Pay What You Decide: Is it Beneficial for Arts Organisations?
Does ‘Pay What You Can’ pay off?’ was the question asked by pricing consultants Baker Richards in Arts Professional last week. Remembering my commitment to using my energy more efficiently, I tried not to get too exercised about the rather negative tone of the article. However, in my view, it rather misses the point.
As ARC has form in this area – we were one of the first venues to introduce ‘Pay What You Decide’ as part of our commitment to audiences and artists – I thought a different perspective may be useful.
The piece suggests existing customers are the people benefitting from PWYC schemes, as evidence points towards new customers being more likely to purchase high price tickets. It quotes ARC’s own policy, suggesting our scheme is positioned to make it cheaper for people to come more often. Actually our scheme is primarily to help more people come (thus increasing accessibility and artists’ exposure) – and it does.
Baker Richards’ evidence seems to be based on the recent Arts Professional pricing survey, which didn’t ask any questions specifically about PWYC schemes. The article refers to two different producing theatres, one of which only offered one PWYC performance per production.
It makes some good points: developing audiences requires thinking about your programming too; and offering cheap tickets isn’t enough, it’s about how those offers reach people.
To our knowledge, ARC is one of only two UK venues to offer PWYD pricing on its entire theatre and dance programme – the other being the brilliant Slung Low in Leeds, originators of PWYD. We absolutely acknowledge that we operate in a particular place, with a context, business model and mission that seeks to make wide community, social and artistic impact. Nevertheless we feel we can provide useful evidence of what PWYD can achieve.
ARC has operated PWYD on all theatre and dance performances since January 2015. In the first two years, audiences increased by 44%.
Audiences in 2019 are 86% up compared to 2014, our last full year of fixed ticket pricing – well above our target growth of 3-5% per year. The percentage of PWYD audiences new to ARC is between 8-14% each year, with a much higher percentage new to theatre (ie crossing over from other art forms we present).
You can read more about what we have achieved with PWYD, and how, in our free toolkit downloadable here. Venues from as far afield as the USA and Australia have been in touch and visited us to find out more. Many UK and global venues and festivals use it tactically and strategically within their wider pricing approach.
I could write at length (and have done) about PWYD but here are a few specific responses to comments in the article:
- It is not about offering shows for free or devaluing productions; we never use the word ‘free’ in association with PWYD.
- It can actually increase people’s sense of value, as they have to think about it. As this student from The Northern School of Art said recently ‘having the decision about how much to pay for a show changes the concept of how you view it.’
- It is not an income generating tool, it is an audience development tool (although our box office income has increased since we introduced it).
- It is not about offering ‘cheap tickets’, like other ticket discount schemes, but rather about putting the decision-making about value in the hands of your audiences.
- Whilst it does address affordability, its key benefit is in reducing financial ‘risk’ for the customer – particularly important when presenting new work or inviting people to their first experience of theatre or dance.
- PWYD does ‘affect the position in respect of VAT and Gift Aid’ – what the article doesn’t say is that it is a positive effect, not a negative one.
- I agree that it is ‘patronising to those with disposable incomes who aren’t arts attenders to say we’ll make it cheap to get you to come’. That’s never been our messaging platform. I also believe it’s patronising to offer people without disposable income free tickets. PWYD avoids this – everyone in the room is there on equal terms.
No pricing scheme should be seen is isolation – whatever the scheme, the context and implementation are as critical as the price itself. For us, it’s working.
PS The article describes PWYD as ‘reducing the monetary risk (though not the time invested) of attending’. Sorry we haven’t been able to invent a time machine yet…