Future of, international edition

We hear a lot about classical music in Finland — about how many orchestras they have, how they train and nourish musicians, how many fine composers they have. Etc.

But apparently they have no more luck getting younger people to go to classical concerts than we do. Timo Cantell, an arts management professor at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, gave a paper in Tunis about this. He interviewed people in their 20s and 30s who don’t go to classical concerts. He asked them, among many other things, about advertisements for classical concerts:

“A typical advertisement [for a classical concert] might have a black-and-white picture of a soloist or conductor or ancient composer and the text might read: Bach – Beethoven – Sibelius. This format does not communicate to the non-attendees at all.”

One of the non-attendees got off a terrific one-liner. He called these ads “obituaries.”


The Australian Music Council has links on its website to stats about classical concert attendance in various countries, Australia of course included.

This is good news and bad news. It’s good news that any numbers at all are available, and that the Australian Music Council took the trouble to collect them, and  make them available. I’ve asked people in various countries if they know of any stats like these, and the answer has always been no.

But the bad news is that I don’t know what these stats are worth. It’s fascinating — or ought to be — to learn that classical music attendance is down in Ireland and up in Spain (and that it’s down in 8 of the 13 countries listed). But what do the numbers actually mean? Are they comparable from country to country?

As the website drily observes:

“[T]he data available from the various countries differs considerably. In some cases we are given audience numbers – although it is not always clear whether this is the total number of individual people attending, the total number of attendances (paid and free), or the number of tickets sold. In some cases we are given a percentage, presumably the percentage of population attending. But we do not necessarily know whether this is total population or adult population and in some instances, the percentage is so high that there is some question as to whether these are percentages of total population or, for instance, percentage of population that attends the performing arts. Finally, of course, in some cases we might be reading the results of sampling surveys and in others, the results of e.g. census questions to the entire population.”

In Australia, the performing arts audience has been getting older, with the classical music audience taking the lead. “In 1991, the highest attendance rates [this is for all the performing arts] were among the 35-44 and 45-54 year age groups, both at 10.2%. By 1995, the peak had shifted to the 45-54 year group, by 1999 to the 45-54 and 55-64 year groups, with a further aging peaking on the 55-64 year age group in 2006.” Which is more or less exactly what NEA statistics show for classical music in the US, during more or less the same period.

One surprise is the reported increase in classical concert attendance between 1991 and 2006, while attendance at other performing arts events — even rock concerts! — was going down. But an Australian told me privately that this increase apparently was due to crossover events produced by orchestras, so (if this is true) the numbers are deceptive. They don’t show an increase in classical attendance. They show an increase in nonclassical events produced by classical music organizations, with the sales figures for the nonclassical concerts folded into an overall total.

Which once more shows that we have to look at numbers like these very carefully.

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  1. says

    Greg, I really appreciate your critical explanation of these numbers. It’s hard to accurately gauge the situation, and it’s taken on a sort of mythic quality.

  2. beedy says

    Still, that surprise in the last para is a nice surprise. That more people are coming to ANY performing arts events now is remarkable.

    Next question of your Australian source is: what KIND of crossover events? The 3 tenors? Kylie Minogue (no, please no)? Pops concerts? Mitch Miller? Radiohead composing for orchestra?

    Details would be great.

    As I remember, one of the crossover ticket draws was Andre Rieu. No great artistic strides there. Just a successful move to sell tickets.

  3. Ian says

    As an expatriate Australian, the various state orchestras were really getting into the crossover mould as I left in 2006. The Melbourne Symphony, one of the country’s best, did a concert with KISS.

    I wonder how much of the aging difference between 1991 and 2006 can be attributed to longer working hours, and thus an audience gradually being dominated by retirees? Have working hours increased so much since 1991?

    I think too it may have been a matter of survival for the orchestras in Australia as they were at one point all owned and lavishly subsidised by the ABC (equivalent to NPR/PBS) then were cut off and sent out on their own- so populate or perish, so to speak.

  4. Alexandra Ivanoff says

    Greg, thanks for these interesting reports and the link to the research, although it focused primarily on European countries.

    I’m a music journalist in Istanbul, for both the English and Turkish press. I can say for sure that attendance for most symphony, chamber music, and opera is usually at the sold-out level. Appreciation of Western classical music, in a country whose native music stems from folk origins, is high–and well-funded, I might add.

    I see all ages in the concert halls. The interest level is high in general. The city has three large conservatories of music and three major symphony orchestras. The quality level isn’t yet on a par with the Western capitals’ major philharmonics, but young people in general are fascinated with it and want to know more. (Jazz is also extremely well attended here and the audiences are practically at the connoisseur level.)

    Best wishes from the crossroads of the East and West!

    Thanks so much for this report from the crossroads! Very valuable to have.

    To take it further, I’d love to ask a few questions. Not necessarily your responsibility to answer them!

    First, are there studies giving actual attendance data? Or, better, solid numbers for numbers of classical music tickets sold?

    Second, what’s the trend over time? Has attendance gone up or down, or stayed the same?

    And finally, what’s the larger context of full houses for classical music? Are there only a few concerts, or are there many? I realize that “few” and “many” are subjective terms. It’d be interesting to have a measure of available concert seats as a percentage of the country’s population — and of course to have it for other countries, too.

    Has the number of concerts changed over time? Does it fluctuate, or is it steady?

