Classical Music’s Health in Australia: What do the Numbers Say?

Graham Strahle
| July 31, 2014

“Increasingly we are living in an age in which classical music is not so easy to describe. Much of it is actually crossover music, and classical musicians are increasingly being wary of being called ‘classical” – Roland Peelman

An alarming statistic stuck out in Live Performance Australia’s most recent study of income generated by this country’s live performance industry. While contemporary music, opera, ballet and dance all recorded gains in revenues, the latest set of data shows that classical music fell behind by $125M, or 55.4%, from 2008 to 2012. That puts it near the bottom of the table, behind musical theatre and festivals (multi-category), which also recorded losses.

LPA’s study, Size and scope of the Live Performance Industry Live Performance Australia, surveys the economic performance of companies that belong to the Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) – including our major orchestras, opera companies and Musica Viva – and the Australia Council’s 57 Key Organisations across music, theatre and dance. Box office returns from larger metropolitan and regional venues across the country likewise formed part of the study.

Of course, we have been used to hearing bad new stories about classical music for well over a decade now, with reported closures of orchestras and opera companies in the US and Europe.  But when a study finds that classical music in Australia has declined by over 50% in four years in economic activity, that is profoundly disturbing. All up, classical music’s economic contribution to the country’s live performance industry shrank from $243.7M in 2008 to $108.7M in 2012.

Let’s bear with statistics for a bit, for what the LPA’s study is measuring is fundamentally box office performance. To find out about attendance figures, one must go to LPA’s Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey and Supplementary Survey 2012. This compiles ticketing data obtained from ticket agencies, venues and AMPAG companies. Australia Council Key Organisations were unfortunately excluded, creating an obvious mismatch with the main survey.

Nevertheless its findings were that total classical music attendances in 2012 were 1.25 million, representing an increase of 19.7% from 2011 (page 17). It mentions that the reopening of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall after two years’ upgrading largely explains the attendance rise in 2012 (page 26), but that a declining picture elsewhere, especially in NSW and Queensland, “is due to the extensive 2011 national tour by Dutch violinist Andre Rieu, who did not return to perform in 2012” (page 26). So classical music revenues and attendances may have been unusually elevated in 2008 purely on account of Rieu’s arena concerts (at Melbourne’s Telstra Dome he attracted over 38,000 people) and those of Andrea Bocelli in the same year, which LPA also identifies (Size and scope study, page 29).

So there we are, the picture may not be so bad. The Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey shows that classical music attendances dipped by 1.48 million from 2008 to 2012 – representing a less miserable 34% decline – and opera attendances remained fairly static.

Yet for those who regard classical music as terminally ill, these figures might barely raise an eyebrow. This is part of the problem, says Roland Peelman, artistic director of the Song Company. “That’s the perception of it: classical music has had its day. And don’t the figures show it. It’s an industry sector that was dying anyway”. He describes as “completely out of kilter and a little incredulous” the revenue drop of 55.4% quoted in the LPA’s Size and scope survey. “I would love to see what’s counted and what’s not counted. Rieu and Bocelli would have an impact, but it seems a little unlikely when you have orchestral concerts and operas happening almost every day or night in Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere.”

Tim Calnin, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s general manager, sees the LPA’s survey as “unhelpful” and similarly regards the 55.4% statistic with suspicion. “I believe there’s a fundamental error at the heart of this data. It’s not possible if we’re talking about the whole country’s live concerts over one year. I would doubt very much that one major artist could be responsible for skewing the data so considerably; and if that was the case I’d want to shoot myself – after shooting them!”

Ensemble Offspring’s show the 'Listening Museum', a collaboration with Brisbane’s Clocked Out, Paddington Uniting Church, 2013.  Photo credit: Andrew WholleyIt’s a “bizarre situation”, agrees Janine Marshman, general manager of Ensemble Offspring, “if two big overseas performers come out and reduce the health of an entire sector by half. You’re looking at fly-in, fly-out performers who don’t necessarily employ local musicians. The report is supposed to be about our industry, but it is not measuring that”. She thinks the spike caused by Rieu and Bocelli is entirely possible: “I can believe it, unfortunately, as terrifying as that may be. But it’s not what our local classical music sector is, what it’s about, or what we perform”.

