Where have the audiences gone?

Now that images of bustling streets, packed stadia and night-time revellers have returned to our screens, you’d be forgiven for thinking the pandemic is over. But recently published research from the Audience Agency Cultural Participation Monitor (September 2021) and Insights Alliance (Indigo, Baker Richards, OneFurther, November 2021) show that a large chunk of cultural performance-going audiences are still missing.

Initial findings from the Audience Agency say people’s willingness to attend cultural events in person has not increased since June. The proportion of people ‘happy to attend’ fell slightly to 28% in September (29% in June) as did the number ‘willing to attend with reservations’ to 19% (30% in June). Furthermore, while respondents’ sense of general wellbeing and ‘satisfaction with life’ improved slightly over the same period, concerns about falling ill with Covid increased.

Barriers to attending

Respondents were particularly concerned about the behaviour of other people. 32% of people responding to the Audience Agency survey ‘strongly agreed’ that the unsafe behaviour of others puts them off attending. This also chimes with results of the Insights Alliance survey, in which 61% of respondents said they were ‘avoiding interacting with crowds of people’ and 53% were concerned that ‘other people won’t comply with Covid safety measures.’

Both surveys also questioned audiences’ feelings towards vaccination status and testing. In the Insights Alliance survey, 67% of non-returners and 60% of returners said they were more likely to attend if there was a requirement to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. And 35% of Audience Agency respondents ‘strongly agreed’ that only those vaccinated or with negative test results should be allowed to attend indoors (26% for outdoor events). For Insights Alliance respondents, 75% of non-returners and 60% of those who have returned less said they would be less likely to attend if masks were not required.

Concerns over other people’s behaviour ranked highest with respondents to the Audience Agency survey; their lowest priority was cultural organisations needing to do more to make visiting their spaces Covid safe. This suggests that these respondents think organisations are already doing enough to protect attendees.
According to the Insights Alliance research, 74% of non-returners said they expect to attend arts performances less often in the next 12 months, while 47% of those who have returned will also attend less often, signifying a long road ahead for audiences to return to former levels of attendance.

Hybrid is here to stay

Those who have already returned in person are more likely to have also been engaging with online content during lockdown, with nearly half saying they have paid for digital content and a further 23% having engaged for free. Digital may not be simply a temporary substitute while cultural venues are closed, as the majority of respondents who had some previous digital engagement agreed that they will enjoy a mixture of in-person and online cultural experiences in future.

With half of Insights Alliance respondents planning to come less often, and half not returning to anything, and a third waiting for lower infection rates, the professional performing arts sector in particular needs to act now to survive. But there are useful insights in this research for leisure-time music groups which promote their own concerts and for Making Music’s promoter member groups, too.

Communication is key - being open about your risk assessment and which safety measures you have put in place and how they will be implemented. Include this in your communications with your audience from initial marketing and ticketing right through to when they arrive at the venue. You’re not going to please everyone, but explicit communication might be the confidence booster an anxious audience member needs to take the step to attend.

Read the Insights Alliance research findings.

Find out more about the Audience Agency research.