Back in 2012, I looked at whether various classical venues' membership schemes were worth the money. Since then the environment has changed. Advance sales have declined. Last-minute discounting is now commonplace. The value of priority booking is no longer what it was.
Venues will start announcing their 2014-15 plans in January. So is it still worth forking out £40-£1,000 for membership privileges?
Royal Opera House Friends £88, £365, £980 and up
The sell - Priority booking, dress rehearsal tickets, and a magazine.
The truth - There are several levels of Friends - the more you pay, the higher booking priority you get. The Royal Opera House hold back a proportion of main house tickets for sale to the general public, so in theory you don't need to join the Friends to get a seat. What Friends' membership does give you is a wider choice of seats, and a greater chance of getting into sell-out shows. If you're happy with a cheap seat and go to a lot of shows, membership can even save you money, as the best cheap seats sell out quickly.
Friends can apply for a limited number of dress rehearsal tickets for £5-18 (not available to the general public) - again, higher levels get higher priority, and are also allowed to buy more tickets.
The magazine, produced four times a year, is very old-fashioned compared to many European houses' offerings. But it's well put together, better in fact than many commercial publications, and I'd happily buy it were it available in the shops.
ENO Friends £50 and up
The sell - Priority booking and dress rehearsal tickets.
The truth - ENO shows rarely sell strongly in advance, so the advantages of priority booking are debatable. Coupled with that, ENO don't always let you know when booking starts anyway. Probably only an advantage if you need the best seats for the first night of the hottest shows (as many of these are held back as complementary seats for the other sort of 'friend').
If you go to a lot of ENO shows and like to book in advance, the subscription packages are a better deal - you get to book before the general public, and you save up to 20% as well. If you're merely interested in the cheapest seats possible, there are always late discounts of 30-80%.
Dress rehearsal tickets cost from £7. They're not available to the general public, and for many people are the main advantage of membership. You could recoup your annual fee easily by attending rehearsals instead of full-price performances. On the other hand, it's so easy to get discount seats for most shows that you might think it's worth the gamble of waiting. Dress rehearsals are sometimes held during the day.
Glyndebourne Membership £80 (associate), £170 (full), plus £500 registration
The sell - Priority booking for up to 24 tickets. Glyndebourne limits the number of full members, so you can't join direct. Instead, you pay£80 a year (plus a one-off registration fee of £500) to become an associate member. After ten years or so, depending on how many full members drop out and how many want to join, you qualify for full membership.
The truth - Only for the Glyndebourne devotee, as in recent years good seats have been readily available during public booking for most shows. Even those that sell out initially usually have returns available. The cheapest tickets (standing places and slips seats) are not available during members' priority booking; membership is for those who want the best, not the cheapest. If you're under 30, it's a better deal to join the Glyndebourne<30 programme (free) which allows you both to book ahead of the general public and to get first choice of standing tickets.
The sell - Priority booking, no booking fee, also free entry to the Hayward Gallery, members' bar, some special events (extra charge).
The truth - Few shows sell well enough to make priority booking a necessity. Plus, for most shows, the Southbank Centre hold back a large number of tickets for public booking and for later bookers. Often the held back tickets are the best ones. The only time I've found it an asset is for the most popular contemporary music events, especially the Meltdown Festival. Even then it's a bit of a lottery - tickets for some events can disappear in ten minutes despite the website's notoriously low speed. The booking fee waiver is obviously helpful if you book a lot, though why they charge £1.75 for booking in the first place is a mystery. You don't need to be a member to take advantage of the various subscription discounts offered for buying 3 or more concerts in a series, and its often worth waiting for last minute offers, which are frequent.
The members' bar is no less crowded than any other bar in the place, but at least it's got terrific river views. 'Members events' tend to be commercially priced wine tastings and the like rather than anything artistic or educational.
Hayward exhibitions currently charge £11, so free entrance could cover the cost of membership for art lovers. For anyone else, it's a bit of an extravagance. Unlike the other venues mentioned here, who have barely (if at all) raised their membership prices since 2012, the Southbank have hiked their basic rate by a massive 44% (from £45) for no obvious reason.
It's also worth pointing out that a lot of members complain about system problems on the Southbank site, including being barred from booking on priority dates.
Barbican Membership £20, £40 or £100
The sell - Priority booking for most events and free art gallery entry at £40 and £100 levels only. At all levels there is 20% discount off most film and theatre tickets, 10-15% off in cafés, bars and shop, and a few special events.
The truth - There is no members discount on most classical music concerts. Priority booking for music shows (except the odd pop/rock event) is worthless, since almost nothing sells quickly. Now that the Barbican makes last minute price cuts it is generally cheaper to wait. If you want to save money, the best advice is - unless a show seems to be selling fast - to wait until a week or so before the show, and see what discounts are available. The exception is LSO concerts, which are rarely discounted. To save money on the LSO, book at the start of the season, when everyone, member or not, gets a discount of up to 15% for multiple bookings.
Art gallery entry is normally £10, and the cinema, theatre and food discounts may make membership more worthwhile. But if your sole interest is classical music, it is hard to justify the membership price.
Wigmore Hall Friends £45, £100, £200 or £500
The sell - Priority booking, 10% discount on CDs and books sold at the Hall
The truth - The Wigmore Hall is teeny weeny, and stars like Jonas Kaufmann and Daniel Barenboim can sell it out instantly. Unlike the Royal Opera House, the Wigmore doesn't hold back any tickets for the public, and these days several concerts sell out before public booking opens. So (unless you're lucky with returns), membership may be the only way to get tickets for some artists. Even then, the basic £45 membership is no guarantee, so upgrading to the higher priority of the higher levels (£100+) may be required. For the hottest of the hot tickets - such as Herr Kaufmann - even the £100 level may not be enough. An upgrade also makes it more likely you'll get your preferred seat allocation, as the Friends booking process only allows you to state seat preferences, not to pick your seats.
If you're a regular Wigmore-goer, you can ease the financial pain by regarding the price of membership on a cost-per-seat basis - £100 spread out over 20 or 30 concerts doesn't seem quite such a shock.