Parsing the numbers

My friend Julia Kirchhausen — VP, Public Relations at the American Symphony Orchestra League — gave me another view on trends in orchestral ticket sales. I’d said they’ve been declining steadily since 1990, and she said the League’s figures give a different picture, showing a peak in 1996-97, as follows:

 

season                        attendance           # of concerts

 

1990-91                      27,198,563                 25,210

1993-94                      30,742,252                 27,484

1994-95                      29,862,089                 28,609

1995-96                      31,297,124                 29,661

1996-97                      32,661,817                 30,025

1997-98                      32,161,564                 31,766

1998-99                      30,795,560                 31,549

1999-00                      31,667,154                 33,154

2000-01                      31,532,607                 36,437

2001-02                      30,305,376                 37,118

2002-03                      27,802,240                 38,182

2003-04                      27,682,749                 37,263

 

But now comes the interesting part. Julia’s numbers are aggregate figures for 1200 American orchestras, gathered from many of them and then extrapolated to cover all the rest. My figures (which I’ve seen, but can’t at this point reproduce here) were gathered only from some of the largest orchestras. And there’s another difference, too. The League’s figures cover attendance for all kinds of concerts (family concerts,classical concerts, kids’ concerts, holiday concerts, parks concerts, you name it), while my figures covered only sales for core classical subscription events.

 So here are two obvious explanations for the disparity. First, big orchestras might show a larger sales decline than small ones. Second — and I think this is very likely — sales for core classical events are declining faster than attendance at all events. That would be a sign of trouble, since the core classical concerts (at which orchestras play the music that’s most important to them) are the core of an orchestra’s artistic mission. That artistic mission (if these figures are correct) has been getting less support with each passing year, though more broadly populist events don’t do as badly. There might also be a distinction here between sales and attendance. School concerts and parks concerts (maybe with tens of thousands of people listening) count toward attendance; they don’t count toward sales.

But one thing these figures certainly show is that we need more data. I might have been too hasty, drawing conclusions for all orchestras from data that comes from just a few of them (though of course a sharp decline in large-orchestra ticket sales is very troubling). But the League’s figures, as Julia so helpfully reported them to me, are too general to show much of anything (though they do seem to confirm some kind of decline). There’s also the fascinating increase in the number of concerts orchestras give. What’s up with that?

We need more data.

For a start, we need sales and attendance figures broken down by size of orchestra and type of concert. Once we have that, we can start to draw firmer conclusions, though I stick by my statement that a striking decline in large-orchestra ticket sales looks very bad for classical music (or at least for classical music as we’ve been used to seeing it operate).

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