1Participation in all high culture activities at the usual physical venues is mainly female. This tendency – with the exception of ballet – is inverted in the digital environment.
2In both physical and digital participation an initially positive impact exists related with age (higher age means more participation) which, after reaching a maximum, starts to fall (higher age means less participation). A difference, however, can be observed in the turning point, which is higher in traditional consumption (47-49 years) than in digital consumption (29-35 years). This can point, firstly, towards a generational difference and one in consumer habits and, secondly, to the digital divide, linked to age.
3Digital consumption could be an opportunity to increase the participation of people who have difficulties to access certain cultural contents due to their place of residence. However, the same tendency is reproduced as that observed in physical consumption: digital participation is over-represented by those who live in capitals and underrepresented by residents of smaller towns.
4Decisions on physical or digital cultural consumption are interdependent, so individuals who participate in one sphere increase their probabilities of participating in the other.
The graph offers a moderately optimistic view of the role played by digital consumption. Thus, of the 6.2% of individuals that state that they consume high culture online, some 2.6% consume it only in this way and, therefore, they represent a new audience. The remaining 3.5% already participate physically, therefore the Internet is a complementary format for them.
Of those only consuming in digital format, 2.6% could also be physical consumers, if the barriers that they face lost relevance.
1. Internet usage and the democratisation of cultural consumption
How has the Internet changed the way in which citizens consume elite culture? Has it increased participation? If so, are these new audiences? Or, to the contrary, does it mean new forms of access to traditional audiences?
During the last two decades, the generalisation of the use of technologies has revolutionised people’s behavioural patterns. This revolution has even affected the ways in which we communicate, we are informed, we participate in public debate and we consume all types of goods and services. Greater accessibility to all kinds of digital contents has facilitated the growth of certain activities, above all those that revolve around the availability of information.
Specifically, the consumption of cultural contents such as recorded music, films, and other audiovisual products are good examples of this change of pattern. The change started with the commercialisation of contents in digital formats and the appearance of the compact disc in recorded music, an innovation that made it possible to reproduce and copy it. The subsequent emergence of platforms that facilitate the exchanging of information between users has reinforced the dimensions of this change by representing availability of, and almost unlimited access to, these contents. Data from the Survey on Cultural Habits and Practices 2014-2015,the last one published by Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport (EHPC2014-15), confirm this transformation in cultural consumption. Approximately a quarter of all those who stated they had listened to music during the last year (86% of the sample) do so exclusively via the Internet. In the audiovisual case, among those who indicated they have watched at least one video in the last year (55% of the sample) those who have only done so via the Internet totalled 28%.
Surprisingly, it is not yet known whether the Internet has enabled greater access and enjoyment of cultural expressions that make up the so-called elite culture or high culture, such as theatre, opera, classical music concerts and dance. The relationship between the consumption of these activities at their usual venues (physical consumption) and in the digital environment (electronic consumption) is an unexplored area. Physical participation involves a larger number of consumer decisions, such as choice of the event, of the timing, or questions regarding the type of travel to it. All of these can mean restrictions that are not involved by decisions such as how to listen to recorded music or watch a recording of an opera on a digital platform.
Based on this we intend to determine whether digital participation can eliminate or reduce some of the barriers that dissuade potential audiences, in other words, those who are not but could become consumers of these types of artistic manifestations. The inclusion of new audiences and the expansion of existing ones are relevant not only because cultural consumption produces individual benefits associated with aesthetic enjoyment and appreciation, such as an increase in the subjective perception of happiness (Filimon, 2018), but also because it generates collective benefits (as put forward by Ateca-Amestoy et al., 2016, “participation in the arts contributes towards a more reflexive and inclusive society”) and aids social inclusion (Lareau and Horvat, 1999).
All of these are sufficiently compelling arguments to warrant seeking a detailed answer to the questions posed. In this sense, this study puts the spotlight on two main results: firstly, that in fact, digital participation represents an expansion, albeit a marginal one, of the audience; and secondly, that although digital consumption helps to get rid of some restrictions (mainly those of an economic nature), it also creates obstacles linked with access to, and the use of, information technologies.
2. A look at the data: physical consumption versus digital consumption
A list of cultural activities can be considered by percentage of participation (individuals who state that they have attended during the last year in relation to the total sample) and the average age of the consumer (figure 1). A quick observation of the data shows that, with the exception of theatre, these activities attract a minority audience. Furthermore, the average age of those attending (except for theatre and dance) stands above the age of 50 years.
Within this context, the breakaway that access to digital contents has represented in certain cultural sectors does not seem to have occurred in high culture. Recorded music is an example of a sector that has reinvented itself as a consequence of the radical change in the way music is consumed. This change is not observed in theatre, dance, or opera, where the traditional channels continue to dominate consumption. Thus, comparing physical participation with digital participation in high culture (figure 2) shows that, in general, the second type of participation is marginal. In other words, while approximately 30% of individuals express that they have taken part in at least one of the five artistic expressions considered, only 6.2% have done so via the Internet.
