Fall Audience Trends: Takeaways from the Audience Outlook Monitor Executive Briefings

To help cultural organizations make informed decisions about resuming programming this season, the consulting firm WolfBrown has created an online resource, the Audience Outlook Monitor (AOM). It draws on research data gathered via surveys deployed at regular time intervals by cohorts of cultural organizations in different cities, in partnership with funders and service organizations. Among the AOM survey cohorts, four choruses are participating: the Bel Canto Chorus, Milwaukee; the Los Angeles Master Chorale; the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir; and VocalEssence, Minneapolis.

In an online executive briefing on September 20, WolfBrown principal Alan Brown reported on surveys of audience attitudes conducted September 14–17. Here are some of the key takeaways for the choral field:

Readiness to return is still down, but no longer declining.

After what Brown described as a “dramatic deterioration” in willingness to attend performances, September findings show a slight turnaround. Between July and August, the percentages of people who said they're ready to go out fell from 61 percent to 37 percent, but this month 45 percent are saying they’re ready to attend now, according to surveys by AOM’s orchestra cohort.

Many are still waiting till next year.

The latest research indicates there's still "a big chunk of demand that's not going to materialize until some point next year,” Brown said, although there’s an uptick here too. Whereas in August, 32–37 percent of respondents said they won’t come back until January 2022 or later, now the range is 31–32 percent. (The figures are presented as ranges because they result from separate surveys by two cohorts: performing arts centers and orchestras.) “I imagine that you're all seeing very unusual patterns of demand at this point,” Brown told his online audience, “because you have so many people who want to come out but don't feel it's safe, and others who are just really gung ho.”

Demand for tickets has been declining slightly.

September surveys from the orchestra cohort say 18 percent of respondents recently bought single tickets for live music, compared to 25 percent in July and 20 percent in August. Purchases of live program subscription or series tickets, which stood at 17 percent in July and 15 percent in August, are now at 14 percent.

Support for vaccine-only admittance has strengthened.

Brown described this as “a dramatic shift.” In Milwaukee, where vaccine-only admittance has been least popular among seven cities being studied, support has risen to 51 percent, up from 21 percent in July and 41 percent in August. On the other end of the spectrum, support in New York is now at 79 percent, compared to 59 percent in July and 73 percent in August. Brown noted that between 25 and 35 percent of all respondents now say they would attend cultural events at venues requiring proof of vaccination, masks, and distancing. “Many of you are offering some of these protocols, but not all of these protocols, particularly distancing,” he said. “So what we're learning here is that people actually might be willing to go out—some of the very, very cautious people—but only with all three of the big health safety protocols in place.”

Re-entry experiences are generally positive.

When people who have come back to cultural venues are asked how comfortable they felt, they’ve rated their experience between 4 and 4.5 on a scale of 1 to 5, Brown said. “People are having great experiences and we really need to reflect that back to those who are who are not yet comfortable going out.” A couple of factors are key in shaping re-entry decisions. One leading indicator of people’s willingness to return is vulnerability, Brown said. In the orchestra cohort, 42 percent of respondents are feeling vulnerable to a serious health outcome from COVID. Perceptions of infection rates are also factors. In August, 85 percent of respondents felt the situation was getting worse in their region. In September, 47 percent reported those feelings, “so we kind of bounced back to where we were in July,” Brown said.

Alan Brown’s monthly executive briefings are archived on the AOM website. His next briefing will stream live on Monday, October 18, at 1:30 p.m. EDT. Brown’s reports draw on surveys deployed each month by AOM’s national orchestra and performing arts center cohorts, as well as regional surveys conducted in alternate months.

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