Talk Talk Talk Talk Talk Myself to Death: Pay What You Can

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Pay What You Can

The local Chicago public radio station is going through their fundraising drive, and I suppose that means the rest of the stations are going through theirs, too (and sure, go ahead and give, if you feel like it; it's a worthy cause). But this idea of listeners volunteering to give however much they want to (or not) has been going on for a long time--as long as I remember public radio and public TV. But it's very similar to something that a lot of theaters do. If they're trying to fill seats at a performance at which they're expecting a reviewer, they'll sometimes offer the deal to their friends or other people they might be able to bring into the theater. A few companies even build the opportunity into their schedule, calling it, "Pay what you can."

That's a loaded phrase, if you ask me. Part of it has an idealistic framing: Someone who couldn't otherwise afford to attend can pay a lesser amount--or, if they're truly hard up, they don't have to pay anything. That potentially broadens the show's audience, as well as the audience for the arts in general. Further, it leaves open the possibility that some sort of benefactor might want to pay above and beyond what a ticket would cost under normal circumstances. Of course, that brings up the question of if these people want to support the arts in such a way, why aren't they just donating in the first place.

But what does "pay what you can" really mean? I do OK, so I can afford to pay full price. But what if I'm short on cash when I'm going to a show? If tickets normally cost $15 but I've only got a five in my pocket and there's not time to go to an ATM, does that mean that I can short the production ten bucks? And what if I just don't feel like paying? If I'm going to a show I don't especially want to see but have been guilted into it because a friend of mine is in the cast, can I just go on a "pay what you can" day without any cash in my pocket and pay nothing? I shouldn't do it that way, of course, but that's a whole different question. And before you think that's an unlikely course of action, I have to relate something I saw more than once when we lived in LA. There are a lot of charitable benefits out that way, and many of them feature popular performers who people want to see. If you had enough clout (which by default also means that you had enough money), you could get comps to the benefit to see the performer you wanted to see. That's the ultimate "pay what you can"--if you can get away with paying nothing, you very well might.

I'm curious if anybody has any experience, successful or otherwise, with pay what you can. Public radio has traditionally reported that they get contributions from about 10 percent of their listeners. It was reported that 40 percent of people downloading Radiohead's recent In Rainbows experiment in "pay what you choose" distribution offered some amount of money (the average was under $6.00) which means 60 percent paid nothing. (Radiohead disputes those numbers, but they've offered nothing in their place.) Theater companies can't afford to take money from only 40 percent--or 10 percent--of theatergoers. Does "pay what you can" work better than that?


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