The pandemic has foregrounded the benefits of online engagement, whilst also causing a range of deep damage to the sector, both in terms of those who make up the workforce (in particular the impact on freelancers) and the financial health of organisations. Whilst it’s sharpened the hunger of many audiences, it has also created new risks and barriers, even as venues reopen.
The in-person experience
Substantial proportions of the population engage with live performing arts, when possible:
In the year pre-COVID
- Music gigs: 34%
- Plays/drama: 30%
- Opera/ballet/classical music: 12%
- Contemporary Dance: 7%
Equally, there have been sharper restrictions on the availability for performing arts over the last year or so:
Since COVID lockdowns began
- Music gigs: 3%
- Plays/drama: 3%
- Opera/ballet/classical music: 2%
- Contemporary Dance: 2%
People have definitely been missing these experiences though: 60% of respondents said so in fact. 29% ‘Strongly agree’ (and a further 31% ‘agree’) that they are missing live performance (equivalent to about 15 million, or 32 million people in total) - higher than for any other types of cultural activity.
There will, of course, be a range of changes for performing arts organisations upon reopening: whether distancing, limits to capacity, importance of ventilation (inc. greater use of outdoor spaces) and changes to touring patterns. We’ll track sales as they return through the sales dashboard, as well as through Audience Finder. We’ve also drawn out more detail about ‘typical’ sales in the Back Light report, which may provide a useful reference for what normal used to look like, in terms of audience behaviour.
Looking forward, we expect different performing arts sectors to have different experiences with returning audiences. Core audiences seem keen (if hesitant to commit at this stage). But there is likely to be more reluctance from casual or occasional attenders, especially in older age groups. In Audience Spectrum terms, these would be less-engaged Commuterland Culturebuffs, Home and Heritage, and Heydays in particular. There’s likely to be a stronger response from audiences to contemporary art forms, especially in larger cities (e.g. New Writing and Contemporary Dance). We will track these trends and report on them as we know more from attender data.
The online experience
Online experiences have risen in prominence (and volume of engagement) during the pandemic. However, it’s a more nuanced picture than this suggests.
% of digital cultural engagers during lockdown who have accessed:
- A music gig (16%)
- Play/drama/musical (13%)
- Other streaming/recording (8%)
- Opera/ballet/classical music (6%)
- Contemporary dance (4%)
All of these are similar (within the margin of error) of online engagement in the year before COVID (just as the overall proportion engaging with any arts and heritage online has only risen from 41% to 43%). This suggests that the audiences haven’t broadened, but increased in frequency.
Online engagement has been a benefit for accessibility, however, whether in terms of disability, rural audiences, those on low incomes, parents, or as a low-risk way of trying new activity. There’s also evidence that even previously engaged audiences have been using it to try new types of work (48% of those who’d engaged online strongly agreed or agreed that they’d ‘discovered new forms of art and culture online’). For these reasons alone (let alone potential additional income, brand development etc) we hope that organisations continue, and enhance, their commitment to digital channels into the future.
There is also evidence that the same groups that are likely to be most keen to return to live attendance are the same that have - and continue to expect to – engage most digitally as well. This raises the prospect of blended digital and in-person experiences, enriching and extending engagement.