#TBT: Bowling Alone — Why Live Entertainment Is More Valuable Than Ever

Happy #TBT! Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Bowling Alone — Why Live Entertainment Is More Valuable Than Ever.

For those of you who’ve heard my “Two Bruces” talk, you’re familiar with the example of a record and a concert ticket in 1985 being worth about the same amount, whereas now [circa 2009], the ticket’s worth about six times more than the record.

Notice, though, that this is a bi-directional phenomenon: Not only has recorded and broadcast stuff dropped in value; live entertainment has also risen. Well, we know how iPods, cable, the internet and all the rest of the technology has made it cheaper and easier to get the recorded/broadcast product, but what about the other side? Why has live gotten more valuable?

In 2000, a man named Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone that had a major impact on my thinking. In it, he uses massive amounts of data to demonstrate that Americans (and not just Americans, but he focused on our country) “have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures.”

He points out that more people are bowling than ever, but participation in bowling leagues is at a low, thus the title “Bowling Alone.”

And not just because of those hideous shirts, either. Putnam credits a wide range of social and technological factors that have pushed people apart. For example, he talks about commuting as a destroyer of “social capital.” That is, the more you commute to work, the less developed your social capital is, and his rule of thumb is that every 10 minutes of commuting reduces your social capital by 10%. (It’s not clear whether that’s one way or total. Maybe we’ll contact him with a few questions.)

In the last 25 years (approximately since my 1985 example), Putnam sites a drop in “attending club meetings” of 58%. But even more startling is that even “having family dinners” has dropped by 43%. That means that “social capital” even among families is dropping, and if you don’t have social capital within your family, you probably don’t have it anywhere.

What does this mean for live entertainment? We’re one of the few places where people still want to and can rekindle those associations on a regular basis. It gives people a context for being with each other and, in fact, building social capital.

That, because of its scarcity, makes it more valuable. Prices go up.

So what should our business do? No one likes the idea of profiting from the unhappiness or dysfunction of society. Instead, we ought to see ourselves as one of the key building blocks at improving our nation’s social capital. How can our entertainment give people a way to build connection and socialize with each other?

This is another reason to understand that it’s not just about the show (and it’s sure not about the ticket); it’s about an overall experience.

P.S. I’m going to spend some time thinking about how social networking fits into this. Those tools certainly help you maintain relationships with people you already know much more easily than you could before. That should foster the development of social capital. For building new relationships, the tools can work, but in that area, they’re much more limited.

Before I say something stupid, it requires more thought.

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