Furthermore, we can ask ourselves whether the digital consumption of cultural activities considered as highbrow represents greater participation by the already existing audience or, to the contrary, they have reached new audiences. Figure 3 offers a moderately optimistic view of this question. Thus, of the 6.2% of individuals who claim to have consumed high culture online, some 2.6% do so only via this method and, therefore, they represent a new audience. The remaining 3.5% already participate physically, so for them the Internet is a complementary method.
3. Access barriers to high culture: profile of the cultural consumer
The main restrictions or barriers faced by individuals can be split into four groups. Firstly, the sociodemographic variables, such as gender or age, are associated with different forms of participation. In second place, the individual’s earnings or income, as economic factors, can be linked to greater participation by expanding possibilities for consumption. Furthermore, it is relevant to consider the availability of time, a fundamental resource for the consumption of artistic activities. Education must be also taken into account: if the appreciation of arts and culture is an acquired taste, the individual’s education is a determinant for their consumption. Finally, the availability of the offering, fundamentally its spatial or geographical distribution, determines the quantity, variety and quality of cultural activities available to citizens.
Figure 4 summarises the main descriptors, in other words, the profiles of consumers of the different cultural activities considered by medium (physical or digital). It is important to point out that the EHPC2014-15 sample is representative of the Spanish population aged above 15 years. For its interpretation, we have selected values for six variables that reflect the restrictions mentioned: average age, gender (woman), educational level (higher education), situation in the labour market (unemployed), and geographical environment (residence in a provincial capital, and whether the municipality has fewer than 50,000 inhabitants). The analysis of these data enables some conclusions to be drawn.
Firstly, the consumer profile shows a gender gap in physical consumption. In other words, in all high-culture activities that are consumed in the physical sphere, participation is mainly female, although in digital participation this tendency is inverted, except in the case of ballet.
Secondly, in both the digital and the physical sphere, the relevance of education is observed. In all manifestations there is evidence of a proportion of individuals with higher university qualifications than that of the sample (19% overall). This is obvious in the case of opera, as 54% of the traditional or physical audience (47% online) have studied higher education, compared with the 19% observed in the overall sample.
Thirdly, economic situation differentiates the profile of users of high culture in the physical sphere. The representation of unemployed individuals is lower in the audience of any of the manifestations (between 8% and 11% depending on the activity) than in the sample as a whole (14%). In contrast, the percentages of electronic consumption by unemployed people are somewhat higher, which may indicate an alternative route of access to culture for groups in a more disadvantaged economic situation.
Finally, the data show how participation is associated with the spatial distribution of the offering. In the case of physical consumption, the percentage of individuals that participate in provincial capitals is higher for each of the manifestations than the 42% corresponding to the totality of the sample. This indicates that participation becomes more likely when the individual lives in such an environment. Especially prominent is the case of opera, where 58% of people who attend live in a provincial capital. An inverse situation is observed for individuals who live in towns with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, where participation in all cases is lower than the sample average of 37%. These two observations suggest a concentration of the offering of elite culture in certain urban environments.
Against this, digital consumption could offer an opportunity to increase the participation of people who, for residence reasons, encounter difficulties in accessing certain cultural contents. Surprisingly, the data show how the tendency observed for physical consumption is reproduced in all manifestations: participation via the Internet shows an over-representation of individuals who reside in a provincial capital and under-representation of those who live in smaller towns. The explanation may derive from the existence of a digital and infrastructures divide that limits access to a suitable Internet connection in the case of rural environments.
4. New barriers to cultural consumption: the digital divide
What types of cultural activities does each social group consume? How does it consume them? Although the above enables the describing of the average consumer for each cultural manifestation, to identify what barriers are relevant we considered the different cultural manifestations and their form of access together. To do this, we classified individuals according to the way in which they participate (physical/digital) and we implemented a statistical model that relates this with personal factors (age, gender, education, etc.). Also, the technique employed enabled identification of the indirect effects that digital participation can have on physical participation, and physical participation on digital. Table 1 groups together the main results, distinguishing between physical and electronic participation.
The first difference observed is age. In both cases, physical and digital participation, we find an impact that is initially positive (the higher the age, the greater the participation) and that, after reaching a maximum peak, starts to decline (the higher the age, the lower the participation). The difference lies in the turning point, which is higher in the case of traditional consumption (47-49 years) than in online consumption (29-35 years). This question could point to a broader generation and consumer habits gap, as well as be connected with the existence of the digital divide, linked to age.
