Royal Albert Hall 150th Year Special: The Crown Jewel, A London Landmark Turns 50

– Royal Albert Hall

There has to be a reason the Royal Albert Hall still looks this good after 150 years. Constant investment to not only maintain the Grade I listed building, but to keep it state-of-the-art, is one reason, but there’s more to it. An ineffable aura surrounds the Hall. You can’t see it, but you can feel it. Everyone who walks inside, from audiences to artists to crews, says the same thing: they’re in utter awe.

While many features make the Royal Albert Hall, among the world’s most iconic buildings, stand out, CAA’s Emma Banks believes its prestige may have to do with the fact that it was built out of love – literally.
When Queen Victoria of England laid the foundation stone in 1867, she dedicated the building to her late husband, Prince Albert, who had passed away six years earlier. “It is my wish that this Hall should bear his name to whom it will have owed its existence and be called The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences,” she was recorded saying.

“Most venues are built for commercial reasons,” Banks says. “They’re not built as a monument to somebody by someone who really loved you.”

– Cover of Pollstar for March 15, 2021

Today, the foundation stone rests beneath K stalls, row 11, seat 87 in the main auditorium. The Queen was rarely seen in public after the stone was laid, but made a rare appearance at the Hall’s opening ceremony on March 29, 1871, where she was too overcome with emotion to speak.

What would Queen Victoria have said that day if someone had told her that over the course of the next 150 years, the Royal Albert Hall would develop into one of the most important centers for culture, education and charity the world has ever seen? Would she have considered the Chelsea Arts Club Balls that took place throughout the 20th century scandalous? How would she have reacted to the rock and roll crowd that stormed the building when the Rolling Stones and the Beatles shared a stage for the first time at The Great Pop Prom of 1963? Only one thing seems certain: with the variety of events the Royal Albert Hall puts on each year, there’s bound to be something for everybody – and, judging by her current majesty’s regular visits, even for a Queen of England.

“I think that speaks to the venue,” says UK industry veteran promoter and manager Paul Crockford. “One day you can have a boxing match in it, the next day it can be Bill Bailey’s Guide to the Orchestra, the next day can be Eric Clapton, the next day you can run into five shows with the Teenage Cancer Trust, then it’s Swan Lake and then you’ve got three weeks of Cirque du Soleil. It’s just incredibly versatile as well as being unique.”
And, Crockford adds, “Everybody uses the word ‘unique,’ rather they throw it around, but there is no other venue like it in the world. I wish there was. I would be happy to say it stands head and shoulders above every other building in the world.”

Mark Knopfler, one of Crockford’s clients, would happily play Albert Hall-style venues anywhere in the world.
“He loves that,” Crockford explains. “The enveloping of the circular, especially when you’re selling seats behind in the choir stalls, it’s a really unusual experience. It’s a bit like playing in the round without playing in the round.”

Crockford knows what he’s talking about. He’s been at the Hall as a fan, a promoter and an artist manager.

“And I’ve actually been on stage, because when Mark Knopfler tours, I introduce the band,” he says. “To be able to walk out on the Albert Hall stage in front of 4,000 people is such a buzz. It gave me a real insight into what it must be like if people are there to see you, the adrenaline rush you get as a performer. It must be mind boggling.”

Knopfler is a regular at the Hall. His last two performances there, according to Pollstar box office data, took place May 21-22, 2019, selling out all available 8,837 tickets and grossing $807,742. His highest Hall box office report in Pollstar’s records – and second-highest of his career at any venue – dates back to 2013, when he played a six-show residency from May 27 to June 1, selling out 26,710 tickets and bringing in $1.7 million.
“It’s hard to make money at the Hall, the Albert Hall is expensive to run,” Crockford says. “It’s different if you’re Mark Knopfler or Eric Clapton, if you’re charging 150 quid (USD $210) a ticket. But if you’re a more modest artist and you’re charging your fans 40 or 50 or whatever, it’s hard to make money. So, it becomes an emotional play, a bucket list show.”

