Hundreds of audience members roar, and the feeling in the air is both gratifying and exciting. You bow, grin, soaking up the crowd’s strong energy, and you shout, cheering for them just as much as they are cheering for you. It’s a full house tonight, and when they yell for more, you gladly prepare for the encore.
I don’t know about you, but, in my childhood, I certainly dreamed of performing onstage, at least once or twice. Acting, singing, dancing, doing cool tricks, it didn’t matter. I allowed myself to indulge in selfish daydreams filled with lights, crowds that went from dead silent to bursting with applause, and my unfailing talent, of course. But, in these daydreams which you’ve probably had, what if there were no one there to watch you? What if they weren’t even listening? For that matter, what if you couldn’t land a gig?
As consumers, that is to say, those who don’t produce the specific piece of performing arts that we are focusing on at the time, we either demand artists or we don’t. Our demand influences what performers and suppliers of performance art try to give us. Data taken in the US over the last decade or so has shown evidence of decreased attendance at performances for theater, dance, opera, classical music, etc., and we have to wonder if interest in the arts has declined. Utter disinterest in the performing arts, however, is not the case here.
Dividing the Sea of Art Performers
According to the RAND report The Performing Arts in a New Era, performing arts organizations can be divided into two general groups: nonprofit and commercial (for-profit). Data in the report, cited from the US Census Bureau, showed that the number of both nonprofit and commercial performing organizations increased between the years 1982 and 1997, by 80 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Simply put, over time, more people in the US are deciding to pursue the arts, such as acting and singing. The Internet and modern technology allow artists to advertise themselves (perhaps lesser known artists), but also make it easier for critics and fans to share information and reviews of artists as well. When these artists excel at what they do and get noticed, their “big break”, critics and advertisers market them more, resulting in an exponential growth in popularity and much higher wages than other artists. This mean there is higher demand for a top, select few artists, while the majority struggle. Taking into account those who are not currently A-List celebrities, performing artists, on average, earn less, work less, and have less job stability than individuals in different professions with comparable education.
Attendance rates (not total attendance, which increased) at live performances remained stable between the years 1982 and 1997. However, with the increase in nonprofits held alongside it, and the fact that average budgets fell each year in that period, one can assume that many of the emerging nonprofit companies were small, and relied heavily on volunteers. As an example, think of a local theater company in someone’s hometown.
The report predicted that these trends will eventually cause the arts to appear at two extremes: small organizations which focus on a specialized market, and large organizations which cater to a broad market. Medium nonprofits will likely not be able to sustain themselves, and will fall into the practices of smaller, localized organizations, while large nonprofits will feel pressure to expand to large commercial practices. For example, for the small nonprofits this includes relying heavily on volunteer artists, and for the large commercial organizations this includes massive advertising to promote celebrities.
At the time that the RAND report was published, the authors predicted that a slow in population growth could be a factor that affects attendance level, resulting in a drop in total attendance in the future (the difference here between total attendance and attendance rate is that total attendance is a simple count of individuals while the attendance rate is the percentage that those attending individuals make up out of the total population). “The future” is now (excuse the corny reference), and, sure enough, US population growth is slowing and organizations notice less individuals in attendance at displays of the performing arts.
Why are so Many Seats Empty?
A possible reason for the decline in attendance is the decrease in art education. A report released by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009 revealed that, since 1982, “the number of 18-to-24-year-olds who said they had any music education in their lives [had] declined by more than a third.” In contrast, authors from the RAND report had predicted that education would increase by this time, a factor which would help increase attendance (which we now see was not completely accurate for the last couple decades). In spite of this, the amount of money that consumers put into the performing arts is not less, which is probably a reflection of the large commercial companies growing and the small nonprofits trying to appeal to a specific audience, like a local theater company that knows the town citizens.
Additionally, lower physical attendance may not be a reflection of a decline in interest. The ways in which individuals choose to experience the performing arts varies, from those who are artists involved in producing the art, to those who attend performances or utilize media instead (such as listening to a CD or watching a music video). Reported album sales in 2011 were less than half of what they were in 2004, which is understandable given the emergence of services such as iTunes, which allow consumers to purchase individual, digital songs instead of full, physical albums. Americans enjoy having flexibility and freedom in their leisure activities. Popularity for activities such as going to the movies or watching television is greater than those which require more planning and attendance at a one-time scheduled event. Individuals younger than those in the baby boom generation are growing up to enjoy the kind of entertainment they can obtain from a phone, the Internet, and other technologies.
The research brief of the RAND report claimed that “most of the increase in attendance [through the 1990s] is the result of population growth and increasing education levels, not an increase in the percentage of the population that attends live performances. This distinction is important because lower population growth and shifts in the composition of the population — both of which are expected in the future — may weaken attendance levels.” Parts of this claim, which predicted attendance levels now, are likely very true. Admittedly, there is uncertainty in the numbers produced by studies on participation in the performing arts. This is caused, in part, by the fact that not all performance companies, especially younger ones, report their numbers. With the steady growth in US population size over time we are forced to make the distinction between total attendance and attendance rates. It is difficult to know if interest in the arts is rising, dropping, or staying the same. The US population is expected to continue to grow, although the growth rate will be less, and with the decrease in arts education we have seen a decrease in traditional attendance.
But it is important not to forget how consumers utilize technology to experience art. Every time that I watch So You Think You Can Dance, I appreciate dance, and every time you listen to ABBA on your iPod, you appreciate Swedish pop gold. My only advice? Try not to forget about the smaller organizations, like your local symphony or the guitar player who dreams of playing for crowds and whose page you “Liked” on Facebook. Personally, I have been inspired to attend an opera performance in the future to support the art-form. What will your next move be?