What can Radiohead teach theatre?

Yesterday I had a look at how many songs should be released in the promotional period for a musical. So today I am going to look at what happens when you release the ENTIRE musical while it is still trying to sell out the house every night. And believe it or not, I have called on some wise guidance from Radiohead to work out why!

RadioheadAll the way back in 2007, Radiohead made the shocking announcement that the price tag for their new album ‘In Rainbows’ would be up to the fans. The fans could then pay as much or as little as they liked for the album. While this was a rather dangerous and risky move, it seemed to pay off with Radiohead reporting that they earned more in pre-sales than they did from their previous album. Of course more people probably downloaded the album for less money, but overall they were metaphorically rolling in it!

A similar idea has recently been used for two big Broadway musicals, South Pacific and Legally Blonde, when they broadcasted their shows on television for free. And both outcomes produced varying responses through ticket sales in the Australian and Broadway market.

South Pacific was recorded right at the end of the Broadway run and was broadcast on Live at Lincoln Centre 4 days before closing. Now, the choice of broadcasting time had nothing to do with the closing 4 days later. There wasn’t massive demand for ticket refunds because they had seen it on the television and people didn’t stop turning up. It was just a good way to get the musical out to people who couldn’t casually stroll down to Times Square and see the show.

When it opened in Australia, the fact that you could watch the entire show on YouTube seemed to have very little negative impact on the ticket sales as the show really was a commercial success and was continuously extending its run. Personally, I had seen sections on YouTube and it actually inspired me to go along and see it live as I initially had very little desire to see it!

Legally Blonde, however, is another matter. It was broadcast on MTV about 6 months into its Broadway run and managed to continue running for another year. So it can be considered that, if anything, the broadcast did not hinder the success of the show on Broadway. HOWEVER, the Australian touring production appears to be having difficulty selling seats to this fabulous production. Could this be because the entire show is available in high-quality videos on YouTube?

I think it might. And there appears to be one clear difference between the two shows which influences these outcomes . . . Age.

The general audience demographics for South Pacific appear to be significantly different when it comes to the demographic to which the show appeals. The average audience for South Pacific would generally be much older and consist of people who either didn’t have the ability to or didn’t have the time to sit in front of their computer for 2.5 hours and watch the entire show. As a result, they would go and see it live.

On the other hand, people who were considering seeing Legally Blonde in Australia were probably a lot younger and most likely looked it up on YouTube to see it they would enjoy it. When they logged on they would have been confronted with the 2.5 hour Broadway production. For people who don’t usually go to the theatre, as Legally Blonde has rather a young appeal, watching the production online would have been comparable to the theatre experience minus the $120 price tag.

So my advice is: If you are producing an old-time musical classic like South Pacific, The King and I or Carousel, put it on television. If nothing else, you end up generating a lot of buzz about the show but it most likely won’t detract from the ticket sales. However, if you are producing a musical that you hope to attract lots of young people to, DO NOT PUT IT ONLINE! Until we come up with a better strategy to take advantage of the large, all-consuming audience, that is.

Do you think there are any other factors that determined the difference between these two outcomes? Let me know in the comment section below!

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