Dire II

Followup to my “Dire Data” post.

The National Endowment finds a decreasing percentage of Americans going to classical music concerts. And it’s a sizable decline. In the 1982 study, thirteen percent of American adults had attended a classical music performance during the past year. In 2008, the number had fallen to 9.3%, a 28% drop.

But does this mean that the classical music audience now is smaller, in absolute numbers? Maybe not, because of course the population grew. So a diminished percentage might not mean a smaller audience. The audience might even have grown.

Has it? No, as it turns out. A rough estimate I’ve made shows that, in absolute numbers, the classical music audience — as measured by this NEA data — has in fact shrunk, but only by five percent. The percentage of adults going to classical concerts dropped by 30%, but the size of the adult population increased by a higher percentage, 35%. Calculate the actual numbers, the number of actual people going to classical performances, and you get the five percent drop. Which means that population growth protected us from the 30% drop in audience that the attendance percentage, taken by itself, would predict.

In my next post, I’ll answer some doubters, and show why a decline in attendance matters. Matters quite a bit, in fact.


My numbers are rough estimates because I don’t know what the adult population of the US — people 18 and over — was (or was estimated by the Census Bureau to be) in 2008. I’m sure that number exists, but, after extensive searches using Google, Ask.com, Wolfram Alpha,Wikipedia, and Bing, I haven’t found it. I’ve found numbers for various other years, with various cutoff points (people 15 and over, people 19 and over, people 20 and over; I need 18 and over, because that’s what the NEA meant by “adult”). So I give up. I just don’t have anymore time to spend with this. I know the 18 and over number for 1982, and also for 2004, so I’m using the 2004 figure as a stand-in for 2008, figuring there won’t be all that much difference. If anyone has a 2008 number for people18 and over in the US, please let me know!

The opera numbers, from the NEA data, work out the same as the classical music data. (The NEA surveys the audiences for opera and classical music separately.) Three percent of adult Americans went to opera performances in 1982, and 2.1% went in 2008. That’s a 30% drop, just as the classical music numbers showed, which then leads to a five percent drop in the absolute number of people attending opera. By “classical music,” by the way, the NEA means orchestral, choral, and chamber performances.

All of this data is raw. In my last post, I theorized about cultural factors that might have led to the percentage declines. I find my theories plausible, because of the way the declines hit people of different ages, over the decades. Attendance in any age group seems to drop when the people in that age group grew up in an era when interest in classical music seems to have declined. But people may also — surely are also — going less because there’s more to do than there used to be, more live performances, and more competition at home (from DVDs, for instance). We also don’t know the effects of marketing on attendance. My sense is that classical music marketing, especially at the big institutions, improved a lot over the past few years, in large part in reaction to what seems (especially at big institutions) to have been a decline in ticket sales from 1990 or so on. So maybe improved marketing is making the attendance percentages better than they might have been if marketing didn’t improve.

And what do these NEA surveys actually measure? In 2008, people were asked: “With the exception of elementary or high school performances, did you go to a live classical music performance such as symphony, chamber, or choral music during the last 12 months?” (And then similarly for others in their households, their spouse and children.) That makes the resulting figures ambiguous, to say the least. We don’t know, for instance, what, exactly the respondents thought were symphony, chamber, or choral performances. And the answers also of course smoosh together paid concerts, free concerts, pops concerts, everything. Thus these numbers can only indicate really large-scale trends, which might not precisely mirror more nuanced behavior, for instance the percentage of people buying tickets to an orchestra’s core subscription concerts. So we need to be careful in predicting any consequence from what these numbers show. Orchestra attendance, for instance, might not reflect the trends in the NEA’s numbers, or might not precisely reflect them. There are indications that it does (and that data from opera companies mirrors the NEA’s opera figures), but I’m giving this caution anyway.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Phil Hoffman says

    The US Census Bureau estimated ‘that the number of non institutionalized adults 18 or older living in the United States as of May 2008 was 224,826,742. (See SPPA Public-Use Data file User’s Guide)

    No doubt there should be great concern with the data you cite. A context for understanding this data is the fact that America’s median age is rising. (see: http://www.allcountries.org/uscensus/11_resident_population_characteristics_percent_distribution_and.html)

    Since 1970 the median age has risen from 28.0 to 35.8 in 2000 and now 36.6 as of May of 2008. (see: Table 1 at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/age/age_sex_2008.html)

    In short the universe from which the potential audience for classical music is drawn is getting older so we should expect the actual audience to be getting older as well.

    The good news in the NEA’s SPPA survey is that the classical music industry has 91 out of every 100 adult Americans as a potential NEW audience member.

  2. says

    I’m curious if the number of concertgoing opportunities has declined in this time span.

    Yesterday I came across an explanation of Portland, Oregon’s woes with regards to the Arts. It mentioned that its actually less profitable for arts organizations to perform a lot, because only half of their money comes from ticket sales. (I can’t seem to find the link now, as I grabbed it off of Twitter)

    While that’s true, its also a problem. People go to performances less frequently if the opportunity is less frequent. At the same time, I don’t have a solution other than raising ticket prices, which isn’t exactly a solution.

  3. Gary clifford dennis Brain says

    Greg, your comments on audiences are very interesting. I was handed a leaflet after a concert here in Paris (France) recently which was the result of a government survey.

    It stated that audiences for all classical concerts were up by 33%. It also stated that the average age of the audience had dropped to 34 and the dress code very informal, often jeans.

    One cannot *obtain tickets for a concert or opera here,unless you are a foreigner a write in advance. There are three full time opera houses in Paris each with its own orchestra (large). There are also six 100+ member symphony orchestras. A new concert hall (number 5)will open in two years the design of which means no member of the audience will be more than a few meters from the musicians. Music is alive a very well in Paris.

    Gary Brain