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When will we REALLY return to live shows? Well, pricier tickets aren’t keeping us away. 8

So far, this holiday season isn’t delivering a lot of happy news about live audiences — not just for performing arts groups that have had to cancel shows because of COVID concerns. The new Spider-Man release is certainly breaking box office records, but we’re still not swarming plenty of other Hollywood releases.

In other words, we are heading back into theaters and other cultural attractions. But we’re still doing it in disappointing and financially unsustainable numbers.

It’s hardly surprising not as many of use are buying tickets now as in pre-COVID days. But SMU DataArts, the largest cultural database in the country, looked beyond simple attendance numbers. In an online post last month, It combined graphs detailing other factors — like, has ticket-buying responded to vaccine rates? Or declines in staffing?

And then they made some predictions. Last week, it updated the data. Turns out, their predictions and conclusions haven’t changed that much.

So here’s their jittery line graph:

Image: SMU DataArts

Before you hurt your eyes from squinting, here’s a guide:

  • There’s a pale purple-ish line that lies rock bottom through 2019 that you can’t see because the aqua-blue line blocks it — until the purple line sky-rockets upward in mid-2020 and then plummets, then zooms back up at the very end. That’s our COVID infection rate.
  • And that dark blue line that starts at the top, drops, hops around and then plunges — only to zip up and down at the end? That tracks ticket sales.
  • You’ll notice ticket sales plummet just as the ‘second-wave’ of infections takes off (that pale purple line again). But the other factor that perks up at the end is the vaccination rate (that aqua line). We finally started getting serious about vaccinations.
  • Nothing else seems to track together as well as those three factors: the increase in COVID rates, the simultaneous drop in ticket sales, followed by the uptick in ticket sales when vaccinations finally increase.

So, as the SMU DataArts post concluded in November: “The key takeaway is that demand for these performing arts organizations in June 2021 was determined more by COVID vaccination rates than by managerially controlled variables.”

Translation: The bad news is that it’s only COVID infections that are keeping us away; none of these other influences matter. The second bad news: There’s not much that arts manager are doing that seems to affect attendance, whether it’s increasing prices or not. The third bad news: Our increase in vaccination rates does NOT increase attendance the way the growth of COVID infections has decreased it.

In other words, more vaccinations are good for the box office, but not that good. Not good enough to offset the steep downside of infection rates.

The little bit of good news for arts groups turns those facts on their head: Cutting the number of performances OR raising ticket prices are not keeping us away from performances.

But those decisions by arts groups will begin to influence our buying choices. Higher ticket prices don’t seem to affect us much now — but they will.

So the latest report concludes that vaccinations have stabilized our willingness to attend shows to some degree. But sales remain depressed and will remain for some time: “The pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, but few if any industries have been more affected than the performing arts.”