– In The Round
Fans enter the Royal Albert Hall’s main auditorium.

But people don’t really mind, according to Crockford. “It is a very glamorous venue, it does have a premium cache,” he says. “I’m finding that people will pay more to go there. It must be one of the few venues in the world where, if people have a choice between going there and anywhere else, they’ll vote with their feet and wallets to go to the Hall, because it’s such a special experience.”

Crockford is a huge fan of The Who, and has seen the band perform the Hall several times. “That’s an amazing experience, because normally when you’re going to see them you’re sat in the back of a stadium, hoping that they’ll play really, really loud,” he says. “But in the Albert Hall that’s never an issue. I absolutely loved every show.”

“There’s nowhere more special than the Royal Albert Hall,” Who singer Roger Daltrey tells Pollstar. “It’s the equivalent in popular music to what the Vienna Opera House is to opera.” Standing on stage at the Hall is “a sight that you will never forget for all of your life. It’s the most exhilarating visual you’ll ever have, it’s fabulous. And there’s something about the way the Albert Hall is designed. Alright, it’s 6,000 people, but it almost feels like they’re in your front room, it’s so intimate. And it creates a very special atmosphere, because of that. What we see from the stage is magical. But I know that when you’re in the boxes or in in the stall seats, when you light the audience in there, all having a good time, it is an exhilarating human experience.”
Daltrey is the patron and driving force behind the UK’s Teenage Cancer Trust, which has staged concerts at the Royal Albert Hall since 2000.

“Myself, most pop and rock musicians and, in fact, everyone in that industry, they basically owe their careers, and their jobs, to the support of teenagers, and young adults,” Daltrey says. Yet “it’s still very difficult to raise money for that age group. I find that very frustrating. I don’t know what it is about teenagers. People seem to throw money at children with cancer, but as soon as they get to around 13, 14, 15, 16 – in other words, start to look like adults – it gets much more difficult to raise money. People, for some reason or the other, don’t feel as sorry for teenagers.”

When Daltrey started the Teenage Cancer Trust shows 21 years ago, he knew he had to build a recognizable brand, and the only place he was sure would help him do that was the Royal Albert Hall.

“I had to do it somewhere that was special,” he recalls. “When you ask an artist, especially young artists, ‘Will you do a charity show,’ most of them will say, ‘Well, what’s the charity?’ You tell them, ‘It’s the Teenage Cancer Trust,’ and they say yes, because they know that the Teenage Cancer Trust shows are going to be held at the Royal Albert Hall. They just want to play it because it’s a legendary venue.”

– Rolling In The Deep
Adele plays the Hall, Sept. 22, 2011.

Since the first Teenage Cancer Trust gig at the Hall in 2000, it has raised £30 million ($42 million) in ticket sales. After shows, even more pours in.

“We’ve had checks for half-a-million pounds come through because someone was at a show and they realized what we were trying to do, and their foundation had a lot of money, and they wanted to give it to us,” Daltrey says. “Before the Albert Hall shows, very few people were actually aware of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Everyone’s aware of it now. In Britain, its profile is enormous. The Albert Hall has been crucial to what we have achieved, and it’s been a joy to work with them as a charity.”

The Teenage Cancer Trust isn’t the only charity that the Royal Albert Hall, itself a charity, works with. Nordoff Robbins, a UK charity specializing in music therapy, is another, complementing the Hall’s robust education and outreach programs.

Another longtime partner, though not a charity, is Canadian entertainment powerhouse Cirque du Soleil, which traditionally stages a residency at the Royal Albert Hall in January. Luc Boucher, the senior director of sales and marketing in Cirque du Soleil’s touring shows division, is confident the run of performances “will happen again in January 2022.” The company traditionally tours Europe with its own big top, making sure to set up downtown in every city it visits – not an easy task, given that densely developed European cities often make finding level ground and accessing utilities difficult.
“Saltimbanco in 1996 was the first time we explored setting up in the Hall,” Boucher says. “The only reason we were able to do that is the Hall itself: the way it’s structured, the round shape, allowed us to have access to a grid and be able to do aerial performances and such. It was a technical feat, not easy, but over the now 25 years we brought ten different shows, including some repeats. Since 2003, I believe, we’ve been there constantly, every January, as a resident show for almost seven weeks. We hope to stay longer. I’ll have that chat with [Royal Albert Hall artistic and commercial director] Lucy Noble.”

