Four questions to ask before starting any digital project

Blog post by Nick Walshe, Orchestras Canada

Last month, I attended the Canadian Opera Company’s (COC) second Digital Stage Symposium. The Digital Stage is a collaborative project between the COC, the National Ballet of Canada, and Sheridan College’s Screen Industries Research and Training Centre, and is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts. It is designed to explore and embrace new technology in the arts, equipping arts organizations with what they need to thrive in a constantly changing digital landscape. From apps designed to help audience members engage with the works presented at a concert (last year we wrote about the Winnipeg Symphony’s adventures with an audience engagement app), to ‘smart’ wearable items designed to help performers and artists monitor their bodies, the Symposium presented a wide range of cutting-edge digital technology. More information on these technologies and others can be found in their initial Digital Horizon Scan.

Download the Horizon Scan here.

Unsurprisingly, there was no single technology that stood out as a game-changer for orchestras. The question of how we engage with our audience digitally or live is complex, and only complicated further by the wide range of sizes of Canadian orchestras and the diversity of the communities they serve. I came away from the day with more questions than answers and felt that rather than providing a list of new technology to explore, it could be more useful to share a list of questions I kept coming back to when looking at how orchestras might engage more deeply with digital technology. This non-exhaustive list of four questions is designed to spark discussion and thought before starting any digital project.

What problem are you trying to solve by undertaking this project?

As they say, “every solution has a problem”. It’s important to look at what problems we’re trying to solve with technology, and what other solutions may exist to the same problem. Our audiences can feel when the use of tech becomes ‘gimmicky’. Considering how stretched resources are at arts organizations, it’s important that our investment in technology aligns with our organization’s goals. Are we trying to educate the audience? Increase audience numbers? Deepen their engagement by livestreaming or creating ways for them to participate digitally?

Has it been done before, and did it work?

While Canadian orchestras operate in diverse communities with different tastes, strengths and demographics, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel with every digital project. It’s worth exploring who is using the new technology being considered and seeing what they learned from implementing it. These examples may not come from the orchestra world; we have much to learn from other art forms’ use of digital technology, from dance to theatre to visual arts.

What does this do to the live product?

Or perhaps, what IS the live product? Every exploration into the digital realm has the potential to make us more aware of the live product we present. We often talk about the live experience as one of the most important aspects of what we do as orchestras. Can we bring this experience to more people? Do the forms of digital technology we plan to use enhance or detract from the experience of our live audience? In a digitally connected world, it’s important that we acknowledge online forms of engagement for people that are unable to get to the concert hall for a variety of reasons.

What resources are we lacking in order to get there?

With many arts organizations running at (and pushing) the limit of which they are capable, it’s important to have a plan to bridge any knowledge or resources gaps. Issues of time, money and the knowledge of people within the organization are critical. Is an outside consultant needed, and how much of their time can we afford? Are there additional funding streams we can apply to for this project?

These questions are designed as a starting point for discussion before embarking on a digital project; there will no doubt be other important conversations to be had. We’re excited at the possibilities that new technology will bring to the orchestral sector and the arts world, but acknowledge that this is fast-moving and requires a smart investment of time and resources from decision-makers at our orchestras.

The Canadian Opera Company’s Digital Stage project is ongoing and scheduled for completion in June 2020. Learn more at

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra goes Digital

Daniel Raiskin and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra

Orchestras are always looking for ways to broaden their audience and engage more deeply with them. Many orchestras cite an aging audience and the move away from specialized music education in schools as reasons for a slow but steady decline in audience sizes. In recent years, however, there has also been a trend for orchestras to want to make up for this gap in specialized music education and to appeal to a younger new audience, while fostering a deeper engagement with their current patrons.  This is done in a variety of ways from pre-concert talks to ‘Symphony 101’ type guides. In the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s case? They went digital.

To elaborate, the WSO is making use of a companion app called EnCue at three of their concerts this year, with the intention of integrating this app into more concerts in coming seasons. EnCue is a free-to-download app that sends users live, real-time program notes, images and stories during the performance. The EnCue website lists the app at $350 USD per concert, with potential discounts for multiple concerts. The WSO launched the app at their October 18th (B)eyond Classics series concert, for the performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. Though app-users weren’t separated from the rest of the audience, the screen is dark lit and the hall lights are brought up to avoid disturbing other patrons. This is the first example of something like this being done in Canada, though several orchestras in Europe and the United States have integrated similar technology into their concert programs. Advertising for the concert mentioned EnCue as a point of interest for prospective patrons.

