94% of Canadian orchestras have tried digital… Now what?

Orchestras Canada has engaged member orchestras in three digital surveys since the fall of 2018.  Have you ever changed! 

In 2018, survey respondents at sixty orchestras sensed the potential (and pressure) to engage in digital, but most articulated the sheer difficulty of prioritizing the work, and then getting started.  

Along came the pandemic: orchestras either went digital or went silent. Despite the challenges, orchestras persevered with much ingenuity (and no lack of stress). Our 2020 digital survey focused on these early pandemic-era digital innovations, documenting the shifts and questions associated with digital programming. Fifty-seven orchestras participated, providing a robust perspective on the experiments then underway. 

With the evolution in public health contexts and orchestras’ pandemic responses, we undertook a third iteration of the survey in August-September 2021.  This year, 65 orchestras of all sizes across Canada responded. Here are a few key findings: 

1- Almost all (94%) respondents reported having tried one or more new digital initiatives, a jump from 84% in 2020.  Orchestras tried an impressive range of initiatives, ranging from full concerts to short excerpts, educational programming, and more. 

it’s exciting to see Canadian orchestras taking the plunge – while driven by the pandemic, the use of digital as a medium has long been a hot topic that now is coupled with the digital migration of an audience willing/needing to come with us. – Mark Turner, Executive Director of Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra

2- Orchestras remain focused on audience connection and creating opportunities for musicians through digital: consistent with 2020 results, these were the top two priorities identified by 2021 survey respondents. 

Digital content is a great way for anyone to connect with you at anytime, anywhere — and for you to connect with anyone. SPO released byte-sized, individual servings of great music on YouTube, freely through 2020/2021.  Easy to consume, easy to analyze, and so appreciated by every performer, composer, and content creator who had their unique moment to shine. – Devin Scott, Executive Director of Scarborough Philharmonic

The use of digital media […] facilitates two-way communication in order to hear more precisely what our audience wants to tell us. Thanks to this ongoing conversation between the growing audience and the Orchestra, we will be able to adjust our concert offerings. – Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil 

3- “Hybrid” is the name of the game this season: A majority (69%) of orchestras are planning a hybrid (digital and in-person) season for 2021-22. Once halls return to full capacity audiences, 45.9% of orchestras plan to continue some of the digital activity they’re doing; about 18% total plan to continue all of (16.4%) or more than (1.6%) their current digital activity; 26% are still uncertain, and roughly 10% plan no digital activity.  

4- Orchestras see opportunity in digital — but are uncertain about what role it will play post-pandemic. In 2020, respondents highlighted the need for technical skills training. In 2021, respondents still cited the need for technical training, but even more underlined the need for high-level strategic guidance (including strategies to determine an ideal balance of digital and in-person programming, and ways of better integrating digital development with organizational mission).  

Although the learning curve to produce digital content was, and remains, steep, orchestras may be moving out of crisis response mode and turning their attention instead to the role digital might play in a post-pandemic future. Still, more support is needed. 

Streaming is here to stay for the SSO, and I hope for all Canadian orchestras. It answers one of the major questions of accessibility that we’ve been facing for years – I think now the struggle becomes fine-tuning the balance of hybrid…what works for the live audience may not be as meaningful on camera, and vice versa! Streaming is consumed in a different way, so building programming that has an impact on both forms of consumption will be a creative challenge that will make our art form stronger. – Mark Turner, Executive Director of Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra 

5- For professional orchestras, the temporary COVID-19 labour agreements were key enablers of digital experimentation: A few respondents reflected on the nature of labour agreements with the Canadian Federation of Musicians: what was available during the pandemic, and what might evolve once capacity restrictions have been lifted. Clearly, the temporary CFM COVID-19 Agreement enabled a number of orchestras to engage in digital content capture and sharing.   

6- Digital does not pay for itself: when asked about their budget for digital initiatives in the 2021-22 season, over one-quarter of respondents selected “No budget for this”! Overwhelmingly, those who are not planning to sustain digital activity cited financial barriers and not enough human resources or time as the biggest factors in their decision to forgo digital.  

In 2018, we reported that survey respondents were “skeptical of the value of digital technology when compared to the cost, time and effort. There was a feeling of having to acquire a lot of knowledge quickly in order to be where we should in terms of digital literacy.” Skepticism about direct and immediate return on investment seems well warranted – the Future of the Digital Orchestra research (commissioned by OC, funded by the Canada Council’s Digital Strategy Fund and undertaken by The Arts Firm in collaboration with the CFM and OCSM) demonstrated that online programming generated roughly 5-10% of the revenue of ticketed live performances.  

7- Advocacy implications: 

Digital doesn’t cover costs and research is showing that audiences are not returning to halls quickly enough, even as capacity restrictions are lifted. What support do orchestras need? 

I think our funders need to strategize how to reflect that in funding models – it is happening and will continue to evolve, but it’s crucial for all levels of support to understand the infrastructure, staffing, creative and artistic costs that we face. Significant investment will grow jobs, accessibility, profile, and result in fascinating programming that I can’t wait to watch.  


You can view the full results in aggregate, anonymized, at the links below: 

Survey Results – All Orchestras

Survey Results – Small Budget Orchestras (Annual revenues under $500,000) 

Survey Results – Youth Orchestras 

Survey Results – Catalyst Orchestras (Annual revenues under $4 Million, but greater than $500,000) 

Survey Results – Institutions (Annual revenues greater than $4 Million)