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Why the Royal Albert Hall is changing tune

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 16 Apr 2024

ICAEW member James Ainscough, CEO of the Royal Albert Hall, explains how attracting the next generation of concertgoers is key to the delivery of its post-pandemic business plan.

For an institution perhaps more associated with pomp and circumstance than drum and bass, James Ainscough is on a mission to tackle misconceptions about one of Britain’s most iconic music venues.

As part of the Royal Albert Hall’s post-COVID-19 business model, his ambition is to reach even wider audiences and dispel some of the myths about the kind of gigs visitors can enjoy at the iconic building in London’s South Kensington.

Ainscough, who stepped into the CEO hotseat in May, is no stranger to the comings and goings of the venue; the ACA-qualified accountant worked at the Royal Albert Hall between 2008 and 2017, initially as Director of Finance and Administration and then as Chief Operating Officer, overseeing strategic and day-to-day artistic and commercial operations. 

Since the Royal Albert Hall opened in 1871 with a broad remit to advance arts and science, many of the world’s leading figures in music, dance, sport and politics have graced its stage. But as live music venues continue to rebuild post-pandemic, Ainscough’s return to the Hall is far from business as usual, he says. “The pandemic decimated the live sector and left us with no reserves. In some ways, we’re starting again with the business model.”

Indeed, the Music Venue Trust’s most recent annual report paints a worrying picture about the state of the sector, warning that in 2023 an average of two of the UK’s live music venues were shutting their doors every week. Fortunately, the Royal Albert Hall is bucking that trend. “The audiences are back, the atmosphere has returned, the artists want to play,” Ainscough says. 

The strategy isn’t simply about filling seats but broadening the Hall’s appeal – both to concertgoers and the artists gracing its stages. “Our ambition is that every single person in the UK could picture themselves coming to a concert here,” Ainscough adds.

Beyond the Proms

Ainscough admits that perceptions of the Hall being the preserve of the wealthy and privileged are reinforced by two of its highest-profile events – the Last Night of the Proms and the Festival of Remembrance. “They are amazing events and we adore hosting them. There are a lot of Union Jacks being waved and without diminishing that, we want to be known for other things too.”

The Hall has to keep adapting to new music, new tastes, new modes, he says. “It’s about how we reach out to other artists and offer our stage to them. And how we use those moments to project right across the nation.” 

That ambition to draw in exciting new talent is already paying dividends. Last Autumn singer-songwriter Raye, who swept the board at the recent Brit awards, played a sell-out one-off gig, broadcast on BBC 1 over Christmas. On May 16, Grammy-nominated composer, singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Laufey will perform. “It's about ensuring those moments make a difference to how people see us and how people understand that the Hall is their home too.” 

As part of that transformation, Ainscough is putting together a 15-year estate plan to transform the structure – more than 150 years old and affectionately known as the nation’s village hall – into a venue fit for the 21st century. 

365 shows a year

“There are so many things you could do better with the building. For example, we’ve got a second performance space, currently called the Elgar Room. Soundproofing means that instead of running 10s of shows a year, we could run 365. But it also means we can nurture talent better and host different styles of music that don’t usually sell out the main auditorium. Although the work is bricks and mortar, the impact is people and changing lives.” 

The cost of the refurbishment plan will run to hundreds of millions of pounds. A major capital fundraising campaign is due to be launched this year, “but to use a hackneyed expression, it’s a crowded marketplace for fundraising,” Ainscough says. “It means we also have to be commercial in how we approach putting on a show. But everything we generate gets ploughed back into furthering our charitable activity.”

The Hall’s wider public benefit work is in its DNA. It covers an Engagement programme, close liaison with charities and charity events, performances at day centres and hospices, free music, exhibitions, tea dances for OAPs to dementia-friendly concerts and music therapy sessions. 

The Hall is also a partner of the Tri-Borough Music Hub, which provides music education in schools across Kensington and Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham and the City of Westminster. Some of London’s most deprived areas fall into the catchment, including North Kensington – home of the infamous Grenfell Tower.

“For us to be able to support work in schools where a very high proportion of kids have free school meals is a brilliant thing to do. Giving musical experiences to those who would otherwise be unable to access them – including the opportunity for young musicians to perform on the Royal Albert Hall stage – shows them that they belong at the Hall just as much as someone who can afford an expensive ticket in one of the boxes.” 

Life-changing experience

Rhys Herbert is a case in point. Aged 12, the experience of performing on that stage at a schools’ event was to prove a seminal moment. Now aged 23, and a professional musician under the moniker Digga D, he headlined the Royal Albert Hall’s first ever drill rap gig last autumn. 

Although ticket sales and satisfaction surveys give some sense of the success of individual events, the lifelong impact of a musical experience is a much harder thing to gauge. That said, “You can’t run any organisation unless you understand figures, whether it’s KPIs, or social media viewing stats, or the finances themselves,” says Ainscough.

A keen amateur musician, Ainscough says he’s incredibly lucky to have forged a career that has allowed him to indulge his love of music. “As a child I learned piano and cello classically. And growing up in Yorkshire, I learned cornet so I could play in a brass band. And then I learned the bass guitar, because it turned out that piano, cello and cornet didn’t turn girls’ heads.” 

After qualifying as an accountant with Arthur Andersen in 1999, Ainscough worked up the financial ranks to financial controller of Warner Music Group, which at the time boasted huge musical stars including Madonna, REM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “To be clear, I didn’t meet any of them,” he jokes. 

By the early noughties, digital formats were already wreaking havoc with established music industry business models. “The industry didn’t know how to respond to Napster and iTunes. The people leading the organisation loved vinyl so they couldn’t compute a world that was digital. It was fascinating, I learned so much.” 

Hardship help

After his first stint at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2017 Ainscough became CEO of Help Musicians, a charity to support professional musicians in times of hardship. And then, the pandemic hit.

With 40% of musicians ineligible for any form of government financial support, the charity not only raised and distributed £20m of financial hardship funding to 20,000 musicians, but also provided a multimillion-pound career-rebuilding support programme, and launched Music Minds Matter to provide mental health care for the entire music industry.

“For musicians, it’s not just about losing a job, it’s about losing your identity. You don’t work as a musician, you are a musician.” His enormous achievements led to him receiving an OBE in this year’s New Year Honours List.

Similarly, the Royal Albert Hall is much more than a concert venue, it represents a force for good. “People look at the Royal Albert Hall and think that it represents the best of this country, a place that brings people together and creates breathtaking moments and lasting memories. In the 1910s the Hall played host to suffrage rallies and was a progressive force. I think there’s a lot more we can do in the coming years to be that again in a way that unites people for great causes.”

In the meantime, access to Hall gigs is definitely one of the perks of the job. And now he’s CEO of a world-famous music venue, he might finally get to meet some of the A-listers gracing the main auditorium. “Possibly,” Ainscough says, “but I think I’m better behind the scenes.”

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