Thursday 22 August 2019

The cultural virtuoso ensuring a national treasure strikes a chord

IN PERSON

Simon Taylor

CEO

National Concert Hall

‘You are constantly weighing up the commercial side with your remit as a national concert institution’: Simon Taylor, CEO of the National Concert Hall. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
‘You are constantly weighing up the commercial side with your remit as a national concert institution’: Simon Taylor, CEO of the National Concert Hall. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

YOU would expect audiences at the National Concert Hall to be a very different breed to pop and rock festival-goers, but that's not the view of Simon Taylor.

The chief executive of the National Concert Hall (NCH) believes that arts and music festivals like Electric Picnic are "competition", explaining: "One might think that the summer festivals are not direct competition with us, but they do suck money out of the economy.

"If you are looking to spend money to go down to Electric Picnic or perhaps, in our case, if your kids are looking to go to Electric Picnic, then you are saying, 'well, maybe I can't afford to be going to as many concerts myself'."

With more live music events taking place around the country, in particular during the summer, people give greater thought to their spending on live performances. "We have to be mindful about what's happening in the cultural and musical environment," Mr Taylor says, as the faraway sounds of classical music provide a pleasant backdrop to our interview.

That said, the Concert Hall, which dates back to 1865, when it was built to host the Great Exhibition, has a lot of devoted customers.

He adds: "The core orchestra and classical music audience is incredibly loyal, and you have people who come with extraordinary regularity, but the typical audience member is probably coming three to four times a year, and they will pick and choose what they want."

While the NCH benefits from being a statutory body - a status it was elevated to three years ago - Mr Taylor, a trained classical guitarist, says the day-to-day running of the building is similar to running a small business. He notes: "This is really an SME (small to medium-sized enterprise). It's only 42 full-time employees, although we have another 70 part-time, which would be front-of-house staff, box office, etc, that are employed depending on how busy the venue is."

The business is made up of three strands. It has its own programme, events with two RTÉ orchestras, and a private hire business, where productions can range from an amateur choral society and music education institutes to the big commercial promoters. All in all, it works out at more than 1,000 events per year.

In becoming a statutory body, the organisation has more secure funding, but this designation brings with it further regulations.

"We fall more directly under the code of governance for State bodies, which is pretty onerous, but is obviously a very necessary thing," Mr Taylor says, referring to the economic crash in the wider economy.

"I suppose because of the things that went awry coming up to 2008, where people are very aware that perhaps the eye was taken off the ball generally on things like corporate governance, we are very rigorous on that, which is very good but becomes quite a time-consuming part of a role like this."

To assist him, Mr Taylor has a senior management team of six people divided across finance, operations, marketing, programmes, learning and participation, and fundraising. Around one third of the NCH's funding comes from the State, with approximately 70pc of its operating budget being self-earning, something that Taylor says would be quite high for a national cultural institution.

"Unlike, say, the National Gallery, we are not free admission; the biggest part of our business is selling tickets. We have in the main auditorium over 300,000 ticket sales per year," he says.

On the back of this, the NCH has to keep an eye on the commercial side of the business, ensuring that its sales remain strong. "I think even over the past couple of years, you see quite a lot of changing trends [in ticket sales]," says Mr Taylor.

"One of the things we are most conscious of, particularly at this time of year, is the vast amount of competition there is for people's spending on music.

"If you look at selling upwards of 300,000 tickets per year, even a swing of 5pc either way can have a big impact on your bottom line."

This means paying meticulous attention to the NCH's programme choices: "[Here] you are looking at several things; the artistic quality, the cultural value, the appeal of the artistic. If it's an independent promoter coming into the venue, you are looking at what their track record is, in terms of promoting."

He adds: "So you are constantly weighing up the commercial side of things with your remit as a national concert institution, and it is a fine balancing act. I'd like to think we get it right most of the time."

Taylor continues: "It's difficult to introduce new artists, and when you are booking an orchestra maybe two years in advance and trying to think, 'what might be happening at that time of year, and what might occur that we can't foresee?'.

"But you can't factor everything in; you are booking something and you are taking a gamble, a very informed gamble that a certain night of the year a certain number of people will want to come and hear a particular thing, and it's not an exact science, unfortunately."

The main expenditure in running the NCH, he says, is labour.

"Then we put a significant amount of money into the programme, in particular into doing things other venues can't do. We often ask ourselves, 'why do we get the subsidy that we do?'. And the answer to that is provision.

"It is to put on things like international orchestras that, on purely economic terms, simply don't stack up, but yet there is an expectation that a national concert hall will have major international artists coming through," Taylor says.

Public liability insurance "for a place like this is significant, but I wouldn't say that we have seen a huge upswing in it", he says. "Inevitably, these costs go up, but it wouldn't be one of our major anxieties."

By the end of this year, the NCH will be submitting planning permission for a €78m redevelopment, which will see the main auditorium close for around two years. Plans to develop the site, which will increase the capacity of the auditorium from 1,200 to 1,350 seats, have been in train since the mid-2000s.

But Mr Taylor's ambitions do not stop there. "What we would really like to achieve in the medium to long term is a second auditorium," he says.

"We desperately need a venue of 500-600 seats for the artist development side of things."

Redeveloping a building of such historic significance is a risky business. Will patrons be happy with the work? Is a facelift going to respect the history that has gone before it? And that is before the stress of having to get the project delivered on time and on budget.

One suspects, though, that under Mr Taylor's calm guidance, the redevelopment of this national treasure will result in something of an ovation.

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