Is the price right? Battling consumer perceptions in the arts
“Wine is valued by its price, not by its flavour”
- Anthony Trollope
It would be difficult to argue today that attendance and appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays are not, for the most part, restricted to the large niche of the middle classes. This is a pity, and interesting, given that his works are ridden with ribald language, iconoclastic storylines and slapstick humour. In his time, the plays were attended and enjoyed by the masses, ageless and classless. Such reach is the envy of productions performed today. High ticket prices charged by theatres – in a quest to secure enough funding every season to recoup the cost of production - must bear some of the blame. But does price, apart from acting as an immediate barrier to entry for some customers, also act as its own signifier of what the event entails, and the audience it is appropriate for?
In 2009, BBC’s Question Time hosted writer Bonnie Greer and, among others, Nick Griffin, chairman of the radical BNP. The ordeal was such that Greer was inspired to write an opera chronicling the evening’s events. Performed at the end of 2011, Greer hoped Yes would make an effective contribution to the UK debate on both immigration and racism. Such substantive content is what media like opera need in order to maintain relevance.”It’s relatively recently that opera has been seen as an entertainment for the elite”, Greer commented. “It used to be a populist medium – I’d like to play some role in reinstating that status”. This runs counter to other contemporary productions, such as Stockhausen’s operatic sci-fi saga Licht, recently performed in Birmingham. At one point, a string orchestra ascends into the air in helicopters, while later a cellist performs lying on the floor. It would be remiss not to mention the climax of the production, which, Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, fails to describe: “Space does not permit a description of the scene in which [a] camel defecates seven planets”. It is hard to imagine such fare being everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, it is this sort of seemingly self-interested, arcane and intellectually challenging art that is likely to turn people off an entire medium. Some institutions recognise this. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House hosted what they called the “first in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions”, around the question ‘Are opera and ballet elitist?‘.
In the past though, the Royal Opera House and other institutions have been too focused on short term gimmicks, with a focus on price, to get people through the door. The thinking is broadly logical: Why don’t more people come to the opera? / The opera is expensive / Lowering prices will attract more people to the opera. These three thoughts have plausible connections, but in reality little in common. Like ‘vulgar Marxism’, such an approach reduces the problem to its most simplistic attributes. It is a fallacy. Despite this, The Sun newspaper has in the past partnered with the ROH to offer tickets from GBP5-20. The scheme was a lottery system, guaranteeing few winners. It provides little opportunity for conversion into a regular customer. Meanwhile, both The Sun and the ROH achieve their aims of shifting brand perceptions. But there is far more that could be accomplished. The BBC reported positive reactions from those that took up the offer, “What The Sun is doing is fantastic – opening the opera up to people who wouldn’t normally be able to come”. This despite the fact that opera tickets are consistently available for GBP10 at the ROH, every season. Away from price, the English National Opera tried their own tactic in October last year, inviting people to enjoy the opera in “jeans and trainers”. But does the problem of democratising opera really have its answer in allowing people to wear denim? It seems absurd to think that a one-off event of such a nature could really attract new, long-term audiences. Indeed, The Telegraph reported on the affair, saying the ENO was missing the point, that in fact it was the “alluring glamour” of the medium that was what attracted audiences the world over; “It turns opera into an everyday thing, rather than something exceptional and magical”, wrote Rupert Christiansen. He elaborates on the problem,
“[Opera] can make for an atmosphere that outsiders and newcomers find exclusive and intimidating: it’s as though there’s a set of rules that nobody is going to explain or even admit the existence of. This… rubs up the wrong way against the Arts Council’s understandable insistence that the granting of subsidy via taxpayers’ money should mean open access at reasonable prices. Squaring this circle is a formula that nobody has yet managed to crack.”
The outgoing director of the ROH, Tony Hall – on his way to assume a new post at the BBC – wrote diary entries published last weekend in the FT. He wrote about the recent partnership established with the Theatro Municpal in Rio. Like the ROH, they are also looking to attract new audiences: “An idea I particularly like is where every seat in the house for a day a year is sold on the day for a real (about 33p)”. On the face of it this sounds noble and effective. Who wouldn’t want to see any form of entertainment, let alone an extravagantly produced opera, for a mere 33p? But let’s think about it. Doing this one day a year is miserly. It hardly encourages upselling, or long-term commitment. What it most assuredly encourages is that one day a year the opera house attracts plenty of press coverage as people line the streets queueing for such cheap tickets. Cheap tickets for one day a year is an act that smacks of condescension. And what of the price itself? Zeitgeist has written before about the power of behavioural economics. McKinsey have an interesting article on the study. To wit, for most people, consciously or otherwise, price is an overriding symbol of value. Price is used often, especially by premium brands, as a means of framing the product versus its peers. We often make irrational purchases on big-ticket items (a car being chief among these). Conversely, when something is cheap, especially when perceived as ‘too’ cheap, the consumer questions why it is at such a price, acting with suspicion. At its simplest, pricing tickets to the opera at 33p implies that it might not be something you would enjoy. The first reaction – often the most powerful – instilled in the consumer is one of trepidation.
Just as with the current government’s wrangling over minimum pricing policies for alcohol, the approach from the arts to occasionally allow the unwashed masses into their buildings misses the point. In the case of alcohol, the scheme was mainly invented to curb youth drinking, especially among the ‘working class’. But, as The Economist points out, “People on the lowest incomes, who are most price-sensitive, are surprisingly abstemious anyway; those in rich parts of the country, such as the south-east, consume copiously”. Shakespeare’s Globe does a good job of making the Bard’s plays accessible, with standing tickets for GBP5, something that Zeitgeist has taken advantage of several times over the years. It is one of the few artistic houses to have preserved this manner of watching a performance. It upholds tradition while at the same time ensuring the plays have access to a broader public. The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square offers a few standing tickets for every performance for a mere 10p. It’s a great idea to have this option as a constant as, apart from anything else, it increases the likelihood of having returning customers who can be upsold to – or cross-sold to in the bar downstairs. Zeitgeist imagines however that the theatre could easily get away with charging ten times the amount for a standing ticket, with zero depreciable effect.
There is no doubt that a certain amount of price elasticity indeed exists with items like tickets to the opera. But occasionally releasing cheap tickets is not the whole answer. There are larger questions here on arts funding and the absence of dedicated, large-scale philanthropy in the UK that have not been discussed here, but will be important in encouraging accessibility to the arts. Earlier we mentioned the recent debate the ROH hosted asking whether people thought opera and ballet to be elitist. The problem with such a question is it immediately consigns the word ‘elitist’ to a pejorative category. One of the greatest points Jon Stewart ever made – now some years back – on The Daily Show, was that the word ‘elite’ should in some contexts be a good thing, something to be embraced. That some people excel in a certain discipline is something to be celebrated. That some art transcends others, is beautiful, challenging, creative and stimulating is something to be cherished. Instead the word and concept have become uniformly demonised. Though one could easily question ‘canon’ texts in any medium, there should be no need to mask something that is perceived as being ‘high art’, rather attention should only be paid to debunking any preconceptions about its exclusivity. Quick price gouges are most certainly not the answer to improving access to these forms of art. It takes time, relevance and above all a security in the knowledge that not everyone has to enjoy every type of entertainment. Just provide them with opportunities to be sufficiently exposed to it, without making it seem like you’re deigning to include them.