RBC Resident Conductor Naomi Woo during the concert. Photo: Ruth Bonneville, Winnipeg Free Press

For Jean-François Phaneuf, VP Artistic Operations at the WSO, the benefits of the app are twofold. “We’re excited about using this app to appeal to new audiences and increase the level of engagement with current and prospective patrons. We saw some audience members who were deeply moved by the experience. You get to read about Rachmaninov’s thoughts when writing his work and Music Director Daniel Raiskin’s personal connection to a special passage while hearing it all unfold on stage in front of you.” Over the course of two months, Jean-François Phaneuf, James Manishen, Artistic Associate and RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo worked hard to prepare the necessary materials. They tested their content among musically-educated and non-musically-educated WSO staff, and found that short slides (5 seconds to read) and images helped to keep people listening actively. The learning curve for programming the app was steep, but with satisfying results; basic concepts were explained for those unfamiliar to orchestral music, and more complex ‘tidbits’ of information were provided for experts. During the concert, Naomi Woo was backstage with the score, synchronizing the slides with the music for the approximately 200 patrons that downloaded the app. The response from app users was generally positive. By and large, patrons were excited to try something new. Some concertgoers expressed resistance to changes to the concert experience they know and love, but many felt a greater understanding of, and deeper connection with the music through the new information they were given.

There is no intention from the WSO to use EnCue at all of their concerts. It is planned only three times this season for one piece per program. WSO audiences will next see EnCue at the closing concert of the New Music Festival in January, for Michael Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony and during Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 6 in March. There are plans to integrate EnCue into the second half of every concert for their (B)eyond Classics concert series in 2020-21. With a tech help desk in the lobby at the October 18th concert, most technical challenges were avoided. More studious patrons also requested receiving the slides in advance to ‘study up’ for the concert. Both the WSO and Orchestras Canada are excited about the opportunities presented by giving a wider audience more ways to open the door and access orchestral music in a way that enhances what is presented on stage.

Learn more about the question of digital technology in the orchestral industry by reading our interview with The Space’s Fiona Morris on building a digital organization.

Building a Digital Organization

The word Digital invokes a wide spectrum of reactions from arts administrators, from screams of delight to… just screams. Whether capital ‘D’ digital is something that is embedded into your organization’s DNA, or just something that you think the staff millennial does, orchestras are engaging with their audiences on digital platforms in ways that are new, exciting, and scary. In preparation for our National Conference, taking place this June, we sat down (digitally, naturally) with Fiona Morris of The Space to discuss the opportunities and pitfalls of  embracing digital technologies in the arts.

Fiona is the Chief Executive and Creative Director with The Space, a UK-based commissioning and development organization that works with artists to create new projects in the arts, and supports other arts organizations in their digital strategy work through mentoring, training and consultancy. Along with her colleague John White, Fiona will be running a pre-conference workshop on building a sound digital strategy.

So why Digital and why right now?

Photo: People discussing around laptopsAlthough conversations about integrating digital technologies into our arts organizations are nothing new, the way we speak about it needs to change. “The term Digital is one of those zeitgeist-y terms,” Fiona says. “It’s a disastrous term that makes people feel inadequate. It’s okay not to know what that word means, because it doesn’t really mean anything.” We tend to use the term as a catch-all for being active online, but don’t always know what this looks like. Orchestras want to be digitally active, but it’s not as simple as just livestreaming everything we do. We need to strategically choose what we present online in order to get the most impact from our limited time and money.

Digital isn’t something that we need to ‘do more of’. Fiona explains this term as “a way of connecting and communicating with audiences that is utterly revolutionary.” The increasing number of digital tools available to arts organizations and their audiences is game-changing, and means that our audiences can be thousands of miles away, or as close as our front door; an exciting and unsettling combination of the hyper-local and the global.

Opportunities and Challenges

As we know here at Orchestras Canada, arts organizations have concerns about how to properly start using digital technologies with limited time and money to put into them (check out the results from this survey we ran last fall on digital strategy at our member orchestras).

This is a great time for cultural organizations. We can engage with our audience in ways we never have before. “For cultural and creative organizations, the opportunity to talk to audiences in detail, and get immediate feedback from them is extraordinary,” Fiona says. Interestingly, it’s a relationship where the audience has all the power. Our audiences consume an overwhelming amount of digital content every day, and they increasingly have the power to decide what they consume and what they ignore. We need to do be purposeful in why we’re asking our audience to engage with us digitally.

Often arts organizations turn to digital platforms (where they have little familiarity) to try and attract younger audiences (with whom they have little experience in communicating). Fiona encourages us to do one or the other of these things well first, before venturing into doubly unfamiliar territory. We need to be very clear and consistent in what our message is to our digital audience, who they are, and why they want to hear it.

Approaching and Integrating Digital

We asked Fiona for some examples of traits that show up in organizations that have successfully transformed their digital work. She mentioned that these organizations all have clarity in their messaging, and gave a series of questions that digitally literate organizations have strong answers to including:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Where is the audience?
  • What conversations are they having?
  • Why should they come to us? (i.e. What makes our orchestra’s podcast/livestream any different than anyone else’s?)

Fiona also emphasizes that a digital strategy needs to have roots in every aspect of your organization. “Most arts organizations are very siloed; the Marketing people don’t talk to the Creative people, who don’t talk to the Fundraising people. Digital means that everything is integrated and everything is moving towards one goal.”

Fiona and John from The Space will be leading a pre-conference workshop on how to integrate your strategic and business plans with a digital strategy. Visit the Conference area of our website for more information.

