More age data

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been posting a lot about the age of the classical music audience. The current myth is that this audience has always been as old as it is now, but all the data I’ve found says the opposite — the classical audience has been getting older at least since 1937, when the earliest data I’ve found was collected. See my post on audience age for more details.

And now — thanks to a tip from a marketing director I know — I’ve found more data, giving even more support from my view. It’s in a very good book on audience development, Waiting in the Wings: A Larger Audience for the Arts and How to Develop It, published in 1992 by Bradley G. Morison, Julie Gordon Dalgleish:

In 1955, in one of the earliest such projects on record, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra) retained a market research firm to conduct a survey of audiences. Among other findings, the research showed that the median age of the audience was about 33 years.

A comparable study was done in 1985, and the median age had increased to about 48 years.

Four years later, a 1989 survey showed the median age at nearly 51 years.

In 34 years, the median age of the audience had increased by nearly 18 years while the median age of the total population inn the United States rose only about 3 years. It appears very likely that many in the current audience are the same people, grown up.

Note that last sentence. I’m saying the same thing now. Morison and Dalgleish said it in 1992. And note their tentative conclusion:

If [everything I’ve just quoted is true], those “retiring” from the audience are not being replaced by an equivalent number from the younger generations, and it would appear that the proportion of Yeses [people ready to say “yes” when an orchestra asks them to buy concert tickets] among the young is substantially smaller than it was several decades back. Could it be that the Yeses are a vanishing breed?

Again, they said that in 1992! But their book also has data, from the American Symphony Orchestra League, showing attendance at orchestra concerts peaking in the mid-1980s, and declining after that. The League’s current data shows a decline that began in the mid-’90s. And I’ve seen private figures showing a decline — for the largest orchestras — beginning in 1990. But did it start even earlier?

And about the proportion of Yeses among the young: The National Endowment for the Arts found that the percentage of people under 30 at classical concerts dropped in half between 1982 and 1997. So Morison and Dalgleish seem to be on track with this data, too.

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  1. anonymous says

    Aaah… but life expectancy was not the same in 1937 or 1955 as it is now. Isn’t fifty the “new thirty” etc. etc.? People aged and matured much faster then. We need to put these things in context.

    That’s an excellent point, and certainly one that’s been made before.

    It’s not hard to rule out life expectancy as a factor in the rising age of the classical audience. Usually what’s said is that people live longer now, and therefore go to concerts at older ages than they formerly did. That’s why the average age is rising.

    If that were true, we’d expect to the see age distribution of the audience otherwise unchanged. That is, over time we’d see a higher proporrtion of older people. But the relative proportions of other ages wouldn’t have changed. There would be, for instance, the same ratio of people in their 40s to people in their 20s. This wouldn’t change, over the years.

    But it did change. You can leave out the oldest segment of the audience entirely. There are still far fewer younger people, proportionally, in our time than there used to be in the past. So life expectancy is only one factor increasing the average age of the audience.

    Of course, if you’re saying that people in their 30s were more mature in 1955 than they are now, I think you’d have a tricky argument on your hands. Or, actually, two arguments. You’d have to show that people grew up more quickly in past decades, and also that maturity has always been a factor in getting people to classical concerts. I don’t know what evidence there might be for the first point, but I’m not sure there is any for the second one. There’s a lot of anecdotal data from the past that suggests classical music was an entertainment that even college-age people enjoyed in the past, far more than people that age do now.

  2. Kathryn Calafato says

    You might want to look at the work of Dr. Paul DiMaggio at Princeton University (social scientist)who has been collecting such data. In fact he has a data base which he has been accumulating since the 1970’s.

    Paul and I work together on a project involving orchestras, and we’re quite friendly.We share information quite a bit. He’s a very good guy, and very smart.

  3. Rob Gold says

    In the research I’ve done — mostly for the Indianapolis Symphony, where I was marketing director 1990-94 — the “hinge age” for participation appeared to be ages 38-42. It was at that age that, our research suggested, people began increasing their participation (which we defined as attending 3 or more times per year). 1987 was the year that the peak of the large Baby Boomer cohort reached that age. The Boomers were much larger in total numbers than any previous generation, and had a much higher percentage of the college educated, managerial/professional classes that comprise the majority of concert attenders (with a huge increase in college educated working women). That the TOTAL numbers only began to show decline in the mid-90s appears to be a result of the enormous size of this population. The rising total audience numbers masked the large decline in penetration.

    The real measure will be in the mid-2010 decade, when the children of these people begin reaching that 38-to-42 age.

    Still, and as always, the greatest predictor of symphony attendance is prior musical education/exposure (where, oh where, is THAT mailing list?). So that would place the real crisis back in the early-to-mid 1960s, when schools began cutting arts education programs (despite the boom in building PACs, and the emergence of the NEA and state arts agencies).

