Friends’ Schemes: Playing on Greed?

7 Nov

I had an email this week from the Edinburgh Festival.  It told me that, at the next Festival, Cecilia Bartoli would be singing Norma in the Salzburg production for only three performances.  It helpfully set out the booking dates and pointed out that priority booking for Festival Supporters began in a week’s time with a useful link to help you pay £60 if you want to become a Supporter and get that priority booking option.

The message wasn’t stated but it was pretty clear.  This is going to be the hot ticket for the Festival; we can probably fill the Festival Theatre at least three times over for these performances. If you give us £60 you stand a better chance of getting a ticket.   This makes quite a hefty surcharge on seats that cost between £30 (for “no view”!) and £140.  And I imagine quite a lot of Bartoli and Norma fans will pay up just to improve their chances of getting a seat.  Of course, they can’t guarantee that you will get that get ticket and, if this marketing scheme is successful, presumably the chances will be even slimmer.  And is it, in fact, right for arts organisations to be marketing the Supporters schemes in this way.

This led me to think about the reasons why I join these schemes.  I’m a member of the equivalent schemes at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, the Wigmore Hall, the South Bank Centre, the Barbican, the RSC, the National Theatre and Chichester.  I’ve joined them for a mixture of four different reasons: a general feeling of benevolence to the organisation, to get information so that I actually know what’s on, to take advantage of priority booking and because of occasional discounts (if a couple of you go to half a dozen shows at Chichester, with the right combinations, you can save the cost of the membership).

How far those different reasons apply in individual cases will vary.  Priority booking is generally more important at the ROH, the Wigmore, Glyndebourne and the National either because of the shortage of tickets (the Wigmore) or the ability to choose seats in particular places and prices (the remainder).  Awareness of what’s going on is more important at the South Bank, the Barbican or the RSC where, generally, it’s not too difficult to get seats (though there can be exceptions – think about the Cumberbatch Hamlet).  However, all of them are places that I attend reasonably regularly and want to support.

And this was the original idea of most Friends/Supporters schemes.  They were intended for people who had more than an occasional relationship with the organisation – were regular visitors and who it was appropriate to reward with some benefits in return for that support, whether those be advance bookings, discounts, access to rehearsals or whatever else.  First, you’re getting a quick buck but will it be a lasting one?  The operatic fair at Edinburgh has been pretty mixed in recent years: I might pay the money for a chance to get to hear this Norma but I probably won’t stay.

More seriously, you may be offering something that you can’t deliver.  Being a Friend of the Wigmore Hall doesn’t deliver me all the concerts that I’d like (most times, I find that at least one is sold out).  Being a Friend of the Barbican still had me keeping an eye on the queue on one window of my computer for four hours an indifferent Cumberbatch Hamlet – it was lucky I didn’t have meetings that morning and could delay lunch.  And I decided that I needed to upgrade my membership of the Friends of Covent Garden to be sure of getting the tickets that I wanted (I’m pretty sure that the additional cost is offset by the savings, I make but, naturally, I don’t broadcast this fact).  I’ve been fortunate at Glyndebourne in my small number of years as a member of the Festival Society, but I wonder if that will extend to Meistersinger next year.

I don’t know how many people are Edinburgh Festival Supporters but I’m not naive enough to think that paying £60 is going to be enough to guarantee me seats.  But if I were an existing supporter, I’d be pretty irritated if my chances of getting a ticket to this have been reduced by people joining the scheme just for that very show.  They may be alienating the people who will be the continuing supporters.

And, also, isn’t there enough of a problem with opera’s image as a socially exclusive art form without, in effect, suggesting that you may need to pay a surcharge of between 40% and 200% of the face value of the ticket to increase your chances of getting one?

So I have strong doubts about whether that was an appropriate way of marketing the Supporters scheme.  I would be very interested to see Bartoli as Norma – a special singer and an opera I love. I could afford the £60 and I’d probably use the opportunity to see a couple of other things at the Festival. But I can’t really say that I’m a Festival Supporter – I’ve been to something once in the last 10 years, dislike the city at Festival time and, while there’s some attractive stuff there, it’s not usually enough to make me think it’s worth the journey from Sussex and to pay Festival accommodation prices.  Am I really the sort of person they want as a supporter?  Or is getting the money in more important than the values side?

I’m not sure what I’ll do.


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