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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Price Elasticity of Pay-What-You-Want

"The drama's laws, the drama's patrons give,
For we that live to please, must please to live."  Samuel Johnson.

I've still to sit down and crunch the numbers properly, but Pay-What-You-Want is an odd beast.  We all know about price elasticity based on demand - the more people want something the more they are willing to pay, working in ratio with the supply of goods on offer.
Pay-What-You-Want doesn't work that way - partly because the supply/demand side is a done deal.  If you've got into the show, you've got into the show - there's no pre-bargaining over price.  So you pay what you want to pay afterwards.  And that's where things get interesting.
We live in a consumer society.  We know the price of everything - we value things in part because of the price.  If it costs a lot of money it must be worth that money, rather than the other way round.  So Pay-What-You-Want confuses people.  Here's a not untypical conversation.

AUDIENT:  So, how much is it?
ME:  It's Pay-What-You-Want.
AUDIENT:  So, how much is that?
ME:  Whatever you want.
AUDIENT:  So, five pounds... ten pounds?
ME:  It's whatever you want to give.
AUDIENT:  Yes, but how much is that?  I mean, how much do people usually pay?

And so on.  I don't give an advised price, because that seems to defeat the purpose - I might as well just say give me x and sell tickets.
Often people try to pay upfront.

AUDIENT:  Right, so you'll want money now?
ME:  No, after the show, when you can judge how much you think the show deserves.
AUDIENT:  Right.  Are you sure?

Yes, yes I am.  Partly because I'm confident that this show is a good 'un and that people are generally nice.  This has backfired only once, not because people stopped being nice but when a show went down... shall we say the reaction was mixed.  On that occasion I took half what I would normally take.  The part of me that has grown up in this consumer world was more hurt by this than the rather less black and white feedback after the show.
So, having done this one show for x number of performances, what is the average return?  To get down to brass tacks.  Well, it varies and it doesn't.  Individually the audience gives wildly different amounts of money - from a couple of quid, up to thirty/forty pounds in one instance.  However, the total take at the end of most shows is fairly consistent - regardless of the size of the house.
Everyman is a show designed for small audiences, it functions better when the house is small - but I always worry that this means I won't hit my budgeted return.  In this, I am proved relatively safe thanks to what I will call Price Elasticity of Audience Size.  I.e. The smaller the audience, the more they give.  Whether it's because they feel that I might be out of pocket because they are fewer, or because the show is more effective (both at times are true) the smaller audience almost always gives more.  If for the former reason then I feel bad, because they're giving money in the false understanding that I haven't budgeted for a low turn out (I have - all my shows are budgeted on the assumption that next to no one will turn up) or that they feel embarrassed in some way (again, a false position because the show functions best when there are fewer in the audience).
But they give, and I am thankful, because it does make a difference.
What is sadder is not that the smaller audience gives more for the wrong reasons, it's that the bigger audience gives demonstrably less for possibly even worse ones.  The show isn't necessarily much better or worse from their end (my preferences are my own) but they give less.  I maybe doing my audiences down but I suspect this is because the audience makes a calculation.  "There are more people, so he's getting enough money from them, so I don't need to give so much."
Both calculations are understandable, but they're also quite depressing - because the point of Pay-What-You-Want it's not about group-think haggling over price, it's about giving what you can afford, what you think the show is worth and what you want.  But I fear audiences are not giving what they want, they're reacting to the group, thinking about what everyone else is giving, treating the art on offer not as one person giving to another, but as a reaction to a marketplace - as if they were assessing share price in the stock market.  Are we all so infected with the consumer mindset that we can't disengage from it after an hour with a morality play?
Not all my shows are Pay-What-You-Want.  After 18 plus months playing with the format I've decided to use it for my solo work only.  Partly this is pragmatic - when hiring/working with others we do need a better baseline to work with and Pay-What-You-Want (though stable enough return wise from the audience) can be hit by bad weather conditions and failure to turn up even when seats are reserved.  The payment of a ticket in advance means a budget can be properly assessed and payments balanced as we go along, based on reliable data.
But my solo work will remain largely Pay-What-You-Want because I can - because I only need to pay myself and my expenses - and I'll continue trying to forge connections with my audience, one-to-one, so that they are free to give WHAT THEY WANT, rather than WHAT THEY THINK EVERYONE ELSE IS.

Then again, I could just be being really patronising and the bigger audiences just thought I was shit.

The final performance of The Summoning of Everyman is tonight in Stisted Village Hall - www.milkbottleproductions.co.uk for details.

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