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On the back of receiving an OBE in the New Year Honours List, Royal Albert Hall CEO James Ainscough tells Access about his mission to make the venue a force for good in the music industry.

What was the first concert you went to and did it have a lasting impact?

I was aged five. It was a show by Atarah at Leeds Town Hall, I had never been anywhere as big in my life because I was brought up in a small Yorkshire town called Settle. It was a kids’ show involving classical instruments, electric guitar,  bass and drums. She told stories through the music, you got to hear all these different instruments and join in as part of the audience. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘I want to do that, I want to create fun music that everybody loves’. There was a great sense of joyfulness, of being in live music, and that show certainly led me to learn lots of instruments as a kid, including cello and bass guitar. I spent most of my childhood making music.

What led you to join the Royal Albert Hall for your first stint back in 2008?

One of my deep dark secrets is that I used to be an accountant. I always knew I wasn’t a good enough musician to be a pro so I did economics at Uni, and trained as an accountant. I realised that the only way to make accountancy interesting is if the company you work for does something that you care about, and so as soon as I qualified, I got myself an accountancy job at Warner Music. Then the finance director job at the Royal Albert Hall came up and I thought ‘that’s my dream gig’. I think the Royal Albert Hall is the pinnacle of live entertainment, not least become it is home to this remarkable breadth of music.

Once I got there, I realised there are so many other things that are great about the Hall. It’s run by a charity, but it doesn’t get funding, so it operates very commercially ­– there is this beautiful balance of purpose and commerciality. The working culture is incredible, there is a sense of fun coupled with real passion and hard work.

“Music is joy, unity and peace, and you would think the music industry ought to look like that.”

As CEO of Help Musicians you oversaw the distribution of £20m of financial hardship funding. What lasting impact did the role have on you?

It was a massive privilege to be able to work for a charity like that in such a horrific moment, in a pandemic. If I think of all the miserable times that friends and colleagues had in the pandemic, I was so lucky to have purpose, even though it was completely exhausting.

At the Royal Albert Hall we had a saying, ‘if you put the right things on the stage, everything else works’. What Help Musicians did in the pandemic was put the right things on the stage. We had this array of work that we did pre-pandemic, and as soon as the pandemic hit, we focused on the one thing every musician needed, which was financial support. We transitioned in the second half of the pandemic to focus a lot more mental health.

If there’s one thing you could change overnight in the live events industry, what would it be?

As a positive statement, rather than anything that’s critical of people, there is significant power imbalance within the music industry as a whole. Freelance musicians don’t earn enough and they pursue a precarious career, while execs like me have a relatively significant amount of security. Grassroots venues really struggle, particularly at the moment, while women and minority groups are often left behind and working culture doesn’t always offer enough protection from bullying and harassment. There’s plenty of brilliant, positive, role models and positive examples but all those things are issues. It’s all about power imbalance. It’s all about a large group of people with very little say and a small number of people who can wield a level of influence they shouldn’t have. The outcomes of that power imbalance are completely opposite of what music should be. Music is this positive force in the world that brings people together from all backgrounds. Music is joy, unity and peace, and you would think the music industry ought to look like that. If I could change anything, I’d fix the power imbalances.

Now you are back at The Royal Albert Hall working as CEO, what is your number one priority?

The Hall creates these amazing events and we do that in partnership with all sorts of artists, promoters and others. The big question is, do we create those for everyone or do a lot of people in London and in the UK look at Hall and think that we don’t have anything for them?

So, we’re already on a mission to make sure that everyone in this country feels that the Royal Albert Hall has something to offer them. Looking at the performance history over the last three or four months, we’ve had RAYE, Loyle Carner, Digga D and Esra Collective; acts who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be on the Royal Albert Hall stage. I’m pushing for that diversity of artists, and I think inevitably that means a greater diversity of audience and that can only be a good thing for the Hall. Underpinning all that is, is a strong desire of mine for the Hall to be a force for good within music industry.

What’s your favourite way to unwind?

I go home and play the piano. It’s very therapeutic. Let’s be honest, I play badly, I don’t go home and give concert-level performances to my wife and children but just hammering the keys gets it out the system and releases all sorts of endorphins and makes me feel great.