David Lister: Booking fees, transaction fees, web fees – the injustice goes on

The Week in Arts
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Another week, another reader writes to me with complaints about booking fees.

This one booked at the Richmond Theatre, administered by Ambassador Tickets, and in addition to his £27 ticket was charged a £2 "booking fee" plus a £1 "restoration levy" plus a £2.75 "web transaction charge". There wasn't on this occasion a £3 "box office manager's sandwiches fee". But the three extra charges still amounted to an extra 21 per cent. As this reader commented, "I hope the show is good." Even if it is, it may not feel like it after such a rip-off.

I've been campaigning for cheaper theatre tickets, against booking fees and for the ticket to show the actual price paid at theatres, operas, rock concerts, etc, for some years now. The reason, aside from the regular reader feedback, that I return to this call for transparency in the arts is that a new survey of theatregoers shows just how widespread dissatisfaction is.

The main findings of the survey by the Society of London Theatre in partnership with the market research agency Ipsos Mori are that in the past five years price has become a stronger motivating factor for audiences and there is now a general dissatisfaction with booking fees. The survey also found that word-of-mouth recommendation, including blogs and social media websites, is the source of information most likely to encourage people to go to the theatre. The figure for this has almost doubled in the past five years from 36 per cent to 65 per cent. Perhaps it's not surprising as the survey shows that two in five theatregoers are members of Facebook.

Theatre has in many ways joined the modern age. It's just theatre managements that are stuck with old, discredited, bad habits. Do they read these surveys? Do they care about them? If they do read them, they might note with some alarm that 70 per cent of all theatregoers say that cost stops them from going more often.

They might also reflect on the fact that only 5 per cent "strongly agree" that they understand why booking fees are charged, and only 1 per cent agree that they are currently at the right level. More than half of all respondents would like to see a booking fee incorporated into the cost of a ticket.

Add to this the fact that the survey shows strong criticism of the comfort of seating, toilets, bars and catering at London theatres, and even the most blinkered theatre owners and producers must surely realise that they have to smarten up their act.

But they don't seem to be doing so. Instead of addressing concerns over price generally and booking fees in particular, they bask in the satisfaction that the recession has not affected theatre audiences so far. Certainly, the fact that people have often chosen to have some nights out at arts events rather than go on holiday has been a boon. It may not last, though. The Facebook generation of theatregoers seems to have a lot less patience than its predecessors with the cavalier treatment of audiences.

A recording session you'll never forget

Damon Albarn revealed this week that when his "virtual" band Gorillaz approached the 66-year-old veteran soul singer Bobby Womack to be on the band's new album, Womack confessed he did not know the outfit and indeed referred to them, and still refers to them, in the singular. "I ain't never heard of Gorilla!" he told Albarn. Womack did though agree to be on the record but passed out at the recording session. It turned out that he was diabetic and was short of sustenance. Someone found him an energy-restoring banana, which did the trick.

Albarn recalled in a national paper interview: "The sessions with Bobby were like nothing I've ever experienced. I played him the track and told him to just improvise. After 45 minutes of amazing singing, he passed out. I can't tell you how worrying it is to see Bobby Womack lose consciousness on your watch."

Womack sums up the situation even more memorably: "I remember eating a banana and when I woke up I was a Gorilla!"

It's a quote that deserves to have a place somewhere in any future history of rock music.

It's a dog's world in the land of Oz

I attended a recording of the reality TV show Over the Rainbow, which aims to find a Dorothy for Andrew Lloyd Webber's West End production of The Wizard of Oz. All the contestants struck me as stars in the making, delivering almost flawless live performances. It would be a bit sneaky of me to reveal that Charlotte Church was allowed three takes for her guest appearance on stage, though the song was presented to the TV audience as live, but her talent is evergreen and her forthcoming album should be a treat.

I did, though, rather object to my personal favourite among the contestants, Jenny, being shown the door because, as Lord Lloyd Webber said, she found it hard to get along with and act with Toto the dog. I doubt that Judy Garland would have been dismissed over such a trifle. When you have a smashing singer with a definite stage presence then change the dog, I say.