    Good to hear from you again, Rob.

    What you say makes lots of sense. The thought that’s starting to dawn on me is that we’ve seen, over recent decades, some new patterns, which might not have existed in the past. For instance, the age at which people start going to concerts. The early Sixties study I’ve referred to, conducted by William Baumol and William Bowen for the Twentieth Century Fund, found that the average age of the performing arts audience was 38. They comment, in their report on the study, on how young the audience is. They say this very strongly. They think youth is one of the most striking and important things about it. And then they start speculating on why it’s young, and suggest that people _stop_ going to arts events as they get older. Just the reverse of what we see now! So in their time, it sounds like people would start going long before they were in that 38-42 age group. And it’s when they reached those ages (or not long afterward) that their participation might drop.

    I wonder if the factors you cite were predictors of attendance in the ’60s, or before World War II. I also wonder whether they will be in the future. I think the decline in arts education has to be looked at in the context of a vast cultural change that’s been going on ever since the ’60s, and has accelerated gigantically in recent years. At this point, classical music is so foreign to current culture that arts education of a traditional sort wouldn’t even work. It would turn people off, rather than getting them intreested. And this, as I hope to show in future posts, isn’t a bad thing. Culture now isn’t dumb and ugly. It’s just different (though in many ways smarter than it used to be). So the standard classical repertoire — and the whole classical music culture that goes with it — will smell more and more strongly of the past, as the years pass, and will simply have to change if people in the future are expected to take any interest in it.

  4. Kate says

    Interesting that we would look to the average age of the total population rather than the average age of the profiled arts attendee, since we know that the more affluent you are the longer you live. It would also be fascinating to look at the average age of retirement in this country to see what impact that would have on the average age of an audience member. Finally, what is the average age at which an “empty-nester” actually has an empty nest these days? With upper class and affluent women waiting longer to have children does this impact the age at which their nest actually empties? The question really becomes: has the age of the traditional arts-attendee increased due to endogenous or exogenous factors? Do I smell some tasty regression analysis?

    Thanks for these thoughts, Kate. There’s lots of tasty analysis to be done.

    As I wrote in response to another comment, longer life spans or earlier or later retirement don’t seem to be a major factor in the rise in the average age. If they were, we’d expect to see more older people in the audience over time, while the relative age distribution of the rest of the audience remained unchanged. That is, more people over 50 (let’s say), while the proportion of people in their forties to people in their twenties remained the same.

    But we don’t see that. We see a large drop in the percentage of younger people, not just in relation to the audience as a whole, but in relation to what we might call medium age groups, people in their 40s and 50s. As I’ve said — and as I’ve just discovered that Brad Morrison and Julie Dalgleish have said — the data for the last 25 years seems to show one group of people being the largest in the classical audience, at whatever age they’re surveyed. And they’re not being replaced by people younger.

    And here’s something else. You speak of people with empty nests, and I think you do that because that’s an accepted truth among today’s arts marketers. It’s the empty nesters who are most likely to buy tickets.

    But that wasn’t always true! The early ’60s study I’ve seen, by the Twentieth Century Fund, showed the audience for all the performing arts to be quite young. The authors of the report on that study (William Baumol, later shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in economics, and William Bowen) comment very strongly on the youth of the audience. They even speculate that people may _stop_ going to performing arts events as they get older. Exactly the opposite of what we see today!

    The 1937 study showed that the occupations reported most often in the survey of the orchestra audience were student and housewife. This with an average audience age between 28 and 33, depending on which orchestra you look at. Doesn’t sound like there’s much empty-nesting going on there!

    The audience of the past, I think, was so different from the audience we see now that present-day wisdom may not apply. Just as it might not apply to the auidence of the future.

  5. Laura Kennelly says

    And you’ve taken into account the “Baby Boom” factor? That is, isn’t it still true that there are lots more of us than any other group? Doesn’t it seem logical that there would be more anywhere? Not just in classical music audiences? Have you checked the stats for, say, pro sports?

    The National Endowment for the Arts has data showing the age distribution in the classical music audience, from 1982 to 2002. This data, too, shows the audience getting older. I’ve taken some of that data, and adjusted it for the changing distribution of age groups within the general population. It doesn’t make any difference. The audience is still getting older, and the large number of baby boomers isn’t the reason. The reason, very simply, is the fewer number of younger people coming into the classical audience. As I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts — including this one! — the percentage of people under 30 in the classical music audience dropped in half between 1982 and 1997. (This again is from NEA data.) That’ll push the average age up quite a bit.

  6. David Snead says

    Thanks for all this, Greg,

    It appears we’ve finally moved from “Is the audience aging?” to “Why is the audience aging?” I’d call that progress.

    Thanks, David. I want to address the new question after the New Year. Ideas are welcome from everyone!