The Australian String Quartet’s executive director, Angelina Zucco, also thinks this kind of data fails to tell the full story. “The numbers are there, but the stories around the numbers are where the truth lies,” she says. “Statistics capture a discrete point in time, but a better indicator are the narratives that evolve between performers and listeners in all the mediums we’re now operating in, from live concerts to digital streaming and downloading. I’m not dismissing the survey’s findings, but it’s about looking more broadly. If you do this you find the breadth of classical music in Australia is just extraordinary.”

However, Suzanne Daley, the LPA’s director of policy and programs, is firm that what the studies are telling us is correct. “It is not necessarily a reflection of the health of the AMPAG classical music sector,” she says. “The Australia Council’s annual Securing the Future report contains AMPAG-only data should you wish to see how the sector is tracking when commercial product [i.e. non-AMPAG activity] is taken out”. Indeed this report shows AMPAG attendances have sat consistently at around the same levels in nine reporting seasons to 2009. Daley concedes that there is “a significant drop in revenue and attendance” for classical music in The Size and Scope research, but she adds: “It is worth noting however, that classical music attendances have climbed steadily from 2010-2012” – this in LPA’s Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey.

Companies will tell you themselves how they’ve experienced ups and downs in recent years. Says Calnin of the ACO: “In the period 2009 to 2013 we’ve seen a very steady, constant increase in attendance figures, from 93,000 in 2009 to 118,000 in 2013, which represents the kind of healthy increase we all strive for.” But conditions have been tougher for smaller groups it seems. Marshman says of Ensemble Offspring: “We are not trending backwards, but that’s not to say it’s not hard. It’s a tough environment for classical music, let alone new music. Live music venues in Sydney have been closing down that have been running 20 to 30 years, like the ‘Sando’ [Sandringham Hotel] and Annandale Hotel. But we’ve had a couple of sell-outs like Hurricane Transcriptions/Laborintus II at the Sydney Festival and Ligeti Morphed last year, and some other concerts have been near capacity.”

The Australian String Quartet reports a similar situation. “Over the period 2008 to 2012, we have seen a of a decline in our subscription concerts, but in boutique festivals we are seeing growth, and total income is up a bit, through donations,” says Zucco. “We are looking at where the opportunities are, and we are having to ask: Are big concerts the best for small chamber music concerts, or are more intimate venues better?” Peelman says the last few years have been testing for the Song Company: “It’s been a bit up and down to be honest. There’s definitely been growth and sometimes disappointments where we expected growth.” And he’s asking the same question. “Big halls such as Angel Place have not taken off as we might have hoped. We are better suited to smaller places”.

Naturally, another problem with surveys like these is what we mean by ‘classical’. The LPA defines this as any of the following but not including ‘pop’: orchestral and chamber music, choirs and choral music, recitals and singing/playing, plus sacred music and traditional music/ethnic music/world music (page 7). But in the real world things get complex when the same group might be moving from any of these to contemporary, ‘experimental’ or jazz in the same concert, or indeed in the same piece – or collaborating with artists from elsewhere.

Genrefication is always a problem in collecting data like this,” says Marshman. “With people like us you’re looking at small dynamic groups that might be based on a historical legacy but who operate very differently. Ensemble Offspring does new repertoire all the time. We’re multi-artform based, performance based, we combine elements of dance and other mediums, and we’re working across genres.

Says Peelman: “Increasingly we are living in an age in which classical music is not so easy to describe. Much of it is actually crossover music, and classical musicians are increasingly being wary of being called ‘classical’.” Moving outside the confines of genre, he says, is what both he and the Song Company most like doing. Conducting an orchestra with indie rock singer Sarah Blasko or performing with oud player Joseph Tawadros are examples he cites. “The diversity of music-making is a better barometer than industry data,” says Peelman. “Any artistic sector is very diversified, and we are sometimes at a loss to know where the boundaries lie”.

