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One Festival’s Journey to an Online Season

When COVID-19 reached Minnesota in March 2020, the Lakes Area Music Festival responded by quickly pivoting to virtual streaming performances, ultimately ending the summer as one of only a few festivals in the nation to produce a full season of concerts. Here’s how they did it.

Photo: Lakes Area Music Festival

For the past 12 years, Lakes Area Music Festival has brought live classical music to the Brainerd Lakes Area in Northern Minnesota every summer. The Festival uses a pay-as-you-can model and productions range from chamber music to symphonic orchestra – with productions of opera and ballet – performed by top artists from around the world.

Arts Midwest spoke with executive and artistic director Scott Lykins about how an engaged community sustained the organization’s artistic and financial success during COVID-19, the challenges and unexpected benefits of moving performance online, and the value of a pay-as-you-can model.

“Whatever we do this summer, we will have to be flexible until the day we start.” – Scott Lykins

On the origins of the Lakes Area Music Festival

I grew up in the Brainerd Lakes Area, and I went to study at the Eastern School of Music (ESM) as a cello performance major. Upon graduation, I returned home for the summer and invited a few of my colleagues from ESM to join me, spending time waiting tables while enjoying the lakes and outdoors that Brainerd is known for. We also decided to put on some concerts to stay in shape musically before moving on to post-graduate activities in the Fall. Each concert drew more and more people and at our final concert, 300 audience members packed into a church to enjoy music by Mozart and Tchaikovsky.

While this began as a little summer project, that community engagement made us realize that this was something we needed to continue. Since then, the unique community built around our music has kept the festival going, and it is now my full-time job leading the organization as executive and artistic director.

The watertower in the City of Brainerd, Minnesota, population 13,000. Photo: Tony Webster

On the Brainerd, Minnesota arts scene

Brainerd is a well-known tourism destination in Minnesota, especially during the summertime. The “Lakes Area” refers to the many popular lakes which draw throngs of cabin owners and visitors all summer long. While downtown Brainerd has a population of about 15,000, the summer influx of tourists and seasonal residents in the region is probably ten times that.

When I was growing up, there was always a strong music program in the public schools system where I started playing the cello; there are also several community music ensembles performing throughout the year. But even with that existing interest in the arts, when the festival began there was a lot of skepticism about the success of a classical music organization in Brainerd. Would people show up, and was a nonprofit sustainable?

Over the past decade, we have really developed an audience– providing world-class experiences for classical music fans, while remaining committed to accessibility and welcoming new audience members who have maybe never attended a classical performance before.

On the value of a pay-as-you-can model

While it is well-known as a tourist destination, downtown Brainerd was named the state’s poorest downtown community in a 2019 Wall Street analysis. From the beginning, our organization has presented all of our concerts without charge, instead encouraging attendees to donate as they are able. As a result, we can vast great socio-economic diversity in our audience.

The first year we started producing operas, 60% of our audience had never seen one before. By removing admission fees, we can reach people who may not try something that they are unfamiliar with if there was the burden of cost. This funding model has been embraced by our community of attendees and artists, collectively participating in the unique mission-driven culture of LAMF.

On pivoting in light of COVID-19

This time last year, we had lined up over 200 artists from the top ensembles and companies in the nation to produce a three-week season of chamber music and symphonic repertoire. We were preparing for our first opera by Richard Wagner, The Flying Dutchman, and had developed innovative ideas to incorporate ballet in a baroque opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Adding to the excitement, construction was under way for a brand new performing arts center in downtown Brainerd, and our programming was expanding towards the grand opening of that new summer home for our organization. We were very proud of the season to come, which was dependent on audiences coming together.

With that growth in mind, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was particularly devastating. Fortunately, the realization that we wouldn’t be able to produce our season as planned came at a crucial moment in our timeline. We knew that we would have to come up with something new, and remain flexible while thinking outside of the box in the remaining months before our August season. In a series of downsizing, we trimmed our roster down from 200 artists to about 40, paying a portion of the contracted fee to artists who were cut. We reprogrammed the season (several times), focusing on chamber music rather than full scale productions; we cut our annual budget by nearly 40%; and we decided to present our festival concerts online. Many safety measures were put in place for our artists: daily temperature checks; distancing and face coverings at all times; utilizing plexiglass barriers for winds and brass players who could not wear a mask; and expanding our rehearsal schedule to six weeks in order to minimize the number of artists in Brainerd at a time.

As a result, we presented 12 chamber music concerts over the first two weeks in August, and were one of only a few summer festivals in the nation to successfully complete a full season.

Photo: Lakes Area Music Festival

On the benefits of virtual performance

We didn’t realize at first that by going online, we removed the necessity for audiences to be in Brainerd at the time of the concert. Our season’s concerts had over 56,000 views, which is several times the number of people we would normally reach in a year. People from all over the world tuned in. Because of that success, our goals shifted to taking advantage of this opportunity to build our international audience and reputation. As we think about gaining new fans or reaching new funders, we now have these recordings to demonstrate the artistic quality of what we do.

