Andrew Eaton-Lewis: In an ideal world, people would pay what they want for art
I HAD a great idea for a Fringe production last week. Its working title is The Shrinking Universe.
The first performance is an hour long, like most Fringe shows. Every subsequent performance is two minutes shorter so that, by the end of the month, the entire show has to be condensed into not much more than a minute.
This began as a joke, but since then I’ve spent a worrying amount of time obsessing over practicalities. How much would you charge for a ticket? Simple, you charge slightly less throughout the month (or, if you wanted to be provocative, more). How would you go about making it exactly two minutes shorter each time? Not that difficult, if you work from timed sound cues on a laptop, which are edited down slightly each day. I’m not sure what would actually happen in the show yet, but give me a week...
What I do know is that, as recession bites ever harder, and the expanding Free Fringe offers ever more alternatives to paying, say, £15 to see similar shows at a big venue, the idea of value is now a major preoccupation at the Fringe – so an artistic exploration of that could be interesting. Is it possible to condense all the best ideas from an hour’s worth of material into two minutes without dumbing those ideas down, and if you could, would those two minutes be better value than the hour-long version? And would it therefore be worth paying more for, rather than less?
Last weekend Michael McIntyre charged £35 a ticket for a show labelled a “work in progress”. This provoked moral outrage in some quarters, but why? All stand-up comedy is work in progress, because, as an art form, it works best when it feeds off audience reaction. What would constitute a “finished” stand-up comedy show? Surely only one that is entirely scripted, which would arguably not be stand-up at all, but a piece of theatre. In fact, a “work in progress” is arguably better value for money than a “finished” show, since you get to see a comic pushing themselves and taking risks rather than coasting along on familiar, well-practised material that they know will work.
Then again, perhaps it was just the idea of anyone charging £35 a ticket for a comedy show that was offensive to some people. Whether it’s McIntyre or a comedian you haven’t heard of on the Free Fringe, it’s just a person standing at a microphone. How can one person standing at a microphone be worth £35, and another worth nothing?
The obvious answer is that neither of them is “worth” any particular amount of money. They just happen to cost what they cost, for reasons that are entirely to do with economics, and nothing to do with art, or value.
Anyway, in an ideal world, I think, people would always pay what they want for art. It tends to be assumed that this is a fatally flawed model, because if people can get away with paying nothing then they will. The internet has provided a lot of evidence that this is true, as struggling record labels and publishers will attest. The Free Fringe, though, often suggests the opposite, with many performers saying they have made more money on the Free Fringe (from donations) than they did when they charged for tickets. It would be fascinating to see the entire Festival operate on a “pay what you want” model – and to see who thrived financially and who didn’t. It could offer an interesting alternative to the star ratings system. Across the city, perhaps, you’d start to see posters proclaiming: “£20 – The Scotsman.”
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