Declining Audiences for Live Performances


Here’s something:

“…attendance at [_____] reached an all-time high in 2007.  It has consistently dropped ever since.  In 2011, the [___] posted the lowest total attendance….  At a time when everything else regarding [_____] is growing, [____] has seen its paying customers steadily drop by more than 4.5 percent since 2007.”1

and then this:

“But overall, attendance in the [___] is down for the second straight season…In terms of capacity, the [___] sold 91.1% of their tickets 2008-09. In 2009-10, that figure fell to 89.6%. And this season, [___] teams are drawing just 88.6% of capacity, leaving nearly 12% of all seats empty each night.”2

Various reasons for the decline are given, as well as various remedies to combat it:

“More and more [_____] are basically giving away tickets to [performances], offering free ticket specials or $1 deals on ducats. Several ticket pricing websites are often reduced to selling tickets for literal pocket change on [performance] days, and yet fans still aren’t showing up.”3

And getting an increasingly more connected audience to have options for connecting at live events:

“Bringing in Wi-Fi and a ton of multimedia bling sounds promising. Here’s the catch: Delivering that experience to [_____] fans packed into a relatively small area is extremely tricky.”4

If you think I’m talking about the world of SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) well, no–these are all quotes from pieces about the sports world which while having unprecedented gains in broadcast revenue is starting to feel a big crunch in the live audience arena.  But so much of what is being said could just as easily have been read about the problems in the Performing Arts World that it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Cost Disease is very much alive in Sports, which functionally speaking, is no different than any other performing art.

In fact, athletes are simply performers–performing a live and improvised game.  Calling them athletes that play only belies the fact that, from an economic standpoint, they are laborers creating a product in real time, just as dancers, musicians, and singers are.  That there are advocates in the performing arts world looking to the popularity or relevance of Sports (or Pop Music) as having some kind of model that can be used for the success of the performing arts simply means that the performing arts world, if it adopts some of the techniques already used in the “popular entertainment” fields then they will again be one step behind where these fields are moving as they realize the live audience factor is no longer in their favor, or at least becoming a tenuous  prospect at best.

Other similarities to the Performing Arts fields:

The NFL, NBA, and MLB are coming to realize that rising ticket costs might be pricing audiences out of the stadium. Given the rise in television and online viewing/interaction (and the corresponding revenue streams coming in from Broadcast media) this is functionally no different than the NEA studies showing greater online participation in the arts in conjunction with a declining live audience.  Performing Arts institutions simply haven’t found a way to monetize live broadcasts in a meaningful (economic) way as Sports have.  Then again, given policies which favor Sports Broadcasting (the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1964) maybe specific legislation regarding broadcasting and the Performing Arts might make a difference.

While Major League Baseball (MLB) has had record attendance in the past few years, ticket sales are down for the first part of this year and most recognize that the growth in attendance may have been due to variable and dynamic ticket pricing which has only recently been implemented in those years attendance had gone up and the fear is that those initiatives may have hit their limit.  Given the sheer number of events MLB has compared to the other Leagues, ticket revenue is one of the highest, proportionally speaking, of total revenue than what we find in other sports.  MLB also has the lowest percentage/per game of audience attendance (again likely due to the sheer number of games played).

Which brings us to a parallel with, say, Symphony performances–the sheer number of performances by any one full time orchestra comes close to the total number of games any particular league may have in a year.  If the number of events goes up, then the percentage of audience for each individual event goes down as even happens in the sports world.

Lockouts/Strikes in Sports–there have been so many [Lockouts] in recent years in all but MLB that we could wonder how any Sports clubs haven’t declared bankruptcy–that is until we realize that the revenue sharing model of the Leagues means that no particular team ends in the red even if between a third and two thirds of individual teams would absent that sharing.

I’ve already said much in past threads about many of these issues, especially regarding what could be considered the negative externalities in the Sports industries.  Check those out and tell me what you think.  Also take a look at this piece about how Sports Teams lie about attendance!

