Thursday, October 23, 2014

Gay Men's Chorus Takes on Illiterate Bandits


Washington, D.C.  - An unknown individual in the Longworth House Office Building Cafeteria vandalized a poster advertisement of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington's popular Holiday Concert this week.

The word “fag’s,” written in black ink, is visible even after another passerby tried to correct it. The Gay Men’s Chorus routinely hangs posters all over Washington, and this is the first incident of its kind in recent memory according to Executive Director, Chase Maggiano.

 “It’s really sad that in 2014 an adult could write with such inattention to detail.” Maggiano says. “Sometimes we hear stories like this on our local school visits, where grammar isn’t emphasized in the curriculum. But for a grown person, especially on Capitol Hill, to use redundant nouns, or worse, a misplaced apostrophe, is just really disheartening.”

It is unclear if the individual who defaced this poster meant to include the word “Fag’s” as part of the poster title, or was simply reiterating that the chorus is made up of gay men. If the former, then there seems to be an issue of redundancy. In the case of the latter, the appalling misuse of an apostrophe is an anomaly for Washington, which was recently ranked the most literate city in the country for the fourth year in a row.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the adult literacy rate in America has not changed in 10 years. It is possible that this oversight was committed by a visitor to the Nation’s Capitol, but that cannot be confirmed until security footage is analyzed.

“Educated and driven people come to DC from all over the country to work for justice,” says Daniel Penchina, President of Q Street, an association of LGBT lobbyists and advocates. “This random act of illiteracy is not representative of the Capitol Hill community of staff and lawmakers. While we sometimes disagree on social issues, we do so with proper grammar.”

“This incident has really woken us up to a new reality,” exclaims Maggiano. “Going forward, the Gay Men’s Chorus will offer free daily tutoring and include a free thesaurus with all ticket purchases. These programs and benefits are open to all.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

Trust - Just Do It

"The best way to find out you can trust somebody is to trust them."
-Ernest Hemingway

By far one of my favorite authors, Hemingway unknowingly gives a valuable lesson on management. He doesn't waste time with team-building exercises, or that initial "getting to know you" period. He goes head-on and instructs you to just do it. 

It can be difficult to give up control, refrain from giving unsolicited advice, or (don't say it, don't say it, don't say it) admit that other people can do things better than you can - but you just have to do it. When the people around you are empowered with trust, they typically will honor that trust and overachieve (if they don't, then it's time to sit down and have a conversation). On the flip side, when you empower others with trust, you naturally begin to feel more connected to them. Sounds like a pretty nice work environment to me!

There are a couple ways that the trust stuff can unfold in the workplace, especially when it comes to non-profits: office hour policies, vacation vs. work from home, non-micromanagement, higher levels of delegation, access to money, not having to be at every single event that takes place. 

Give it a try, it's really great to see how people respond to freedom. It's also freeing for yourself.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Year 1

Celebrating one year as Executive Director of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington has me naturally reflecting on the past 12 months. Below are just a couple observations and lessons I've learned in my first year with one of the largest community choruses in the country.

Rule #1: Give Yourself a Break

You don't know everything, and that's okay. As you move into a new role or organization (or both like me), then you're going to face a lot of firsts.
With the knowledge that you are new to an organization and the organization is new to you, don't forget to give yourself a break. Usually we are our own worst critics, but it's okay to say to yourself "I'm still learning. I'm not supposed to know this yet. Next year will be better."

Rule #2: Eyes on the Prize

You will face a lot of distractions along the way. By distractions I mean activities, people, or ideas that take you off course from achieving the organizational goals. Chances are those activities/people/ideas are wonderful and could be useful down the road. But if they are not going to help move the organization toward its current strategic goals, then they're not helpful right now.

In particular, you will get a lot of advice if you are in a leadership role (see Rule #4). Listen to all the feedback you receive, utilize that which is helpful and put aside that which will take you off course. Always thank everyone who gives you advice (see Rule #7), and remember that you know your organization better than most because you work in it every day (and many nights). No one likes to say it, but it's okay to say "thank you" and then take no action. It's your job to decide what is important and what is not, so stick to your guns and stay focused on the goals of the organization.

