New audiences - give us the facts not the spin
Great numbers revealed at the Association of British Orchestras conference proclaims a Sinfini Music tweet. It refers to the good news given by the director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden in her keynote speech - see photo above - that 33,000 tickets for the 2014 BBC Proms were sold to first time purchasers. So as the good news has been widely circulated on social media, it is worth drilling down into the numbers.
It is difficult to obtain information on Proms audiences, because the BBC only releases figures that spin well. But from data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers*, but lost 50,000 of its core audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. This picture is mirrored by Radio 3 audience figures for Q3 2014. In this period, which included live broadcasts of all the Proms, Radio 3 total listening hours plunged by 9.2% year-on year. Which paints a very different picture to the one painted by Helen Boaden at the ABO conference that "there is no crisis".
The new Proms audience of 33,000 was undoubtedly attracted by concerts which included the Pet Shop Boys, Chrissie Hynde, Paloma Faith, a BBC Sport Prom, and Kiss Me, Kate. But for me to imply that these attractions also drove away 50,000 of the core Proms audience would be playing the BBC's disingenuous game of taking numbers out of context. We do not know what impact these efforts to expand reach are having on classical music's vital core audience. But we cannot afford to ignore the impact, and we must not forget that the distasteful view so succintly expressed by Independent radio critic Fiona Sturges that "a large proportion of BBC Radio 3's audience should hurry up and die", is surprisingly widely held.
Total audience size is far more important than the number of new ticket purchasers. Because if, as was the case at the 2014 Proms, a gain in new audience is more than offset by a loss of established audience, the result is a net audience loss. It is very easy to make quotable keynote speeches talking up gains in new audiences. It is much more difficult to face up to the uncomfortable possibility that classical music's big new ideas - the latest is what Helen Boaden described yesterday as "creation of 'snackable' content" - may actually be driving the essential core audience away. Which is why I said in a recent post that "Listening to common sense and not to so-called 'industry experts' is another way of serving the music". Balance and facts are what is needed in the debate about how to reach new audiences, not self-interested spin.
* The accuracy of the 33,000 figure stated by Helen Boaden is open to question. When I bought my ticket for the Alwyn/Vaughan Williams Prom last year from the Albert Hall box office I was not asked if I was a first time purchaser. So it is very likely that the quoted statistic for first time ticket purchasers is derived, as is standard industry practice, from the venue's Tessitura box office system using customer address matching, with no address match defining a ticket buyer as a first time purchaser. As was explained here last year, there is a significant margin of error in this process. Which means that, if ticketing system data was used, the first time purchaser number is almost certainly overstated. This assertion is supported by a previous BBC report - conveniently ignored by Helen Boaden in her presentation, that "more than 32,000" bought tickets for the first time in 2013. The almost identical first time purchaser figures for 2013 and 2014 suggests that a fairly constant level of error in address matching is accounting for a material element of the reported first time purchaser number.
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