Why traditional arts and media businesses are missing a trick

22 January 2014 by in Book publishing

We were interested to read this Bookseller article about a new prototype platform which aims to catapult the world of theatre into the digital age by providing an instantly accessible, portable and affordable way to experience play scripts.

The platform Uneditions, developed by Leeds-based Unlimited Theatre, enables the creation and distribution of digital play scripts for tablets, phones and computers. The key selling point here is that the scripts are much more than the boring old plain text found in any printed or ebook version of a play. These scripts incorporate lighting, sound, and text layouts designed to create the illusion that the reader is actually watching the action.

By bringing the art of theatre directly to you, the user – whether on your laptop at home or an iPhone at the bus stop – Uneditions are transforming the way plays are delivered and experienced, thereby making the art of theatre instantly accessible to a wider market than ever before. And because Uneditions will allow theatre companies to self-publish their own play scripts, the platform presents a massive opportunity for stimulating a previously untapped revenue stream. The developers say: ’This project is a sincere, rigorous wondering about how we … can better transpose the stories we’re telling to other mediums. I’m excited by the potential that our digital play script has to allow existing audiences to deepen their understanding of the work we make, and also, importantly, open our and our sector’s work up to a much wider range of people.’ The development of Uneditions is incredibly timely. Given the major switch to digital that many arts and media sectors are making, it is precisely the right climate for experimentation with new ways of creating, delivering and disseminating content.

Twenty-first century consumers expect to be able to access whatever they need immediately – with little fuss and at minimum expense, and the breadth of choice now available from online stores has led to a new kind of economy focusing on a ‘long tail’ of products. In music, the age of the CD album has given way to a dawn of discovery where you can try before you buy. Online stores offer a musical pick ‘n’ mix where you – rather than the record company – are in charge of how you consume; the age of the album may well be over. The rise of subscription services such as Last.fm and Spotify means you can listen online to the songs, artists and genres you are likely to enjoy; create playlists and customised radio stations to play on portable devices; match your musical tastes with those of others around the world and identify nearby gigs that you wouldn’t want to miss. Artists are able to reach a wider potential audience, not only through subscription sites but also through official accounts on social media sites.

The digital revolution has good news for writers too: internet bloggers and self-publishers are making themselves heard where otherwise their voices would be lost among a mountain of submissions and forgotten in a publisher’s slushpile. As a consumer, you can turn to your e-reader for faster access to cheap content where the text opens up a new online world beyond the story. Apps such as Readmill and Wattpad have developed to cater for a new breed of reader whose scribbles in the margin can be disseminated to, and discussed by, a whole community of readers – perhaps even the author. So publishers are increasing their digital output to cater to demand – and raking in the extra revenue that comes with it.

In many circles it is accepted that it is not the strongest of a species that survives, but the one most adaptable to change. This is especially pertinent in light of the threat posed by online stores offering instantaneous purchasing at rock bottom prices. Bookstores and music shops are having to think outside the box. The troubled UK high street retailer HMV has for some years stocked books, electronic equipment, T-shirts, posters and other merchandise to compensate for the falling sales of CDs (replaced by digital downloads) and DVDs (replaced by subscription and home mailing services). Services such as Netflix and Lovefilm make it possible to stream films and TV programmes directly whenever you want; Netflix premier content exclusively for subscribers, and have even commissioned brand new TV series, taking viewing habits even further away from the traditional model than ever before. Waterstone’s now stock luxurious hardback tomes with high production values – the kinds of books that can’t be replaced by an e-reader – next to stationery, gifts, and the latest reading devices, tablets and accessories. Many independent bookstores are transforming into coffee shops and luring in casual buyers with fine Victoria sponges displayed alongside the latest bestselling paperbacks. The canniest of booksellers are hosting a wide variety of exclusive in-store events such as launch parties, author signings and poetry evenings – and communities are growing around them.

So it is not only the way we purchase content that is changing, but the way we experience it. The effects of this can be seen in almost every sector of arts and media – in literature, music, film, TV and now even theatre. We are consuming more, and faster, than ever before. To profit from the growing demand for content in a variety of forms, it is necessary for businesses to act fast, be flexible and, above all, be imaginative. Sales in the arts and entertainment industries are no longer purely physical, and the way we experience content is changing almost beyond recognition. This presents not a threat, but an opportunity – those who fail to see it as such are missing a trick.

Young woman sitting on sofa with electronic pad