Rule #3: Don't Press Send

Chances are you will need to have a tough conversation at some point. Don't do this over email. No matter how many nice words you use, the reader of that email can interpret your tone and intention in any number of ways. In addition to risking miscommunication, you risk disrespecting the recipient by not taking the time to show them they are worth a phone call. If you find yourself wordsmithing an email, it's because you're using the wrong medium.

One last point - emails can be saved and forwarded to anyone, so if you decide to write then assume the audience is everyone.

Rule #4: Ask for Help

A frequently cited fundraising idiom is "the best way to get money is to ask for advice, and the best way to get advice is to ask for money." It's true, and we should all be doing both of those things. When you ask people for help you are telling them that you trust them and want them to influence your life/work. This is how you build relationships, and most of your job as a leader is dependent upon relationships. Keep asking for help from those you trust (also, keep asking for money because your organization needs it).

Rule #5: Balance

If you are in a leadership position, it's because you are driven. But don't drive yourself into the ground. You need balance in your life between work, play, family, love, etc. I have been told over and over that the organization's health is dependent on the health of its staff. I have also found that I am more productive at work when other interests in my life are allowed to flourish.

"Date Night With Myself" and "Do Not Schedule Anything" should be frequent occurrences in your calendar. In this spirit of setting aside your own time, don't respond to every email the minute you receive it. For instance, if you read a work email on a Sunday, then you might wait until Monday morning to respond (unless it's urgent).

Rule #6: Encourage Intelligent Risks

Steve Jobs took risks, huge ones. It's easy to be so focused on perfection that we are afraid of failure. And if we live in fear, then we stop being creative. If we stop being creative then we start being boring. And frankly, there is no place for "boring" in the arts. This doesn't mean that every idea under the sun is a good one, but every idea should be thoughtfully considered. And a few risky ideas should be deployed (with reasonable checks in place to avoid catastrophe). To learn and grow, an organization must take risks and occasionally make a mistake. Managed mistakes are okay, and managed risks are a must for all artists and arts organizations.

Rule #7: Thank You Notes

If you need an explanation about this one, I'll put you in touch with my mother.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Golden Rule

We all know it: Treat Others the Way You Want to be Treated

This doesn't just apply to us as arts organizations we should be paying it forward, giving back, getting on the karma train, etc.

It's not just good karma though, it's also good business. Take a marketing example: at my organization, we have a moderately sized email list of very loyal and largely well-off patrons (the gays love the arts and have money to spend). What theater or performing group wouldn't want to get in front of them?

We send out a monthly newsletter letting our "family" know what's new, what just happened, and what they can look forward to coming up in our schedule. We always reserve a spot in this newsletter to feature our friends in other performing arts groups around the city. Why give away free advertising? Because we expect the same. Down the road, when one of our concerts isn't selling as well as we hoped, we can call up Ford's Theatre and ask them to give us a shout-out.

The golden rule doesn't stop there. Arts orgs, even though they are often going after the same donors, grants and corporate dollars, seem to have an understanding that supporting each other and cheering each other on is more productive than the alternative. When we cut each other down, or poach each others donors, it creates a sense of unrest and uncertainty of what our organizations will look like tomorrow. Donors don't want to invest in uncertainty, which is why we need to be certain we are playing by the rules. There's no real magic here...just be nice, be honest, and don't do anything you wouldn't want to your mother to hear.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

What's in a Chair?

I've been thinking a lot about culture, lately. But not the kind of culture that you might expect from an arts lover. I'm not talking about art museums, music, design, fashion and architecture. I'm talking about internal culture.

Every organization has a culture, right? If you visit the Apple offices in Cupertino, you see a much different internal culture than one you will find in the offices of The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. This is easily identifiable in the style of furniture, the number of walls per sq. foot, the music or lack thereof playing aloud in the space, the types and locations of rehearsal rooms (oops, now I am talking about music, design and architecture), and what employees are wearing (okay, fashion too).

But what are those things? Those bouncy ball chairs, high cubicle walls, free Kashi food machines, and dress codes? They are expressions of the people that work and create in those organizations. That's what all culture is, the expression of people. Culture happens naturally all the time in the types of flowers people plant in front of their houses, or the cars they drive, or the types of words they use in a heated conversation.

Culture also happens intentionally, albeit not enough.

There are some organizations that have the unique opportunity to create culture - like Apple and the Kennedy Center. In doing so, these organizations need to think really hard about how the internal culture they create reflects the culture they are creating externally.

