Fifty per cent of all concerts in the UK last year started at the same time. The average evening meal in the UK, according to a 2007 survey, starts around fifteen minutes later than this. At around the same point in the evening, parents are recommended to put young children to bed.

Concert start times, 2008 to 2012 7.00 to 8.00 Other evening 3.00 or before North America 71% 8% 21% United Kingdom 69% 9% 22% Europe (not UK) 59% 29% 12% 7.30 exactly North America 16% United Kingdom 55% Europe (not UK) 16% These statistics are based exclusively on concerts listed on
Bachtrack beween 2008 and 2012.

Is it time to move beyond the 7.30 concert? Looking at the facts in the Bachtrack database, which has details of all our listed concerts going back to 2008, the narrow distribution of times for concerts across the evening is striking – and it’s not just in the UK. Though there is less of a particular obsession with 7.30 elsewhere, variation in concert start times is remarkably low. In North America, 71% of all our listed concerts from 2008 to 2012 began between 7.00 and 8.00; the figure for the UK is slightly lower, at 69%. And yet this is prime time for evening meals and supervising young children, surely closing the events off from huge numbers of potential audience members.

© Markus Kammermann | Pixabay

Of course, it’s not just classical music which faces this problem. Plays, films and even evening classes can all be just as difficult to get to after a hard day’s working or parenting, or both. As Siobhan Freegard, founder of the UK’s largest parenting site, points out: “Any evening activity is tough for parents of young kids to attend.” But some forms of entertainment are being more proactive than others: Freegard comments, “In the case of classical concerts, by starting so late the organisers are closing off events to a whole generation of parents and their children too. To combat this, why not put on matinée concerts or take the lead from cinema chains who now stage very popular parent and baby screenings during the daytime?”

Happily, some concert promoters are doing just that, and with great success. Alice Walton, Marketing Director of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, has much to say on the “really quite noticeable” effect that scheduling a concert at three on a Sunday afternoon has on the audience. “We get lots of fans who feel able to bring children,” she comments, as well as older people who might be put off by travelling home late in the evening. People are also able to travel to hear these Southbank Centre concerts from further away, and the slightly less formal atmosphere this start time promotes leads to “a lot of first-timers” in attendance. These first-timers, though, tend to be from older generations, rather than being those elusive twentysomethings that concert promoters are always so keen to attract – Walton points out that in fact, young adults “are actually very open to the idea of evening concerts”, which may fit their schedules better.

In continental Europe, things are considerably more varied: only 59% of all our listed concerts start between 7.00 and 8.00 in Europe outside the UK, a full ten percentage points lower than the UK figure. And some concert houses adopt particularly innovative structures. At the Stockholm Konserthuset, home of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, a whole smorgasbord of times is on the schedule: Saturday has a matinee series, like the Philharmonia’s, and there are also “after-work concerts” during the week which begin at 6.00. Lotta Bjelkeborn of the orchestra explains that they are keen “to make it easier for different people” to seek out their events, and a broad range of start times on varied days of the week is a great starting point for this aim.

Most innovative of all at the Konserthuset is their series of “Soup Concerts”, chamber concerts in their Grünewaldsalen with musicians from the orchestra, which have been running for several years. About 45 minutes of music, starting at 12.15, follows a hearty bowl of soup and some coffee, giving the audience the chance to have a chat over lunch as well as hear some music. These concerts not only (literally) cater for people who would rather have their classical music earlier in the day – as Bjelkeborn points out, “it really emphasises the social side of concerts”, providing a totally different atmosphere in which to hear this repertoire.

As for the Konserthuset’s main concert series – this was recently changed from 7.30 to 7.00. “We had this feeling,” Bjelkeborn says, “that people didn’t want to be out so late” – and following a large audience survey, the feeling was proved right. This is part of a general trend towards earlier start times for evening concerts noticeable on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Polly Kahn, Vice-President of Learning and Leadership Development at the League of American Orchestras, the norm in recent decades has shifted from 8.00 to 7.00 or 7.30, and she puts this down to a change in society. With couples now typically both taking full working days, “in general the [earlier] start times better accommodate” the standard evening, allowing people to grab a quick bite between work and concert, without going home first. Not that it’s a regular pattern: like in Stockholm, American orchestral programming may be moving towards a slightly more flexi-time approach. Kahn comments: “I think the new pattern is to have very variable start times,” with mixed earlier times dominating but a few 8.00s still dotted about. The New York Philharmonic’s approach, with the same concert programme repeated at different times on different days, is perhaps the new standard.

© Jorge Fernández Salas | Unsplash

But of course, this new volatility of start times doesn’t indicate a lack of research. “It’s based on audience feedback, a lot of focus groups,” says Kahn; “it’s trying to find the sweet-spot”. Walton agrees that it’s generally about accommodating as many different factors as possible, not just from the audience, and this is the reason evening concerts tend towards 7.30 in the UK: “particularly in London, it’s predominantly logistical,” she comments, and with three concert halls across the Southbank Centre often operating simultaneously, the logistics can’t be easy.

On the other hand, neither are the logistics of the Festival Oude Muziek, a ten-day festival in Utrecht in late August. Using a number of venues around the city, the festival crams at least ten events into its schedule on most days, and remarkably, start times vary from eleven in the morning to midnight. Vocal music is an especially popular choice late at night, organiser Susanne Vermuelen tells me: this year, the headline midnight concert is an intimate recital from soprano Dame Emma Kirkby, and it’s already sold out. A festival may promote a very different atmosphere from a regular concert season, but the Festival Oude Muziek is proof that it is possible to sell music all around the clock. “We have also done concerts at seven in the morning,” Vermuelen says. “People came.”

Perpetually confronted with stories of ageing concert-goers and dwindling attendance numbers, classical music is always searching for ways to attract new audiences. And from family concerts and outreach schemes to classical clubnights, promoters are trying out all manner of new approaches. With 71% in North America still in the classic 7.00–8.00 slot and almost as much in the UK, however, there is certainly scope for more variety in concert start times. Perhaps new audiences are just a lunchtime bowl of soup away.