Today’s piece in my series celebrating ingenuity despite the pandemic pays tribute to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO) in an abridged interview with its Executive Director, Ben Cadwallader.
MaryLee Sachs: The pandemic greatly affected the performing arts, but the LACO seemed to react and pivot quickly. How did you mobilize when everything went into lock-down?
Ben Cadwallader: I would say there were three phases to our response starting in March when things shut down. Early on, we recognized that this was not going to be a short-term shutdown. We recognized that we were hunkering down for the long haul, and we adjusted our thinking accordingly.
The other thing early on that was a real gift in hindsight is that our music director, Jaime Martin, gave us two really strong directives: One, we’re not shutting down. Of all the possible ways to respond to this pandemic, not employing our musicians to make music together was not an option. We’ve seen a lot of organizations respond with basically silence, laying off entire staffs and waiting it out. That was something, even in the very beginning that we never were able to consider, and the board backed that up.
As an aside, that was also right when I started at LACO. So my reaction was like, ‘Hey, I just took this job. I’ve got all this enthusiasm to work with this new organization. I’m not going to sit on my laurels and wait out the pandemic. No, we’re going to do stuff.’ That was the first phase in March and April, and we made good use of some archive material.
One other piece from Jaime that was very clear. By April he was saying to me, ‘Ben, the content that we put out needs to be commensurate with LACO’s reputation. We are an organization that’s focused on great artistry and artistic excellence. We have this reputation for being one of America’s finest orchestras. The content that we put out online should be no different. We don’t get a pass just because it’s online. So no Zoom concerts, Ben. No musicians on screens in boxes playing from their homes. No matter how high-quality their mics are, it’s not going to be enough.’ So informed by those priorities, we had our marching orders.
The other thing we prioritized early on was our musicians and the artists, the humans that actually make the art, by very publicly stating, ‘Yes, obviously, we’re canceling everything, but also we’re paying our musicians in full. We’re paying our commissioned composers in full. We’re paying our guest artists in full. And it’s coming at a very real cost to the organization that eats away at our financial safety blanket.’ But we felt, and the board was behind this too, that we had to take care of these people who enable us to fulfill our mission, enable us to exist.
It’s worth noting that that strategy was a reaction to what was happening. In hindsight, it has paid off. Donors have rewarded us. Funders, foundations have rewarded us for compensating our artists, for being one of only a handful of organizations, particularly smaller or mid-sized organizations like ours, who did prioritize artists.
So that was phase one. We also did a gala. We had canceled our spring gala and pivoted quickly to move it online, and it brought in over $300,000, which is incredible.
MaryLee Sachs: Did it match what you would have raised pre-pandemic?
Ben Cadwallader: No, but that’s fine, because we also didn’t have the expenses that we normally would have. So that was our first phase, our initial reaction, to keep putting content up. At this point, we were able to start thinking a little more strategically about phase two, summer. This is where we really started to make meaningful progress, and in my extremely-biased opinion, began to distinguish ourselves from most other organizations.
MaryLee Sachs: What did that look like?
Ben Cadwallader: We were the first orchestra in Southern California, one of the first in America, to successfully negotiate a contract with our musicians and with our union that enabled them to safely, legally get together and actually record music. As in, “We’re not going into the archives. Let’s put our musicians to work.” So once we had that agreement in place, it enabled us to basically launch an entirely new series. This was LACO Summerfest, and we began to pivot to a digital company. A media company. That’s basically how I positioned to the board and the staff – we are an orchestra, of course, and we’re an orchestra that’s a media company. We’re switching from analog to digital, and we’re being forced to do it really, really quickly.
Summerfest was where we learned the most about not just how to safely gather the musicians, but also how to shoot the musicians, how to edit, how to market, which platforms we should be using, what happens with licensing, and how do we deal with the algorithms on YouTube. And how do we adjust staff competencies to reflect the needs of our organization now.
With Summerfest we released five episodes of newly-created music. Each episode was 30 to 40 minutes in length, and that was a big piece of learning for us, that audiences by and large do not have an attention span to sit through a two-hour concert on a computer. Thirty minutes, 40 minutes, that is the sweet spot. So we rolled that out over the summer. Summerfest was beautifully shot and excellently performed. The audio quality was outstanding. But by summer, other organizations had started to kind of catch up and people were putting out high-quality content that looked and felt very similar to our Summerfest.
MaryLee Sachs: So how did you react?
Ben Cadwallader: At the end of the day, we were still creating something that was a reminder to audiences of a thing that they cannot have right now. Wide shots of the empty concert hall, the musicians walking onstage, the exterior shots of the hall. We are providing the best possible digital representation of something that is best experienced in person.
I felt we could do better. Especially if we wanted to attract new audiences. We want to stay relevant with our current audiences but also build new audiences. We have an incredible opportunity to think differently and attract a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people online. We’re competing with Netflix, Hulu and HBO, but also, that’s awesome that we get to swim in those waters. How can we create something that’s not a reminder of something you can’t have?
So that was the creative challenge coming out of summer. My goal was that if we invite donors to a taping, I want them to leave feeling like, ‘It was great to see the musicians. Great to experience some live music. But man, I can’t wait to watch this episode. I can’t wait to see the real thing.’ We now call that ‘Close Quarters’.
It seemed like such an impossible task. And then I was talking with Ellen Reid who’s a creative advisor. Her response was ‘Hire a film director. If you want this to be digitally native, if you want it to be authentic in this medium, you’ve got to bring an expert in.’ So at her suggestion, we hired James Darrah, who is essentially the director of Close Quarters.
