I can't say that I have watched nearly as much online theatre over the last year as I would have attended live performances, but my commercial relationship to the experience has remained largely the same.
I expect to pay for online theatre content, whether by priced ticket or donation to the artists or a charity. My reasoning is naively simple: nothing is truly without cost to anyone—by what privilege can I take and keep taking at the expense of someone else?
It has always seemed unjust to me that people will watch street performers and then move quickly off when the hat comes round, deliberately dodging their side of the unspoken but clearly understood bargain.
It is the same with online theatre content. If you were going to a live theatre event, on the whole, you would expect to pay in advance for your ticket. So isn't it exploitative to watch those same performers who, through no fault of their own, cannot make a living, and pay nothing?
Those who watch and then turn off when the appeal for donations appears without ever reaching into their pockets leave me with the same feeling of cheating. Those who watch free content because they cannot afford to pay may be excused, but they can give payment in kind, helping shows with word of mouth, leaving comments and sending messages.
Those who can afford to donate something, should. Must, even. It doesn’t matter if the content is put out there with a view to tempting in new audiences, trying out untested material, or it has received funding; there is no entitlement to unlimited free theatre.
Or so I think. It was with this 'baggage' and a degree of interest, therefore, that I read the survey results of research looking at payment for online content.
A survey, Digital Programmes: interest, willingness to pay and customer journey, was conducted last year and resulted in 12,000 responses from members of the public.
Perhaps surprising is the revelation that content behind a paywall outperformed free content, particularly amongst the slightly older age groups where, for instance, 35- to 54-year-olds are more willing to pay for live-streamed performances than others, although 54% overall preferred the authenticity of live-streamed events.
In general, though, there was a strong preference for on-demand viewing, particularly amongst a slightly older age group (55 to 75), and who can blame anyone for a predilection towards having your cake and eating it when you want?
It could be concerning that engaging young people is a harder ask. Their screen time is directed elsewhere and reported lack of interest in digital art programmes makes them less likely to consume live-stream events, but—as a parent of young people—I can't help thinking that the sheer volume and range of content available and challenging employment landscape may also come into play.
In total, there were three surveys. Those whose target group was fifty-eight recognised festivals in the UK, Europe and the USA found that pay-for events online sold comparatively more tickets than previously, with the online offer reaching a new and often global audience.
The key takeaways for festivals and other content providers are that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle and digital content is here to stay, and that some audiences are prepared to pay for quality and unique online content for which there is a huge demand.
The fact that there is willingness to pay is something, but how much is also important and it appears that £16 is the average going rate per ticket to an online cultural experience. In and of itself, this figure is of limited use given the geographical and cultural range of the survey participants.
Of more value is the motive behind the payment, reportedly to support organisers, share experiences and discover new artists.
This is good news, because supplying everlastingly, unlimited volumes of high quality free content is an unsustainable model for artistic endeavour.
The research was commissioned jointly by Bergen International Festival and TicketCo Media Services (an integrated, cloud-based platform for events content) and conducted by Audience Norway and Rasmussen Nordic. The data was collected via three surveys across last year.