What future for digital? European performing arts festivals and the developing uses, functions, and impacts of digital tools

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 June, 2022 at 3:13 pm by Andre Camilleri

Stephanie Bonnici’s research was in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a MSc in Strategic Management and Digital Marketing at the Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy at the University of Malta. Her supervisor was Dr Mariachiara Restuccia.

The crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 brought with it a shift towards the digital realm in several fields, including the arts. The qualitative study entitled What Future for Digital? European Performing Arts Festivals and the Developing Uses, Functions, and Impacts of Digital Tools was motivated by the nature of arts festivals rooted in community and value creation, the increasingly service-driven and consumer-oriented nature of arts marketing, and the increased experimentations of arts organisations with the digital realm as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Using semi-structured interviews with performing arts festival managers from the European region, the study adopted a process of thematic analysis to address the research questions. These sought to explore which digital tools were used by European performing arts festivals in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic, why and how they were used, and how they might shape the future of arts festivals. Shortlisted festivals were divided into two categories: ‘innovators’ (festivals that adopted digital methodologies which differed from standard practices, such as the creation of dedicated digital platforms for events and other online initiatives) and ‘adopters’ (festivals which made use of digital tools in line with standard practices, namely the streaming of online events and the organisation of online conversations between stakeholders such as artists and audiences).

The emerging themes of the study were presented through focused coding in the form of key considerations made by arts festival managers. These included considerations pertaining to festivals’ relationships with audiences and their needs, organisational realities and challenges, driving forces, motivating factors and enablers of marketing efforts within arts festivals, artistic considerations and those related to the technical elements and logistical realities of producing artistic work.

The relevance of digital tools for arts festivals emerged as undisputed. Apart from convergence with existing literature on the topic, the study highlighted a distinction between the digital replication of live events and the very notion of digital innovation. Questions of quality control, copyright, and free culture were brought to light in view of wider distribution opportunities. The notion of hybridity also emerged, together with the potential for arts festivals to view digitalisation in terms of a holistic vision and strategy, such as through changes to business models, new value propositions, new financial structures, and diverse approaches to marketing for different audience groups.

The implications of the findings pose several strategic considerations for the future of arts festivals. Will they focus on the development of new audiences through the increased accessibility offered by the digital realm, or on the upkeep of existing audience relationships? To what extent will festivals experiment with the digital realm? Are existing barriers linked to discordance with organisational scope, restricted resources, or both? Can the notion of capacity-building assist festivals in this process? In view of the already saturated digital market and giant competitors (such as Netflix) in the digital realm, arts festivals might need to reflect on what their unique value proposition is and to set expectations within the parameters of their available resources.

The findings of this cross-sectional study indicate that the topic of digitalisation – as in many other fields – is expected to continue to feature more prominently and at a higher pace in sectoral dialogue and organisational decisions in the arts field. A European initiative which brought policymakers closer to arts professionals on the topic of digital audiences is one example. The extent of digitalisation will likely differ in nature and pace within different contexts and realities, owing to several variables and context-specific opportunities and limitations. The digital fatigue resulting from the pandemic, increasingly data-driven decision making, and the digital divide are amongst the wide range of future research possibilities in this field, which serve to signal its expected growth and the potential for future innovation in a context of increasingly digital global realities.

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