Is it possible to argue that classical music is good for the economy?

- 4 June 2013

In these straitened times, the arts need to make a case for the economic value they bring to the country, regardless of their artistic worth. So says culture secretary Maria Miller, who told luminaries from the arts world in April: ‘I need you all to accept this fundamental premise, and work with me to develop the argument.’

The Arts Council has seemingly picked up this gauntlet, claiming in a report released the following month that the arts sector contributes £7 to the economy for every £1 of subsidy it receives from the taxpayer. Even if we leave aside the fact that we can’t say with any certainty that these subsidies are causing higher returns, is this good news for those hoping to see more government money directed towards classical music specifically? Not necessarily.

A closer look at exactly where public money is spent reveals that classical music organisations are much more reliant on grant funding than other sectors of the arts world. Seven of the ten organisations receiving the largest funding grants from the Arts Council were opera, ballet or classical music companies, and collectively they received nearly a quarter of all the money handed out in 2011/12.

Whether classical music generates enough money of its own to add £7 of value to the economy for each £1 in subsidy received is harder to calculate, as the data used in the Arts Council’s report doesn’t break the ‘arts sector’ down into any greater detail. As it stands, the report’s findings cover theatre, dance, literature, visual arts, music and combined arts, as well as museums.

However the metrics don’t look good for those with a particular interest in classical music. The Royal Opera House ‒ the largest recipient of Arts Council funding ‒ reports that it generates over £2 at the box office for every pound it takes in grants, roughly the same as the average return noted in the Arts Council’s report for the sector as a whole. However this seems to be the exception rather than the rule: English National Opera ‒ the second largest recipient of government grants when it comes to music ‒ actually took more in subsidies than it earned through other revenue streams in 2011/12.

Those looking for better news when it comes to record sales might be disappointed: according to the BPI, classical music accounted for around 3.3% of all music sold, valuing it at around £40m, less than the amount given out in grants. Of course, the Arts Council also urges us to consider the knock-on benefits to the economy of investing in culture, the largest of which is tourism. In its estimates, this accounts for £856m of the £12.4bn generated by the arts in 2011. Again however, a closer look at the figures reveals that the picture might not be as rosy for classical music as it is for the rest of the sector. According to the International Passenger Survey, it is museums and art galleries that are driving ‘cultural tourism’, with 27.2% of visitors reporting a visit to one or both. By contrast, just 9.2% of tourists reported visiting a musical, opera, ballet or theatre event. Even this might be illusory, however: as the Arts Council notes in its report, it is difficult to pin down exactly how much of this is ‘additional spending’ above and beyond what tourists would have spent during their visit anyway.

The Arts Council report does offer some encouragement in terms of job creation, noting that the performing arts employ more people in the arts world than any other individual element. However, even this proves to be a double-edged sword: not only is a large proportion of this accounted for by jobs outside the classical music bailiwick, but the Arts Council finds that these employees are also the least productive in the sector in terms of the value they add to the economy.

The problem faced by those wishing to make the economic case for classical music is two-fold: first, a dearth of information means that the only reliable data on the value added to the economy exists at a sector-wide level for the arts and culture as a whole. Secondly, those indicators we do have suggest that classical music is underperforming economically when compared to other art forms. Advocates of public investment in classical music might therefore find that promoting the artistic value proves more fruitful than talking up its economic value.

Owen Spottiswoode is a researcher for independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact, which promotes accuracy in public debate

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