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70% of audiences say they are willing to pay for digital events as full capacity shows remain on ice. But the shift towards user-pays models "will be a challenge," experts warn.

Digital shows may contribute some income - but the sector must change its approach, research suggests

Thibaut Devulder

Audiences are showing a willingness to pay for 'live digital' events, a survey suggests, offering a small ray of hope as new coronavirus restrictions place the sector into a six month stasis.

Frequent arts attendees' online engagement with culture has boomed during the lockdown, more than doubling to 59% by July, according to analysis of Indigo's After The Interval sentiment tracker survey.

Altogether, 82% of the 130,00 respondents said they would consider engaging with online events in the future – and 70% were willing to pay to do so.


Barriers remain: for example, the cohort most willing to pay for online content - 15-to-24 year olds - are also the least likely to have high levels of disposable income.

But Baker Richards and The Audience Agency, which partnered on the analysis, said it showed "there is significant  potential for innovation in digital culture, though revenues cannot possibly replace lost ticket income".

Baker Richards Deputy CEO David Reece said the abundance of free online content offered by arts organisations was "a laudable response" to the pandemic.

Shifting towards paid models, however, "will be a challenge".

"A perception has been created that digital culture is free to access – this will take some time to overcome," Reece said.

Quality concerns

Uncertainty about the quality of online cultural events affects audiences' willingness to pay.

Just 18% of respondents were willing to pay the same for online as live events. About half (52%) of respondents said they would pay a reduced price for online content. 

84% weren't interested in online events at all because they didn't see it as "an attractive alternative to an in-person event," the analysis said.

Interest in archive recordings of shows is giving way to demand for specifically-created 'live digital' events.

"There is a greater willingness to pay for live events than for view-on-demand, suggesting a need for a more experimentation and active support for those testing new ways of working," the research said.

Katie Moffat, Head of Digital at The Audience Agency said "digital offers can’t be all things to all people".

"As with in-person events, when engaging online, different audiences want different things ... our hope is that there are increasing opportunities for everyone to experience, and learn how to develop, audience centred digital experiences."

Indigo Co-Founder Katy Raines said the research is clear that audiences expect digital experiences to be of lesser quality.

"It is in the hands of the industry to change that perception over time."

Timing the transition

Data collected by TRG Arts from 24 UK organisations prior to this week's announcement of further restrictions indicated increasing optimism about a return to live performance: 71% said in September that they expected to hold in-person performances this year, compared to 50% in June and 64% in July.

But the data also highlighted "continued reliance on in-person over digital" events, TRG said.

Just a quarter of UK organisations had a date for initiating paid digital engagement, compared to 33% of US organisations in the survey that were already charging.

Most UK organisations (73%) had no plan to charge for digital content.