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The Effect of Generational Change on Classical Music Concert Attendance and Orchestras’ Responses in the UK and US

October 17, 200517 October 2005

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This paper contends that the lack of growth in classical concert attendance in the UK and the US is not due to the cost and accessibility of events or a decline in arts education, but rather to changes in taste and socio-demographics. Professor Kolb finds that classical music attendance rates have remained flat (at best) and that attendance is decreasing among the young. Kolb believes that there is an increasing gap in cultural values between classical music and society at large.

The report is not entirely bleak, in that it also finds a “strong preference for listening to classical music that cuts across all education, age and ethnic groups”. In a conclusion similar to the Knight Foundation study, Kolb indicates that “people may be aware of and appreciate classical music and still not be interested in attending concerts”.

Why not? Kolb finds that “many ethnic minorities … are not attending classical concerts despite rising education and income levels”. Kolb argues that classical concert settings – which present classical music as “an object of contemplation” rather than in a social context – may be off-putting for ethnic minorities and the young and may therefore account for lacklustre concert attendance.

The paper uses other US research results to show that a “great attendance divide exists between those who have been through higher education and those who have not”. Those Americans who have completed college are 3 to 6 times more likely to attend a range of performing arts events than those who have completed high school only. In Canada, I’ve calculated that those who have completed at least a bachelor’s degree are 1.7 times more likely to attend performing arts events than those who have completed high school only. Apparently the “great attendance divide” is not as pronounced in Canada as in the US. (More information on this will be forthcoming in the first issue of Hill Strategies’ statistical publication.)

Kolb’s research finds that many people in older age groups have always attended classical concerts, while those in younger age groups “show no signs of increasing attendance” as they age. This is a challenge to simple demographic analyses that assume that younger adults will increase their arts attendance as they age, such as a recent study that examined the impacts of aging on cultural tourism in Ontario. (If the Future Were Now… Impacts of Aging the Canadian Market on Tourism in Ontario, Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation, July 2002,

Kolb also examines the rationale and potential for educational outreach programs to increase concert attendance. She finds that these programs should focus more on the needs of schools and students rather than the needs of the orchestras. They should also attempt to address changes in taste and socio-demographics.

Kolb believes that concert presenters must address issues of connectedness of audiences to stage performers in the set-up of halls and the behaviour of musicians. “The challenge will be for orchestras to add additional benefits to the concert experience that meet the different values of [ethnic minority and younger age] groups.” Without providing details, Kolb believes that “it is time to consider a fundamental change in the place and manner in which a concert is presented”.

Given our increasingly multicultural society, we can no longer assume that rising education and income levels will increase arts attendance. Moreover, an aging population does not necessarily translate into higher arts attendance. Rather, arts organizations must work hard to attract and develop younger and ethnically-diverse audiences and participants.

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