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Ladies and Gentlemen, Lower Your Prices

Line outside Nuyorican Poets Café. Photo by Claudio Papapietro, for the Wall Street Journal.

If you ask the young spectators who line up outside the Nuyorican Poets Café each week why they’re drawn to our shows, you’ll hear a range of reasons. Audiences find the spoken word events we host empowering, energetic, and inventive. But there’s one common factor that appeals to most of the Café’s youthful spectators: tickets to our shows are cheap.

Many arts venues raise admission prices from time to time, when operating costs increase or contributed income falters. But cultural entities that hike ticket fees drastically accelerate gentrification, stultify creativity, and drive away the next generation of arts audiences. And larger organizations’ price hikes can inflict disproportionate damage on the cultural ecosystem.

Arts venues have plenty of valid reasons to raise prices. Utility expenses, insurance costs, and mortgage or rental fees increase; major donors become minor donors; corporate sponsors fly away; and labor costs rise. Higher ticket prices can bestow legitimacy on a cultural offering, while lower prices can undermine perceived value. If everyone else charges fifty dollars for admission and you charge twelve, the public might be skeptical of your show.

So we raise prices to plug holes, we raise prices to build reserve funds for a lean winter ahead, we raise prices to connote value, and we raise prices because other folks are raising prices.

But the actions of our cultural entities are inextricably linked to the fates of our communities. And price hikes have repercussions beyond the walls of arts venues. Consider what happens to a neighborhood when its cultural centers raise ticket fees. After a price hike, the artists and staff who depend on an arts venue for their livelihood need to work harder to get spectators in the door, even though the increased ticket prices probably don’t lead to increased staff or artist pay. Moderate-income ticket buyers who used to patronize shops, bars, and restaurants near the arts venue have less money to spend in the neighborhood because of the ticket hike, while ritzy audiences who can easily swing the higher admission fees seek more upscale food, drink and shopping than the neighborhood offers.

The price of a ticket is every bit as connected to cost-of-living increases as is the monthly rental rate of a house or apartment.

So fancy new businesses move to the area and cater to the influx of wealth. Existing businesses either upgrade their appearance and offerings to satisfy the new, deeper-pocketed spectators, or close and move away. The neighborhood appears more exclusive, so landlords raise rents, investors buy up buildings and property values rise. Longtime residents and local businesses suffer.

After all, ticket sales are rent payments in microcosmic form. When you buy a ticket to any form of entertainment, you are renting a seat or a square foot of floor for a couple of hours. The price of a ticket is every bit as connected to cost-of-living increases as is the monthly rental rate of a house or apartment.

So ticket hikes can encourage gentrification. They also discourage attendance by young audiences. The higher the average price of a venue’s tickets, the more rapidly that venue becomes inaccessible to young professionals, students and artists, who cease to consider it among their cultural options. And the further that a neighborhood’s arts venues raise ticket prices, the more young spectators seek out other neighborhoods (or cities) with more affordable culture options and standards of living.

Another downside to ticket hikes: the higher a venue’s admission prices, the fewer risks it can afford to take. Many people will pay ten or fifteen dollars to see experimental works that flout convention and feature edgy artists. But spectators who pay forty dollars or more tend to expect a polished and reliable performance. And if audiences expect a high-priced venue’s shows to be polished and reliable, how consistently and effectively can that venue showcase innovative, controversial, or rising artists?

an audience watching a performance
Mr. Barden, seated with glasses, waiting to compete at a Wednesday Night Slam at the Nuyorican. Photo by Willie Davis, for the New York Times.

A large venue that makes main stage programs unaffordable to young audiences endangers its own future, and the future of its neighborhood, city, and industry.

Jumps in ticket pricing are not always destructive. A tiny performance space with a leaky roof and one full-time staffer has little choice when expenses climb: raise ticket prices or abandon ship. And price differentiation can sometimes help lower-budget venues; the fifteen-dollar ticket at a tiny theatre might look more attractive to young and cost-conscious patrons when compared to the forty-dollar ticket at a large theatre next door.