See also Frank J. Oteri’s post, Winners and Losers, which opens with a quote:

“Regardless of the hand-wringing about dying audiences, we still live in a country where more people go to the symphony than to professional sporting events. In 2009, according to AFTA’s National Arts Index, more than 25 million attended symphony orchestra concerts in the top 81 metro areas of the U.S. The NFL has 17 million in attendance.”
—Rachel Ciprotti, June 28, 2013 comment posted in response to Jesse Rosen’s article, “Provocative Choices for Orchestras”, Huffington Post, June 27, 2013



1. Mike Florio (2012) After peaking in 2007, NFL attendance steadily has declined <<>>

2. Corke Gains (2010) NO ONE CARES ABOUT BASKETBALL: NBA Attendance Is Down – Again Read <<>>

3. Kelly Dwyer (2013) Why can’t NBA teams fill arenas, even after giving away free tickets? <<–nba.html>>

4. David Goldman (2013) NFL dangles apps and Wi-Fi to boost lagging attendance <<>>


24 thoughts on “Declining Audiences for Live Performances

  1. On the labor side, the professional sports world has had their share of strikes and lockouts, just like the symphony world.

    All this means is that you can’t find permanent solutions in either (1) scale nor (2) populism. Scale up the venue size, and eventually you’re going to scale up all the other costs, including performer compensation, to match, and you’ll be back in the same place. Offer more populist offerings, and a large share of that audience is going to be more price-sensitive than “elite” audiences and only come once a year when you perform the John Williams movie music. At best, both short-term innoculations.

    People, including performers, expect their wages to rise faster than inflation, but they do not expect what they pay for, including concert tickets, to increase in cost faster than inflation. Coupled with Baumol’s cost disease, this is not a good thing for the performance industries, including sport.

    Maybe we should focus on technological adaptation (read: digital distribution), but I’ve seen the capital costs for those initiatives far exceed the near term revenue potential, and you have to refresh that capital investment at a pretty rapid rate. Also, I’ve seen performers do everything possible to stop such efforts dead in their tracks.

    Other ideas?


  2. ” … the performing arts world, if it adopts some of the techniques already used in the “popular entertainment” fields then they will again be one step behind … ”

    It’s amazing how unfailingly the classical beltway crowd always seems to discover the solution to their woes a mere two or three decades after the nick of time. It’s the same with their love affairs with young audiences, just as the rest of the entertainment world is beginning to realize that older audiences are more valuable than they’ve thought previously, and that rock/pop are as much greybeard genres as classical ever was. You’d think it was 1962 the way they talk about rock and pop as being the “new thing” that “all the hip young kids today” are into. (Wow, do I love irony quotes or what?) (Also parentheses.)

    They are always somehow behind the curve — like clockwork. It’s frustrating and eerie.


    1. I think the mindset of being a preservation type of organization (e.g. “Aural Museum”) permeates even the ability to adapt to new initiatives. That could just be a reflection of the environment of Not-For-Profs. I hesitate to say organization size as even the much larger Sports organizations seem to be adapting faster though I suspect they might not understand how the cost Disease is affecting them. I’ve come across so little literature on the affects of the Cost Disease in Sports and only a little more than that on the Pop Music Industry–but I suspect part of that is because of how ‘lucrative’ the two seem even if there are tons of negative externalities associated with both.


  3. Aaron, I’ve only had the chance the rate of decline of the proportion of gate revenue to total revenue for MLB, but I suspect it’s the same with the other Leagues–which means the lion’s share of revenue is coming from the licensing and merchandizing.

    I think some of the implications is that due to increased digital distribution, that is starting to affect the live audience revenue. Interestingly, I believe Peter Gelb has also made a comment about how the Met livecasts is starting to affect their attendance with people who would have normally gone to a Met performance within a two to three hour drive now opt for the Cinema casts.

