Web Monetization and The Performing Arts: A Proposal

For centuries ballet and opera fans have gathered in theatres to enjoy the dazzling sights and sounds of the performing arts. All that time, the arts community has adhered to the belief that theatre should only be seen live and in person. While other live entertainment like sports moved into the homes and gathering places of everyday people, via TV and later mobile devices, the arts remained mostly confined to theatres.

The Dutch National Opera & Ballet

But after many years of holding onto tradition, the performing arts are going digital.

There are good reasons for their hesitation—but there are also drawbacks. In some ways, a piece of art that only exists for a moment in time for its viewers creates a special bond between the performers and the audience that risks being lost when mediated through a television screen.

But what of the others? Not every city has a Bolshoi Ballet or Metropolitan Opera. Why should individuals who cannot afford a ticket or who live outside major metropolitan areas be excluded from experiencing great works of modern and historic art? Access has long been a topic of conversation in arts communities. The pandemic poured fire on the debate as the globe went into lockdown and everyone, no matter how privileged, lost access to live performances.

An online artistic experience will never measure up to a live experience. This is as true of sports as it is of ballet or opera. Stadiums remain packed despite the availability of high-quality televised options. And yet, it is strange that we can watch our favorite sports teams, but (until recently) we have been unable to watch our favorite dancers in Paris or New York without getting on a plane, booking a hotel, and paying a sizable amount of money for a ticket. Let’s look to the sports industry as an example: devoted fans will always fill theaters, but digital or televised viewing options can bring much-needed access to many global communities.

The Obstacles

The Dutch National Opera & Ballet

The performing arts community faces three major obstacles when it comes to offering high-quality digital or televised content.

First, television has not afforded the arts the opportunity to broadcast their content in a way that allowed artistic directors to curate their content without having large budgets. But with the rise of mobile technology and social media, this obstacle has diminished. Arts organizations and arts alliances can build their own platform to showcase their work to global audiences, bring in new fans, talent, and investment possibilities, and retain artistic freedom.

Another issue is copyright infringement. Unlike a sports match, a ballet or an opera is a work of art—intellectual property—that requires legal protection. In the end I don't believe this should be a barrier, for two reasons. One is that a small amount of copying gives the real version of a piece of art more value. It's a bit like high-end handbags. Plenty of people buy knockoff Louis Vuitton’s, but what people really love buying is the real thing. In the case of handbags, knockoffs support brand recognition and encourage consumers to purchase the authentic version. When arts companies advertise their work as original, then the work acquires the same original value like a Louis Vuitton handbag. Second, with so much content online these days and the flurry of conversation that takes place around content, the internet community has become adept at self-governing when it comes to ripping content. Stolen work will be flagged.

Finally, there is the question of revenue. With dwindling government support in Europe and the difficulties of fundraising in places like the US remain a big issue, how can arts organizations successfully use digital content to support their organizations’ bottom line? On the other hand, we can flip the question around. How can arts organizations ignore a potential opportunity to garner new revenue and to expand their fan bases through digital experiences?

It’s also worth considering the kinds of content arts companies will be producing from this point forward. Productions made specifically for film have rapidly increased and look to continue into the future, giving arts lovers a whole new side of their favorite art that is entirely digital. No longer will arts companies be only thinking of the stage. These new works will be filmed in the streets and in sound stages and undoubtedly be a catalyst for change as the classical arts find new life online.

The question, then, is how can the arts best make a sustainable income from the digital world?

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused the arts to lose almost all ability to connect with audiences, the debate of whether or not to go digital abruptly ended. Arts organizations were forced to look beyond clips on social media and the occasional DVD sale. But with vaccination rates on the rise, many directors still believe that streaming performances are only valuable if they lead people to opera houses.

This is short-term and exclusionary thinking. There is a host of promising new technologies that can engage fans on a new level and bring in new sources of income. One place to look? Web monetization.

What Is Web Monetization?

When it comes to monetizing content on the web, the options for most content creators and consumers are limited and complicated. How many online subscriptions can you justify adding to a growing collection? Should creators offer content for free and try to support their work with advertising revenue? What about viewers who dislike distracting ads that slow page loading times and undermine privacy? Should content creators spend precious time developing donation strategies that often lead to less than optimal results?

