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Mishcon Academy: Digital Session – In conversation with Kathryn McDowell, Managing Director of the LSO

Posted on 01 October 2020

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

This live session was held on 14 September 2020.

Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), Kathryn McDowell, spoke with Managing Associate, Suzi Sendama, about how the LSO has coped in lockdown and its plans for the future.

The LSO is widely viewed as one of the leading orchestras in the world, performing approximately 70 concerts per year at its Barbican Centre home in the City of London, as well as touring extensively internationally and participating in numerous recording sessions.

Since becoming Managing Director in 2005, Kathryn has built on the orchestra’s strong artistic reputation, enriching its artistic programme with outstanding artists, including Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director. Kathryn has developed the orchestra's award winning recording label, LSO Live, into the most successful orchestra-owned label in the world and extended its Discovery programme at LSO St Luke’s to become a leader in the field of Education & Community work.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Good afternoon. I’m absolutely thrilled to be joined this afternoon for this Mishcon Academy Digital Session by the brilliant Kathryn McDowell, Managing Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Kathryn is both an eminent musician and business woman. In addition to her role with the LSO, she is the former chair of the Association of British Orchestras and a former trustee of the Royal Philharmonic Society. She was the recipient, in 2017, of the ISM Distinguished Musician Award for her extraordinary services to music as a leading figure in the orchestral sector. She also holds honorary awards from Trinity College, The Royal College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and she was awarded a CBE in the 2011 Queen’s Birthday Honours for Services to Music. It’s quite the CV! The London Symphony Orchestra is widely viewed as one of the leading orchestras in the world, giving around 70 concerts per year at its Barbican Centre home in the city of London, as well as touring extensively internationally and participating in numerous recording sessions. Kathryn, thank you so much for joining us today. Perhaps a good place to start would be if you could tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved with the LSO?

Kathryn McDowell

I was a musician, but I was also very interested in sport and I realised I didn’t want to actually be a musician performer, but I also was passionate about education and I managed to combine those two in my first professional role and it really went from there. But, the LSO had always been my favourite orchestra, really from my teenage years. I managed to hear the LSO live when I was about 19 and I was sold on it from then really.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

I mean, you’re clearly incredibly passionate about music and the arts generally, and this year has obviously been an incredibly difficult year for the arts in particular. How did Coronavirus affect the LSO? How did it impact the LSO specifically?

Kathryn McDowell

I think something happened to the LSO that had never happened to them before in their entire 116 year history. We simply were unable to play. Our entire income streams just dried up. Thankfully, the Arts Council and City of London continued with their grants to the LSO and our private sector partners remained incredibly generous and thanks to Mishcon for that too. But our international work completely stopped. Our commercial work in the studio completely stopped. And we really had to just sit back and think, ‘Well, how can we sustain the musicians?’ and I very quickly realised that the Government schemes would help us with furloughing the staff because they are on PAYE but it would not help us with the majority of the musicians and in fact, over two thirds of our musicians did not get help from the Government’s freelance scheme. So, the LSO simply had to find a way to sustain the orchestra. Since then, you know, we’ve worked very closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to rebuild and to develop the guidance for performing arts coming back to the workplace. I’m delighted to say that we are now back at work and that’s really encouraging for all the musicians and for the staff who are back. Some are still on furlough. Now we’re working on audiences and getting audiences into the workplace but we have a huge rebuilding job for the LSO’s own business plan. We had a lot of work going on with our discovery programme – that’s our education community programme. It moved immediately online and in fact, our whole online offering became the key to getting through the lockdown period.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

From a funding perspective, a financial perspective, the creative sector is obviously incredibly important to the British economy and the Government did pledge – I think it was 1.5 billion – in a rescue plan for the arts. I mean do you think that’s enough and also, will the LSO see any of that money?