I suspect the "culture question" is not asked enough in many small arts organizations. Who are we as people? And does this reflect who we want to attract in our audience, board members, and guest artists?

In my own organization, the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, DC, we are being forced to ask this question because the LGBT culture in the United States is shifting around us. I find myself reflecting on many of our internal cultural identifiers.

Does our office-hour trust policy reflect the type of honesty we expect in employees? Does our rehearsal space reflect the sense of fun and surprise that our mission statement tells us should be integral to our artistic product? Does our website reflect our commitment to community outreach, and project the professionalism necessary of a $1.1m organization? Do my own actions and time spent at rehearsals and concerts reflect the type of organizational perception my board expects? Are the singers and staff as caring and inclusive of each other as we expect our audience and donors to be?

I was advised last year that in a position of leadership, your personality begins to affect the personality of the organization. Thus, the idea of culture is necessarily personal for me. Shortly after hearing this advice, I created a cultural identifier in my organization without even realizing it. I bought a red office chair.

Why red? It's fun, and a bit surprising. Why tufted? It still shows an ability to be serious. Why leather? It shows style. But shhh, it's not real leather, so why faux leather? It shows I care about the bottom line. Why armless? It shows openness and friendliness.

I didn't realize any of this when I bought the chair, so there was a lot of subconscious messaging in this purchase. It is perfectly indicative of some of the cultural traits my organization has and aspires to grow.

We want to be fun and surprising, but make no mistake - we are serious musicians. We demand good style, but we need to maintain a financial responsibility to our board and donors. We also need to open our doors wider in the context of a changing LGBT environment. And, as the chorus has heard me philosophize a few times, "just be nice." It's good karma.

Friday, February 7, 2014

How to Price a Ticket in Two Easy Steps: Educate and Mislead

(I’ve never done a two part blog before, but here goes…)


Step One: Educate

Of all the concerts I have produced or in which I have performed, I am aware of one that has paid for itself (and that’s because no one got paid and we snagged a unique, unreplicated deal on the space). When I first entered the arts management world, I always assumed a concert would at least break even. Shouldn’t ticket prices cover the cost of renting a theatre, hiring artists, licensing the work, and paying union stagehands? Sometimes, just sometimes the ticket prices will cover the production costs. 

But what about the non-production costs? Someone must design the ads and place them. Someone must negotiate theatre lease contracts. Someone must answer the phone when patrons call to order tickets. Someone must fix the photocopy machine when it breaks. Someone must collect rent on office and rehearsal space. And clearly someone must plan and direct the show. 

When you look at the actual cost of running an arts org - everything from postage costs to guest artist fees - the ticket prices don’t cover it. It’s simply a fact that many audience members (like me at one point) don’t know. 

The fact that ticket revenue doesn’t keep the stage open isn’t the only piece of education that I hope to hammer home. There is another much more personal fact that is often missed. Live performance has calculable value. Here’s how:

I have many friends with Master’s Degrees in music. They all went to world class, private, conservatories. Tuition at Juilliard is $57,000 per year. With four years of undergrad and two years in a Master’s program, we’re talking about $342,000 of education. That doesn’t include the $125/hour of private lessons that we all had from ages 6-18. Now we’re at $402,000.  

What about that instrument itself that plays the epic violin melody in Dvorak’s American Quartet? If you want to hear that beautiful melody on a mid-level professional instrument, you’re listening to $25,000 worth of wood and glue. Just for fun, let’s add another $10,000 for the bow (no…really).

We are now at nearly half a million dollars just to walk on stage. We haven’t even gotten to costs for designing websites, selling tickets, travel, music license fees, space rental…the list goes on. Have I not convinced you yet that live performance has value? Then let’s look at this another way:

It costs less than $25,000 to become a licensed plumber. If you ask that plumber to perform a service on a weekend for one hour, you can probably kiss $200 goodbye.  You will pay more than 4 times the amount of a typical concert ticket for an hour of service from someone who’s educational expenses are less than the cost of that violin on which you just heard Bach’s most brilliant masterpiece (I’m talking about the Chaconne, duh). I sure hope that plumber is cute!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a plumber doesn’t have value (we've all been there). The point here is that the economics of music are highly misunderstood by even regular concert goers. Musicians, who expel blood sweat and tears, and tens of thousands of hours rehearsing, are valuable. The shows they put on, and the equipment they use to make those shows brilliant, have actual value.

