The Evil Imp

Game of Numbers

Just over a year ago we, here in TheLab™, wrote about Canvas, a YouTube project funded by Arts Council England (ACE) to the tune of £1.8Million that was supposed to help arts organisations, specifically NPOs, monetise their media content on the world’s most chaotic video website. Promises were made, numbers were touted and, as expected, it all fell apart in short order.

In February 2016 we noted that Canvas had amassed, pun very much intended, just 898 subscribers after almost a year online (according to their channel data). Twelve months later the channel has just 5,554 subscribers despite the snake oil salesmen behind the project, Brave Bison (formerly known as Rightster), promising video viewing numbers in the “billions” and riches for all thanks to Google’s ad-revenue sharing mechanism. At the time, we pointed out that this project was doomed to failure because the arts doesn’t fit into the content churn nature of YouTube’s relentless, numbers driven advertising model.

According to a recent piece published by Arts Professional a few days ago, we were right.

Canvas is giving up on the idea that YouTube is easy money for the arts and ACE are no longer convinced that their stated goals are achievable. Bizarrely though, the channel is switching its focus from pushing media content that nobody, very obviously, wanted to watch to training arts organisations to make media content that, in all probability, nobody will want to watch. It’s like asking the guy who just botched the repair job on your car to teach you how to fix your car.

Content is Key

At the heart of all of this waste is a simple numbers game. How many views? How many clicks? How many likes? How many subscribers? It’s a data driven methodology that works for accountants but very few others. In the culture world we inhabit you’re supposed to care about what you make first and then present it to an audience. What you’re not supposed to do is think; “what can I make that will attract the most amount of people” and then pander. If your goal is to generate clicks and views for revenue then you should get out of the arts and move into the business of “vlogging” (ouch! Ed!) about your cars and your super cool life in Monaco, or whatever.

The truth is that in the online world when numbers are not connected to revenue then they are all meaningless. Take a look at Agent Orange™ (you know who we mean) and his Twitter account. Despite having 25Million followers on the platform his tweets generate only a tiny amount of user interaction relative to that follower number and most of those interactions are people pointing out how terrible he is as a human being. You could argue that more people actually do read the tweets but given the nature of Twitter that number is probably still significantly smaller than his actual follower number.

Facebook has the same problem. Article19 has 5,308 “likes” on that platform but do you think everything we post reaches those 5,308 people? Of course not! Unless we are willing to pay Facebook money to push each individual post out as advertising we only reach a segment of our followers. At the rates available right now that would cost about £16 per post. Even with paid advertising there is still no guarantee that those people who “like” Article19 will pay any attention to what we have posted and the analytics that Facebook make available to you are impossible to independently verify in terms of their accuracy.

What Numbers Mean

As far as YouTube is concerned there is another elephant in their online room. If you post a video on the site and 5,000 real people watch it and those 5,000 people all took something from that video then you, as the creator, should be very proud of that. It’s not going to make you any money but you made an impact on 5,000 people, so good for you.

Let’s imagine that you take the same video and spend money promoting it and getting others to share it, a notoriously difficult thing to accomplish in the arts, and you get 500,000 people to watch the video all the way through. So far so good.

But what if the additional 495,000 people didn’t care for your video and forgot all about it 10 seconds later? What have you really achieved? Sure, the numbers are higher and that looks good on the reports that you give to the accountants at ACE but all you really did was spend money to get a pointless counter to tick over.

Making a significant amount of money from those 500,000 views is also unlikely. Maybe you can cover your production costs…. Maybe.

Getting With The Programme

The fundamental problem with a lot of online arts output is that it confuses marketing with informing or telling a story. Article19 exists not to market dance to the masses but to inform whomever cares to look at our output and, by extension, the output of the dance companies we cover. We don’t care how many people watch our videos because what matters to us is that there is a clear and accurate record of every performance that we film. What we don’t try and do is convince people that don’t like dance to change their mind using garish graphics and 60 second “viral videos”. Keeping our stuff online and available is what keeps us up at night.

We are not in the business of getting people who have absolutely no interest in dance to become interested in dance. That’s a task akin to getting oil out of water with a dish cloth.

Getting the muggles interested is the job of dance companies and professional dancers through one to one interaction, live shows and participation activities. It takes a lot longer and costs more money but that’s just how it is. Dance is a physical activity that needs to be experienced. Online media is a point of reference, not a driver of engagement.

If you want to make a documentary about your project then go ahead, please do. But keep in mind that it is going to take time, skill and money, not £1.8Million of course but it’s not something that you can churn out on a daily basis just because the gods of Google demand it.

The documentary we were commissioned to make on MUDA Africa by Norwegian dance company Panta Rei took weeks to put together. If you want thoughtful, well-made content, then it takes time.

Chasing numbers is a terrible way to run any kind of arts project and Canvas is nothing more than an expensive, delusional arts project. The public, who paid for it, and the arts community were sold little more than a bill of goods. Line item after line item of unobtainable goals, outrageous numbers and rambling media speak from disingenuous people who pocketed the funding and then sat on their hands for 2 years.

The money would have been better spent on actual arts engagement with real artists interacting with real people. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed.

[ Top Photo by Sandy Brown Jensen ]