Orchestras Canada Digital Strategy Survey Results

Last fall, Orchestras Canada, led by our Digital Strategy Task Force, asked leaders of orchestras across the country to tell us about their use of digital tools and the state of digital strategy at their organizations

General Information

This survey was distributed to Orchestras Canada’s primary contact at each orchestra, usually the CEO/Executive Director for orchestras that have professional management, and a board member at orchestras who don’t. Youth orchestras were not included in this survey. Of the 105 contacts, 60 responded; 22 at orchestras with annual revenues over $1,000,000 (hereafter referred to as larger organizations), and 38 at orchestras with annual revenues of under $1,000,000 (hereafter referred to as smaller organizations). The two groups mostly responded to the same questions, but there were several differences which will be discussed below.

Themes and Trends

The survey responses demonstrated a level of excitement in the opportunities that digital technologies presented, but also strong concerns about the challenges in integrating these into an organization. There was less of a difference between the larger and smaller organizations than one may have thought; many organizations of all budget sizes are stressed about the money, risk, time and people involved in integrating new digital technologies in their organizations.

In terms of opportunities, respondents acknowledged that digital might allow them to tell their story better, and to better identify, reach and enhance the experience of their audience. Respondents also identified the opportunity for better operational efficiency, the ability to segment and personalize their operations, and to better measure the impact they have.

Participants also identified many challenges in integrating more digital technologies at their organizations, with many being skeptical of the value of digital technology when compared to the cost, time and effort. There was a feeling of having to acquire a lot of knowledge quickly in order to be where we should in terms of digital literacy.

Participants also identified strong needs in beginning a digital transformation; many wanted to know best practices, and what audiences expected from orchestras in terms of their digital engagement. Many times it came down to needing more money to invest in these tools. There was a strong sense of frustration: people can see and feel potential and pressure to engage, but are challenged to prioritize then start. Responses often felt opportunistic rather than strategic. Participants would spend the money if it came to them, but haven’t prioritized this in their long-term planning.

Finer Detail
Basic Information on Digital Technologies

The survey’s opening questions focused on the level of familiarity with digital tools and initiatives in the respondent’s organization. The majority of respondents (68% of larger organizations and 79% of smaller organizations) felt their organization had “some familiarity”, but not a strong familiarity with digital technologies.

The financial investment in digital activity had generally increased, with 45% of larger organizations (but only 26% of smaller organizations) saying their investment had significantly increased. No one in either group was actively reducing their investment in digital technology.

82 % of larger organizations and 66% of smaller organizations said that digital was a priority for their orchestra, though it was explicitly mentioned in only 50% of the larger orchestras’ strategic plans and 44% of the smaller groups’: more on this later. Many of the comments in this section cited digital technologies as a way of reaching new and diverse audiences and better relating to their community, as well as increasing administrative efficiency among orchestra management. Organizations who said that digital was not a priority often explained that this was due to a lack of time and funds, or because of a cynicism in its effectiveness.

Digital Technologies and Long-term Strategic Planning

Of the orchestras who had a current strategic plan (all of the larger organizations, and 42% of the smaller organizations), there was an exactly even split between those whose plans explicitly addressed digital opportunities, and those whose did not.

We asked respondents about what they’d do if they were suddenly given a pile of cash for new digital initiatives. 59% of larger and 68% of smaller organizations had “a few ideas” about what they would do with this money; another 27% of larger and 5% of smaller organizations had these ideas specifically written into their strategic plans. Very few respondents (no larger, and seven smaller organizations) had no idea what they would do with this hypothetical cash influx.

Digital Literacy

The majority of respondents (77%) self-identified as digitally literate, with similar results seen in both versions of the survey. Larger organizations were asked about where they acquired this expertise; there was a wide variety of responses, with learning in both formal (courses and seminars) and informal (trial and error) settings cited.

For smaller organizations, there is no clear trend as to whether digital literacy is made a priority when recruiting or hiring new staff or volunteers, with a 50/50 split between those who were looking for this and those who didn’t explicitly address it. At the larger organizations, digital literacy was given more priority in the hiring process, with 41% saying that this is a priority, and 59% saying that this depends on the employee’s role.

Larger organizations were asked an additional question about how they supported developing digital literacy for their staff. 15 of the 22 organizations (68%) had some kind of professional development funding available, with two of these organizations having this done in-house.

In a similar vein, smaller organizations were asked if they had identified a ‘digital champion’ in their organization recently. This was again split evenly with no clear trend; 17 of these organizations had, and 18 had not.

Learning and Successes

Survey participants were asked what would be useful to them in shaping their orchestra’s digital work. Responses were varied, with responses ranging from things that would give our member organizations basic digital literacy, to how to begin more complex projects such as live-streaming and reaching new audiences with digital tools. The question of how to apply for funding for all of this was also brought up. Participants responded to this question in particular both in terms of what digital might mean for their organizations artistically, but also in terms of marketing and in the day to day management of their orchestras.

We also asked who else’s digital work participants admired. Particularly notable among the smaller organizations was the consistent mention of other Canadian orchestras such as Tafelmusik, the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The larger organizations tended to look further outward to arts organizations such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and also to non-arts organizations entities as varied as Apple, YouTubers, and WestJet.