Yes, You Can—and Should—Monetize Your Digital Performances

When the pandemic hit, Dallas Black Dance Theatre was one of the few dance companies that chose to charge for their virtual performances from the get-go. Executive director Zenetta Drew shares how they did it—and why more companies should try.

A group of dancers—four men and four women—stand in a loft with brick walls and big windows in between takes of filming a performance. There is camera equipment in front of them, and they are in costume—suits for the men and blue dresses for the women.
Photo courtesy Dallas Black Dance Theater

Dance companies have long been trying to solve two interconnected problems: how to grow their audiences and how to use digital platforms to generate revenue. When COVID-19 canceled most live performances indefinitely, these problems became all the more pressing as companies scrambled to create a digital strategy seemingly overnight.

While most began with releasing archival footage for free, Dallas Black Dance Theatre decided to charge for their virtual content. It was a bold, untested move at a time when most companies weren’t sure what would work.

Zenetta Drew, a middle aged-black woman with short hair, wears a teal sweater and a festive chunky necklace. She smiles at the camera.
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy DBDT

DBDT executive director Zenetta Drew believes digital engagement is not just a way to begin earned-income recovery from COVID-19, but an opportunity to grow the audience for dance and establish digital content as a permanent piece of a company’s paid programming.

We caught up with her to learn more about her strategy.

When COVID-19 hit, your company was quick to offer paid digital content before others. How did you make this decision?

We’d done a whole study with a telecommunications company 20 years ago about how to bring dance education to communities through broadband. It didn’t wind up getting implemented, but it helped prepare us for this moment and understand that there was already demand for something like this.

So we were prepared to go digital. But art has value; we’re not going to give it away for free. In the arts we always talk about how valuable we are but then give it away for free. The arts have had no overarching vehicle to grow the audience. We are always working to increase the quality but not reach new people. Some wanted to just wait until we could go back to normal. That model wasn’t working, anyway. You want to go back to that?

How did you set up the paid-content model?

When we first launched it we had to get rights to choreography, and people were not interested, thinking they could wait it out. But soon they realized that nobody was buying new works while companies were trying to just stay alive. Then they were ready to talk and make a deal for residuals.

We then worked on rerecording pieces that already existed outside of our normal theater, in addition to showing archival footage. We set it up like a virtual “come to the theater” event, showing it at a certain time. We’d show one work and have the choreographer, dancers, lighting designer, etc., do a talk-back where people can ask questions in the chat.

A man and a woman dance on a dock next to a body of water. She is in a white dress in arabesque, leaning into his arms.
Photo by Melissa M. Young, courtesy DBDT

We charged $30 per household for restaged works, and $20 per household for prerecorded works. For the academy show it was $40 a household. For Espresso Nutcracker, people used to pay $45 per ticket, now it was $40 a household, which is a steal. It actually sold more total tickets than our in-person shows. We also got more sponsors. One entity bought it and put it out to children’s hospitals. Same for student matinee programs.

How did it work out?

We sold 57 percent fewer tickets than we did last year, but only incurred 13 percent of the cost. So it was a success in these times. But it’s more about audience development. The audience is now learning more about the work. It’s a deeper relationship and they will be more excited to go back into the theater.

But we also have a wider reach. Our data on who is showing up—more than 50 percent of the audience live in a more-than-200-mile radius. They would not come in person. About 40 percent are brand-new, from all around the U.S. and international.

So you’re reaching folks outside of Dallas in a much bigger way.

Yes. We’re also doing digital touring, where presenters in other cities who might have brought us in for touring buy a digital show from us and push it out to their list. We’ve also seen more school districts buy our school matinees. Think of all the students who wouldn’t have been able to attend an in-person show that are now exposed to the arts.

In a loft space with brick walls and large windows, a masked dancer in a suit kneels on the ground, holding the hands of a woman in a blue dress who leans away from him in arabesque.
Photo courtesy DBDT

What advice do you have for other companies interested in doing this?

Don’t be put off by the fear of it not working. Why not try it? It’s cost-efficient. It’s easy: Put it out there and see. If it didn’t work, you have lost nothing. We ask artists to be creative, out of the box, cost-efficient all the time. And we can’t do it once? Take a risk. When you stage new works, you don’t know whether people are going to enjoy it or not, but we put money into those anyway. This is less risky than that. It won’t solve the problem of the pandemic, but it can help with solutions with problems we had before the pandemic.

What we’re doing is fighting elitism. Folks from rural communities, it’s like—when they can’t be in the stadium for sport—a substitute experience. So many experience sports on TV, why can’t it be like that for the arts for those who can’t come? Do they deserve nothing? We all want to work toward DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] in our audiences, but it is costly to go to rural areas. This is an opportunity to expose new people to our art.

Avichai Scher is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and NBC News.