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REPORT | A New Survey Looks At The Challenges Of Going Digital For Canadian Orchestras

By Anya Wassenberg on February 8, 2022

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The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the concert and performing arts industries, but in return, sparked a wave of digital innovation. Now that live music is slowly returning to stages across Canada, though, do orchestras have the resources to keep the digital side of their offerings alive — and, is it worth it?

The survey

A new survey by Orchestras Canada / Orchestres Canada found that a whopping 94 percent of Canadian orchestras have made at least some initiatives in the digital realm.

Digital initiatives require a significant investment in skills and infrastructure, and they require ongoing support. The results of three surveys conducted in recent years chart the effect of the pandemic.

  • In 2018, 60 orchestras expressed interest in digital offerings, but also underscored a lack of resources to tackle them;
  • In 2020, 84 percent of the 57 responding orchestras had taken the step of going online;
  • By 2021, that number rose to 94 percent of 65 orchestras who responded to the survey.

What’s next?

Orchestras named connecting with audiences as a top priority when it comes to digital offerings. A second major concern was the ability to continue providing work opportunities for their musicians.

In Ontario, recent events illustrate the conundrum faced by orchestras. Many had scheduled in-person concerts and festivals for January 2022, only to have the Omicron wave put yet another damper on the industry. Those who had continued in-person and online hybrid events, or stayed entirely online, could keep going. Experience has taught orchestras to be flexible.

  • More than two-thirds (69 percent) are planning a hybrid online/in-person season for 2021-2022;
  • Just under half (45.9 percent) plan to continue at least some form of digital offering even once full-capacity houses have returned;
  • That 45.9 percent includes about 18 percent who are planning on maintaining or even upping their digital involvement.
  • About 10 percent plan on dropping digital as soon as they can, with another 26 percent unsure.

Most respondents who said they would not continue cited a lack of financial and other resources.

Labour agreements played key roles in enabling that digital innovation. The Canadian Federation of Musicians COVID-19 Agreement was instrumental in allowing many of the orchestras to take the digital dive.

The bad news is that digital isn’t covering the costs associated with it — not yet, at any rate. The larger problem is that audiences aren’t returning to live concerts in pre-pandemic numbers either, leaving orchestras in a tenuous position.

What the survey participants said…

“Digital content is a great way for anyone to connect with you at anytime, anywhere — and for you to connect with anyone. SPO released byte-sized, individual servings of great music on YouTube, freely through 2020/2021. Easy to consume, easy to analyze, and so appreciated by every performer, composer, and content creator who had their unique moment to shine.” – Devin Scott, Executive Director of Scarborough Philharmonic

“I think our funders need to strategize how to reflect that in funding models — it is happening and will continue to evolve, but it’s crucial for all levels of support to understand the infrastructure, staffing, creative and artistic costs that we face. Significant investment will grow jobs, accessibility, profile, and result in fascinating programming that I can’t wait to watch.” (Anonymous)

“The use of digital media […] facilitates two-way communication in order to hear more precisely what our audience wants to tell us. Thanks to this ongoing conversation between the growing audience and the Orchestra, we will be able to adjust our concert offerings.” – Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil

“Streaming is here to stay for the SSO, and I hope for all Canadian orchestras. It answers one of the major questions of accessibility that we’ve been facing for years — I think now the struggle becomes fine-tuning the balance of hybrid…what works for the live audience may not be as meaningful on camera, and vice versa! Streaming is consumed in a different way, so building programming that has an impact on both forms of consumption will be a creative challenge that will make our art form stronger.” – Mark Turner, Executive Director of Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra

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