    I always caution myself, by the way, to remember that “full houses” can also be a subjective concept. I go to a performance, and I look around, and the house seems pretty full. But, first, is it equally full throughout the hall? I’ve been at concerts where the orchestra seats were packed, and the balcony was half empty. Or, the opposite — I was at a NY Philharmonic concert a while ago, and there were many empty seats around me downstairs. But was that true in the balconies as well?

    I’ve often also thought that a 95% house would look pretty full to my eyes, but that maybe an 87% house would look full, too. So that there might be a fall, over a number of years, from 95% full to 87%, and I might never notice.

    Not saying this is true of you, Alexandra! Just trying to grapple with how to understand the anecdotal impressions all of us have, including me. It’s impressive that you see a mix of ages.

  5. Yvonne says

    Greg, beedy: It would be wrong to say that André Rieu is representative of “crossover events produced by orchestras”.

    His touring shows are undertaken, managed and marketed by him alone. This doesn’t undermine the affect of those concerts might have on future stats (attendance and age), since he tends to play in stadiums that seat tens of thousands of people and seems to be reaching a demographic that’s even older than the regular orchestral audiences. But the Rieu concerts aren’t connected to what the orchestras in Australia are doing in the realm of crossover.

    More important, as far as these specific stats go, I believe his first tour of Australia was in 2008, two years after the final survey taken in 2006.

    So that leaves nearly half a million more Aussies attending some kind of classical concert (standard or crossover) in 2006 than did so in 1991. Thinking about the typical hall size (2000 seats) and the number of major presenters of concert music nationally (let’s say eight, for argument’s sake), that’s a lot of crossover concerts if these were to be solely responsible for the increase. They’ve played a part, for sure, but are still a minority activity in the annual schedule of an Australian orchestra. Not for 2006, but more recently, imagine a scenario in which a major orchestra presents about 7 crossover projects in a year alongside 45+ mainstream projects.

    For a minute I thought of the big outdoor summer events (in Sydney the attendance is around 80K for one of these), but these are an annual fixture that have been going for decades in the cities that present them. So while they’d certainly contribute to the numbers overall they’re probably not contributing to any increases.

    Thanks for the clarification. I was indulging in hearsay — quoting one remark a well-positioned person made to me. What do you think the increase is from, if not crossover?

    American orchestras have certainly pumped up their bottom lines with crossover events. I know one, a couple of years ago, that made its projections — sold the number of tickets they’d planned to sell — only because it programmed the Lord of the Rings symphony. These events are produced independently of the orchestras, but the orchestras market the tickets in their communities. And put the numbers in their bottom lines.

  6. Yvonne says

    beedy: to answer your particular question, in any given year the range of “crossover” (tricky word, that) and related commercial activities varies considerably from overt potboilers – often appealing to a boomer demographic – to much more interesting collaborations.

    A random sample from some of the announcements for the 2010 seasons around Australia: Scotland the Brave, and The Last Night of the Proms (in some cities mother-country nostalgia sells well…); Burt Bacharach; Bugs Bunny at the Symphony; Beatles tributes; Beach Boys; Best of the West End. None of these will surprise anybody, I’m sure.

    But there are certainly projects that are fresher, and consequently more interesting-looking, at least to my eyes. In Perth next year the orchestra’s developing a concert with indie-rock band The Panics; several orchestras in Australia have collaborated with Ben Folds. Most years the Australian Chamber Orchestra pursues some kind of creative collaboration (involving non-classical and/or extra-musical elements). Recently, for example, their “Luminous” program using photographic images by Bill Henson with a Janacek-to-Vasks soundworld, and there was a collaboration with Katie Noonan that had a Purcell-meets-Radiohead concept.

    There was a “Play” video-game project in Sydney a couple of years ago that impressed me by the way the visual content was integrated: in addition to the often very beautiful game sequences there was some really smartly produced live orchestral footage. It was quite exciting to observe the response to that, including the pleasure that was gained from often quite simple things such as being able to watch the individual instruments highlighted on a big screen as they played.

    Also in Sydney, there have been sets of very successful concerts with The Whitlams, and that particular collaboration has extended this year to embrace the education program and workshops for high school students. Their lead singer, Tim Freedman, is someone who seems to have thought a lot about how the classical tradition (and the contemporary/living classical tradition) interacts with what he does in the pop world.

    This list is from memory, so I’m sure there are interesting projects that I have forgotten or wasn’t fully aware of at the time. Point is, in amongst the more predictable money-spinners (often aimed at a demographic that’s nearly as old as the mainstream audience), there are orchestras investing time and funds in projects that connect with younger music-makers, and other creative artists, from outside the classical world.

    Invaluable info, Yvonne. Thanks so much!

  7. Yvonne says

    Ian: the divestment of the ABC orchestras was a lengthier and more complex process than you suggest. It began in the mid-1990s when the ABC’s Concerts division became Symphony Australia (in practice continuing most of its former functions for the six orchestras but in the new spirit of service provider). On the $ side, this also involved protecting that portion of ABC funding that was allocated for the orchestras. (We were always told not to use the word “quarantine” but one heard it a fair bit anyway…) The point here is that the “ABC” [i.e. federal government] funding was coming directly to the orchestras via the government’s arts funding body, the Australia Council. That situation – in broad terms – didn’t change once divestment was completed just a couple of years ago. Of course, leaving the umbrella of the ABC as an organisation has introduced additional costs to the orchestras, some anticipated and allowed for during the process and others not, which in some cases has hit hard.

    [Disclaimer: although close to the Australian orchestras over most of the past 14 years, I was never directly or intimately involved in the divestment process. I think I’ve reflected the general picture accurately, but happy to be corrected on any points I’ve misremembered.]