Producing your own shows is like pushing a boulder up a hill. Correction: producing your own shows is like pushing three boulders up a hill. The names of these boulders are Artistic Planning, Fundraising, and Marketing. But, to mangle another metaphor, these boulders are the rocks that will form a strong foundation for your business.
At first it can be paralyzing. How can you fundraise for a show if you don’t have performance dates and repertoire in place? How can you hire artists if you don’t have any money? Once a project is a little more underway, but artists and money are still being confirmed, can you start publicizing it if you aren’t 100 percent sure it will happen? I find it makes the most sense to start with the art and then move on to the other areas, knowing that all three components will overlap more and more as you get closer to your project date. But if you’re standing at the bottom of the mountain, here’s how to find your way to the top.
Whether you have never done this before or you manage an opera company with a six-figure budget, every artistic project forces you to start afresh. Even if you do the same Christmas show every year, each season might mean finding different artists, raising money from a new pool of donors, or competing with new cultural offerings. It is helpful to have as much in place as possible—money in the bank, a few key artists committed, and an aggressive marketing plan in place.
But in many ways, nothing is guaranteed to happen until it happens. Artists can back out, donors can fall through, and that eager beaver who said she’d help you with marketing just got a new job. If you always take the attitude that you are starting from the very beginning—square zero—your efforts in these three key areas will overlap in time for a sold-out, financially sound, and artistically rewarding performance.
Boulder Number One: Artistic Planning
Here’s the good news: It’s not a boulder. This is the fun part—the reason why you’re doing everything else and the reason why you got into this business to begin with. It is so easy to forget to do, but every chance you can, get back in touch with the music that is the engine of this whole endeavor. If you’ve picked an opera that you want to see on its feet or you’re excited by the music you’ve selected for a themed concert, surround yourself with it. Listen to it while you are sorting out your fundraising and marketing plans. Read the poetry of the libretto; memorize it. Find images to inspire your production and turn them into your computer’s screensaver or create and print a “look book” that will give substance to your vision.
It sounds like overkill or even a waste of time, but I can’t emphasize it enough. Every single thing you do for this project will radiate from your love and excitement for its music and poetry. If you are deeply familiar with the repertoire, artistic choices will be clearer. If you can talk with authority and passion about it, donors will stand by you. Marketing decisions will come more easily.
Once you’ve immersed yourself in the work of art you are planning to produce, it is time to seek out the partners who will make it happen. This can and should happen before you start fundraising, even if you don’t have two pennies to rub together. You don’t want to secure a generous donation from someone only to have to return the check with an apology that you weren’t able to find the personnel to follow through. Moreover, donors may be interested in supporting specific artists.
The first people to invite are the people without whom this project would not happen. Paradoxically, this rarely means singers. Unless you are producing a monodrama like Poulenc’s La voix humaine and need some star power or you’ve selected Rameau’s Platée and have to track down a rare hautre-contre voice, singers can come later in your plans. Instead, seek out the best director you can find. Start at the top. If your top pick says no, ask for recommendations and move down the chain. Don’t talk about money at first—that can come later. Talk about how wonderful the music is and how you’d like to see that director’s ideas on the stage.
Alternatively, you can start with a venue. Get the go-ahead to do, say, a flash mob Ride of the Valkyries in an airport (please, someone, steal this idea!). Then get on the horn and find out who is in.
From there, it’s a question of scheduling. That can be the trickiest part. Get your key personnel in place—a stage director, a music director, perhaps a few key performers—and see when they are available. After that, it’s a matter of pitching presenters or choosing a venue to rent that will fulfill three critical functions: 1) do artistic justice to the music, 2) be located in a place where your audience is likely to come, and 3) be affordable. Just like finding an apartment, you will have to compromise in each of those three areas.
Boulder Number Two: Fundraising
As you listen to the music and think about what your project will look like, you will soon be able to decide how much this endeavor will cost and create a budget. Ideally, you will also begin to identify people who are willing to support it. Consider the specific aspects of your project that would appeal to specific donors. If you are planning a choral work, maybe you sing with volunteers at your church job who have the capacity and interest to support your work. A project with significant public outreach or in a very publicly accessible venue (an empty storefront, for example) might be competitive for a local government grant program.
Do your best to secure large gifts right away—you can ask a donor for up to 20 percent of your budget—to ensure the project’s future and boost your own confidence. Be prepared to ask three donors for every large gift you need, as always, starting with people who know and like you and who want to see you succeed. A major donor will give you what you ask, give you part, or decline―in which case, you can offer them another way to get involved, such as volunteering or introducing you to someone else.
After you’ve received gifts or pledges from major donors (which might mean gifts of $500 and up), approach smaller donors either through an online or mail campaign, or both. Plan to fundraise your entire budget, above any potential earnings from ticket sales. The worst that can happen? You raise more than you need and can use it for the next show. This is a good problem.
Boulder Number Three: Marketing
From your early artistic work, you might have gravitated toward an image or a certain feel for your production. Use this as a starting place for your graphic designer to create a logo, an event page on your website, and possibly a postcard or brochure. As soon as you feel confident that your fundraising will come through and your key artists are in place, announce the project on your website alongside a link to buy tickets and a button to donate. From there, it’s time to think about who is going to come to your performances and how you are going to get them there.
Straight-up opera? Mainstream press and opera blogs. Family concert? Weekly listings and mommy blogs. Something that defies categorization but might have a broad appeal? Hit the press far and wide. For each audience you are trying to reach—press, opera lovers, families, etc.—create a timeline for the different types of ways you will reach them. This will include some kind of “save the date” up to six months in advance, near-monthly reminders or updates, and then invitations six, four, and two weeks before the event and, finally, the week of.
In addition to your publicity timeline, the fun part comes when you can think of creative hooks to bring your audience in. In another life, I once played in a woodwind quintet. Our clarinetist worked for Starbucks, and his manager offered us free coffee and pastries for our concert. We called ourselves the Fabulous Caffeinated Quintet and sold out the show in a snowstorm. Simple things like that can make your work stand out from the crowd.
If you don’t have a convenient personal connection to a local business, you can still manage to find cross-marketing opportunities. If you come to a store or restaurant with an idea that will both boost your audience and bring them customers, they will likely agree to help. A new restaurant might appreciate the visibility and the foot traffic created by a discount for ticket buyers, for example, which would help entice audience members.
Strictly speaking, there is yet one more boulder that crops up when you’re running a business: Administration. Who’s going to write the checks and make sure they get to the right people? Who’s going to rent the U-Haul and haggle with customer service when they mistakenly charge you a refueling fee? Who will manage the fallout when you connect a new keyboard to your computer and somehow the motherboard gets fried? (If these last two things happened to me, they can also happen to you.)
Alas, you may have to go it alone on these most unglamorous of tasks. As much as you can, from the beginning work in partnership with other people and organizations that are invested in the project’s success as much as you are.
In all of these efforts, put time on your side. The bigger the production and the budget, the longer it will take to raise all the money you need and publicize it effectively. Remember that government and foundation funding requires up to a yearlong application process, and that monthly or quarterly journals will need a longer lead time to publish a preview of your event. But, most importantly, you will enjoy considerably more peace of mind.
So now, as the heat of summer passes and cooler fall weather approaches, it is a fine time to wrap up plans for a holiday-themed concert. Or even better, a late-spring opera. After all, boulders don’t move uphill very fast.