New York theatres are artificially boosting their attendance figures through the growth of low-cost membership programmes.

A report in the Wall Street Journal newspaper said that membership of annual subscription schemes has soared in recent years.

The schemes make some money by charging individuals an annual fee of as little as $20 (£16/€19), plus a small processing fee for each ‘free’ ticket. In turn, members can access up to 40 events per day.

Theatre operators hope that while the seats are being taken for next to nothing, attendees will spread the word about good performances while packed venues will energise performers.

“Basically, it’s no fun to play to an empty house,” Jason Faust, of the Play-by-Play club, told the Wall Street Journal.

The report says that Club Free Time, a $20-a-year programme that launched around 15 years ago, has seen membership more than triple in five years to more than 13,000. Club Free Time’s offerings have increased by about 6% this year over last to a total of 3,400 performances through mid-November.

Members themselves claim that the schemes allow them to regularly visit the theatre despite ticket prices soaring. On Broadway, the average paid admission was $103 last season, an increase of 11% over 2011-12, according to the Broadway League, an industry group.

“I would be seeing theatre once or twice a year otherwise,” one member of the Gold Club, a programme run by TheaterMania.com, told the Wall Street Journal.

The schemes are not popular with all interested parties, and members are encouraged to keep a low profile to avoid angering those who have paid high ticket prices. Many within the industry fear the clubs can devalue shows by potentially creating an audience of freeloaders.

Programme members “are now trained to think they can get comps all the time,” complained veteran Broadway producer Ken Davenport, who shuns the schemes.