Pollstar Live PAC Forum

Performing arts center professionals take heed: If you’re looking to make some money booking the John Mellencamps of the world, sending your marketing manager out on maternity leave in the leadup to a date without ever notifying AEG’s Debra Rathwell won’t sit so well.

Rathwell booked Mellencamp in performing arts centers and theatres across the country last year. And boy, did she have something to say about the hard-to-navigate websites, lackluster marketing efforts and phantom employees encountered along the way.

Her frustrations were echoed by the forum’s panelists who had a central message: PACs and theatres can’t survive on arts series alone, so why not think outside the box, be flexible, and maybe even make some money in the process?

The thing performing arts centers and theatres often have going for them is atmosphere, moderator Sally Williams of the Ryman Auditorium explained. From a fan perspective, if you offer them a great experience in a beautiful, historical room, instead of a scaled-down arena, it can work, she said.

APA’s Christine Barkley, who’s built up the agency’s performing arts roster, agreed.

“For me it’s another vehicle for our artists to go into an intimate setting, where you can cultivate new artists, you can have an intimate evening with your performing arts center, and also you can sell a subscription, which I think is invaluable,” she said.
But the atmosphere and experience people get at PACs often comes with some baggage, namely, boards and venue staffs that don’t see the big picture and series that eat up most of the avails for the year.

The Messina Group/AEG Live’s Ali Harnell has seen a lot of the former problem.

When Harnell moved to Nashville and saw potential in the revamped Ryman Auditorium as a unique place to do shows, she pitched her ideas to the venue operator at the time and waited for the phone to ring. And wait she did.

“It took a couple years until there was a building operator in there that got it,” she said. “I mean, I had to pass on so many shows I wanted to do there that would have made everybody a ton of money, because they simply didn’t get it. They thought it was wrong for the building, wrong for the reputation of the building and they wouldn’t get back to me for three weeks at a time with avails.”

At least part of Harnell’s problem is tied to a disconnect between the world of performing arts presenters and the world of promoters.

“Performing arts centers are, by design, totally schizophrenic. It’s like an airplane trying to take off with its brakes on.” Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Paul Beard said. Typically, PACs are engaging in “mission-driven activity,” accommodating symphonies, ballet and opera for much of the year through subsidized rent structures.

The problem is that generally, Eurocentric arts aren’t very profitable. Not that presenters of the performing arts seem to care.

“Presenters in a lot of cases have no profit motive whatsoever,” he said. “It isn’t what they’re about – they’re more like social architects. They want to uplift, they want to bring culture to the masses, educate the community. They’re wired differently.”
Thus, PACs can be occupied for much of the year, but never get close to breaking even.

So what can theatre and performing arts centers do to change that?

One tip from the audience included remembering that these rooms are not museums. Bringing in more active crowds can require a stronger security presence, but if things break, they’re always fixable, a commenter noted. Buildings should also focus on cultivating a seamless experience for both the patrons and the artists backstage, another said.

Others mentioned making theatres and PACs more fiscally attractive by bringing in volunteer ushers and negotiating contracts with stagehands so they’re not making Broadway salaries that eat away at the bottom line.

Tyson Events Center’s Aran Rush also explained the importance of building strong relationships with other venues in the community and making them champions of your building.

“Look at what the other theatres around you are doing and see who’s actually presenting and promoting those shows,” he said. “If one of their shows isn’t doing well, how can you help them? You have to have that guardian angel out there looking for you and actively working your building.”

Maintaining constant contact with agents and getting the venue’s name out there is also of utmost importance.

“It comes back to telling your story, promoting your space, and talking about all of the successes you’ve had,” Williams said. “By and large, in the PACs, you’re a one theatre shop. You’ve gotta be out there.”


Pollstar Live 2011 Panel Index