Many people will know the examples: wonderful, lockdown over, the halls open again – and then you sit there in a largely empty hall, uncomfortably listening to a full orchestra playing with full dedication. Or you are strolling with fifteen people, with a beer in hand, not filling the already small hall with a starting band at all. The specter of the empty halls haunts; we are allowed again, but where is the audience? The cultural sector has already been fully open for a quarter. Why is it that the halls are often not completely filled?
How big is the problem?
That is not so easy to determine exactly. The umbrella association of the halls, the VSCD, to which 150 playhouses, concert halls, theaters and other venues are affiliated, has general figures. The occupancy rate in 2019 was 61 percent in April and 60 percent in May. This spring it was 51 percent in April and 56 percent in May. So you could say a problem of 10 percentage points that has decreased to 4 percentage points in a month. But the VSCD represents a large majority of the infrastructure, not the entire industry.
To gain a better understanding of what is going on, we made a tour of rooms that program classical, pop and/or theater. A few rooms have precise figures, others give an estimate.
The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam is very precise. This reports a decline of 8 percentage points: in the months of March to May 2019, the halls were 82 percent full (184,000 tickets sold at 194 concerts). In the same period, the hall occupancy was 74 percent (157,000 tickets sold at 167 concerts). De Doelen in Rotterdam claims to have 16 percent emptier rooms in these first three months. About 8 percent less audience comes to the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ.
Our target group is very busy catching up with social contacts and drinks
The Vereeniging in Nijmegen sees that the public for classical “something” is declining, the recently opened Amare in The Hague reports that everything is going well, “except classical”. “We feel that the target group is very busy catching up with social contacts, drinks, family and friends.” Things are going really well at the Dutch National Opera & Ballet, which says it sees hardly any difference with 2019, perhaps a little with lesser-known work.
Theaters have a similar message, although the decline appears to be greater. Stadsschouwburg Utrecht sold nearly ten thousand fewer tickets in the past three months than the same period in 2019 (when they sold 51,100 tickets), with May significantly better than March. Leontien Lems, head of marketing & communication: „It is no longer a matter of course to become sold out. Cabaret normally sells itself, but we have to put in more effort for that too.” The National Theater in The Hague also sold less, says theater director Cees Debets: approximately 39,000 tickets in 2019 against 35,000 now. Theater De Kom in Nieuwegein sold 75 percent of what it sold in 2019 in May, and ITA also states that it is “not yet at the level of 2019”.
It is less easy to obtain precise estimates from the pop venues, but they all say that ticket sales are lagging, especially for concerts that attract older audiences. Joost van Abeelen, head of marketing at 013 in Tilburg, says that shows with a slightly older audience, such as Bløf, De Dijk or Frank Boeijen, do not reach the numbers they would normally do. This especially applies to concerts that have been moved more often, concert hall Iduna in Drachten also says: “Concerts that normally sell out or almost sell out here are now at about 60-65 percent.” Iduna considers the season to summer as good as lost. “That is why we as a hall have also decided not to book replacement shows during this period if something is cancelled.”
Empty halls with lesser-known acts
The specter of the (half) empty empty halls mainly occurs with a certain type of performance: the often rescheduled shows and with newer, lesser-known work. Classical, pop, theatre, they all say: large and well-known acts do well and sell as usual (especially if they attract a young audience), but lesser-known, emerging artists or makers of more complex work attract (much) less audience. The explanation: after the long corona period, there is a lot of competition for the free evenings, so people are sure. Cees Debets, theater director at Het Nationale Theater: „The big names are attracting sold-out halls: Gijs Scholten van Aschat, a comedian like Patrick Laureij. But the more adventurous offer is struggling. You feel a need for certainty with the audience that it will be a great evening.”
New or complex acts always attract less audience, but normally this is resolved. Renate Meijering, head of marketing at Spot Groningen: “For less well-known and more complex offerings, we need a longer run-up and the power of repetition to be able to tell a story. This is not necessary for a popular or well-known artist. And it was precisely that lead time that was not there.”
There are concerns about that. Cees Debets: „We hear from the makers that we will program the stages more carefully next season. They choose better-known names at the expense of lesser-known and younger makers.” The Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, just a room for new music: “The experiment and adventure should not disappear because of corona, then we are doing it wrong.”