    A similar phenomenon happened with Boxing and pay-per-view. The total live audience decreased with the rise of broadcast licensing on the pay-per-view model simply because of the decrease of boxing clubs/venues (from about 300 to about 30). Seems to be the pattern–increase the audience through broadcast media (either traditional or digital) and you risk losing some of the live audience.

    I think how sports got away with not having to worry about refreshing the capital investment due to the phenomenal growth of broadcast media, which Sports clubs didn’t have to invest much in (I’ve read somewhere that one of the reasons Sports won out in broadcast media is simply because of how cheap it was as events to program unlike Symphonies which would have required better audio technology). Cinemas already seem to be set up for the live casts, but yeah, I can’t see many arts organizations investing in the tech for the casts–though I have been seeing more and more advertisements for theater and dance companies at the cinema in addition to the LA Phil/Met Opera productions.

    I’m not even sure what might constitute technological adaptation at this stage since we seem to be at a stage where various digital media and distribution systems for them are rapidly changing and evolving–Arts orgs may end up picking the wrong format anyway.


    1. Quick-quick comment:

      The fact that attending live is becoming more of a very “special occasion” way to enjoy something rather than the default way indicates that the formality and fancy dress code of the concert hall could be perfectly acceptable. I can see how most audiences would want there to be a special-night-out ambiance around attending a live performance if it’s only something you do every now and then as opposed to seeing it Live in HD.

      Although I’m highly skeptical of the “wear your jeans and flipflops to the opera” solutions to making classical music supposedly accessible to the masses.


    2. Which is probably as it should be anyway. I think the sheer number of Symphony Events is almost counterproductive to creating that “special event” status–Similar to what I said about MLB having the smallest audience and the largest number of events of all the sports leagues–all while also being one of the cheapest deals. It had been policy for MLB to keep the ticket prices down simply because of that recognition of the huge number of events might be a disincentive for fans.

      The HD casts and home theater viewings and “online participation” as the NEA calls it may become the default ways for audiences to connect with the performing arts, pop music, and sports–it’s already where the bigger audiences may be. I think it would be crucial for SOBs to figure out a way to monetize it because, yeah, I don’t think the jeans and flipflops and DJs and WiFi is going to bring in audiences in any meaningful (economically speaking) ways!


    3. It’s so strange — they all thought that the HD stuff was so good because it could enable people halfway around the globe to see their performances without being right there, without realizing that it would also do the same for people halfway around the block. Definitely an unanticipated pothole.


    4. Also, not only will jeans-and-flipflops not work to bring in audiences, but it’s going in the wrong direction indicated by current trends. If people will mostly experience this stuff in HD (or some similar broadcast thing), then the actual live attendance is going to feel special to them, worthy of making it a big deal.

      It’s sort of the equivalent of people painting their faces in the team colors and wearing all sorts of crazy wigs and giant rubber #1 hands when they are at the stadium. People don’t do that at home, but when they go to the game, they want to make it special, so they dress the part. If people go to the opera or the orchestra live, they generally want it to be the Whole Fabulous Experience, right down to the suit and the long dress.

      I’ve also spoken before about how I think this is a class thing, but that I interpret it the reverse of the beltway dudes. Most poor or working class folks, if they go to an opera, want the excuse to dress up and feel special for a night. It really matters when you spend your days in a hairnet or steel-toed shoes to dress up, look in the mirror, and see someone who looks sharp looking back at you. It’s only the better-off types who seem to think that beach shorts are okay for state dinners.

      Anyhow. I am constantly heartened that there is someone out there doing this stuff for real who sees and appreciates these matters. Thank you so much for your blog. It can get a little depressing to read blog after blog about how to save classical music written from the perspective of upper-class rear-echelon insiders of the sort who generally bled it dry to start with. 😦


    5. I don’t think it was a surprise that HD broadcast risked cannibalizing existing audiences. You couldn’t not assume this would happen. However, if you face cannibalization risk, it’s better to keep the cannibal in the family.


