How audiences can’t save the arts, or sports, or pop music, or…

George Cruikshank’s “A London Audience” (1836) which may be a ‘portrait’ of an audience during a lecture by Dr. Gall or Dr. Spurzheim

Since the 60s live audiences haven’t really sustained much of anything.  The economic infrastructure that creates ‘sustainability’ for Classical Music, the Sports Industry, and the Pop Music Industry since the post WWII economic boom in the US has had much more to do with the growth of all three of these fields.

Foundations and donors make up the difference for ticket sales (i.e. audience contribution) for Classical Music; Broadcast Licensing makes up the lion’s share of the even more dismal proportion of gate revenue (i.e. audience contribution) for the Sports Industry; and the Recording Industry has done more for propping up pop Superstars than live touring (i.e. ticket paying audience contribution) has given the huge difference between total revenue earned by the former as opposed to the latter.

Obviously, in all the above cases the audience has some indirect effect on non-performance revenue, but how much of an effect that is or even how the effect is made isn’t entirely understood or known.  We understood that having a bigger audience for classical music means having potentially more donors; we understood that due to the (increasingly questioned) focus on the 18-49 demographic by Broadcast Media means that having a large viewership for sports events in that segment will bring in more advertising dollars by corporations; and we understood that having record selling hits and albums meant Labels could invest in support tours by artists to sell their product.

All three of those can no longer be taken as a given.  There seems to be fewer and fewer donors who are giving less money; with the rise of the median age of the US, we’re closer to having half the US population above the 49 year mark–and that group has much more buying power than the under 49 group; and the recording industry is scrambling to figure out ways to monetize digital sales effectively so the slowly tanking industry doesn’t completely collapse.

All three industries are pegging their hopes or have traditionally pegged their hopes for future prosperity and sustainability in the youthful generation(s) (i.e. the “Savior Demographic“).  Younger audiences are the least likely to be donors; to buy full subscriptions or season tickets; or to buy recordings so what economic impact youthful audiences have on the bottom line for these industries can be next to negligible.  The hope is to converting this audience into bigger future supporters in aiding the sustainability of the industries but by investing so much in this population, the current [older] population (the half of the population above the tail end of the 18-49 demographic) have far more buying power, more disposable income, and generally more free time and in many cases get left out of the equation for services tailored to them.  Which means that the organizations that are currently struggling haven’t bothered  focusing much on the segment of the population that could actually do the most to keep it afloat for any future sustainability efforts to matter.

Most importantly, if the economic infrastructure that creates the much larger portion of revenue by these industries collapses, no amount of audience building will matter since ticket revenue isn’t what keeps these industries afloat in the first place.

What remains to be seen is whether the infrastructures are sustainable, or if another set of infrastructures will emerge to take the place of those currently not doing as well as most would like.  Or perhaps the US is simply at the end of the prosperous economic cycle which allowed the emergence of full-time Orchestras, Sports Teams, Pop Music Superstars and we’ll start seeing dramatic changes in all three industries as they all ‘downsize’ and perhaps merge into something completely different and radically new.

7 thoughts on “How audiences can’t save the arts, or sports, or pop music, or…

  1. Interesting post, Jon. Good point about ticket sales. But doesn’t attendance, shown in ticket sales, represent the engagement with the activity (sports, music, or whatever) in question? A sold-out Lucas Oil stadium may not pay for the Colts, but if people aren’t excited enough to go to the game, are they going to watch it on TV, buy merchandise, etc.?

    The big dilemma is, as you point out, that it is the older half of the audience that is funding things, while we are focused on building the younger half. But are institutions really neglecting the older half? And will the older half continue to support something that does not have new generations of people engaged with it?


    1. Those are very good questions, Eric, and many of them are actually issues I’m struggling with as I shift the way I’ve been gigging primarily because of the audience dynamic I’ve experienced as it pertains to my own revenue streams.

      For the most part, this post refers mainly to the big institutions or Superstars, since the operating costs of having big concerts (either pop or classical) and big sports events place them in a category that doesn’t have particular relevance for events on a much smaller scale (for the most part).

      As far as the engagement issue is concerned, I think many of the things I discovered about how the sports industry says a lot–as it is technically the biggest money maker of all three of these industries–while at the same time having the smallest ration of performance (eg ticket) revenue to total revenue of the three. Since Broadcast licensing is the big revenue bringer for this industry, what’s interesting is how television model works for bringing in advertising dollars based on the coveted 18-49 demographic especially in light of more recent research that is showing that the conversion to buyers-of-products from that demographic is relatively low (the CBS Vision study says about .12 correlation with sales) compared to other audience segments that deal specifically with purchasing behavior (one group has a .69 correlation).

      The growing 49+ age demographic, as the baby boomers finally move past the 18-49 bracket, are increasingly having much more purchasing power and within a couple of years, much more than half of the US population will be above that 49 mark.

      Granted, tv networks have been arguing over demographics since the beginning of the Nielsen ratings–always the network with the lowest proportion of the 18-49 demographic with conduct studies or make claims about the actual buying power. Difference this time is that with the median age now being right at the top of the demographic, CBS has a much more powerful bargaining chip for attracting advertisers.

      And that’s the goal–win the advertisers since that’s precisely where the Broadcast licensing works. If the 18-49 demographic is the “profitable demographic” then networks can charge top dollar for ad space during broadcasts–if Sports events have one of the highest proportion of that demographic as part of their viewership, then it corporations will pay top dollar to advertise during Sports events. But what if the 18-49 demographic isn’t the most profitable? And what if the actual audience segment with the highest correlation to sales isn’t at all a significant proportion of the viewership for Sports? Cut out the advertising dollars for Broadcast licensing and Sports will be in an even worse position than Orchestras with regard to non-performance revenue since their performance revenue is generally a much smaller percentage than seems to be the case with Orchestras.

      With broadcast media cancelling shows popular with an older demographic–even when these are some of the highest rated shows–I can see how the older audiences are going to start feeling betrayed by the privileging of the youth!

      In other words, it really has nothing to do with actual number of viewers, but the proportion of the coveted viewers. Businesses are the customers of Television stations–the products they are selling are shows or events which have a highly coveted viewer demographic! And that demographic seems to be under question right now.

      As an aside–apparently, from what I understand many sports events don’t sell out, which is a source of much consternation since most of the leagues have the media “blackout” rule (e.g. the NFL must sell out 72 hours before a game or the game cannot be broadcast). This has apparently led to some sports stadiums to closing off sections of the stadium so there are fewer seats to sell (which also means that those seats cannot be sold at all during the whole season) to other practices such as the much higher percentage of Luxury Suites, to the Broadcast media occasionally buying the last few hundred or so seats just so it can broadcast (and of course, retain money from advertisers)!

      I think one of the most interesting aspects of the age divide issue might have to do with how the older demographics view the younger demographics–apparently, the states with the most homogenous white populations tend to be the states with the oldest populations since there’s a Demographic Racial Gap and what those populations tend to fund in those states are very different than what the same older/white demographic is willing to fund in a state that is more heterogeneous. This might mean we’d see different kinds of support levels from the older population relative to diversity of the local population, or as the case may be, relative to the ‘diversity’ of the content of media outlets. The more diverse racial make-up of the youth may only exacerbate the age differences.


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