A second difference is the gender gap for physical consumption that disappears with digital consumption. The higher female participation in elite culture has been profusely analysed (see, for example, Christin, 2012) and is usually attributed to early socialisation in the arts and/or differences in the labour market. The disappearance of the gender gap in online participation could hide the existence of a digital gender gap. Observing the different users of the Internet (figure 5), lower female participation is confirmed in the consumption of cultural contents and in their recreational and informational use. The only exception arises in those activities related with the generation of contents (uploading contents, participating in forums, chats and social networks).
In third place, level of education has a positive impact on participation in both physical and digital media. Education can reflect both the set of skills necessary for the correct interpretation and enjoyment of certain manifestations of high culture, and the socioeconomic level.
In fourth place, the situation with respect to the labour market is relevant. It has already been pointed out how unemployment, linked to restrictions affecting the resources of individuals, increases digital and reduces physical consumption. In the same direction, having some kind of disability affects consumption, while being a student increases consumption in both spheres.
In fifth place, the number of people in the household reduces the possibility of participating in both spheres. This could be related either with reduced availability of time, as in the case of parents with children under their care, or with restrictions of income, as in the cases of adult individuals living with their parents.
In sixth place, the spatial distribution of the offering is important for explaining physical consumption. The size of the municipality of residence determines the probability of attendance. Regional differences in consumption are also observed, so that the autonomous community of residence influences the probability of participation, an aspect that can be associated with the geographical concentration of the cultural offering. Surprisingly, these two factors are equally relevant for explaining online consumption, a result that suggests limitations in access to the Internet according to residence.
Finally, it should be pointed out that a tendency is observed towards consuming high culture that underlies all the individuals, independently of the way in which they consume it. This suggests that those 2.6% of individuals who only consume it in digital format could, if the barriers that they face lose relevance, also be physical consumers.
It is difficult to ignore the value that cultural participation has for individuals and society alike. The individual and collective benefits that originate from cultural consumption are sufficient arguments to justify the interest in attracting and incorporating new audiences. Facilitating accessibility to high culture can be, in itself, an instrument of cultural policy that pursues the ultimate goal of increasing its consumption. Cultural democratisation through digital participation can enable the breaking down of barriers that link the consumption of high culture with social status, although it is true (and the evidence proves this) that the link between digital accessibility and consumption has been shown to be more effective in the case of popular culture (mainly music and audiovisual), a sector in which there is less public intervention.
This analysis offers a moderately optimistic view regarding the role played by digital consumption which, although it represents a small percentage compared with more traditional forms of consumption, has enabled the effect of economic barriers to be reduced.
However, in digital participation, other barriers faced by cultural consumers are also reproduced, such as the education-consumption link, and some new ones emerge. The differences found in age and gender, as well as in the reproduction of the geographical pattern of cultural consumption, suggest an imbalance in online cultural consumption that we could assimilate to accessibility and training for the use of digital media, the so-called digital divide. In a certain way, the elimination of this imbalance through policies to increase the digital and technologies incorporation of social groups who are less active in this field should lead to greater participation in all spheres, including in the digital consumption of high culture.
The answer to the question posed at the beginning is, therefore, ambivalent: electronic consumption enables some restrictions to be overcome, while generating new forms of exclusion in consumption. However, it is important to point out that the results do yield a relevant conclusion: decisions on physical or digital cultural consumption are inter-dependent, so individuals who participate in one sphere have increased possibilities of participating in the other, which could, from a dynamic viewpoint, involve the incorporation of new audiences.
Lastly, it should be pointed out that digital consumption could imply costs, mainly those derived from the substitution effect, or a reduction in the consumption of live arts, also known as cannibalisation. Despite this being a possibility, these costs could be compensated by the benefits associated with digital consumption, mainly those derived from sampling, which enables consumers to test and decide whether they find a certain cultural work or manifestation attractive before venturing into its physical consumption, thus reducing the uncertainty and the cost of searching associated with cultural consumption.
ATECA-AMESTOY, V.M., V. GINSBURGH, I. MAZZA, J. O’HAGAN and J. PRIETO-RODRÍGUEZ (eds.) (2017): Enhancing participation in the arts in the EU: challenges and methods, Cham: Springer.
CHRISTIN, A. (2012): "Gender and highbrow cultural participation in the United States", Poetics, 40(5).
FILIMON, N. (2018): "El impacto de la cultura y el ocio en la felicidad de los españoles", Observatorio Social de ”la Caixa”, Dossier 4, enero.
LAREAU, A., and E.M. HORVAT (1999): "Moments of social inclusion and exclusion race, class, and cultural capital in family-school relationships", Sociology of Education, 72(1).
MINISTERIO DE CULTURA Y DEPORTE (2015): Encuesta de hábitos y prácticas culturales 2014-15,
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