It’s Time to Stop Offering Dance Online for Free

As we continue reckoning with the impact that COVID-19 will have on dance performance in the coming months, last month’s announcements from Joffrey Ballet and New York City Ballet that they are canceling the rest of their 2020 performances rocked the ballet world.

These cancellations include not only their fall seasons, but also the usually-inescapable run of Nutcracker performances. That both companies would skip such a significant source of funding as The Nutcracker–amounting to more than half of Joffrey’s annual budget, according to the Chicago Tribune article–is unsettling to all organizations currently making decisions about COVID-appropriate programming.

If the traditional organizations of our field can’t perform on stage, what then? With live dance taking a hiatus in the U.S., the most viable solution is to turn to streaming videos of dance online.

Digital Dance Project has a lot to say about this next innovation in dance, but one area we haven’t discussed is the importance of monetizing dance content in order to preserve our profession.

If our community is going to protect the dancers and companies we love most, we have to agree on one thing: we have to stop giving dance away for free.

Giving it away: The way things have been going

As quarantine took hold, companies around the world provided free access to dance videos–including full-length productions–to drive audience engagement and provide much-needed escape from the uncertainty and stress of social isolation.

Photo by JESHOOTS from Pexels

This early approach brought the global dance community together, forging an important sense of connection even as we were separated. As time went on, however, we have flooded the market with an overwhelming amount of free dance content.

Not that it was necessarily the right time to ask for payment. Writing donation appeals in the middle of a global pandemic is a challenging task for even the most articulate arts non-profit, and I’m certain that many organizations were afraid of sounding tone-deaf or inconsiderate of the financial and physical dangers their audiences were facing.

Now that many U.S. states are opening back up and doing their best to find a new normal, it’s time for us to pivot our strategies. We have to remember that our art has value.

Unfortunately, devalued art is our status quo

Photo by Yogendra Singh from Pexels

It’s been easy for us to become complacent about the dance content we are giving away, because “dancing for the exposure” is something that has been ingrained in us as dance artists.

For those of us in the ballet world, the numerous trainee and second company offers we received in our early audition years taught us that just being in the room is a privilege–with the implication that if we’re not paying to be there, we’re one of the lucky ones.

The challenge of finding sustainable employment in dance is part of a greater, systemic issue of how poorly arts are funded in the U.S., a topic that would require a whole series of blog posts to tackle. Where COVID-19’s impact on our industry is concerned, we must be careful that a pattern of accepting positions without adequate pay from organizations without adequate funding doesn’t keep us complacent.

Will it be easy? Of course not

None of this is to say that digital dance sales will be easy. Indeed, the revenue companies receive from online dance works may be more about the principle of the thing than a sizable chunk of our income. But to protect dance as a valuable, necessary art form during this unprecedented time, we must defend the work which goes into it.

If we don’t stop offering content for free soon, it will be too late. Dance can learn a few lessons from the newspaper industry, which went down a similar path when they began offering articles on their websites. In a 2018 article from Media Shift, Mollie Bryant shares:

“After the internet’s rise caused media organizations to put their work online with no expectation of compensation, they inadvertently created a generation of news consumers who expect content to be free.”

Photo by brotiN biswaS from Pexels

Let’s be honest with ourselves: how many times have we cursed a paywall on a news site, or switched devices when we’ve run out of free articles for the month? Bryant reports that the introduction of paywalls came too late to stop journalists from being laid off or their positions from being eliminated.  Without ticket sales from digital patrons or generous corporate sponsorships, anything that dance companies put online will face the same struggles.

How we’ll do it

I have already noticed a shift in this direction over the last few weeks, with companies increasingly offering video footage as part of “virtual galas” and other events with the emphasis on supporting the institution.

DDP founder, Marinna Kus. Photo by Carly Topazio

To continue this push, effectively monetizing online dance will require a few things:

  • Creating works which are made better–not weakened–by being filmed.
  • Finding an appropriate pricing strategy which keeps the arts at an accessible price point.
  • Using 21st-century savvy to find and market to the right audiences.

All of these tasks require a flexible, fresh approach. For this reason, I believe that it will be the current generation of dancers and choreographers who will be up for the challenge.

Our nation’s dance companies are working hard to stick around until it is safe for everyone–dancers, crew, and audience members–to return to the theater. To make that happen, we must work together to protect the value of dance.

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