Australian stages are packed with great shows – so why aren’t people booking tickets?

When the Victorian government announced on Monday it was reintroducing 25% cash back on all entertainment and dining expenses over $40, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra staff sprang into action.

By close of business Monday, more than 50,000 concertgoers in the MSO database had been alerted and the company recorded a 40% spike in ticket sales – their strongest day in years.

It was a government stimulus sorely needed by the state’s major performing arts companies. As the industry attempts to recover from Covid restrictions and cancellations, the new normal is still nothing like normal – particularly when it comes to ticketing.

“We’re seeing a seismic shift,” MSO’s managing director, Sophie Galaise, told Guardian Australia, who spoke to more than a dozen performing arts companies for this article.

“We’re not going to, and we’re not even trying to, get back to pre-pandemic levels. We have to see the world in a new way. The pandemic has changed habits; it’s opened some doors, and it’s closed others. It’s going to be a challenge for the next few years.”

‘We’re looking at a three-year recovery’

As many of Australia’s major companies announce their 2023 programs this month, the return of audiences into theatres and concert halls has been more of a steady trickle than a deluge.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra – which has a subscriber presence in seven major cities – has so far recovered just over 80% of its pre-Covid subscriber base.

“And single ticket sales are down probably anywhere between 20 [and] 30%,” the ACO’s managing director, Richard Evans, says.

“I think we’re probably looking at a three-year recovery, getting back 10% a year from 2022. We’re hopeful we’ll be back to pre-Covid attendance levels by 2025.”

Audience behaviour has undoubtedly changed, according to new research commissioned by the Australia Council, and it is unclear whether it will ever go back to what it was. In March and August this year, Australian audience tracker company Patternmakers and US-based researcher Wolf Brown surveyed almost 2,300 Australians identifying themselves as regular live performance attendees.

In the intervening six months, little more than 7% say they had returned to theatres and concert halls. One in four are still staying home – and for those over 65, half would not return unless the venue made masks mandatory.

Of those now back, almost half of the survey group says they were still not attending as frequently as their pre-pandemic level (46% in August, 52% in March) – although health concerns were not the only factor at play.

Almost one in four says financial – not Covid – concerns had curbed their entertainment habits. September marked the fifth month in a row the Reserve Bank raised the cash rate, taking it to a seven-year high of 2.35% and adding more than $600 a month to a $500,000 mortgage.

Only one in five respondents say their attendance would not be inhibited in any way over the next 12 months.

A state-by-state look

Breaking the research down into states and territories, residents in the ACT remain the most nervous about returning to live performance, with well over half still staying home. Queenslanders appeared to be the most relaxed.

It is this sentiment Queensland Ballet’s artistic director, Li Cunxin, is banking on, as the company prepares to launch an ambitious $1.5m production of Manon at the end of this month.

“We sold over 18,500 tickets to Romeo and Juliet [in 2019], so I’m hopeful we can do the same for Manon,” Li says.

“However, we are in a very different economic climate. The arts sector was hit hard during the pandemic, and just as the economy starts to recover, we face yet another threat – the rising cost of living.”

We were the only show in town so we were having incredible sales.

Brad Martin, West Australian Symphony Orchestra

After Western Australia cut itself off from the rest of the country for almost 700 days during the pandemic, the state appears to have quarantined its performing arts companies from much of the financial pain reported by others.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, the West Australian Ballet and the state’s flagship theatre company Black Swan all recorded record ticket sales while the rest of the country was in lockdown.

“We were the only show in town so we were having incredible sales through that period,” says WASO’s marketing manager, Brad Martin. “This year we’ve actually had the strongest pre-sales of any of our subscription series in the last five years.”

In 2022 Black Swan State Theatre saw a 34% increase in subscribers compared with 2019 – from 596 packages to 798.

The theatre’s marketing manager, Suzanne Beecroft, who moved to Black Swan from the West Australian Ballet in June, says that during Covid her state turned inward and threw its support behind its local performing arts companies.

“There was a real groundswell of support and love,” she says. “People recognised that there was a danger of losing some of the art forms that we love, so people backed us up with their money, whether it was donations or buying subscriptions.”

‘The trauma to Melbourne audiences is still quite fresh’

Melbourne Theatre Company has been regularly tracking the habits of its audience since the pandemic hit. Operating in the most locked-down city in the world, the MTC saw almost 600 performances cancelled and recorded a $19m loss in 2020/2021.

