kids from the pupil referral unit mixing Bach with their own sounds.

“It is fairly unlikely that these kids will become classical concert goers in the next 20 years, but they hopefully do understand that classical musicians are normal human beings. It’s opening new experiences for them. I think there is an interesting shift in younger generations because of how music is accessed; on your ipod, you won’t necessarily just have the top 10 tracks from the newest artists: you might have a song from 1972 that you heard in an advert, another that was released yesterday, and a piece of classical music from a film soundtrack. The lines are a lot more blurred then they were. It all somehow enriches you.”

The future

Chief Exec David Butcher feels, with the work of their creative learning programme and the continuing search for new audiences, that there is cause for optimism. “We know the age profile of our audiences. They are slightly younger then the traditional classical music lovers, but they are still probably not the biggest internet users. There are certainly some portions of our audience who have said that they don’t want us to move too much to get rid of paper. We would upset a lot of people if we stopped sending out paper material. We can’t forget that a large proportion of our audience are over 60 or over 70 and won’t be using Facebook and Twitter and other media.

We do produce a range of brochures for Norwich and Cambridge that have a list of our concerts in it. Then we have individual leaflets for each concert, which are distributed widely throughout the cities.

“One can see that from 5 years ago to where we are now, technology is something that from a business perspective has changed a great deal. Whether it has been good or bad, it has affected us all. We are looking at and developing the website on a day to day basis, much more then we used to. John is writing blogs, and the marketing assistant’s job has completely changed, and everyone’s job is affected to some degree. There is, however,more that we could be doing.

We now have digital management meetings along with all the other meetings that occur, which shows its development as a sub group of our organisation.

We are sad that we were not able to push our ambition further forward then we have. So if there is any money left over, you know where we are!”