Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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.


The Globe theatre has a simple, long-term strategy for attracting new audiences

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.

On Piracy

October 18, 2011 6 comments

The terribly dry yet fascinating Harper’s Magazine recently featured in its ‘Readings’ section an excerpted essay taken from a book, out this month, entitled Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy. The following is a summary and rebuttal of some of the key points made.

The excerpt begins in China, where intellectual property theft is, as most of us know, already rampant, and has been for several years. There are contributing factors for this. One is a market that allows around only 20 Hollywood films to be released every year. Another is the premium placed on legitimate DVDs sold in emerging economies like China. As The Economist reported in August, DVDs of The Dark Knight sell for $663 a copy in India. In China, the LA Times reports, counterfeit DVDs may have more special features than the genuine article. This last point taps into what most advocates of piracy usually tubthump; piracy gives people what they want. Not necessarily just regarding price – Zeitgeist would be hard pushed to fork out $663 for The Dark Knight – but also with regard to access and to functionality of the product. At The Future Laboratory‘s Spring/Summer trends briefing earlier this year, the emphasis was on loosening control over proprietary technology, collaborating with others in order to enhance innovation and ultimately help make the product better.

The product in question in this bazaar, however, is not DVDs; “There’s essentially just one product sold here: mobile phones.” The handsets are all knock-off, counterfeit items, playing on and abusing the brand equity of established companies with names like “Sansung”, “Motorloa” and “Sany Erickson”. It brings to mind the episode of the The Simpsons when Homer is duped by brands like “Panaphonics” and “Sorny”.

The competitive advantage for these products over their authentic brethren is the price. With no need for an R&D budget, the price of a “pirated Nokia N73 [is] $85, a fifth the cost of a real N73”. The author predicts sellers get an “extraordinary” 100% return on the initial investment. This, then, is big business. Big in the terms of holistic number of customers, returning multiple times, and big in the sense of the amount of profit it turns, and the number of people employed in such activities.

“The International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition… predicts that, with hundreds of thousands of industrial workers still facing unemployment and dislocation from the global recession, China will allow more piracy in order to prop up employment and avoid potential civil unrest.”

The author contends that this kind of behaviour is entrenched in society, and owes its debt to Bernard Mandeville, who argued for liberalising the market to the extent that things like tax-dodging, piracy and overcharging were “good for society”. The pamphlet in which he extolled his virtues became extremely well-known because pirates quickly got a hold of his six penny publication and distributed it in half penny sheets. This obviously made Mandeville no profit, but it raised his profile no end and, according to the author, “gave him the opportunity to publish a new edition”. Keeping as many people employed as possible, no matter the scrupulousness of their work, he argued, would lead to a better society than one dominated with excessive rules and regulations. And it seems, prima facie, that selling pirated goods allows access to consumers who can’t afford to pay full price. The difficulty, however, lies in whether the consumer can’t afford to or whether they just don’t want to. Whether someone whom a company would initially attempt to covet and convert to a prominent customer at a later age is instead lost to a world of pirated goods, which, not being subject to the same standards as the genuine article, ultimately disappoints the buyer and pushes them away from the brand entirely.

In a tale similar to that of Mandeville, the author Neuwirth suggests similarly that were it not for piracy, Shakespeare himself would also be confined to the realms of anonymity. During production of his plays, piracy allowed for other productions to run different versions – “King Lear was remade with a happy ending”, for example. In 1709, publisher Jacob Tonson bought the rights to the complete works, publishing them at a premium every fourteen years,  “enough to secure his perpetual copyright”. When one upstart pamphleteer threatened to sell the plays in sets for a fraction of the price, the argument that ensued resulted finally in Tonson flooding the market with plays sold at a penny.

“Shakespeare’s plays were suddenly available all over London at rock-bottom prices – something that had never been true even in the playwright’s lifetime. A century after his death, piracy helped make William Shakespeare a household name across social classes.”

Without deep research it is hard to dispute this intriguing interpretation, except to say that some of the adaptations of the plays may well have fallen under today’s terms of ‘fair use’, and that perhaps what this example really demonstrates is the need for a regulatory environment, one that stipulates that culture be accessible to all, rather than leaving it to excessive price gouging. Similar stories occur in the present-day as Neuwirth moves on to illustrate the situation in Peru, where “more books are sold in pirated editions than official versions”. The price for a legitimate copy of a book is too steep for most people to afford; thus the piraters are the ones that undertake market research, attend book fairs, etc. This is a dramatic fault with the publishing industry in Peru, which clearly has missed business opportunities here by not aliging prices sufficiently with customer demand. This again, then, is an example where regulators should be stepping in to correct market deficiencies. It is not necessarily an excuse for piracy to be celebrated. An absence of morality is not an imprimatur for immorality.

The Business Software Alliance affirms that in 2008, piracy cost software companies $53bn. The author rightly challenges this, writing that the BSA “assumes that every pirated program represents a lost sale at full retail price”. With relatively high prices for products like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, this thinking by the BSA is indeed questionable. In some cases, initial access to a pirated copy, much in the same way a legitimate trial version works, might well help incentivise the consumer to purchase the full, legal product. Interestingly, the author quotes a note, hidden away in the BSA’s results,

“‘Business, schools and government entities tend to use more pirated software on new computers than ordinary consumers do’. The government – the same entity that the industry calls upon to police piracy – is actually one of piracy’s largest patrons.”

This revelation is startling as it turns the notion that it is consumers who are the wrongdoers, consumers who need the educating, on its head.

The notion of piracy contributing positively to business turnover is a tough one though. The author contends that in the world of fashion, going from a world of ‘planned obsolescence’ (a term used for things like when BMW will decide to release their new version of the 7 series), to “induced obsolscence”, where piracy “spurs demand for new styles”. This may be so in some sort of roundabout way, but the presence of piracy can surely be said to do little for the customer trying to differentiate between the legal and the illegal product, and little for the brand. Louis Vuitton et al. have surely suffered considerable losses over recent years, and invested significant amounts of time and money on combatting piracy. Though an anonymous executive of a “major sneaker manufacturer” might concede piracy doesn’t really impact the bottom line, it is debatable as to whether this is the case for those in the high-fashion world.

Ultimately, while the rise of pirated goods allows consumers more options, it also requires them to be increasingly savvy about the products they are purchasing. An over-regulated environment may stifle innovation; collaboration among multiple entities has been proven to sometimes enhance the development of a product. Quality of craftsmanship is necessarily going to be harder to discern when purchasing a pirated good, though. The trick is to create a legal framework that allows businesses to thrive, to provide their customers with a product at the right price, and to employ people who are protected under laws that they would otherwise not be granted under illegal outfits.