No one had any idea if people would tune in to all this arts content when the digital floodgates opened in March. What do we know now?
We know that engagement with arts content online has skyrocketed, with scores more people watching online than usually attend in person:
- 7.9 million people had watched the Metropolitan Opera’s first free stream of the pandemic, Bizet’s Carmen
- 27 times the normal audience streamed a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert than normally attended in person. (both statistics sourced Barbara Jepson in the Wall Street Journal, May 19)
- 217,000 people watched the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors at the same time. (Giverny Masso in The Stage, May 29)
- Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is seeing a five-fold increase in views of its online videos as compared to 2019 (Jeremy Reynolds in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 13)
OK, before you @ me, let’s name all the things: these performances were offered for free online. These are high profile organizations with pre-existing international followings, large audiences (as arts audiences go), strong reputations, and high-quality recorded content at the ready. Plus, I chose these numbers to highlight without any attempt at finding a representative sample. Therefore, the conclusions we can draw from only these examples are narrow, and I’m not claiming otherwise.
The audiences for streaming that I cherry-picked above are eye-popping. Let’s look at some more reliable numbers. WolfBrown, a market research and consulting firm for arts and cultural organizations, is conducting an ongoing arts audience study during this crisis, surveying people who attended arts organizations in person before the pandemic. (I mentioned Alan Brown’s research in my previous post.) On June 29, 2020, they reported some results:
- 28% of survey respondents who attended orchestras, opera companies, theater companies (n=1,149) answered that they had watched online arts content, split equally between those who had watched once, and those who had watched more than once.
- 58% had not watched any online arts content and 14% were not aware that the organization offered digital content.
- Theater companies fared the worst of the group (n=296), with 71% of respondents who were theater attendees answering that they had not watched content, 27% weren’t aware of online content – leaving only 2% who had watched once, and NONE who had watched more than once.
So if the people watching are not the audiences that were coming in person…does that mean that there is a whole new audience?!? The very holy grail we have been looking for?
Results of another study conducted by LaPlaca Cohen and Slover Linett offer additional insight. They conducted a different version of LaPlaca Cohen’s regular CultureTrack study with 124,000 respondents in the first three weeks of May 2020. The vast majority of respondents were arts attendees of the 653 participating organizations, with the addition of non-attendees to ensure the sample was representative of the U.S. population.
- 53% of respondents reported viewing or participating in digital cultural content. (It’s important to note that “cultural” for this study is a much wider net than “arts”.)
- Of viewers that watched content by arts organizations, a range of 32-55% of the viewers had never attended the organization.
By comparison to pre-pandemic numbers, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Survey of Public Participation (SPPA) in the Arts 2017 found that 74% of U.S. adult residents engage with the arts “electronically” (their term) at least once in the prior year, with most people listening to music. (The SPPA asks the question differently than CultureTrack study, so I don’t think the 53% vs. 74% difference is necessarily contradictory.) The NEA conducts a “short form” survey this year – it will be very interesting to see the change in the “electronic” numbers.**
What are we to make of all these numbers? It’s clear: Arts organizations are reporting massive increases in online audiences driven by viewers and participants who have never set foot inside their buildings.
So – YES, there is a wider audience for the arts.
There is an unprecedented opportunity to “tap” those untapped audiences. Arts organizations should be making the most of this high volume of digital engagement while they have it: get as many people as possible watching, get them excited and engaged in the art form, in the artists, in the organizations, in the missions, in the impact. Put all they have into it.
When we go back to being in person, keep up this digital content, value the audiences participating in digital offerings as much as the audiences members who show up in person.
Digital audiences “count” too.
Side note, fun theory: the 2017 SPPA reported that play-reading increased from 2.9% of adults in 2012 to 4% in 2016, with 6% of adults 18-24 years of age reading a play in the previous year (the age cohort with the most play-reading). I have a hunch – without direct evidence – this increase was driven by the 2016 publication of the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which sold 2 million copies in the US in its first two days of release. But I digress…