Andrew Ladd

*the digital strategist, not the hockey player

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Me and my big ideas: why the theatre industry should publish its sales figures

April 28, 2024

Every year, The Stage newspaper puts together their Future of Theatre conference, where they invite industry and political luminaries to come and talk about... the future of theatre. They also invite anyone with an original idea about how to make the industry better to submit to the "Big Ideas" portion of the programme, and then select a handful of those submissions to deliver an in-person, five-minute pitch to the assembled delegates. I was among the six people selected to pitch at the 2024 conference, which meant I had the very surreal experience of sharing a bill with Thangam Debonnaire, the shadow culture secretary. (N.B. she was part of the political luminaries portion of the programme, not the Big Ideas portion of the programme.)

At the end of the conference, delegates were asked to vote on their favourite Big Ideas pitch, which meant I also had the even more surreal experience of winning a popular vote — and with almost as much support as Thangam Debonnaire's party currently has in the polls, though perhaps causing less despair to the Conservatives.

Anyway, for those people who weren't able to attend the conference, here's the text of my speech on the day:

Hello everyone. My name is Andrew Ladd. I currently work at a digital agency, where I lead on arts and ticketing projects, and before that I worked at the West End marketing above the McDonalds down the road, and before that I worked in venue box offices for many years. But today my big idea has been inspired by something completely different: my side hustle as a published novelist.

As you might imagine, as a novelist I occasionally get statements from my publisher telling me how many copies I’ve sold. I could stand here and tell you that number is in the millions, but actually it’s more like a solid weekday matinee in the Gillian Lynne. And there’s no point lying about it, because anyone in this room could look up my sales figures if they really wanted to. You could look up every sale of every book that every major publisher has ever sold in this country, going back years.

This is where theatre people usually stare at me in disbelief. Once, I was explaining this to someone, and they actually gasped. If I work for HarperCollins, and I want to see how well Penguin’s marquee title sold last week, I can… just do that. And people do, all the time. Publishers are constantly checking each other’s sales.

And it’s not just the publishing industry. It’s cinema too, it’s music, it’s museums, it’s sport. If you want to know how much Dune 2 grossed two days ago, or how many tickets Nicki Minaj has sold to-date on her current tour, or how many people attended the Royal Armouries in Leeds in June 2019, you can look all that up on the internet, I did it yesterday.

So that’s my big idea: the theatre industry should start publishing their sales figures in the same way.

I’m not talking about the sort of aggregate figures SOLT already publishes. I’m talking about building a shared, totally transparent repository of granular, week-by-week, up-to-date sales figures for every show and venue, that anyone can access.

So why should the theatre industry do this? Well, for one thing, it’s something everyone secretly wants anyway. I’ve worked with theatres in some capacity for nearly 20 years, and the one constant is that everyone always wants to know how their competitors are doing. That’s because there are lots of real, sensible reasons for this kind of transparency.

First of all, there’s short-term business value in knowing how your competitors are doing; it lets you make better commercial decisions. Does your rival across town have a full auditorium because they have more demand, or because they’re selling most of their tickets at a discount? Should you panic about your sluggish on-sale, or is everyone having a bad month?

Second of all, there’s long-term business value in knowing how your competitors have done in the past; it lets you significantly de-risk new work. Maybe you’re considering a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire. With sales data about every other Streetcar production in the last ten years, you’d be able to create better income forecasts and a better pricing model — not just for a production of Streetcar in general, but for your 4-week run of a star-led Streetcar in a 600-seat venue in October. With those better income forecasts, you can set more sensible budgets, and with a better pricing model, you can maximise your revenue. No matter how the reviews land, you have a better chance of breaking even.

All of this probably sounds obvious. This is what a lot of theatre producers already use their data for already — if they have that data. And that brings me to third reason for publishing sales figures: it will increase diversity and innovation in the industry.

Right now, the big, established players in the industry have a structural advantage over newcomers and smaller venues or producers, because they have so much more data. They’re better able to de-risk what they do.

That means those newcomers aren’t as free to take creative risks without succumbing to much larger financial ones — and because these smaller players ultimately feed some of the best new work to the big established ones, putting them at this disadvantage is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

If everyone had access to the same data, newcomers would be able to more easily break into the industry. More diversity, more innovation, and as a result, more audiences.

Before I go, I’ve been asked to answer two questions about this idea: is it practical, and what would need to change for it to happen.

Is it practical? Absolutely. All these other creative industries already do it. It’s a well-oiled machine. For that matter, my old colleagues at the marketing agency above the McDonalds already do it too, for the productions they work with.

What needs to change is a mindset. I ran this idea past a few of my friends in the industry before I came here today, and they all had the same reaction: oh, great idea, but it would never work for theatre. But we won’t know unless we try, and we won’t try unless people stop believing it could never work, or isn’t worth doing.

But it is worth doing. I think most people in the room would acknowledge that there’s real value in making data-driven decisions. But if there’s some value in making decisions based on your own data, there’s exponentially more value in making decisions based on everyone’s, together.

In these challenging times, we succeed by walking hand in hand with our peers, not by trying to sneak past them in an ugly race to the finish. So let’s find a way to be transparent with our sales data and give the whole industry a new tool to thrive.