It is exactly this kind of mixing of ideas, thinks Calnin, that makes Australia’s classical scene so healthy. [pullquote]He says: “I think Australia has one of the healthiest classical music streams, much healthier than Europe or the US. [/pullquote]The great benefit is the high degree of integration and cooperation between people contributing to the artform, enabling audiences to flourish and encouraging the development of individual artists. This makes it fresh and inventive. Strong relationships between performing companies and training organisations – like the ACO with ANAM – are another part of the picture, as is the ABC, whose commitment is strong and whose contribution is major”.

In the end, a particular artform’s health of course is impossible to measure. Its changing constituency, receptivity to new thinking, and the permeability of its boundaries are just some of the larger intangibles that largely come down to opinion. What classical music’s creators and practitioners think in all this is obviously important – they after all are the ones driving the artform. But the opinions of others count too, including audiences, educators, industry groups, commercial interests, institutions – and naturally taxpayers. Is the public, for example, getting value for their money if the level of public engagement drops? International comparisons would help inform the picture too.

These are clearly ongoing questions, and keeping track of data could not seem more difficult, or indeed more necessary. The next LPA Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey, based on 2013 data, will be released on 18 August.


Securing the Future, An Assessment of Progress 2002 to 2009, Australia Council, July 2010

Size and scope of the Live Performance Industry, Live Performance Australia, 24 February, 2014

Ticket Attendance and Revenue Survey 2012, Live Performance Australia

 Note:  Music Australia is a Key Organisation, funded by the Australia Council for the Arts

Title Image: Ensemble Offspring with Mike Patton in ‘Labryrintus II’ at the 2014 Sydney Festival. Photo Credit Chris Frape.
Article Image: Ensemble Offspring’s show the ‘Listening Museum’, a collaboration with Brisbane’s Clocked Out, Paddington Uniting Church, 2013.  Photo credit: Andrew Wholle


  1. Richard Letts

    It’s good to have this discussion and the contributors make some very good points. I have a couple to add.

    Firstly, in addition to the increasingly important issue of setting the borders in “genrefication” (congratulations on that invention) is the question of who’s in/who’s out in the statistical picture. I believe that most independent chamber music is not included in LPA stats, for instance. This is not going to make an enormous difference to the stats but it is important in putting together a picture of artistic vitality.

    Secondly, the statistical tables have to be interpreted in a useful way. LPA gives figures for 2004 to 2012. Why 2004? Probably circumstantial, of no particular significance but as it happens it was a year of atypically low revenues. So if we looked at the box office trend there’s an increase of about one third over the period 2004-2012. But if you began a year later, the change is an increase of only 10%. We have to read past these accidents.

    The numbers change a lot from year to year. There clearly are two years of relatively high attendances and LPA has told us in past reports that in 2008, the attendance spike was a result of a tour by Andre Rieu. If we remove those spikes, attendances and revenue are on an undulating plateau. 2010 was the worst year but there were recoveries in 2011 and 2012. Were there pop classical tours in those years? LPA says Rieu returned in 2011 but there was no big spike and 2012 increased again sans Rieu.

    So my reading of the stats is that attendances are fairly stable and there really is no basis for saying that there was a 55% drop in attendances for the core LOCAL classical music programs.

    That is not to say that we can all relax. For my money, the key issue is how to develop a mainstream audience for “classical” music of our time. In part, that is about building a repertoire of our time that will draw in a mainstream audience. Define ‘mainstream’ audience? Say a musically perceptive audience large enough to make orchestral performances of contemporary repertoire financially viable.

    We see from the situation in other countries that there is a survival issue. We need to conceive and work towards a “vibrant”, as ozco says, future.

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