Regular readers of this blog will know already just how much I bang on about the high cost of theatre tickets and the sorts of ways, both devious and more transparent, that theatre producers and owners use to earn yet more money from their face values, with an insidious spread of additional charges from restoration levies to booking fees, and the new rise of premium seating that has pushed top prices towards the £100 mark for many shows.
Naturally the theatre is both a luxury item and operates in a commercial market place, so it charges partly what the market will bear against the costs it incurs on making shows in the first place; and fortunately, that market has been pretty buoyant over the last few years, with SOLT recording year-on-year rises in revenues, so who’s complaining?
Well, I am (and I don’t even pay for my tickets, for the most part). I want theatre to be a living, breathing, popular art, available to all and not just the super-rich. I also want it to stick around for the future: my job depends on it. But I love it, too, and I want others to be able to share that love.
That doesn’t mean I think it should be given away. We live in a world where there’s nowadays an expectation that a lot of entertainment is free, whether legally or illegally, like music and film downloads; but the live event, unique and unrepeatable, can at least still be policed at the point of entry. (Yes, it can be illegally filmed and posted on youtube, or even officially transmitted live into cinemas around the country and world via NT Live, but that’s a different experience to seeing it live in person).
But I fret that the point of entry for theatre is being denied for many, and the inexorable rise of theatre tickets creating a perception that it is simply unaffordable now. And what was really an anecdotal suspicion before is now being backed up by hard facts: last week The Stage ran a West End ticketing special, in which they took a snapshot of the West End right now, and made some interesting discoveries.
The average top price ticket for West End shows, excluding the subsidised venues like the Barbican and National, is now a staggering £81.17. Best tickets for commercial musicals average £86.53, with plays at £74.83. The most expensive ticket for a musical is for Billy Elliot at £97.50, while for a play it was just 50p cheaper for The Ladykillers that closed last weekend.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that these are the prices that are actually being paid, but they represent prices that are being actively sought. The ‘book price’ is really only a guide price, and the West End has descended into something of a street market with lots of competing offers available to try to lure customers to sample these goods rather than those. As I once heard in Berwick Street market, “Only four apples for a pound”, and his linguistic error made me wonder precisely where the bargain was.
You may well wonder where the West End bargain is, too, when the discounted price available through an agency for an upper circle ticket for Long Day’s Journey into Night, usually £48.50, comes down to £46: it’s breathtaking to me that an upper circle seat costs nearly £50 in the first place, let alone that there’s such a paltry discount.
But then the tickets in the Apollo’s ghastly balcony are a staggering £30.50 list price, that the same agency offer makes available for £24.50. Long Day’s Journey into Night happens to be a terrific production — this week’s Time Out review has awarded it five stars — but at those prices to sit as far away from the stage as possible, who’s going to buy them?
Commentators often look at the most expensive seats to point out how pricey the West End is; but as I’ve just shown, its the bottom end of the market where the real threat to its future lies. Those are the seats where, as a teenager, I saw most of my first West End shows, dreaming of the day when I’d be able to get closer to the action (and sometimes doing so when I’d sneak downstairs in the interval to an empty, better seat); but now audiences are being driven out of those, too, by the price. The Stage survey found that the average cheapest ticket for commercial shows is now £23.85, with musicals at £27.22 and plays at £19.52.
But beyond the ticket price, audiences are facing the spread of additional charges, and as The Stage survey also found, these can be as much as £12.25 for a ticket booked online for We Will Rock You.
That’s, of course, at one extreme (and it could be argued that customers for We Will Rock You are unlikely to be regular theatregoers but rather rock fans, who are used to paying high booking fees), while other shows don’t charge a booking fee at all.
Ticketmaster, the provider of We Will Rock You’s online ticketing, defended the fee by telling The Stage, “It’s important to note that Ticketmaster does not unilaterally decide on the level of fees to be charged. There is still a fundamental lack of consumer understanding about why ticket agencies charge per ticket service charges. In many instances, these fees are the sole revenue stream to a ticket agency. However, these fees do not just relate to the cost of processing the consumer’s booking and the distribution of the actual tickets. In many cases, they cover the cost of Ticketmaster providing a broader range of services to our clients, including retail, customer service, marketing and technology support.”
I don’t think that the customer, though, cares what other additional services they are supplying, and just why they should be footing the bill in any case for those services. Somehow, by this reckoning, the customer is being charged for marketing to attract them to the buy those tickets in the first place. How, though, can that be an additional charge? Surely it’s all part and parcel of the delivery of a show to its audience.
Just as the restoration fee appears as another small, but infinitely annoying, additional charge, too. You don’t go to the check-out at Tesco’s and get hit by an additional £1 fee for the privilege of having shopped there, to maintain its tills; but just as Tesco’s now routinely invites you to use the self check-out tills so you do the work for them, so in the online environment the customer nowadays is invited to print out their own tickets at home, yet still pays a service charge for doing so.
As Bette Midler once famously said of being asked for a fee on exiting a toilet in Paris, “But I did it all myself!” She didn’t, though, clean the toilet afterwards; I realise that that there’s likewise an infrastructure cost in maintaining the web service. But customers might rightly balk at a fee that is £12.25 extra.