Audience development

At the recent Sheffield Brass Network event, “Better contact with the media and your audience”, Dr Sarah Price was invited to give a presentation on ‘Understanding audiences for the contemporary arts’.

Dr Sarah Price is an audience researcher and member of the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC), a Research Associate for the AHRC-funded project ‘Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts’, and, at the time of her presentation, had just reached the culmination of a 2½ year study working with arts organisations in Birmingham, London, Liverpool, Bristol and Sheffield to explore how people engage with contemporary dance, theatre, music, visual art and everything in between to develop strategies for recruiting and retaining new audiences. Sarah took the opportunity at the Sheffield Brass Network event to present an overview of some of her findings on ‘audience engagement’.

Sarah began by outlining the foundation of the SPARC audience research with 20 arts and music organisation partners nationally, and further described the challenges of finding methods that articulate the experience of live listening without disrupting it. SPARC’s methods have been largely qualitative: seeking stories and experiences (rather than quantifiable data) and focus on understanding inclusion and exclusion: differences in motivation, experience and attendance between audience members who feel part of a ‘community’ and those who are on its edges, together with collaborative projects with amateur music groups, chamber ensembles, orchestras, and most recently, contemporary arts organisations.

Sarah went on to ask, ‘What motivates people to go to live music events?’ and suggested three motivation clusters; aesthetics, support and experiences:

These are not exhaustive or mutually exclusive – every person can be motivated by any one of these!

Aesthetic engagement:

  • Familiar music is inherently more enjoyable!
  • Short pieces and familiar works spread the risk of attendance – not just financial / time wasted, but also, it’s painful to sit through music you hate.
  • New works are difficult to sell – lots of stereotypes around cacophonous sounds, “plinky-plonky”, “screechy” music.
  • Sarah suggested that an attitude of “it’s okay not to like it” could be encouraged, and that new ways of giving listeners information to anchor their experience could be found.


  • The majority of the audience for amateur music performances consists of friends and family of the players/singers
  • Contemporary arts scene also has lots of other artists and arts professionals, which Sarah suggested is similar in Brass Bands? Wanting to support, learn and scope out the competition…
  • Participating, volunteering and donating provided routes in to new types of art: i.e. Getting to know the people (hosting artists), a sense of ownership (“I built that wall”) and learning about how the music is put together.


  • People who are on the whole less knowledgeable about music
  • In competition with other music, arts, culture, food, Netflix
  • Seeking uniqueness and special events
  • Unusual venues were a big attraction, especially the chance to see behind closed doors
  • “Making a night of it” – friends / partner / family as a social event, combining with dinner or drinks, getting dressed up, sense of occasion
  • Tradition (Christmas ballet and brass bands!) and tourism (Opera in Verona)

Sarah went on to describe about ‘developing audiences’, what SPARC have learnt from ‘the hard sell’, and what ‘audience development’ actually means:

  • Growing, expanding, diversifying, deepening
  • Finding new audiences or finding new concerts
  • Within every attender is a non-attender
  • Where does “should go more” come from?
  • Value (or not) of arts talk and explanations

Venues and spaces:

  • Whether in a traditional theatre or at a one-off or site-specific event, the venue can enhance, disrupt or blend into the performance.
  • Audiences for music talked more about venue than genre – “context is the new genre”
  • “Not for the likes of me” – venues give signals about who is welcome
  • Liminal spaces of gallery cafes provide safe places for people to spend time (and money)

Fostering new audiences:

  • For some retirees, the arts became part of a new routine of daytime attendance when galleries were quieter and cinemas were cheaper.
  • We saw the effects of life transitions including retirement and moving cities on attendance habits – building new routines
  • Eye-opening arts experiences could take a long time to affect change

The difficult questions:

  • Does every arts event need to be inclusive?
  • Access, inclusion, diversity v. elitism, privilege, exclusion
  • Opportunities for everyone needed across the cultural ecology of a city or region

Creating cities for the arts:

  • Festivals and open-door events in each city encourage audiences to explore unfamiliar places and venues and to try new arts experiences.
  • Psychological distance – drop in venues vs special trip
  • Need for better publicity outside the “arts scene”
  • Calls for a one-stop shop – how does that work with hyper-local brass bands?

Building new audiences:

Who are your performances for?

What type of audience do you want to attract?

. . . . . .

Professor Stephanie E. Pitts, and Dr Sarah M. Price have co-authored a book, ‘Understanding Audience Engagement in the Contemporary Arts’, ISBN 9780367358884, which is published by Routledge with the chapter with some of the most important findings available to download for FREE, and is available for pre-order from and due to ship after September 24th 2020.

The Sheffield Brass Network is very grateful for the contribution made by Dr Sarah Price.

The above text is largely taken from the presentation made by Dr Sarah Price at the Sheffield Brass Network event held on September 25th 2019 and you can find out more about the research that SPARC has undertaken together with other supporting information by visiting

If you need any assistance with further development of your audience engagement please contact us at Sheffield Brass Network and we’ll do our best to help.