Gift economy in G minor: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra taps into the growing pay-what-you-want trend

Adrian Malloch

How much is a cup of coffee worth? How about a night out at the orchestra? Caitlin Salter explores the idea of the gift economy. 

On November 10 the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra staged their latest concert, Settling the Score at the Auckland Town Hall, a reasonably standard event with one big difference.

For the first time ever, the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra handed the power to their audience to decide the price of a ticket. Seasoned concertgoers and orchestra newbies all had the same decision to make – what was the concert worth?

Settling the Score was a unique concert for the orchestra, because the entire programme of music was decided by audience vote. They have been doing this concert in partnership with RNZ Concert for the last five years, and this year decided to experiment with a pay-what-you-want ticket structure.

Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra chief executive Barbara Glaser says the decision was based on the broad appeal of the concert. “It’s always a wonderful concert for new audiences – for people who think they might enjoy hearing the orchestra but perhaps don’t know where to start,” she says. “By giving them the option to pay what they think the ticket was worth following the concert, we’re breaking down barriers to attendance like ticket price, and encouraging people to give it a go.”

The experiment is likely to be the first of its kind at a classical music concert in New Zealand, but the Hallé Orchestra in the United Kingdom trialled a similar event last year. Organisers at the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra contacted the Hallé Orchestra before embarking on this strategy and received positive feedback to the challenge.

“For them, and for us, it has been about audience engagement first and foremost. It’s not something we can do for every concert but it’s a unique way of opening up the experience of a live orchestra to more people, on their terms,” Glaser says.

Settling the Score is difficult to market ahead of the show, as the programme is kept a secret. Making it a pay-what-you-want concert eliminated the sense of risk associated with ‘going in blind’.

The orchestra consciously made all payments completely anonymous, and also diversified the way people could pay – offering collection boxes or an online payment option. It’s impossible to tell how much each concertgoer paid for their ticket, but the event itself was a rousing success, Glaser says.

About 80 percent of the Auckland Town Hall was filled by people who booked tickets as a result of marketing activity around the pay-what-you-want offer and 55 percent of people in the hall had never booked tickets with the orchestra previously. “To have more than half of the hall filled with newcomers is the best measure of success for us, and we’re really pleased with that result.”

Looking ahead the Auckland Philharmonia will consider the method again and develop ways to preserve that feeling of anonymity around payment for the customer.

The Auckland Philharmonia’s small taste of the gift economy is part of a larger movement developing worldwide. The concept is an ancient model based on mutual trust and gratitude. 

One of the earliest known examples of the initiative started in 1984 at Annalakshmi Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, inspired by philosopher and Hindu spiritual teacher Swami Shantananda Saraswathi. The concept soon spread to Annalakshmi restaurants in other cities.

A major boost in awareness came when Radiohead released their seventh album, In Rainbows in October 2007. The album was released through the band’s website as a digital download using a pay-what-you-want system.

Here at home, the gift economy is popping up more and more.

In 2015, Mt Eden seafood restaurant Ika – owned by former Internet Party leader Laila Harre – trialled a Busker Mondays event. The event was an experiment in busking food, letting the customers pay what they believed the menu was worth.  Incidentally, all staff at Ika earn a living wage.

Another Auckland-based café, Wise Cicada in Newmarket, works with the gift economy. The natural food, eco-friendly, vegan café shocked some customers in 2010 when it let them decide the price of a soy latte.

It doesn’t end there. The Espresso Coffee School’s café in Auckland operates completely within a gift economy. To manager Rosh Java, the idea is quite simple. Customers order what they want, and the café gives it them as a gift. If they wish to give a gift in return, there is a gift station (or pay station) at which to do so.

“The café has benefited from creating a pure and transparent community for our customers. We’ve created some truly amazing friendships with our regular customers as opposed to just a service/customer relationship,” he says.

The gift economy gives the café a positive vibe and makes it easy to be motivated to come to work, he says. Espresso Coffee School café opened four years ago and switched to a gift economy model a year in. Java says the key to making it work is a loyal and regular customer base. “The great thing about is that we absolutely need to stay consistent in the level of quality products that we provide, which in turn makes our customers want to take care of us as well. If either one of us stops take care of the other, the business model crumbles.”

Espresso Coffee School was inspired to adopt a gift economy by the book Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein, one of the thought leaders on the subject.

Despite the charitable concept of the method, there are obvious downsides in the form of people abusing the system. Some customers will pay a sum less than the cost price of the product, which can make it difficult to keep things running smoothly. “It’s an important reminder for us to always remember why we have chosen this business model. Occasionally it’s better to take care of someone in need, and perhaps someone else in the community may want to support us in turn.”

The most common reaction from customers is confusion – as it makes them think about what a fair price would be. But Java says most people are just pleasantly surprised. “In a money driven society we tend to forget that money was only created as a means to allow exchange of goods within a community – most customers find it a refreshing change to the system of money that they are used to.”

The Espresso Coffee School offers courses to budding baristas throughout the year.