    6. It makes sense to me as well, that they’d have realized this. But … I’ve never seen this acknowledged anywhere by the pundits who are supposed to be so in-the-know on this sort of “rescue classical music” thing. It’s just weird.


    7. Every time a new media gets developed there was always the fear of it cutting into the live experience. Radio, Television, Recordings, and now digital media. While most of those fears have been unfounded I think we’ve always recognized the competition the new media would foster. I think also that there were always the naysayers telling us that folks would never give up the live experience for the media experiences–that people are more discerning than that.

      What it all boils down to is how much of the live experience can anyone afford in the long run. It won’t matter how popular something is if you can’t afford the $3000 luxury box seats to a stadium game, and as the quality of the media experience gets better and better, then it’s really becoming a no-brainer.

      Love what you said about the face-painting comment–that is so much the equivalent of getting dressed in your suit and best evening dress for the Symphony. And I think those people who invest that much in their attire will likely always be the more regular attenders of events–and in many ways will drive the ideas of appropriate (or at least acceptable limits) dress for live events!


  4. A tangential-yet-related comment that could — and would if I had my druthers — spin this off into an entirely separate universe:

    It bugs me that when it comes to both sports and performing arts, the entire industry claims to support Art/Fitness-in-Capital-Letters, and yet the only thing they give a damn about is whether or not people come see them do it. It really starts to chap my ass that the only reason industry insiders ever seem to talk about people engaging in fitness activities or studying music in school (always proposed as solutions to a variety of societal ills) is because it might get those people to fork over money to vegetate in a chair and watch someone else do it.

    It never occurs to them that maybe encouraging music education in schools might cause people to not come to the concert because they are busy making their own g-ddamned music. I think fitness woujld be the same way. Fitness-keen folks aren’t paying money to watch a bunch of steroid cases smack a rock over a fence because they’re out on their own bicycles using their own muscles. You don’t see a lot of super-ripped people in stadium stands, to be honest.

    And that’s not what the self-appointed saviors really want, is it? They don’t want people to appreciate music (or I think, fitness) on their own terms, for their own good. They want them to sit still and watch while the priests say mass, not to write their own liturgy. (I’ve used the 95 Theses metaphor before.)

    It just bugs me. I’ll never forget reading one person in the comments of a well-known pundit’s blog saying, “Well really, I don’t care about what kind of music the audience members might make at home. I just want them to come see me do it.” That is as close to a quote as I can recall, but that was the exact idea. I don’t care about them — hey, why don’t they care about me?

    Do they not see that encouraging people to like and engage in an activity might encourage them to engage in it using the time and money they might have spent to watch someone else do it?

    It also reminded me of when my ex-roommate was scoping out eHarmony and She was horrified at how many people listed “sports” as an interested and it turned out they just meant sitting on their asses and watching sports on TV. >_<

    This is one of the MAJOR MAJOR reasons why I love the BSO's Rusty Musician program. They've managed to both encourage AND monetize this behavior. It doesn't just have to be scraping out people's pockets so they'll sit still and watch rhetorical-you be fabulous. What the hell are the other orchestras waiting for?

    BIG rant there … and somewhat disorganized, too … sorry. 🙂


    1. Now that’s an interesting way to look at it–I think that’s what we’d call conversion rates. Example–how many people who actually go to a website buy something from the website. How the businesses website can be structured to increase (or decrease) buy in is the conversion rate.

      So how much does arts (or sports) education actually buy into the arts (or sports) and does increasing the education actually make them more likely to do so or to do, as you imply, more likely to engage in the arts and sports on their own terms by spending their discretionary income on activities that they can do themselves?

      Might make a fascinating study.

      On the other hand, I’ve seen little to support the initiatives that are purportedly used to bring newer (and younger) audiences as doing anything to actually help the financial situations of the organizations.

