At The Audience Agency we’ve recently worked on a number of feasibility projects using patterns of current arts engagement to help predict what audiences we could be reaching in ten or twenty years. Each project has raised essential questions not just about who our audiences will be and how tastes and habits may be changing, but also about what we could be doing to anticipate and accommodate changing and increasingly diverse needs.

Cultural habits

One case was predicated on the idea that in an ageing society, evidence of an ageing audience was a market opportunity. But that is only true if people adopt certain cultural habits with age. Is it really true that we start attending classical concerts, opera performances or mainstream theatre as soon as we hit our fifties?

An astonishing 45% of classical music attenders outside London are over 65, while only 17% of the population is actually over 65. It made me realise how important it is that we understand that the average is set to rise, and how rapidly.

Another feasibility study was for a new venue with a different kind of programme, mixing high art with popular culture, which is experimental and interdisciplinary in process and character. Analysis suggested that while the supply of such programming was limited, the potential audience was huge, under-served and dominated by under-40 millennials. Again, it set me to thinking how vital it is that we understand distinctive, inter-generational shifts in tastes and preferences

Demographic change analysis

With these questions in mind, we undertook some specific, national-level analysis of Audience Finder data, which enables more detailed and nuanced predictive indications than have been readily available in the past. We also asked our partners at Experian to help using Mosaic Futures data that maps the probable impact of demographic change.

We presented these findings at a series of Audience Finder Insight events, in partnership with others who are also actively exploring next-generation thinking in their organisations.

The headline is that overall the average age of audiences for publically supported arts and culture is rising, and this is particularly true for classic artforms (classical music, opera and mainstream theatre). The average age of museum attenders is lower and, while rising, is doing so much more slowly. Only audiences for contemporary art, independent film, outdoor arts and sub-genres, like site-specific and physical theatre, consistently show a higher proportion of younger audiences.

Nearly 40% of audiences for the classic artforms, and a higher number again outside London, are in the older, Babyboomer Audience Spectrum groups Commuterland Culturebuffs and Home and Heritage, now in their sixties and seventies. Commuterland Culturebuffs in particular are hugely over-indexed in the national arts data.

Demographic trends suggest that the children and grandchildren of these groups are unlikely to follow in their footsteps in general lifestyle, while the arts data underlines this shift, with younger Experience Seeker audiences in their twenties and thirties under-indexed in the arts data, representing only around 10% of audiences. But Experience Seekers are cultural enthusiasts and are definitely highly engaged in creative activity, be it in our publically funded institutions or elsewhere.

Worrying indications

On the one hand, indications are worrying. Overall, audience trends for classic artforms are positive: year-on-year ticket revenue, secondary spend, low-level donations and frequency of engagement are all increasing, as are the number of households attending. But it looks as though these increases are largely thanks to ageing Babyboomers, many with disposable income and time at their fingertips, who are increasingly adept at engaging.

In ten to twenty years, however, these positive trends could well plateau and start to drop off, as these groups downsize away from cities and increasingly face age-related barriers to access. The worry is that we continue to fall back on the tried and tested formulae that speak so effectively to our loyal Babyboomer audiences without realising that we are addressing the preferences and habits of one generation at the expense of another.

A new generation

On the other hand, there are reasons for optimism. Millennials and ‘Gen Zs’ (in their twenties by 2027) share unprecedentedly high levels of tertiary education, the single most significant predictor of arts engagement. They will be more liberal, more civically minded and more curious about diverse content than previous generations – all characteristics that should make for a natural affinity with the arts and culture.

What is certain is that they are different from Babyboomers and the arts data already indicates how different their tastes generally are. Unlike previous generations, they are not set to adopt the habits and lifestyles of their parents. To realise the opportunities and stay relevant to upcoming generations, we need to acknowledge these differences, and not be lulled into a false sense of security by positive trends.

As the most over-researched generation in history, millennials already have high expectations that their needs will be anticipated and services personalised. This is already the new normal, while tech-innate Gen Z will expect a whole new level of interactivity.

The programming, engagement strategies and often inflexible conventions of arts-going tuned to the needs of Babyboomer audiences are unlikely to deliver to these generations in the same way. And because we now track our core audience relationships so effectively, our CRM systems could serve to compound the bias.

The under forties, also coined ‘Generation Rent’, are considerably less well-heeled, meaning that price-sensitivity could change drastically. Indeed, the very idea of paying in advance for creative content may start to seem strictly old-school. As the gap between haves and have-nots grows, reaching broader audiences will become even more challenging.

Audience Finder data shows us that while under-35 audiences are far more ethnically diverse, they are not more socially diverse.

No sitting back

In this situation, the worst thing we can do will be to sit back and watch the growth trends, to assume much and listen little. To future-proof we need to immerse ourselves in the lives of the people we hope to engage as future audiences, to involve them as users in the design of flexible experiences and services and understand that what we have to contribute cannot be got elsewhere.

We need to start now, making space and creating channels for the sometimes alien voices of future participants, collaborators and audiences. We will also need to learn to love complexity, as the needs of our audiences further diverge and fragment, across generation, communities and interest groups.

Note: We have not quantified these increases for the purpose of this article, as the picture is complex across artforms, venue types and regions. Further, the predictive tools we have used are by their very nature designed to give trend indications rather than definitive ‘facts’. They work on the basis of understanding likely journeys through socio-geodemographic groupings influenced by factors such as the households’ evolving life stages, economics and consumer behaviours.

Written by Anne Torreggiani, CEO at The Audience Agency
First published on Arts Professional, 6 April 2017.