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.