National Concert Hall beginning to hit the right notes
From a focus on online sales to attracting a young crowd, the NCH has its sights firmly set on delivering a great show during 2014
AS economic indicators go, the number of people attending classical music concerts is a barometer of the strength of Ireland's recovery. The performance of the National Concert Hall (NCH) is ticking up in line with GDP. Slowly.
"We've done reasonably well in the recession. From the peak in 2008, we're down just 9 per cent. Compare that with retail," according to NCH boss Simon Taylor. "It's a terrific performance and we're creeping back up."
Some 322,000 people attended NCH shows in 2013, making it one of the biggest cultural attractions in the country.
"Support for culture, arts and music tends to get absolutely eviscerated in any downturn," he says.
"Public and private money becomes much tighter. The NCH had to react very decisively to cope with a major cut in revenues when the economy went soggy in 2008. The NCH generated much of its money from in-house productions, RTE and external promoters hiring out the facilities. When the recession hit in 2008, the most noticeable pattern was that external promoters reduced considerably.
"The NCH moved to fill this yawning gap through boosting its own in-house production. Now, of the 320 shows put on each year, about 60 are put together internally.
"At the time of the crash you also had a huge increase in competition, with the opening of the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, the expansion of the O2 and even the new Convention Centre. The total number of seats in Dublin is far higher than it ever was," Taylor notes.
"The space we're in is for people's disposable income, going out to the cinema or out to restaurants, we're competing for that."
The NCH had to reposition itself in order to keep afloat. "Traditionally, we had a solid core audience from when it opened in 1981. In the last couple of years, it has been about broadening that appeal and bringing in new audiences," he said. "It's all about programming."
The NCH is well known for its classical programme from September to May each year. It has reinvigorated its summer slate by flipping that on its head, becoming less classical music-focused with more traditional or popular music.
"That's gone very well. We had close to 50 per cent first-time attendance last summer," Taylor said.
"Our core traditional audience is from the higher socio economic end. It's Dublin, mostly south Dublin. Around 85 per cent of our audience is from the greater Dublin area and it has an age group of over 55 years, which is something that we're trying to change."
The trend towards a younger audience is probably most evident in how the NCH sells tickets. "For 2013, up to 45 per cent of our tickets were online.
"At the moment, we've already sold more now than we did for the whole of 2012. Next year we'll probably hit 50 per cent of sales through the website."
The NCH has also set up a mobile website and has seen a spike of up to 10 per cent of sales carried out on smartphones.
The NCH brings in about €7m per year. It is funded from three sources, a decreasing state grant of €2.3m, show revenues and sponsorship. The state grant has fallen 40 per cent since 2008 and a further drop of 8.5 per cent is flagged for 2014. The drop of €190,000 will hurt.
"We've always managed to deliver a slight surplus but it'll be difficult this year. Next year, with the cut, it'll be even harder."
Taylor believes that there is fundamental change coming in the way culture and the arts are funded. In Europe, it's primarily funded by the taxpayer but in the US there's almost no public money for the arts. There's a global trend of cuts in state backing for the arts, which will force taxpayers and governments to reassess what they want from the arts.
This means that cultural institutions like the NCH are more likely to have to fend for themselves more and more until public finances improve. Around 55 per cent of its revenues are self-generated with 10 per cent from corporate or individual sponsorship.
"Corporate sponsorship is hard. It's a worldwide trend. Corporate is well down. The traditional sponsors were the banks, insurers and private wealth managers. They took a huge hit in the crash and now they don't want to be seen to be doing anything too ostentatious."
The NCH suffered a double whammy with the public sector recruitment embargo hitting its plans to replace its former corporate sponsorship manager.
But Taylor is looking forward to 2014 with some relish as the programme for the year has got some real welly.
"I suppose the hottest property that we have coming is the Chinese pianist Lang Lang. We sold out almost immediately," he says.
As with all of the competing venues, be it rock or opera, it's all about bums on seats.