On Twitter yesterday afternoon, I asked this question:
"I'm wondering if reviewers who get a comp and write nothing should be asked to retroactively pay for their ticket. Thoughts?"
A lot of people got quite hot under the collar. One person called my 'proposal' "unethical" and said it was "basically blackmailing people into writing a review".
So for the avoidance of doubt at the outset, I am not seriously proposing we do this. It's good to know that people have got the hang of reading between the lines of my tweets, and understanding that they're seldom completely guileless. But in this case, it was. It wasn't a proposal; I genuinely simply wanted to know what people think. My apologies to all those who forcefully 'agreed' with me.
There are all sorts of reasons it isn't a good idea. It's good for critics to see a broad range of work even if they're not able to write about all of it. It might still make its way into a later feature or round-up even if you don't get a full review. I'm prepared to take the chance. And often reviews end up spiked for reasons that are, frankly, kinder to the performers. But more to the point, newspaper budgets are sufficiently stretched that I don't imagine arts editors are going to start forking out for tickets on the off-chance of a review. And expecting the critics to pay in these cases is yet another way of guaranteeing that our critics come from that small pool of people who can afford to get on.
It is nonetheless, I think, slightly absurd to suggest that expecting a critical response in return for the ticket is "unethical", even more so to suggest that it's "blackmail". It seems more likely that the initial comp (in exchange for an expected review) is blackmail than that the request for payment like everyone else (in the event of non-delivery of that review) is so. But it's such an institutionalised form of blackmail that we've forgotten it's there. Consequently, it doesn't really work.
But that brings into focus the more pertinent question: what is the nature of the contract when we give reviewers a comp? We obviously don't expect a good review, but do we have a right to expect something? We gave you the ticket because you have an audience whom you could tell about the show. If you don't tell them, should we continue to give you tickets?
In the case of The Price of Everything in Edinburgh, which is lucky enough to be selling out most days, that's a) a ticket that could have been bought by a member of the public and therefore b) £10 I have personally given you. Any critics saying they're not well-paid enough to write up everything they see could spend a moment considering that most performers in Edinburgh (and I'm not one of them, but I'm hardly making a weekly wage, let alone a packet) are losing money hand over fist. Earlier this year I finally paid off the credit card bill run up by bringing shows to Edinburgh 2003-07.
(All of which reveals that the initial spur behind my question is, really, nothing more than sour grapes. I have directly given away money as a sort of investment in potential marketing materials. It's honestly worth the risk, as it happens, and I have no real gripe with the system. And I have no real right to any frustration. The show is selling out and I've had several very nice reviews. I suppose that's part of why I feel reasonably comfortable raising the question - I don't really have anything riding on it. I'm one of the lucky ones.)
Here's the interesting and totally unsurprising thing. Overwhelmingly, artists forcefully agreed with the assumed proposal in the question and critics opposed it just as forcefully. Critics (with some exceptions) did not feel that the privilege of a free ticket left them with any obligations. They may be right. That probably is the nature of the agreement. And so the critics who responded tended to defend their (totally defensible) position, with some of the arguments I've advanced above. Meanwhile, performers shared and expressed the same sense of frustration that gave rise to the original question. So both sides have a point.
At the very least, this bespeaks a lack of clarity in the expectations underlying the relationship. How do we clear it up?
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will