Aldeburgh Festival - A classical treat if you pay enough

Members increasingly get first shout for tickets at events such as the Aldeburgh Festival. Join or prepare to queue for returns, says Jessica Duchen, although the organisations rely on public money

The other day, public booking opened for this year's Aldeburgh Festival. Helen Hayes, who runs a recording studio at the nearby Potton Hall with her husband, dashed to her phone, hoping to book seats to take their small son to hear the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. It wasn't to be. "I've just tried to book for the CBSO Rattle concert and it is sold out – before public booking opens!" she declared on Facebook, adding: "Talk about access to music... and they get most of the public funding for music in this area. Elitist? Classical Music?"

So what happened? Well, Aldeburgh's Snape Maltings concert hall seats a modest 800. The 16,000-odd Friends of Aldeburgh Music receive priority booking. And everyone wants to hear Sir Simon Rattle in action.

Non-members can keep phoning the box office and hope for returns. The alternative is to become a Friend and receive priority booking. More and more arts organisations are starting up schemes like this. You pay an annual premium to be first in the queue, and you will probably be rewarded with a range of treats, newsletters, dress rehearsal tickets or meet-the-artists receptions. It's an excellent way for an organisation to reward their loyal followers, build income and create closer engagement. And the bigger the organisation, the more complex the structure of Friends membership.

Aldeburgh is relatively simple. You can pay £5 to join the e-mailing list, or £15 for snail-mail; either gives you a "brief opportunity to book tickets before they go on sale to the general public". Or you can become a Friend for £65 per annum, with access to a Friends priority booking period, plus regular newsletters and special events. Donate more than £100 and your name can be listed in the programme.

The Royal Opera House was running a Friends scheme long before Facebook's founder was born. There, you currently pay £79 per annum to be a Friend, or a range of fees up to £1,680 per annum which makes you a Friend Premium Level 2. The Wigmore Hall – which has a Friends membership of some 25,000, while the hall seats fewer than 600 – will sign you up as a mailing-list member for £15 (again, some priority booking), a Friend for £35 or anything up to a Patron Friend for £500.

Public funding is so uncertain at present that about half the organisations who have applied for money from Arts Council England may be turned away; therefore we can probably expect annual premiums to rise. There's little alternative: with costs increasing and subsidy shrinking, venues must explore all possible avenues towards becoming more self-sufficient.

The question raised by Helen Hayes, though, is still about public access for public money. It's both the blessing and curse of the UK's "mixed model" of arts funding: private and public money rub shoulders in our cultural organisations' piggybanks, supporting everything from star performers' fees to education and outreach activities. Juggling different expectations and vested interests is a thorny task for those running the shows; they have to make them all things to all people.

Most are now heavily reliant on money from private sponsorship and, crucially, from fans. Christopher Millard, a spokesman for the Royal Opera House, points out: "The Friends represent our core audience and we value them tremendously." Similar sentiments emanate from John Gilhooly, artistic director of the Wigmore Hall: "If people are coming to 30 concerts a year, showing that level of engagement and loyalty, then of course we have a strong loyalty to them," he says.

The public money received is significant, but as a proportion of annual turnover it is shrinking. The Wigmore Hall received £360,000 this financial year, which goes towards 400 concerts and a programme of 385 education and outreach events; the hall itself raised more than £1m via donations, ticket sales (average price £14) and the Friends scheme.

According to Millard, of the ROH's turnover of £106m, this year £28m comes from ACE: "For every pound of state funding, we raise three ourselves," he says. Still, the ROH has more capacity than most to explore new ways to reach a wider public: big screens, cinema broadcasts, TV, radio, internet. The cinema broadcasts have been hugely successful.

But what about actually getting in to see a performance of the most oversubscribed shows – for instance, Plácido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra last year, or pretty much anything by Wagner? "We hold back 20 per cent of the seats for non-members," Millard confirms, "as well as 67 day seats for each performance."

At Aldeburgh, things are slightly different. "We used to hold back day seats," says Aldeburgh Music's chief executive, Jonathan Reekie. "But there's a big difference between a venue in a big city and one like ours in a rural area – day seats don't work when you're in the middle of nowhere." His advice to Hayes is to be first in the queue on 28 May, "returns day" – a chance to buy returned tickets provided you turn up in person.

The Wigmore's sell-outs of big-name performers' recitals to Friends are rarer than they look. "We only had two concerts last year that sold out to members only, out of a programme of 400," says Gilhooly. "Even at Jonas Kaufmann's performance of Die schöne Müllerin last autumn, everyone in the lengthy returns queue was able to get in." For Aldeburgh, Reekie emphasises the cutting-edge, contemporary nature of most festival programming: "Very few of our events sell out to members only," he insists. "This particular CBSO concert is the exception rather than the rule."

But is there not a duty of access to a tax-paying public? Here's the twist: for that Simon Rattle concert, maybe not. The Aldeburgh Festival is one part of a year-round, principally educational programme for the umbrella Aldeburgh Music. "The bulk of Aldeburgh Music's public subsidy goes towards our educational initiatives," says Reekie. "The Festival takes relatively little. That CBSO concert is supported by corporate sponsors and the box office. It has no public subsidy at all."

So there we go. Most arts organisations take access extremely seriously and do all they can to increase it. But if public money is far exceeded by private, it can be no surprise if loyalties sometimes swing towards the donors. As subsidies reduce, this is bound to happen more often. Venues will build financial support from core audiences, which is fine. But for the casual visitor or first-time concert-goer, getting a ticket may grow more difficult. Stump up for membership, or get ready to queue.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions