Cleveland Orchestra claims the youngest US audience

Franz Welser-Möst made a striking claim recently on Slipped Disc: we have the youngest audience in the US  – 20% is under the age of 25.

The Cleveland Orchestra has now published its end-of-year results,substantiating that assertion.

The results show average attendance at Severance Hall rose six percent in 2018 to 83 percent capacity. Among the seats sold, 18 percent went to college students or under-18s.

Tens of thousands more under-18s attended education concerts.

Financially, the orchestra reduced its deficit by two-thirds but still turned in  an overspend of $1.3 million on a budget of $53 million.


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  • What is most interesting about this is that Cleveland is not a young city demographically, like Boston or New York or San Francisco, nor as wealthy as those.

    Maybe they benefit from the close proximity to Case-Western University, and it’s medical school, whose demographic is more inclined to appreciate the orchestra?

    Of course, it could also just be good management and outreach as well.

    • One needs to drill down past the generalized statement of “tickets sold to young people.” The question is, who is actually purchasing them?

      Case in point: Case Western is the locus of numerous conferences and symposia aimed at young healthcare professionals as well as people in medical training. These conferences attract an international clientele. One of the “perks” offered to conference-goers is complimentary tickets to attend TCO concerts across the street. Someone pays for them, but not the young attendees (at least not explicitly).

      The question is whether those attendees would have purchase the tickets on their own, versus opting for some other social activity. While some would, I suspect many others would have opted for some other evening activity. But that’s how you get to these superficially lofty percentages of tickets “sold” to young audience members.

    • Bill, no question proximity to CWRU is a factor. But so is the presence of two international conservatories in the area: the Cleveland Institute of Music just a few blocks from Severance Hall and Oberlin, about an hour from the city. There’s a third conservatory at Baldwin Wallace University, and large music departments at Cleveland State and CWRU. But that’s a factor for any big-city orchestra, isn’t it? Proximity to campuses, music schools, etc.

  • This is a dying city, with a population of less than 400,000, down from over 900,000 at one point. Nevertheless, there is a major university (Case Western Reserve) across the street from Severance Hall, and another one (Cleveland State) a few miles away. Perhaps the orchestra is benefitting from the outsized student population and the lack of many other cultural and entertainment alternatives (no, I haven’t forgotten the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art). I do not live in Cleveland, but have attended a handful of concerts (Tristan, Pelleas, Mahler 3) in the last few years; the audience didn’t appear to be substantially younger than what sees at concerts of other major American orchestras.

    • Cleveland must be doing some things right.The demographics are a good starting point at best, but cannot compete with Boston’s. Boston has several major institutions of higher learning, including three medical schools. Also a top conservatory round the corner from Symphony Hall.

    • I live in Cleveland and attend concerts regularly. Most of the young people I see are in the nose-bleed seats, where I usually sit. (The acoustics in Severance Hall are excellent, and up to the last row the sound is very good.) Yes, Cleveland has lost significant population, like virtually all medium-sized cities in the northern tier of states. That does not mean it’s a “dying city!” Downtown’s population (about 3,000 when I moved here in 1992) is nearing 20,000 (mostly young adults). Developers can’t build or renovate apartment buildings fast enough to meet the demand. Other neighborhoods (Ohio City, Tremont, Detroit Avenue, Uptown) are also growing rapidly. Tourism has been increasing 800,000 a year since 2009. The city is successfully reinventing itself as Pittsburgh did a generation ago. The music, theater and restaurant scenes are part of that revival. I lived in Washington, D.C. for 20 years, and I’m still grateful I made the decision to move to Cleveland 25 years ago. This city is very much alive.

      • Then you’re a good one to ask this, Andrew. It’s fine that the Cleveland Orchestra has boosted its appeal to quote-unquote “young people,” which is really a euphemism for students. And as others have noted, it seems to include a reasonably designed program that is not purely a ticket giveaway or what is sometimes known as “papering the audience.” But what about those presumably working-age adults who are living in, and presumably paying rent or mortgages for, those new apartments in the urban core? Do you see them populating the non-nose-bleed sections? I’m asking because, as I teed up the first time this subject came up, there are other American classical presenters (admittedly not at the level of the Cleveland Orchestra) who have touted superficial initiatives for “young people” or started talking about “average” audience ages without making any real progress in what is obviously the demographic hole in their followership between young and old. Observation can be as good as numbers in this case, and I ask in all good faith and with respect to what the orchestra has accomplished – I’m just concerned about the message to other presenters as to how to proceed and what constitutes success.

      • Good to hear of this progress. One problem is that cities can experience downtown renewal, and even renewal in a few neighborhoods, while the larger population continues to suffer. Philadelphia, for example, looks so fine downtown, but the suffering in its massive, dehumanizing ghettos continues. This includes 180,000 people living with less than $10k per year. These families include 60,000 children.

    • The Cleveland metropolitan area is over 2 million. The city has over-flowed its old historic boundaries, and like most cities, people no longer live at such high densities in their old historic cores. (Although city-centre living has come back into fashion.) The city is not dying, it is just changing.

  • Maybe we benefit from a vision, a philosophy and hard work shared by the board, management and the players? And: Cleveland has blossomed over the last few years- just see how it has changed visually. Cleveland welcomes you any time.

  • The claim has no merit if we don’t know the same stats for other orchestras. In any case, I’d be willing to be the Los Angeles Phil could make a similar claim, based on their success since Dudamel came on. Even the NY Times called the LA Phil the “most important/dynamic” orchestra in America, or something to that effect.

  • You know you’re on Slipped Disc when positive news of this sort is viewed with suspicion. How about an unequivocal “Great Success”?

    • For sure, unequivocal credit where unequivocal credit is due.

      Not sure it’s due in this particular instance, as there are very legitimate questions about how these attendance figures are derived.

      Add to that the chest-thumping from the PR flacks at the orchestra — that sort of stuff should always be viewed with suspicion (regardless of the industry).

  • What they are not saying is:

    1) At what price were these tickets sold?
    2) Does it mean that 18% of the hall is consistently not sold at regular price?
    3) Of course if you give away deeply discounted tickets to nearby high schools and colleges, you’ll always have a young audience, no matter what, but that’d be true of any orchestra that can’t fill its halls
    4) High school and college students move out of town, move back home, etc., so the young audience does not translate into full price paying adults and subscribers.
    5) You wind up with the old audience dying out and the young audience moving out.

    In short, Cleveland Orchestra is probably subsidizing young people to fill the hall but without them staying to become long term patrons.

    Let’s face it, I doubt that Cleveland has found the magic formula in programming or advertisement to reach a new younger audience base, more successfully that LA Phil, if that’s what Cleveland management is trying to imply.

  • Here’s the student ticket page on the Cleveland Orchestra website. Deep discounts, but mostly only for classical-series subscription concerts (not for pops, if I understand correctly). Seats open up on the Monday of the week, so the orchestra gives itself a chance to sell out the hall at full price before turning to student discounts. This isn’t hugely different from such programs elsewhere but seems well thought out.

  • Respect to those trying to revive Cleveland and the many Rustbelt cities like it. Some more numbers for a larger perspective: 53% of the people in Cleveland are black. Any number for their ratio of the audience? According to the organization Seeds of Literacy, 66% of the people in the city are functionally illiterate (can’t read at a 4th grade level.) 26% of the population lives in poverty, including 37% of the people under 18.

    Cleveland is similar in size to Zurich, Stuttgart, and Helsinki. All three of these cities have several full time orchestras and each a major full time opera house. Cleveland is not among the top 100 cities for opera performance per year. If I remember right, it’s not even in the top 200, but Operabase no longer bothers listing cities below 100.

    These numbers, of course, will be resented, but they are a reality that should be considered.

    • Thank you, it’d be much more impressive if an(y) orchestra can claim that 18-20% of their audience were black!

      That is to say, whatever an orchestra is doing to get a 18-20% young audience, if it would do the same thing to get that same percentage for blacks, that orchestra would truly astound the classical music world for its, to quote Weler-Most above, “vision, philosophy and hard work shared by the board, management and the players”.

      • Please check out the opening of our centennial season 2017/18 with the Prometheus-project on which we have worked together with CSA, mainly African-American students…. And by the way we hired our outstanding new principal clarinet Afendi Yusuf solely for his outstanding talent and musical qualities!

        • Thank you for responding, Mr. Welser-Möst. More than one could ask. Your Prometheus-project sounds very interesting. For those who might not know, CSA stands for Cleveland School of the Arts. It is based in the University Circle area near many cultural institutions. The school’s demographics reflect the city’s, and it’s record of achievement is astounding, 98% graduation rate, with 100% of the students entering higher education.

          The Prometheus-project centers around Beethoven’s symphonic works. For the opening of the series, the Cleveland Symphony worked with CSA students and other children from the school district, thus reaching thousands of African-American children.

          I hope these initiatives will expand into a regular program with multiple concerts a year similar to the children’s programs so many EU orchestras and opera houses have. Readers can read about the Prometheus-project and CSA here, and also see some heart-warming images:

    • Oh goody! There’s William Osborne again with his brainy stats. Next he’ll tell us how many times a gnat shits on Thursdays.

  • I attended the Cleveland Institute of Music. Students have the opportunity to sign up for a limited (40?) amount of free tickets for each classical subscription week. If you didn’t get in line early enough for a free one, you could buy 10 dollar student tickets at Severance—they may be less now.
    In response to anon, even if the young audience leaves town eventually, TCO is doing a service to the entire classical community by cultivating potential future patrons for the orchestra or arts organization where they end up.

    • This approach is exactly how younger audiences have been built for generations in, for example, Vienna. But based on some of these comments, when American orchestras do it, it is just a cynical ploy to game the statistics.

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