But large cultural entities garner more publicity and have a wider range of income sources then do tiny venues. The work of large organizations disproportionately impacts the public image of a neighborhood, and thus the property values and affordability of that neighborhood. So when the managers of a large arts venue boost the price of tickets, they’re choosing short-term gains over the long-term sustainability of their neighborhood’s cultural ecosystem.

When we read about cultural offerings in Brooklyn, we most often read about BAM, a venue where main stage tickets run from thirty-five to seventy dollars, and not about small spaces like Triskelion, where tickets max out around sixteen dollars. To be fair, large cultural entities like BAM, the Kennedy Center, 92Y, and Lincoln Center's resident companies present many free and low-priced programs. But their core events—the programs that define those venues’ brands and allure, and command the majority of their marketing and publicity efforts—are also their highest-priced and least accessible offerings. A large venue that makes main stage programs unaffordable to young audiences endangers its own future, and the future of its neighborhood, city, and industry.

Some large cultural venues have initiatives that help young crowds attend main stage shows. The Roundabout, for instance, offers twenty-five-dollar tickets to its Broadway productions for spectators younger then thirty-five. When such initiatives are broadly advertised, they attract youthful audiences. But too often, student and young professional rates are hidden in ten-point cursive font at the bottom of a pricing chart, and exist mainly to fulfill grant requirements.

My fellow arts leaders, the next time you find yourselves asking, “Why don’t our audiences include younger people? Why is our neighborhood gentrifying? Why aren’t we staging more innovative shows and developing young talent?”—rethink your admission prices and your outreach strategy.

Want to attract the next generation of ticket buyers, maintain an affordable neighborhood, foster creativity, and nurture young artists? Ladies and gentlemen, lower your prices.

a line outside a venue
People line up at the Nuyorican for a recent Moth story slam. Photo by Michael Falco, for the New York Times.


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Thank you for this insightful article. The link between ticket prices and gentrification is real. I've watched it happen in Denver. I think $12 is about the max. for a ticket. I am a working (and not so young) professional who can't afford $20 for shows, let alone $30-$50. Not worth it to me.

If we wonder why our theatres are empty, but the music venues up the street are packed, we should look at what they're charging for a cover (often $5-$10). Of course, we have much greater expenses (and don't sell beer by the keg-full). Nonetheless, to the "consumer," it's all the same. Where can they go and have a great time at a low expense?

As most of us know, ticketing pricing and audience development is a complicated issue. While I agree that keeping ticket prices low is ideal, how are we to properly pay artists for their work? Or present productions in an accessible neighborhood? Or afford a marketing team to promote the show or a grantwriter to access much-needed, supplemental funding? I think the answer is in maintaining a balance between high and low cost tickets. Creating and loudly promoting discount tickets to students or people under a certain age can work well to engage new audiences who will one day, hopefully, buy full-priced tickets. But it's also a necessary evil to charge higher ticket prices to those who can afford it.

In NYC you can't even find an Off-Broadway show with a ticket price under $100. I expect a profound, life changing experience for $100! Recently I only paid $25 to see Antigone at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Now that was a profound experience! I thought it was the greatest performance I've ever seen on a stage. And it was bargain.

While I agree that higher prices filter out a some of the people we'd like to attend our shows, I'm not sure simply lowering the price is feasible or likely to have a huge effect. I've done a lot of ticketing through my company BuyPlayTix.com and if there's any correlation between number of tickets sold and price it's very hard to tease out.
I think ticket prices being low is necessary for all the reasons you suggest around audience building, experimentation and social justice. That said, I think we need to do that by organizing and fighting the primary reason ticketing prices keep going up - rent. And the primary reason rents keep going up - limited available space. I'd love to hear creative ideas from other cities in fighting anti-change elements and foster abundant and affordable theater space.

He makes a valid point. I would add that once a theater raises prices to the point that only higher income patrons can attend - regularly (and that's what theaters want, right?) - the theater may also have to cater to the preferences of that audience and may hesitate, just a little, to produce something they like but that's on the fringe of their typical season, or new work, particularly by a lesser known or unknown writer.