On the technology involved

The world of recording was brand new to us, and understanding the technological challenges certainly wasn’t in our skillset. We have over a decade of experience producing live performances, but I don’t think we, or anyone involved in the project, really understood the full scope of what it would take. Moving from rehearsals to a recording session to an edited and fully-produced concert takes a lot of time. Through the first couple sessions we began to understand some of the complexities of both audio and video recording, and we, our musicians, and our recording engineers all learned a lot.

During a time when many are passing time watching Netflix and staring at a screen, an audience can be lost pretty quickly if the content doesn’t look polished and professional. In reaching audiences from around the world who had never heard of the Lakes Area Music Festival or Brainerd, we had to make sure that these streaming videos met the audience’s expectations for a quality artistic product.

Photo: Lakes Area Music Festival

On empowering audiences to feel part of the production

We have always relied on our audience to help spread the word, acknowledging that word of mouth promotion is the best successful way to attract new attendees. While solely digital, this summer was no different. We did a lot of peer-to-peer marketing. We had a lot of people in our audience who were spreading the word to friends and family, and with that dedicated audience, we were reaching new networks. In our postseason audience survey, 74% of the respondents said that they had forwarded the information or talked to someone who wouldn’t normally be able to attend in Brainerd.

We did all of our concerts streaming over Facebook Live, and had partner organizations who simultaneously streamed our concerts on their pages as well. Using Facebook as a platform gave the audience a chance to comment in real-time. At every concert, we had at least two or three team members ready to jump in and respond to those comments. Normally in a concert, you have to sit there quietly, but it was fun for people to comment in the moment, asking questions and saying things like, “Oh my gosh, that oboe solo was amazing!”

We learned what our audience liked and sometimes did not like about the new setting through those comments. The best positive feedback we got was about the new perspective the virtual performance offered. Typically when you go to a concert, you see everything that is going on from a distance. A lot of the videography of our concerts was close-up, and all of our music was intimate chamber music instead of a full symphony orchestra. Since the camera was only a few feet away, audience members had a completely different perspective, almost like they were sitting on stage with the artists. You could see their fingers moving; you could see their facial expressions and communication through their eyes and body movements. As a performer, I sometimes forget how unique that experience is; I’m used to sitting on stage and playing within a group all the time. But for many audience members who probably haven’t played in an orchestra or performed onstage, that perspective on stage is so different.

In our postseason survey, we learned that the majority of people agreed that we did an exemplary job pivoting our programming, and people still felt connected to our organization and our artists. But of course, everyone missed being able to interact with artists and experience the concert in person. There is that unique and impossible-to-describe experience of going to a venue, sitting amongst a bunch of people and witnessing something that is happening in the moment in front of you. Reunion with our community was missed.

Photo: Lakes Area Music Festival

On budgeting

Hiring the audio and video team was a tremendous new expense during a time when we were figuring out how we were going to make it through the season. Over the summer, it cost over $26,000 to have a crew make the trip to Brainerd and spend those days recording and editing. But on top of that, there is the difficulty of finding venues that will allow activities to take place. There are also different licensing and streaming rights to put music online. Many of our musicians are union members, and obtaining broadcast and digital streaming permissions from the union was a whole new set of expenses as well.

We count on a dedicated group of audience members to make our programs possible. When people tune in to our performances, they see a donation button to donate through Facebook. We take donations on our website as well, and we make sure that it is accessible during the concert stream. Compared to a normal summer, the donations that we received during the season were down about 60%. But we had a pool of donors who wanted to see us succeed and who donated for the sake of our organization and the continuation of our mission. Building a community around an art form is a big part of how we maintained our success this past year.

With the concerts we are doing this winter, we have also created a new giving program where supporters can become executive or associate producers, specifically to cover the costs of putting the performance online.

Photo: Lakes Area Music Festival

On planning for the future

We are planning very slowly and very cautiously. As news of the vaccine roll out fluctuates, so does our optimism for this summer. We have a new performing arts center in Brainerd, so even if the concerts are streaming, they will take place in this new venue and we can be the first to show our audience the inside of that building.

Whatever we do this summer, we will have to be flexible until the day we start, whether that means doing concerts online or having small audiences in person, or both. The experience that we had in 2020 – completely throwing out a season and starting from scratch to create something new – will help us in the long-run. This situation is also allowing us to step back and think, “What do we want to be doing in the next five years; what are the kinds of productions do we want to do; what are some new projects or commissions we would want to undertake? Who are the artists and composers whose voices we want to amplify?” Having a little bit of space gives an opportunity for us to plan further in the future and reimagine what the future of our organization, and the classical music industry, could look like.

Click to learn more about Lakes Area Music Festival

Their next digital concert is titled Transcending the Night and will feature singers from the Metropolitan Opera in a program spanning art song, jazz, spirituals, and opera. Tune in via Facebook Live on Saturday, February 27 at 7 p.m. (CST).