Even when permitted to return to full capacity earlier this year, the Omicron wave meant the MTC auditorium was only filling to 50% capacity.

“The trauma to Melbourne audiences is still quite fresh,” says MTC’s executive director, Virginia Lovett, who conceded that like the ACO, the company was still about 20% down on subscription uptake compared to 2019 figures.

“About 65% of our lapsed subscribers have told us they will return once they feel that it’s back to ‘normal’.”

Back in 2019, 55% of the MTC’s single ticket sales were made a month prior to a performance. In 2022 that figure increased to 66%.

“Nearly one-third of our single ticket sales are now happening within the week that the performance happens,” Lovett says.

The Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne has ditched subscriptions entirely, with the theatres’s associate director, Matthew Lutton, saying “the subscription model broke in Covid”.

Instead, the theatre has launched Malthouse Mate, a “supporter” model that allows donors to pay a minimum of $50 to the theatre in order to get early access to ticket sales.

‘Nerve-jangling’: the rise of last-minute ticket sales

Like almost all the companies who spoke to the Guardian, Black Swan says one trend was undeniable: a rise in last-minute single ticket purchases.

“And I don’t think it’s just Covid and people wanting to make sure they’re healthy and that they won’t have to cancel suddenly,” Beecroft says.

“The economic environment is starting to play into this as well. People are waiting for discounts, or really weighing up how they want to spend those discretionary dollars.”

The Patternmakers/Wolf Brown research from August found that more than 25% of respondents decided to purchase tickets within seven days of a live performance. In November 2021, that figure was just 19%. More than 40% bought tickets within a month of the event between March and August this year.

“Single ticket sales in 2022 are definitely purchased closer to the performance dates, with often a surge two to three weeks out prior to the performances,” the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s marketing manager, Renato Capoccia, says.

According to the artistic director and chief executive of Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company, Declan Greene, this new normal is “nerve-jangling”. In 2022, as much as 50% of Griffin’s audience bought their ticket the day of or the day before the performance.

“It’s an entirely different way of running a theatre company … it feels a bit like we’re in freefall.”

While many of Australia’s major performing arts companies were given government lifelines during Covid (the country’s most costly performing arts company, Opera Australia received an additional $21.1m in federal and state government funding in 2021, on top its annual $22m from the Australia Council), smaller companies such as Griffin are more reliant on these newly nervous ticket-buying habits.

It’s an entirely different way of running a theatre company … it feels a bit like we’re in freefall.

Declan Greene, Griffin theatre

With a capacity of just over 200, Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre is in a similar boat. The company’s artistic director, playwright Mark Kilmurray, says advance planning has become a logistical challenge due to the uptick in last-minute ticket sales.

There are other new challenges, too. For the first time in the boutique theatre company’s history, the engagement of paid understudies has become essential. In a recent opening night performance, an understudy seamlessly took on the female lead after the star tested positive for Covid.

“Now we’re paying for two or three artists to understudy – and then there’s the cost of a second set of costuming, and the cost of rehearsing the understudies,” Kilmurray says. “It increases costs dramatically.”

More challenges ahead

Recouping those costs isn’t easy. Companies earn significantly more from full-price single ticket sales than from discounted subscription packages, but single ticket sales depend on costly advertising campaigns.

And neither comes with much financial security: under Australian ticketing laws, the funds from all ticket sales and subscriptions must be escrowed until the performance has actually taken place – a factor that is no longer a given in these uncertain times. Just last week, a performance of the Sydney Theatre Company’s A Raisin in the Sun was cancelled due to cast illness.

There is an additional factor expected to affect audience behaviour post Covid lockdown: the decline of the CBD.

In September, the Property Council of Australia reported that office occupancies in Australia’s two largest cities rose by just 1% in August. In Melbourne, the CBD has returned to just 39% of pre-pandemic levels.

According to research conducted by the MTC, almost one-third of its audience worked in Melbourne’s CBD pre-pandemic. In March, that figure stood at just 16%.

“That sort of casual ‘let’s go to a show after work’ – I think it’s going to be quite interesting to see how that plays out,” says Lovett.

Richard Evans at ACO agrees. “The drift out of the CBD is definitely going to have an impact,” he says. “We’re going to lose that impulsive side of the market.”