By Isaac Butler
I'm currently making my way through Greg Kot's Ripped, which is a history of the internet's effect on the music industry organized roughly into chapters on various bands (Bright Eyes, Wilco, Arcade Fire etc.). One point that is tacitly made for the first 100 pages (and then overtly made afterwards) is that ripping rebrithed the live. With major labels being a hyperconglomerated, consumer-suing shitshow, a new business model of making songs available for free (or cheap) as a way to build audiences for albums and (especially) touring. The thing that separates, say, Arcade Fire from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is that the first was a great live band from the start and the second definitely wasn't. Prince sold his later albums for a song in part to juice audiences for a reinvigorated live career. Etc. and so forth.
As always, I'm thinking about the effect these things have on theater. And it seems to me that an environment in which the live is becoming special again is a good environment for theater. However, we lack one essential component. We have no equivalent to the free song given away on our website. And there is no way to create it. The audience whose butts we want in the seats isn't going to read a play. Hell, many artistic directors don't like reading plays, so we can hardly expect youngish audiences today to go for it. And trailers for plays are terrible.
This gives the lie to statements like "Well, ticket prices aren't a problem because people will spend sixty bucks on a concert." People don't spend sixty bucks to go to a concert of a band they don't know. They go to experience something they already know. They already know they like it and they already know a great deal of what it's content will be. We don't have that luxury.
The question it seems to me is not what is theatre's equivalent of the free download? The question is what do we do given there can't be a theatrical equivalent of the free download?