The Year of Remote Culture

After 2020, should we be talking about 'remote' strategy rather than 'digital' strategy?

Here’s a list of some of the live events I’ve seen this year:

Laura Marling at the Union Chapel
Lianne Le Havas at the Roundhouse
Nick Cave at Alexandra Palace
Billy Eilish live in LA
Pretty much every game the Boston Red Sox played this year
Every game Tottenham Hotspur have played this year
Barbershop Chronicles at the National Theatre
Twelfth Night at the National Theatre
A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Bridge Theatre
A Streetcard Named Desire at the Young Vic
Hamilton at the Richard Rogers Theatre, NYC
Bruce Nauman at the Tate Modern
Andy Warhol at the Tate Modern

That would be a pretty good list of events any year, but of course, 2020 was an exception. I managed to see all these things whilst locked down, in my living room, because of COVID.

Some of these events I would have gone to anyway - I’d bought tickets to go to Bille Eilish in London with my daughter, and would probably have gone to at least one of the other gigs and a couple of Spurs games. But many of them I wouldn’t. I don’t go to nearly as much theatre as I’d like to, because of time, distance and money, and I only manage to see one or two Red Sox games a year if my US business travel coincides with them playing in the same city.

So as 2020 ends, and the vaccines start to give us a glimmer of hope that we could be near the end of the pandemic, I’ve been thinking whether this was a blip, or whether we’re entering a new era of remote culture.

A lot of my research on how we measure audiences has focused on a time almost exactly one hundred years ago, when radio networks were starting to grow their audiences. In 1925, US radio ownership was only 10%, but by 1935 is was 68%, and ten years later, 88%. This rate of adoption is not as fast as smartphones more recently, but much faster than colour TV adoption after the Second World War. Radio was the first time we saw mass adoption of a remote technology for streaming culture. Radio was the first time cultural entrepreneurs needed to think about the living room, instead of an opera house or theatre.

I’ve done a couple of talks recently about how COVID has affected audiences, and in this podcast for Substrakt I started using the phrase ‘remote culture’ to describe what’s happened this year. And that made we think there might be more parallels between the rise of radio in the 1920/30s and how COVID will affect culture in the next few decades. Both these moments posed new challenges to cultural providers - how do you deliver your stories into people’s living rooms? - as big a challenge for theatres and operas in the 1920s as it has been for COVID-hit venues in 2020.

The first services to live-stream into your living room predate even the radio. As early as 1876, just a few years after Alexander Graham-Bell invented the telephone, the New York Times was imagining how these new networks would revolutionise culture:

“The telephone - for that is the name of the new instrument - is intended to convey sounds from one place to another over the ordinary telegraph-wires, and it can be used to transmit either the uproar of a Wagnerian orchestra or the gentle cooing of a female lecturer […] When Madame Titiens is singing, or Mr Thomas’ orchestra is playing, or a champion orator is apostrophizing the American eagle, a telephone, placed in the building where such sounds are in the process of production, will convey them over the telegraph-wires to the remotest corners of the earth.”

By 1920, before radio networks started to take over, cities like London and Paris had successful subscription services like the Theatrophone or Electrophone charging around £5 for a year of culture delivered to your home - around £120 a year in today’s money, similar to the kind of prices charged by Netflix or Disney+. These ground-breaking services tapped into a previously unknown audience need for culture in your living room, something that radio and then television capitalised on in the second half of the twentieth century.

We could frame the last century as a battle between the living room and venue-based live events, as each new development of remote culture - the telephone, the radio, television, video recorders, the internet, smart phones - tempts us to stay at home instead of going out.

Radio was meant to kill live musical performances, and then television was going to kill theatre, or VHS kill cinema. None of this has happened of course - live experiences have visceral and social qualities that no technology has yet matched. But the uneasy balance between staying in and going out might have been tipped by COVID.

Early this month, Warner Bros announced that they will release their 2021 slate of movies - including blockbusters like Dune and Wonder Woman 1984 - simultaneously in cinemas and the streaming service HBO Max. This comes after 2020 saw Disney and other studios experiment with releasing films for home streaming first, and in the UK Cineworld shuttered all of their cinemas from October, some permanently. Just this week, Disney announced an incredibly ambitious slate of projects under their Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilms, with the emphasis far more on its home streaming service Disney+ than theatrical releases.

