UK Study: 2023 Audiences Rebounded From The Pandemic


Amidst the doom and gloom of recent news about funding cuts for UK arts organisations, a glimmer of hope has emerged in the shape of a new report, Tomorrow’s Audience, from audience research specialists Indigo and box office software provider Spektrix.

Berlioz’ Les Troyens at the BBC Proms 2023

© Andy Paradise

This sector-wide research examined ten years of ticketing data from over 300 UK performing arts organisations – a cross-section of companies from the very largest to the very smallest. The researchers didn’t stop there: organisations were invited to send out a survey asking their “first time since Covid” bookers about their experiences, receiving a staggering 32,700 responses. These findings were further illustrated through online focus groups with people who were brand new to the arts.

The 86-page report is well worth reading. Rarely do we see such wide-ranging quantitative and qualitative research, aiming to investigate exactly what’s happening across an entire country’s arts and culture scene.

The research revealed two standout findings:

  • More than half of audiences in 2023 were first-time bookers.
    54% of the audience had not attended before, a near record high in the decade, eclipsed only by the figure of 55% first-timers in 2013.

As the pandemic has abated, not only are audiences for performing arts returning, but they are doing so in greater numbers. A significant percentage are new visitors, new to the performing arts altogether, younger and more diverse than ever before.

Sceptics might issue the rejoinder: “doesn’t this mean that over half the audience never comes back?”

It appears not. According to the data, more first-timers are returning for a second time, which bucks the downward trend of retention rates that had been ongoing since well before the pandemic. 19.5% of new bookers from 2022 returned in 2023, a rate of re-attendance not seen since 2016.

And a whopping 76% of first-timers said that they were likely or very likely to return within the next year. They felt so welcome, and had such a good experience, that they want to do it all over again.

We have to keep in mind that this report deals with all genres of the performing arts – theatre, multi-arts venues, festivals – as well as classical music, opera and dance. But there was a heartening statistic that those determined to push the narrative that classical music and opera are increasingly irrelevant and out of touch should note:

  • Classical and opera audiences are the most engaged arts attenders, with 21% attending at least once a month, compared to 15% for drama.

A statistic, by the way, mirrored by our own research into Bachtrack’s users, of which we know over half attend 11 or more performances a year.

A particularly striking section of the report discusses the conditions which lead people to attend, and the barriers that stop them from attending. Some findings appear to go against certain loudly-touted opinions claiming that the “outdated” presentation of classical concerts is what is holding back attendance.

For example: overall, most first-timers would not be encouraged to attend by changes to the auditorium experience. Ideas such as using phones and social media during the performance, allowing people to take photos and video, and the freedom to talk and move around, would actually make many people less likely to attend.

What actually discourages audiences from attending are practical considerations – transport, toilets, unclear booking processes, and the difficulty of getting home late.

Whilst there’s not much arts organisations can do to make the trains and buses run on time or any later into the night – apart from lobbying their local governments to boost the night-time economy – other aspects are well within organisations’ ability to resolve. Indeed, many are already well on their way to being addressed.

A word about one particular aspect of the experience of attending performing arts that we at Bachtrack particularly notice: the post-performance experience. Almost without exception, at larger venues the feeling is “get out and go home”. Bars are shut. Theatres hustle audiences out through fire doors directly to the street. Orchestra members are often out of the stage door with their coats on before the audience has even made it out of the auditorium. What about the post-show glow? Can we slow down a little?

The research supports this opinion, finding that younger new-to-arts attendees regard the opportunity to take part in post-show socialising and discussion a significant factor in their decision to attend. Meeting performers and having post-show drinks and snacks in the venue were popular ideas. (Indeed, at many smaller venues, this is standard practice. Only at larger venues are audiences so unceremoniously hustled out onto the street.)

These findings ought to be a shot in the arm for performing arts organisations, in the UK and elsewhere, who have been working overtime to get people back into their venues since the pandemic. Orchestras and opera companies can now see that the work that has been done towards becoming more inclusive, more welcoming and more relevant is starting to reap rewards.

Nevertheless, it can be trying at times to shout above the din of voices insisting that classical music is dying out and audiences are dwindling. This data and report does not support that view, indicating that classical music is still wanted and needed. Organisations should feel confident that the work they do is valued. Otherwise, we run the risk of the narrative of decline becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reports of classical music’s death are greatly exaggerated! Tomorrow’s audience is out there – and they are ready to listen! Keep going!



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