Remember the old days, when buying stuff was basically a wild stab in the dark? You'd stump up, say, fifteen quid for a new album, with no real idea if it was going to be any good. Admittedly that's how most Christmas presents are still bought - random guesswork - but elsewhere, the world has changed. We just don't expect to have to buy-before-we-try any more.
Most items you purchase online can now be thoroughly road-tested then sent back if they don't immediately improve your life (although testing stuff on a road is inadvisable, vehicles aside). Digital music is one of the few web purchases you can't return, but you can usually listen to the whole album beforehand, on streaming sites like Spotify. Even if you like it, you might not bother buying it.
Apps and video games are often free to download, perhaps with an occasional in-game purchase popping up if you play it long enough. Fans of online casinos can now play without paying anything upfront: with sites helping you find the best no-deposit casinos in one place. DVDs are on the way out, now that whole box-sets are now available on demand. And then there's comedy, an industry which is fully embracing the no-upfront-payment model. We needn't pay anything at all, in many cases.
Online, you've probably already noticed an ocean of free comedy floating around. A lot of us spend much of our free time listening to comedians chuntering away on free podcasts, which sometimes then carry advertising, or sell merch, or just flat-out ask for donations afterwards, if you feel like contributing.
Take a wander around the web and you can also find a good few comedians giving away recordings of their proper live shows on a free or pay-what-you-want basis. Frankie Boyle is one well-known comic who did that in 2017, as a savvy way to get people to take a fresh look - or listen - to his live work, and perhaps give his next live show a go. Selling tickets is their bread and butter.
But then live comedy is often free these days too. Comedians will slave over a new show for months, then stage it at the Edinburgh Fringe for weeks, for nothing: and it works. Waving a bucket at the end of those shows is often a lot more cost effective than selling tickets beforehand, as the costs are much lower and audiences often more generous when there's a choice involved. But would that free-with-a-bucket approach work outside of the Fringe, elsewhere in the country?
We cynical Brits do tend to have an inbuilt distrust of free stuff we haven't heard of, as if a gratis comedy show will involve some sort of catch, maybe some in-show payments (some Fringe comics do pretty much operate a pay-to-get-out system, in truth, so persuasive is their bucket speech).
It took a good few years for Fringe punters to fully embrace the idea that free shows can actually be good, so it might take a while to catch on elsewhere, but it's becoming normal where comics gather. At London comedy club and hub The Bill Murray, for example, you can often wander in on a random evening and catch acclaimed comics trying stuff out.
The pay-what-you-want model makes particular sense in this line of work, because unlike many forms of live entertainment, comedy doesn't make sense in a vacuum. A half-decent musician can happily practise on the piano all afternoon, or you might sing in the car, juggle in front of the mirror, do magic tricks for a totally uninterested toddler: it all helps hone the skill.
Comedians, though, need a proper audience pretty early in the creative process, because only in front of actual people will you find out that the lengthy routine you spent weeks writing and were planning to close your big new show with is actually about as funny as a fungal infection. So, if you find yourself at a work-in-progress and only have 50p and a button for the bucket afterwards, don't feel too bad: you did your bit by just being there.