To charge or not to charge

Should festivals charge high ticket prices or ask for audience donations? Dan Harding weighs up the options

Ticket sales versus donations: it’s a real dilemma. At Wise Words, one of our most important considerations is making the creative arts accessible to all, so affordability is key when deciding on tricky issues such as managing artists’ fees alongside ticket prices to balance the books. (Let’s be honest – they never balance!)

Many of our festival events are aimed at families. We think fostering an interest in poetry and performance is key to developing a sustainable audience, investing in readers, writers and performers of the future. But family-priced tickets can be prohibitive, as anyone who has taken two children out for the day will know.

Read: Approach sponsors with pride, not cap in hand

So, in order to make our festival as appealing and affordable as possible, we try to make many events free, and endeavour to offset the loss of revenue from these events against the ticketed events for headline participants. But this is also not without problems; we still want to apply our ethos of ‘arts accessible to all’ to the larger events.

How to resolve this? Well, this year we have decided, where possible, to keep events either free or attractively priced, but to ask for donations from the audience. This is a big step for us, and one that has caused us to sit up late into the night, debating the ethics of doing so, filibustering long past the midnight hour.

There is a popular cultural perception that artists should be giving their services for free.

We don’t want the audience to feel obliged to put their hand in their pockets at our events, but we do need to make them realise that overheads are high, and goodwill (whilst in plentiful supply) doesn’t pay performers’ fees. We want to keep developing the festival into a sustainable event.

There is a popular cultural perception that artists should be giving their services for free. After all, they enjoy what they do, so it can’t really count as ‘work,’ can it?

Wise Words © Raphael Klatzko
© Raphael Klatzko

Let’s imagine you hold a party, to which you invite all your friends – some of whom are artists, some of whom are trade labourers. You wouldn’t think twice about asking your piano-playing friend to sit and play for your guests – I’ve often heard ‘You’re a singer, you wouldn’t mind just playing through the entire Sondheim Songbook for us as after-dinner entertainment, would you?’

But you wouldn’t dream of saying to your electrician-friend: ‘Oh, the wiring on the ground floor has gone to pot, you couldn’t just re-wire everything for me after dinner, could you?’ And you wouldn’t ask your plasterer mate to re-do the master bedroom whilst they wait for the other guests to arrive.

Artists often pursue solitary lives, devoting many hours to crafting, honing, practicing and delivering what they do; their fees stand in recognition not just of the end product they deliver, but also of the hours spent perfecting that product – be it a novel, a song-cycle by Schubert, a collection of poems, or a finished canvas.

It’s in this vein that we’ll be asking for donations at Wise Words events next month. Hopefully, it will allow us to invest in keeping our dynamic, creative and engaging festival open and accessible to as many people as possible.

Dan Harding is deputy director of music at the University of Kent, and is part of the Wise Words team. The festival runs from 4-6 April. This post originally appeared on the Wise Words blog.