The Temptations and Challenges of the Digital Pivot

This article was originally published in the International Arts Manager Magazine (IAM) Subscribe here to read the article at IAM.

After COVID-19 hit a group of Quebec artists, agents and producers began weekly Zoom calls where they debated the future of the performing arts. Barbara Scales from Latitude 45 Arts shares some of their conclusions


Lockdown started in Canada and the US in the second week of March. Schools, travel, and public events of all sorts were affected. Without concerts, artists were flummoxed as to how to earn a living and share their art. The freedom to perform was stopped dead.


From 16 March until the end of July 2020 a group of Québécois musicians, presenters, agents, composers, orchestra managers and journalists gathered daily on Zoom to wonder at what the future might hold. We were in a state of shock at being unable to practise or to present the art form that we have spent decades of care, and countless dollars, to perfect. There were early signs – like the buds on the trees in Canada’s spring – of a great shift about to take place.


One of the first projects came from the National Arts Centre of Canada, which offered fees of CAD1,000 (€642) and a promotional platform, #CanadaPerforms, for digital content. Donors, sponsors and the government supported the platform, which saw over 600 Canadian musicians sharing videos recorded with smart-phones and tablets in their kitchens or studios over a period of several weeks. The videos were shared on Facebook, and proved a big success. Then the Canada Council – in collaboration with the CBC/Radio-Canada – offered a micro-innovation programme called Digital Originals – a grant of CAD5000, “to help artists, arts group and organisations pivot their work for online sharing.”


During COVID-19-time, and with a nod to the underlying reality of climate crisis and eco-consciousness, we caught a glimpse of a path forward via digital technologies. Nonetheless, there was great concern about the cost of high-quality productions and the possibility of monetisation beyond these early gifts. Here are some of the issues that arose:

  • How to find partners for quality productions that would merit consumers’ attention over a long term.

  • How to enrich productions so that they might be valuable beyond the period of COVID-19 confinement and concert hall lock down.

  • How to create high quality video material in hybrid concerts with tickets for those in the hall and also those at home with a screen.

  • How producers of these video productions could increase the exploitation and monetisation via existing or newly created platforms for dissemination.

  • How to value and compensate performers, composers and other artistic partners involved in the creation of video product, and to establish contractual understanding for all participants in the deals.

The Zoom group decided to speak with the directors of two film festivals, who found themselves suddenly confronted with the need to transfer their presentation from big cinema screens to small, at-home screens.


We found the inventiveness of the Festival du Cinéma de la Ville de Québec (FCVQ) to be breathtaking. The platform had catalogues of programming, teasers of the works, and a digital foyer for spectators to socialise where avatars could gather around bistro tables to discuss the fare on offer. The FCVQ is part of a network for commercial releases – the negotiations they had with producers meant that they had to limit the number of tickets sold (the number of IP addresses) so as not to compromise potential sales once the works are in full distribution.


We also explored models of production and dissemination that would work with not-for-profit production and presenting models we use in live performance for concert music. Le FIFA (Le Festival International des Films sur l’Art) is a not- for-profit film festival, which launched a platform for online screenings for its March 2020 festival within days of the lockdown. This is perhaps closer to the business model we recognise.

“It is important for artists and producers to know that there is a market for high quality digital work worthy of perennial attention”

Director Philippe del Drago was happy to draw a greater number of eyes to his ‘art films’ which are not necessarily made for commercial circulation, and to share the revenue appropriately with the rights-holders. Philippe was so happy with the widespread interest in the online cross-Canada dissemination of the festival, held in late March 2020, that the festival has decided to create a new year-round curated platform of films on art: arts.film (to be launched in the coming weeks) with sub-platforms available for rent.


The Festival Classica, a spring music festival usually staged just outside of Montréal, is also launching a digital version of its postponed festival, now scheduled for December, and a year-round curated platform called Le Concert Bleu.


Other presenters across Canada, the US and in South America have launched curated digital releases to members and subscribers including the prestigious chamber music series, Music Toronto and the Washington DC Library of Congress.


Mauricio Peña at the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango Concert Hall in Bogotà is making plans for a geo-localised distribution online of a selection of pedagogical and concert videos to citizens of Colombia. He believes that an online concert series would provide value for audiences even when his concert hall can be open to full public participation in a year or two.


This digital transformation is only one of the pathways available to musicians and audiences to enjoy and celebrate this art form, which is so central to our lives under these circumstances of restrictions. For it to thrive, it is important for artists and producers to know that there is a market for high quality digital work worthy of perennial attention. And on the other end of the supply chain, not-for profit concert presenters contemplating the creation of platforms for transmission to their audiences need to know that there will be a large catalogue of quality material of value and of distinctive character to make it worth their effort to establish a digital delivery platform.

“All parties need to imagine that this is not just for the relatively short term of a global pandemic, but rather forthe long-term future”

All parties need to imagine that this is not just for the relatively short term of a global pandemic, but rather for the long-term future. A transformation of this sort requires us all to undertake and grapple with a new set of skills; it requires conversation among all the partners and a spirit of ongoing collaboration.


The digital pivot – a bitter pill or the cure for what ails us? We seem to be on the threshold of something with great potential. It truly depends on what we will collectively make of it.


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