James takes challenges and weaves them into filmic gold. So basically what we’ve done with Close Quarters is answer that question of, ‘How do we create something so that, if people experience the taping live, they still want to rush home and watch the episode?’ So the foundation of each episode is a beautifully-shot orchestral capture where the musicians gather together, and it’s not in a concert hall, by the way. No wide shots of empty seats, none of that. This is in a studio space. We have camera operators. We have a director of photography. We make sure it’s shot beautifully on professional-quality equipment. That’s the foundation. It’s kind of the structural underpinning for each episode.
Then, James and his creative team use that footage and the music that LACO artists create and bring in artists from other media. L.A.-based artists who come in and respond creatively to LACO’s music and LACO’s artistry. A few quick examples. The first episode featured a gorgeous dancer, Shauna Davis, who then responded creatively, live, in the moment. And we staged it in this incredible abandoned warehouse in Chinatown with a film crew.
MaryLee Sachs: It sounds like a great recipe for success.
Ben Cadwallader: We have responded almost in real time to this creative challenge of how to make something for this digital space that is responding to this moment, that is of Los Angeles, that feels like it just sprouted out of the ground in Los Angeles. That’s of paramount importance to us. We don’t always get it right. The balance isn’t always right. I think some episodes will ring more true than others, but even if it’s not perfect, the music is still there. Worst case scenario, you can close your eyes, and you’re still experiencing this incredible music and this incredible artistry.
We also are releasing those episodes as a companion to each episode of Close Quarters. We call this Close Quarters Instrumental. So if you’re really a die-hard, we have that product for you as well.
MaryLee Sachs: I’m curious, because of course, you are a nonprofit, and this all takes a lot of resource. How have you managed to resource the additional elements?
Ben Cadwallader: We offer them at no cost on YouTube and on Facebook. And some ask why we don’t monetize these episodes. We do, but not in the conventional way which would be to put up a paywall. Instead, we sell sponsorships to each episode, and the sponsorships are evergreen online which is bringing more eyes. We are seeing some impressive viewership figures. For example, Episode 1 is over 30,000 views. So it’s more attractive to a potential sponsor you look at the quantitative metrics. So that’s one monetization component.
The other is our strategy to open up the tent and bring in as many people as we possibly can. Those new eyes and ears and hearts and minds become connected to LACO and become potential donors, board members, staff members. So when you watch our episodes, at multiple points throughout each episode, there is a subtle little popup in one of the corners of the screen that basically makes the pitch: ‘We’re offering this to you at no cost, but it’s not free. Every artist you see on screen is paid. All the names that scroll at the end credits are all compensated people. And if you like this, and if you like what we’re doing, and you want to see more of it, please make a tax-deductible donation to LACO.’
So far it’s been an effective strategy. We’ve been successful securing sponsorships, and by bringing in more people, we are seeing what I call organic, gravity-fed donations that come in from new audience members.
MaryLee Sachs: Impressive. What’s your sense going into 2021 in terms of the whole kind of program?
Ben Cadwallader: It’s likely to be a slow build back. Even under the most optimistic scenarios, we have the vaccine available and widespread herd immunity, even within the next six months, I am not convinced that people from high-risk demographics are going to come rushing back to the concert halls.
We are not making optimistic projections for ticket revenue. I think we’re going to be looking at small audiences, socially distanced, and perhaps limited to donors.
MaryLee Sachs: So going forward, do you see then the program of activity to be like a hybrid of what you’re doing now and maybe select in-person events?
Ben Cadwallader: Yes, I think about the camera crew as almost becoming part of the orchestra. In the orchestra world, the orchestra librarian and the orchestra personnel manager are technically members of the orchestra. They are in the band. And I think that when we look to the future, even when we have a ticketed audience, I see a camera crew as part of the orchestra. If we’re going to remain relevant to the literally tens of thousands of new audience members, we have to continue to produce innovative digital content, with the creative crew as part of the orchestra.
MaryLee Sachs: So in the light of pandemic, you’ve actually turned it into an opportunity to build a new audience.
Ben Cadwallader: I immediately saw this as a tremendous opportunity to bring in just scores of new audience members, and I rejected the idea that that comes at the expense of your core.
What incredible freedom to laser-focus on bringing in new audiences. But of course, as the strategy has unfolded, we also have, those companion Close Quarters Instrumental pieces so that for our die-hards who do watch digital concerts and are not as interested in the more avante-garde material, they have those more conventional digital concerts.
MaryLee Sachs: What’s next?
Ben Cadwallader: There’s a conversation happening in the orchestra world, and of course nationally, a reckoning on systemic racism and the deep, deep racist, white supremacist roots in our country. And grappling with that in an art form that is historically very white, both in terms of the faces and bodies that make the music, that compose the music, and the audiences that we serve, we’ve been talking about this for a long time in classical music and made very little progress.
It’s similar to how we initially thought about this season as an opportunity to bring in a new audience. We also thought about this season as a way to very quickly and dramatically move the needle in terms of representation on our series from historically underrepresented groups. And I’m not just referring to race. I’m also referring to gender identity. And I think with Close Quarters, we made a decision early on not to trumpet that aspect of Close Quarters.
We take a show-don’t-tell approach to issues of representation. Diversity is important to LACO and has become an extremely important component of Close Quarters and the institution at large that we are internally laser-focused on.
Tomorrow’s piece will feature a chat with Sherry Sanger, EVP of Marketing and CMO of Penske Transportation Solutions.