Since Saltimbanco, Cirque du Soleil shows have sold over 3.5 million tickets at the Hall. Since 2016, the January residence is shared with the BAFTA Awards, meaning that for one day, over 24 hours, the Hall’s stage transforms from a Cirque du Soleil show to a BAFTA celebration and back.

“It’s phenomenal,” Boucher says. “On top of that, we were able to contribute creatively to the BAFTAs. It was absolutely a win-win situation. It goes to show how strong the relationship with the Hall is.”

A Cirque performance can’t take place in any theater, because setup requires a strong grid to support aerial performances. Arenas usually provide such a grid in the middle, and so does the Hall.
“It’s one of the only venues in this industry in which we could go from a big top setup to a venue setup,” Boucher says.
What’s more, the building’s historic decor usually becomes part of Cirque du Soleil sets. According to Boucher, “some of the best shots we took of our shows are from the Hall. From an artist point of view, the Hall adds a different layer. They are used to performing in the big top, which is 2,500 to 2,600 seats, round shape, extremely traditional, a tent and a canvas, it’s home. The Hall is grandiose. When we start creating a show in Montreal, they’re counting the days until we next perform at the Hall.

“I’ve been with Cirque for 22 years,” continues Boucher, praising the team. “I started to get involved in this relationship personally in 2009. I saw different CEOs run the building, but the one thing I can tell you is the culture itself didn’t change. When we sit down with the Royal Albert Hall every year to prepare for the following engagement, it is really a partnership approach. They are great people to work with, who are extremely aware of your needs. Together we’ve built an extremely faithful and engaged audience in London over the years.”

– Cirque du Soleil
Cirque du Soleil – OVO at the Royal Albert Hall, Jan. 17, 2018. The Canadian entertainment powerhouse is one of the Hall’s long-standing partners.

The current team is led by Noble and CEO Craig Hassall (see page 28). According to Toby Leighton-Pope, co-CEO of AEG Presents in the UK, Hassall’s input into the building has brought “a new lease on life, fun, color. It’s been welcomed by the industry, I’m a big fan of Craig, really like him. And I love Lucy, she’s a dear friend, and I think she’s an amazing operator.”

Leighton-Pope remembers first setting foot inside the Hall as a kid, accompanying his father to a boxing match.

“I don’t know who was fighting, but I did get Frank Bruno’s autograph, he was in the audience,” he says. “He’s a famous English boxer from the ‘80s. I must have been, 11, 9, 10, something like that.”

Leighton-Pope’s first concert experience was Eric Clapton, the artist with the highest box office revenues in Hall history, according to Pollstar records. “My brother and I thought it was really boring. So, we played football outside the box,” he recalls.

Since then, he’s been back with his own artists many times, from Crowded House to Dixie Chicks to Van Morrisson to McFly. The latter launched a supergroup with another famous English band, Busted, during a three-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall.
“Halfway through the McFly show, they dropped a drape and a digital screen turned up,” Leighton-Pope says. “It said ‘McFly,’ and then it said ‘Busted.’ And then it said ‘McBusted.’ The members of Busted came out, and we built this band called McBusted. On the back of those three nights at the Hall, we then did 35 arenas and sold 300,000 tickets in the UK as McBusted, and it was the biggest tour of that year.”

Leighton-Pope says the Hall is “one of the most renowned, most prestigious buildings in the world, like Sydney Opera House, like Carnegie Hall. There aren’t many of these rooms that are globally known. So, to have the opportunity to produce an event, to put on a concert at the Albert Hall has to be every promoter’s dream.”