Turning the spotlight on ticket pricing

Arts Council England,
11 September 2007, England

Box office income remains a sacred cow and a neglected art when it comes to setting budgets in arts organisations. However, a new collection of essays commissioned by Arts Council England – Call it a tenner: the role of pricing in the arts – exposes and debunks some of the myths and legends surrounding ticket pricing and the cost of entry into arts events. Essays written by leading names in the arts provide a fresh perspective on the art of setting ticket prices. The book also includes recent case studies highlighting ways in which organisations can square the virtuous circle of developing audiences and maximising income.
At the annual ritual known as budget preparation, finances are pored over and fingers are crossed. But, as Craig Hassall, Managing Director of the English National Ballet, explains in his Foreword to Call it a tenner: the role of pricing in the arts, more time is invariably spent on the expenditure column rather than the one marked ‘income’.
“Ticket pricing is treated as somewhat of a sacred cow. We approach change with great trepidation. As many of us receive a range of subsidies from government, there is a tacit unwritten code that we must not, in any way, be seen to engage in commercial tactics.
“We are not beholden to shareholders to deliver juicy profits, nor are we driven purely by the bottom line. Why then, are we not allowed to seriously consider ways in which we can maximise income from the box office as well? “
Ticket pricing is an area shrouded in myths and legends. The days of roll tickets and wizened box office managers clutching a cash-tin are behind us – however, many of the customs and practices remain. We are now in a competitive market where a night at the ballet competes with cinema, cable television, football, YouTube and a great meal out.”
Call it a tenner: the role of pricing in the arts aims to share best practice among arts organisations, mainly from the UK but also abroad. In a series of Pricing in Practice examples, it shows what is currently being achieved through innovative work at Hall for Cornwall and the Royal Centre Nottingham, Welsh National Opera’s subscription scheme, a new approach to rural pricing by Pentabus and the CBSO’s imaginative ‘January Sale’ pricing initiative among others.
As the book’s editor, writer and arts consultant Richard Ings, acknowledges, success at the box office can never be guaranteed and audiences’ tastes are unpredictable to say the least:
“There are no formulas to follow and no one instance of success which can be transferred entire and unchanged to a different context,” he adds. “This is not a ‘how to’, more a ‘why – or why not?’ guide, intended to challenge assumptions and to encourage out-of-the-box thinking about pricing.
“Above all, it is about the need to recognise how important pricing is and what a trick we are missing if we don’t transform it into an active strategy tool.” 
Although the bulk of coverage in Call it a tenner: the role of pricing in the arts is weighted towards venues and the performing arts, all arts groups, touring companies and festivals will benefit from the advice, ideas, inspiration and illustrations. Arts Council England hopes it fuel interest and debate in this often under discussed subject.