Now...the sensation you get hearing or seeing a performance that transports you to a new place altogether? You decide the value.

How to Price a Ticket in Two Easy Steps: Educate and Mislead


Step Two: Mislead

Now don’t jump to conclusions…I’m not the kind of person who lies. My mom would kill me.

A 1987 New York Times Article feared the idea that prices for orchestra seating at a Broadway musical could hit $50. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $99 today. 

The idea that you can pay less than $100 for a full priced ticket to a Broadway show today is laughable. A top ticket for After Midnight will run you $197, and that’s not even in the top 10 of ticket prices. A premium ticket for Book of Mormon goes for $477. Now, we all know that most people are not going to pay $200-$400 for a theatre ticket. So how do these tickets sell?


A recent conversation with a Broadway producer friend helps shed some light. TKTS is a “discount” ticket outlet where you can get deals on Broadway shows. They offer up to 50% off your favorite shows, bringing the price back down to $100 for After Midnight. As it happens, that value is right in line with the inflation-adjusted value of a Broadway ticket in 1987. So, when you get your “sale,” you are really paying what Broadway tickets have always cost. 

TKTS is a built-in marketing engine for nearly every show. When the patron thinks they’re getting a discount, they will wait in line for an hour in the middle of a snowstorm (I’ve done it), just to snag the deal. It’s not rational, but instinctual customer behavior. When setting prices, producers aren’t counting on all patrons to pay the face value (of course, when it happens, they won’t complain).

As a producer, it’s troublesome to think that the only way to sell my product is by discounting its value. I’m lucky to work on things that I’m really proud of, so each discount chips away at my ego a bit.
But like I said, I have stood in the snow for an hour to get that discount. I understand the marketing philosophy – even if I don’t like it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

All You Have To Do is Ask

What do you do with a season you had no hand in planning and a marketing budget that isn’t yours? You listen carefully to those around you, and you unapologetically ask for whatever you want. When I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington in the fall of 2013 as Executive Director, I was handed a program, a budget, and hundreds of supportive friends in our chorus family.

Not two weeks into the job did our volunteer chorus president approach me with a request (the first of many, I would soon learn).  JP asked if the chorus could sponsor a viewing party of the NBC Live Broadcast of The Sound of Music. He wanted to do something special for the members to boost morale and keep them engaged. “Sure,” I replied, “just don’t spend any money.” This probably isn’t the answer he was looking for, but I quickly learned that JP is both tenacious and creative. Since he didn’t get exactly what he wanted from me, he pulled the oldest trick in the book and asked someone else.

JP and one of GMCW's members (Ryan) who works for NBC Universal immediately put their heads together. Ryan put JP in touch directly with the decision makers and was instrumental in pushing internally for NBC's participation. The original ask was if NBC Universal would be willing to provide some small giveaways for our chorus party what was to be built around the live broadcast. Their response surprised us.

As it turns out, NBC wanted to get more in front of the gay market in promoting their live musical, so they turned the tables and asked for our help. We gladly agreed to help make some connections with other LGBT choruses interested in the same kind of thing, and NBC gave us the go ahead to make our event a bit bigger.

Taking a nod from JP’s playbook, I called up the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, with NBC behind me, and asked if we could use a historic theatre to host a public viewing party of the broadcast. The city, to our surprise and delight, said this is exactly the kind of programming they want to fund, and gave us some money to help put on the event. We quickly rallied the chorus members to don nuns habits and act as ushers and carolers, convinced some friends in the press to give us free promotion leading up to the event, and despite one technical glitch, hosted a really fun and memorable evening for an audience that wasn’t completely familiar with our chorus until then.

The event itself, however, did not stand alone. Our upcoming holiday concert featured the same nuns singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Our March musical will be Von Trapped, a smart gay parody on the Sound of Music. And with a stroke of good timing, Laura Benanti (who starred as Frau Schr├Ąder in the NBC Version) will be our guest singer in May. 

Not only are JP and Ryan tenacious, they think ahead. We were able to create a marketing through-line for our three biggest shows, reach new audience members through a non-traditional event, and deepen our relationship with the city agency responsible for funding the arts. 

I first learned an important mantra in fundraising, and now see its application in every aspect of an organization: all you have to do is ask.