Requiem For a Stream: Who's Listening to Classical Music

This past academic year, some a few AMT Lab colleagues researched the feasibility of streaming for orchestras. They had a set of interesting findings that AMT Lab will publish a series of articles, covering the digital and orchestral audience, the logistics of streaming, and what opportunities streaming opens up for orchestras. 

The first of these findings centers around who is listening. Orchestras have done a lot of research on who their audience is, but who is streaming music? Are there overlaps between online streaming and an orchestral audience?

Orchestral Audiences

When envisioning an orchestral audience, many would picture a sparsely populated hall full of people over 60 years old. The League of American Orchestras largely backs up this impression with their Orchestra Facts report from 2006-14. Live audiences are shrinking and the audiences are older and whiter than the communities the orchestras exist in.

The League reports that the majority of audiences are 65 - 74 years old, and cultivation is firmly aimed at these older audiences. The also note that 83.2% of audiences are white, while Latinx, African American, and Other all sit at 5 - 6%. Curiously, when considering orchestral education programs, the racial demographics change radically. Latinx participation jumps up to 14%, African American participation rises to 16%, Asian participation comes on the map at 7% and First Nation peoples participate at 1%. This shift shows us that the diverse audiences are reachable, but their reasons for attending might vary from a more traditional audience. 


It's also important to note that although the trend of shrinking audiences is definitely occurring, it isn't unique to classical music. It's occurring across the arts industry. the entertainment industry, and the sports industry. However, for an industry that already doesn't break even from ticket sales this trend is concerning. 

Finally, the League reports that one-third of their audiences report $100,000 and over for their annual income level. It shifts a little when considering education programs, but in comparison to the rest of the art world, operas and the orchestras are the worst at engaging audiences that make less than $50,000 annually. [1]


In addition to these demographics, audiences site the following reasons for attending live music. The La Placa Cohen survey also looked at why both arts participants and non-participants don't attend shows. The top three responses for participants was that it's inconvenient, didn't think of it, and that they'd rather do something else. For non-participants the top three reasons were: 

  • it's not for them,
  • they didn't think of it,
  • and that it's inconvenient.

Two of those categories show up for both attendees and non-attendees, which is significant. It might be possible to take strides towards maintaining audiences and growing audiences in the same step. This information also shows that attendance is likely more of a PR and access issue than a cost or social issue. 

With that in mind, can digital options like streaming address some of these barriers?

Digital Audiences

Nielsen reported that on-demand streaming has risen to reaching over 400 billion listeners and on demand video streaming has grown to over 200 billion viewers. The reports of steady growth prove how ubiquitous access like this is for people worldwide. In addition, the NEA found that 17.8% of the US was engaging with classical music on streaming platforms, and they found that the demographics were substantially different to a live classical music audience. Viewers are much more evenly spread out in age, race and income level.

For instance, the 65 - 75 age group only accounts for 19.5% of listeners, and it isn't the largest group. 55 - 64 is the largest at 24.7%, but the rest of the age groups are participating in larger numbers at 14 - 17% for each level. Hispanic and African American participation also moves up to 12.3% and 10.9% respectively, which is double what orchestras have been seeing in their halls. Overall these percentages are more evenly distributed and closer to the actual demographic make-up of the US.

What's most compelling, however, is why audiences say they stream classical music. Many of these reasons are focused on the PR and access issues that audiences cited as barriers to participation in the first place.

appeal of classical music.png

When talking about the opportunities the open up from streaming, it's important to draw a line between arts participation and audience attendance.

These two important factors are false equivalents. For instance, I am a classical musician who seeks out full orchestral performances online, but I prefer more intimate settings and experimental experiences if I'm going to attend in person. My participation in large orchestral performances online does not mean I am more likely to go and buy a ticket to the next Mahler performance in town. The danger here is ignoring participation when it doesn't lead immediately and directly to an increase in audience attendance.

In our current economic climate, both aspects are important. Audience attendance is larger ticket sales and more tangible ROIs. Audience participation is opening up accessibility. This has the potential to build better advocates and better stewardship, but most directly, it changes the orchestras visibility in it's community and beyond. This can grow a brand and create a more magnetic institution. Unfortunately, building visibility and brands is less of an immediate and direct ROI. However, if you look at organizations like the Detroit Symphony and Seattle Symphony, who are streaming, their reputations and reach are growing. 

This re-envisioning of what's important to an orchestra comes down to the opportunities that come with streaming. 


Digital streaming takes away barriers to arts participation. It is clear when comparing what audiences need to make them participate matches the reasons why people stream. There is also a clear barrier of "this isn't for me" or "I didn't think of going" that inhibits audiences from attending and participating in the arts. Creating a bigger presence online is one way of ensuring that people are exposed to these art forms and not basing that assumption on ignorance. As Orchestra X said in their study: if we know that music education has declined drastically in the past few decades, why aren't orchestras also shifting how they approach and engage audiences?

An online presence is an opportunity to brand the organization, creating an overall impression that will eventually draw people to the organization. For instance, Seattle Symphony's mission is to uplift the human spirit. The types of concerts they have streamed are family events like Christmas concert, but also performances in response to the Pulse Orlando shootings and the U.S. travel ban. 

 Finally, digital streaming creates exclusive content which is a way to reward attendees and donors or give audiences insider perspective on the music and musicians. Anyone can be made to feel like VIP if they have access to extras around a live streaming experience. One of the major successes of the CBS live TV musicals that have begun again recently always feature backstage views during commercial breaks. For those who don't see this every day, it can create a sense of belonging and trust with the viewer. 

Digital audiences seem to differ to a significant extent to live, orchestral audiences. This means that there is an opportunity to engage with a broader audience, but it also means working with a new set of people. This new audience doesn't behave and act like the traditional audiences that orchestras are used to. Streaming does break-down barriers, but not necessarily in a linear way that immediately leads to ticket sales.



[1] Voss et al, Orchestra Facts: 2006-2014. (League of American Orchestras: 2016), 8.