Whenever we survey the ages of Bachtrack visitors, we get a “bathtub curve”: a large chunk in the 25-34 range, a larger chunk at 55+, and a big dip in the middle. When we ask concert halls and orchestras about this, their answers are consistent: people get busy, they have children, they don’t have time for concerts.

But is it really as simple as that? A typical cinema visit requires a similar commitment of time to a concert or opera, but the demographics on cinema attendance show a completely different picture. Here’s a graph showing the percentages.

I don’t see why concertgoers should have more time-consuming jobs or more kids than cinemagoers, yet cinema is not losing the younger and middle-aged audience in the way that classical music is.

I believe that one reason for the difference lies in promoters’ choice of concert times. Bachtrack’s statistics for 2016 have shown once again that we overwhelmingly favour mid-evening concerts or operas: in the UK, that means 7:30pm. To me, this choice seems almost wilfully perverse.

Most concert halls and jobs are in city centres. Most homes are in suburbs. So the shape of a typical working day is that you finish work at, say, 5:30, then spend 30-60 minutes getting home (longer in London). At some point in the evening, you’re going to want to eat and, if you have kids, clock in some time with them.

There are three options here. If the kids are older, you can catch a quick dose of classical  music after work, before heading home to the family – this needs a relatively short concert at, say, 6pm. If the kids are younger, you might want to grab a bite, get them safely tucked up in bed, leave them in the care of a babysitter and head out for a concert at, say, 9pm. If you can afford the money or grandparent brownie points, you might like to make an evening out of a concert and a restaurant.

On any of these scenarios, a weekday performance lasting, say, from 7:30 to 10pm, is just about the worst time I can think of. There’s no way you’re going to want to come home and go out again. There’s no time for anything other than a hurried restaurant meal. And 10pm is late enough that I frequently see commuters to London events desperately rushing out before the curtain calls, making panicked noises about missing the last train home.

Just look at the cinema world again: there’s very little starting at 7pm, while there are plenty of performances around the 5-6pm and the 8:30-9pm slots. It’s easier for cinemas to be flexible, of course, but surely there’s a message here.

I also believe that many concerts are simply too long. I’m perfectly happy to listen to a Mahler or Bruckner symphony lasting 80 minutes or more. But I have no particular desire to see it preceded by 25 minutes of Mozart concerto and a 20 minute interval. And that applies all the more for someone worried about catching their train, or who would simply like a relaxed dinner discussing the music they’ve just seen.

The good news is that this autumn, there are signs of classical music promoters trying out some things that may help.

For their 2017-8 season, the London Symphony Orchestra are putting on a series of “Half Six Fix” concerts, lasting an hour.

Also this autumn, Opera North are staging a series of six “Little Greats”: performing double bills of one act operas like Pagliacci but allowing to buy tickets separately for performances at 7:15 and 9pm (8:30 on a Friday).

These both look like small steps in the right direction, and I wish the LSO and Opera North every success.


Notes on the data:

  1. Bachtrack data is from our analytics for 2016.
  2. Cinema data is for 2015 and comes from the BFI.
  3. To make the graph clearer, I’ve excluded under 25s, who have very high cinema attendance but very low Bachtrack use.
  4. Note that each of the age segments has a different number of people: for example, the 55-64 segment is bigger. Details are published by the ONS.
  5. Data on average UK commuting times has been reported by the TUC.