      Going back to the sports, since the largest increase in revenue (proportion and gross) happens due to the licensing of broadcast networks it can be argued that audiences have little to do with supporting or sustaining the Leagues. Similar arguments could be made for the pop music industry, But, that’s why I posted about how audiences can’t save the arts, sports, or pop music, right?


    2. And in general, I just question the motivations of people who consider it a successful conversion only if they get “butts in seats,” and not if they get people to take up instruments or dance in their own time. I question that artistically, and I question it morally.

      They really need to find ways to perform as they always have — the “butts in seats” thing — and also to monetize what happens when average people pick up instruments for themselves. I keep coming back to the BSO and their rusty musician thing. Traditional music worlds manage this — what is it about fiddling that gets people to pay big money to attend bluegrass festivals and concerts, and then to pick up their own instruments and go to jams on their own time? (And I’m emphatically no longer convinced that traditional music is “easier” than classical, either. You can send a lot of classically trained musicians clean off the rails just by handing them a solo and no sheet music.)

      If all they’re doing is turning music lovers into sources of money, that’s not enough to me, artistically or morally. It’s also hypocritical to spout about the significance of art in human existence, and not encourage people to make some. If they can motivate people to pick up some instrument someplace and at least make that a part of their lives however well they may play, and monetize this somehow, while getting their butts into the seats at the same time … that’s more robust, more sustainable, and does better justice to the whole idea of art.

      Of course, they’d have to lose the whole bullsh*t attitude that one has to start in the womb before you’re good enough for their world … I am fully aware that many of the virtuoso pieces are indeed that hard to play, but would it fucking kill them to bag the Liszt and Prokofiev every now and then and put on a concert of Grieg’s lyric pieces? Does EVERY SINGLE CONCERT have to communicate how much better they are than mere mortals, all the time?

      Yikes. I seriously thought that was going to be a short comment! Sorry.


    3. Oooh–interesting points. I don’t think I’ve really considered some of these ideas from your past couple of comments. At least not quite in that way. I think I might have to write a post about the psychology of these attitudes on both the audience and performer/presenter side!


    4. It’s another way to approach the whole idea of doing away with the velvet rope, what I think of as the fanfic approach to classical music. Modern culture has always been very participatory in some areas (the zine producers of the old Star Trek fandom are the best example of this, and that’s half a century ago now), and nowdays tech has made it very, very easy for people to engage in these activities, where their love of a given media creation prompts them to create their own stuff — both hewing closely to the original and spinning it into a totally different universe.

      Sure, some fanfiction/art/vids stinks on ice, but an awful lot of it is very, very, very good. And it’s assumed to be an expression of enthusiasm, a natural effect of falling in love with something creative: to have one’s own creative engine rev up in response.

      This has always been around; hell, fanfiction and vids were not invented by today’s teens but by their grandmothers. But the Internet shot it into the stratosphere and made it possible for everyone to be creator/consumers. The lines between producers and consumers have not been blurred so much as obliterated. Television audiences stepped into that world in the 1960s when women started writing stories that threw Kirk and Spock in bed together for pete’s sake. This is old news, and classical music seems entirely unaware that it all even happened much less how to ride that wave.

      They’re still in the world where a yard-thick plexiglass wall separates performer from audience, and everything about that culture promotes the Unbreachable Abyss — the attitude that you need to spend a quadzillion dollars on an instrument before you’re anything more than a piker, that you have to start in the womb, that even the performers themselves are mere mites on Beethoven’s butt hairs … the whole thing is all about sending the message that this world has nothing to do with rhetorical-you, and the best you can do is to bask in reflected glory.

      Tell any genre fan that the best they can hope to do is to sit quietly, read the manga or watch the movie, and not create anything themselves, and they will probably think they heard you wrong.

      Jesus, that’s a lot of blather on this post … it’s a sore spot for me. I cannot get over how they miss this.


  5. Although I should admit that a lot of the Fitness-in-Capital-Letters crowd is also strongly motivated by concerns about diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other health issues. Music doesn’t have that as a motivation to promote itself to the proles.


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