In pop music, it is mainly the smaller bands that have problems, says programmer Erik Delobel of Hedon in Zwolle. Hedon has canceled six tapes in the past three months because sales were so bad. “The hardest are the bands that perform in venues smaller than 400 people. They have also been able to develop less in recent times. And that is a problem, because those smaller halls represent the talent: who will we be looking at in ten years?”
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Another category of performances where people stay away are the concerts, which are often postponed by corona. And that is often literally staying away; people who already (or still have) a ticket do not show up. These so-called no-shows are especially a problem in pop, with classical and theater it is much less common.
Take Paradiso in Amsterdam. For corona, that was a no-show of 4 to 7 percent, with exceptional peaks to 10 percent – more with the cheaper tickets. For programs that have been moved, the no-show is now 15 to 25 percent, with peaks to 30 and in some cases even 50 percent (with older audiences). While with ‘normal’ programming the no-show is now back at the old level of 4 to 7 percent.
Or look at 013 in Tilburg, which has a no-show of 35 percent at often rescheduled shows such as Noisia. But popularity also plays a role here, says Joost van Abeelen, head of marketing. “Shows like Froukje and Goldband, both moved once, had a no-show of only 3 percent.”
Things are getting better, says Koos Hornman, Sleeping Beauty’s head of marketing. “The number of no-shows is still a bit higher than before corona, but it is now quite acceptable. Certainly in comparison with just after the reopening, and especially with the shows with a corona ticket, then you really had extreme peaks.”
The no-show is a real problem for the halls, says Berend Schans, director of the Dutch Poppodia and Festivals Association (VNPF). “At most pop venues, the artist usually receives the proceeds of the tickets, and there is also a guarantee amount. Even if fewer tickets are sold, the artist will receive that amount and the risk is for the hall. In addition, the hall incurs costs that are sometimes partly covered by subsidies (with the Dutch program), but certainly also partly by catering sales. “In a normal year that is not so bad, because a good programmer knows from experience that there are certain shows that run less, they compensate for that with concerts that sell well. That was of course not possible recently, and now with an enormous increase in costs due to energy and more expensive freelancers in technology, that system is still under pressure.”
Presale and oversupply
All halls have had to deal with start-up problems, such as the lack of presale due to the lockdown. According to the Muziekgebouw aan het IJ, the pre-sale normally contributes to about 25 percent of the tickets. In addition, especially when the halls had just opened, there was still the fear of illness and the uncertainty about whether performances would take place.
Another point is the huge range. Koos Hornman, head of marketing at Sleeping Beauty: “In April we had almost 250 percent more shows than the same month in 2019, and in May we also went over double that. We have never experienced that.” Delobel, from Hedon: “The market is a bit overwrought right now. Due to postponed club tours, new programming and festivals, you could now see Typhoon somewhere fifty times.”
A development that was already going on, especially in classical music, but which has been reinforced by corona, is the decrease in subscription sales. People are buying tickets much more at the last minute, something that can also be seen at pop venues. Dutch National Opera & Ballet: “It is a trend that we also saw before corona: our visitor opts more for individual tickets than for a subscription.”
Mieke Beljaarts Head of Marketing, Communication & Ticketing at Amare sees this in all kinds of performances. “It is striking that many tickets are only sold in the last two weeks for each genre. I don’t know if the long-term buy will come back.”
This latest trend also poses a risk to the diversity of the offer, say Job Noordhof and Jacob van der Vlugt of the Concertgebouw. “The more well-known the program, the better it sells in the last few weeks. Programs that appeal to young people do extra well.”
Virtually everyone you speak to is optimistic about the next season, which starts in September. In many cases, the presale has started and is running reasonably well. The Muziekgebouw, where the presale has been going on for ten weeks, is now only 10 to 15 percent behind compared to 2019. Concertgebouw de Vereeniging in Nijmegen reports that the presale of 2022-2023 is about 5 percent behind the presale for 2019- 2020, the last ‘normal’ season.
But many halls see another looming specter: that of inflation. “I am more concerned about inflation than about the consequences of corona,” a TivoliVredenburg spokesperson even said. Or, in the words of the Muziekgebouw: ‘High inflation will have an effect. As a cultural sector, we are a luxury product after all. If people have to cut spending, this is what they look at.”
With the collaboration of Rahul Gandolahage, Peter van der Ploeg and Ron Rijghard.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of June 3, 2022