Why pay what you want is a risk well worth taking
Picture the scene. You’ve just heard that your favourite author is coming to town, to give a reading from their new book. You rush online to buy a ticket, and you’re faced with a surprising choice.
Either pay the set price for the ticket, or a different amount, or nothing at all.
If you want to go to the event for free, you can. You don’t have to prove anything about your financial circumstances, or sign any kind of declaration or waiver.
Total control is given to you, the customer, so that you decide how much you can afford to spend, or how you think the event is worth.
Impossible, scoff the cynics. Couldn’t happen. You may as well give away money in the street.
Well, the cynics are wrong. Because it is happening.
For the very first time, the Belfast Book Festival, which is held in the Crescent Arts Centre from June 10-19, has adopted a pay what you want policy for all its readings and events.
The recommended ticket price for each event is £7, but festival-goers have the option to pay less, more, or nothing at all.
The best-selling crime writer Ian Rankin, philosopher AC Grayling and Serena Terry, the creator of the Mammy Banter TikTok videos, are among the authors due to take part in the festival.
There’s also the builder and entrepreneur Harrison Gardner, New York Times journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, and TS Eliot prize winner Joelle Taylor, as well as plenty of home-grown storytelling talent, across more than 50 events.
All this, potentially for nothing? Don’t they risk people taking advantage, and tearing the you-know-what out of it?
Sophie Hayles, the chief executive of the Crescent Arts Centre, admits that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. The Crescent, like every other arts organisation, is struggling through some seriously straitened times.
But given the rising costs of living, she wants to make sure that anyone, whatever their personal circumstances, can attend the festival. She also hopes that it will attract new faces — people who have never been there before.
And, of course, audiences — which include many loyal fans of the Crescent, often going back several generations — are at liberty to increase, rather than decrease, what they pay.
“You can decide to pay more than the recommended ticket price, and in doing so you are both supporting others to attend, and supporting the Crescent and the Belfast Book Festival,” said Ms Hayles. “It’s a calculated risk and I’m sure we will learn a lot from it.”
Sometimes the risk pays off. Recently, I read about a long-established Pakistani restaurant in Vienna which operates on a pay as you wish basis. Diners pay according to what they think their meal is worth.
The restaurant is run by a couple called Natalie and Afzaal Deewan. Natalie was a student when they started, and Afzaal was an asylum seeker.
Asked how they manage to make money, or just break even, Natalie said: “We give trust and it comes back. We can trust in people’s capacity to think for themselves: if they did not pay at least a fair price and we therefore had to close, where would they find such a good meal for such a cheap price then?”
It’s a strategy which other arts organisations, festivals and venues have adopted too. Later this year, in August, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will be offering some pay what you want shows. But I have never heard of another festival throwing open its doors in this way.
I love the sheer audacity of the Crescent’s gamble, and the faith it shows in the fundamental decency of human nature: like Natalie and Afzaal Deewan, they are giving trust and trusting that it comes back.
And I like their refusal to ascribe a pre-decided value to events, not dictating which is worth more than another, but handing that choice back where it belongs — to the individual.
It’s a direct challenge to the prevailing notion that if something is free, it must be less desirable. In the age of rampant global capitalism, where so much of human experience is commodified, this is refreshing.
Unfairly or not, arts organisations sometimes get a reputation for being snobbish or elitist. What the Crescent is doing here, with the Belfast Book Festival, is the very opposite of that. They are welcoming everyone to their home, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they earn.
So why not take them up on the offer, and come on in?