My friend Julia
class=SpellE>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:
style='mso-spacerun:yes'># of concerts
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).