Instead of this complex reality, new web monetization strategies can help us envision a better system. Imagine paying for what you consume on the web like you do in a restaurant. Would consumers have a happier web experience if they could explore freely or simply push a button to pay for what they consume without having to register, add payment info, and face a host of other complexities that get in the way of the viewer and their content? This is the goal of web monetization.

Although it is still in an early stage of development, web monetization is a promising solution that aims to fix many of the problems that plague the internet today by allowing a more seamless and direct way of supporting the creation of digital content with privacy as a key element.

So how does it currently work?

The Dutch National Opera & Ballet

Web monetization consists of two primary pieces of technology.

The first is a simple web protocol called the Interledger Protocol (ILP) that allows for money to be sent over the internet in a trustless way, which allows two parties to conduct a transaction without needing to first establish trust. The ILP is open-source and able to transfer between any currency, an important advantage since there is currently no native way of directly sending money over the internet.

The second piece of technology is the proposed web monetization Application Programming Interface (API) standard. The API standard enables tiny payments called micropayments that would otherwise exceed transaction costs.

To enable web monetization, users sign up with a provider that in turn provides a payment pointer, which directs the payment to the appropriate receiver, paying the site on the user’s behalf as they surf. Right now there is only one provider: Coil. Coil charges $5 a month, giving users the ability to surf a large variety of sites (and growing), including premium content and special features. To receive payment, publishers simply need a digital wallet capable of receiving payments via ILP.

Coil doesn’t replace subscription services or advertisements. What it does do, however, is unlock the siloed site-by-site subscription model and reduce the complexities of content consumption. While producers can still offer their own subscriptions for all or some of their content, Coil gives consumers the option to visit a site and pay for just one piece of content. Also sites can offer special features like turning ads off for a small fee. As providers expand, more and more content will become available for consumers as different monetization strategies develop.

Many of you who follow Ballet Rising will have noticed that our videos are being hosted on Cinnamon.Video. This is a video hosting site, like YouTube, that is monetized using Coil. Likewise, Coil subscribers also get instant access to our premium content.

For more detailed information on Interledger, the web monetization API and the potential future of web monetization see Three futures: Exploring the future of web monetization.

Despertares Ballet Gala, Mexico

How Can the Arts Benefit?

The implications for easing the process for consumers to view the performing arts online are obvious and will undoubtedly lead to greater demand. But will arts companies begin to stream every performance? Probably not—and this is why web monetization is a great option for the performing arts. Individual companies and artists will retain freedom to determine what they put online and how they do it. Some companies may stream a live performance for a limited number of people. Others may show only pre-recorded events. A company could stream a gala for one category of attendees who pay at a higher price but then make the same performance available at a lower rate later in the season.

Rather than fearing the growth of digital content, artistic leaders should use this expansion as an opportunity to get creative about showcasing their work in ways that encourage people to come into performing spaces. Similarly, these technologies should be viewed as democratic options that allow artistic leadership to retain control of their content and individual artists to monetize their work even before they overcome the major hurdles to getting their arts on large, closed platforms. The best part is that these strategies can be utilized by anyone: from dancers to filmmakers to photographers, designers, and others. Everyone stands to benefit.

Artists are more eager than ever to connect with potential fans in every corner of the planet, and web monetization can make these aspirations a reality in a way that is sustainable for the artists themselves. This new shift to digital has launched the arts into a new area that will expose and connect millions of fans and future fans like never before. The future for the arts looks bright!

The Grant For The Web

To learn more about web monetization and join in the movement to help create a more fair, open, and equitable internet for all creators, visit www.GrantForTheWeb.org. The Grant For The Web is a $100 million fund that aims to help creators and developers realise this bold new vision for a better internet for all. Ballet Rising was a 2020-2021 grant recipient.

You can also watch this interview with Casey Herd, Greg Hannam, and Briana Stuart, where they discuss web monetization, the Grant For The Web, and the performing arts.