But the shift to remote culture is not just about blockbuster film and television. The cultural organisations that have done well under COVID were the ones who already had remote services up and running. The National Theatre in the UK had been streaming live theatre into cinemas very successfully for years, and after an initial free trial on Youtube, they’ve now launched a subscription National Theatre At Home service for £8 a month. London’s Soho Theatre’s home streaming service was established a few years ago, and they’ve now turned this into a production deal with SVOD service Amazon Prime. Organisations that haven’t done this, who have seen digital as just comms or marketing instead of a way of delivering high-quality services remotely, have struggled to make the same strategic shift.

Despite the hype that surrounds every new technology, audience behaviours actually change very slowly, but COVID has potentially introduce decades of change in one fell swoop. The lockdown has changed every sector - commercial property, transport, retail, entertainment, sport - and as we’re still very much in the middle of the pandemic, it’s hard to predict what behaviour changes will stick, and what ones we’ll gladly throw aside as soon as the vaccines allow us to.

Back in 2017, we published an online series on the next pandemic funded by the Gates Foundation, who have had pandemic preparedness as a strategic focus for years. In a recent podcast, Bill Gates set out seven ways in which the pandemic could change society, and one of the common themes is how COVID has quickly normalised ‘remoteness’ in so many areas of our lives. Many companies predict they will move to blended or fully remote workplaces after the pandemic, getting rid of their big city centre offices.

What will life look like when far fewer of us have to travel miles into big cities for work every day? What does a society look like that’s based around the home, not the office? How many things did we do because we were already in the city for work, and what things would we gladly commute to?

This all revolves around the most important strategic question we should be asking ourselves right now:

How does ‘remote culture’ affect what you do, and your relationship with your audience?

I want to strongly suggest that this is different from having a ‘digital’ strategy - digital technologies might well be a part of how you deliver your remote strategy, but we need to think more about the social and cultural contexts of the home. For many building-based organisations - whether this is a central office, a shopping mall, a theatre, museum or cinema - this means considering a future in which the building is no longer the sole focus of your strategy. Instead of seeing remote services as a side hustle to the main purpose - getting people through the door - the future might be an even balance between remote and building based provision.

There are huge potential advantages to embracing a remote strategy. Many of the cultural organisations we work with are saying audiences find remote services more accessible, either because they can fit them into the schedules of their daily lives, or because they remove barriers - distance, costs, or accessibility issues - that prevented them from using building-based services.

There’s also the potential of scale - audiences are now comfortable with paying for online content, so there is the opportunity to reach audiences that might never have come to a live performance or event. For their live-streamed gigs during COVID, Laura Marling and Lianne Le Havas grossed 3.5-4.5 times their average live gig income, from an audience that was 6-8x larger. Of course, this will pale in comparison to a full tour, but for mid-sized acts and theatre productions, remote performances will look like a viable option or addition to a traditional tour.

As I sit here, tapping away at the medium sized screen in my improvised office (the dining room table) before spending the rest of the day switching between the large screen in the living room and the small screen in my pocket, I’m really hoping that my 2021 list of events will involve some real live experiences. I can’t wait to see Spurs play at our amazing new stadium, or the RedSox at Fenway. I want to watch Hamilton again, live in the theatre, and hope that I can take my daughter to watch Billie Eilish live at the O2 in London.

But I’ve also loved the living room remote culture we’ve experienced this year. I’ve had some incredible cultural moments - and memories - with my family that we wouldn’t have been able to do in a normal year. It does feel like a tipping point, a moment in which our expectations and behaviours have been changed, some forever.

If we want to get audiences back into buildings after COVID, we’ll have to work harder at selling the social, visceral advantages that live events have over remote culture. Because the last hundred years has seen the slow, steady rise of remote culture. This has been driven by technology - the telephone, then radio, television, VHS and the internet - but it might be a virus that has finally tipped the balance in its favour.