Kathryn McDowell

We’ve applied for emergency funding but because we’ve taken very strategic decisions about our finances in recent years, in order to protect for a rainy day, it’s possible that we will struggle to qualify for some of the schemes that are available. Now, I hope that they will make new schemes available as well which is about building audience confidence, so, the equivalent of Eat Out to Help Out in the arts, so that people start to come back to performances. That would also be a very welcome investment. And, I must say, they are listening at the moment you know, they are talking to us about the challenges for instance of international touring, which is such a big part of what the LSO does. But at the moment we can’t get insurance for that. So, could there be a Government-back scheme that helped with that? We were also one of the first organisations in the arts to test our members. But I would like to see that rolled out for every performing group and Government now could back that sort of scheme. And these things, these interventions would really help.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah. I mean in a normal world, a pre-Covid world, how is the LSO funded? Is that mostly donations, Corporate? Are there Government grants?

Kathryn McDowell

Compared to our colleagues, our peer group overseas, it’s a much more mixed-economy model. If you look at the German orchestras for instance, they will receive around 75-80% of public funding. In our case, that public funding is around 20%. So, we have to earn huge tranches of our income. The LSO has a very strong history in philanthropy and in corporate sponsorship. At the same time we earn a great deal of our income from international work and from the commercial studio. So, films and jingles and other things. So, it’s a mixed-economy model. We also now have our own recording label and we earn from that as well. So, licensing, the streaming or selling the downloads, you have to sell an awful lot of them but even so there is an income and so it’s a mixed model.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

You know, you’ve talked about all the, well, you’ve touched on some of the things that the LSO’s been doing in the lockdown. Can you talk us through some of the different ways in which the LSO adapted? You know, at the beginning of the pandemic and some of those digital sessions that you’ve been talking about.

Kathryn McDowell

We set up a new platform called ‘Always Playing’ and we put our archive recordings – audio visual recordings of concerts in the last 10 years out for free every Thursday and every Sunday night, which are the traditional concert nights of the LSO. And we had live chat from the musicians online. And then we supplemented that with little videos from our main conductors, our composers as well. And then we started doing some what we called ‘Coffee Sessions’ and people really responded to this. We started thinking about getting back to live performance. We did some recitals online. One of the amazing things was getting so much of the educational work online…

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Yep.

Kathryn McDowell

…and being able to get teachers to access that. In some cases I think it was almost more successful than the live model and the feedback was superb. So, I think the future will be blended. It’ll be both live and digital.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

You talked briefly then about kind of the LSO’s role in education. I mean, for classical music to not only survive but thrive it, you know, it needs to stay relevant, it needs to stay accessible.  Can you tell us a little bit about what the LSO is doing in terms of its work in education to expose classical music to a younger audience?

Kathryn McDowell

The LSO set up its discovery programme in 1990, so it’s 30 years old this year and initially it was largely work in schools, enabling teachers to approach large-scale music-making in their classrooms with ordinary percussion instruments and singing and other things. But over the years, that schools programme has begun to focus more now on the instrumental side because that has diminished in so many schools and so, we are now, in many cases, encouraging the small music hubs that do exist in Local Authorities and encouraging that instrumental learning and ensuring that young people from – particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds – are able to find their way and learn instruments and perfect their skills. Then we have a major community-based programme as well, working with young people and adults with special needs, working with older people with dementia, working with Early Years where there’s a lot of research that shows that if babies and toddlers are exposed to music at an earlier stage, it really helps their cognitive development. And then also encouraging community-wide music-making and through different forms of music-making that draw people together and encourage that greater social cohesion through music.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

You know, you talk about the need for getting education out. Obviously, the cost of buying instruments, of music lessons makes it pretty prohibitive for some people to access classical music. What do you think can be done to make classical music more accessible?

Kathryn McDowell

Over 10 years ago we set up a strategic partnership with the 10 East London boroughs. The boroughs that were going to be the host and gateway boroughs of the Olympics. And we were determined that those young people would not be overlooked, so we set up a music education programme and at the Olympic games we had a young people’s orchestra that was entirely made up of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in East London, who played on that ‘Green and Pleasant Land’ that Danny Boyle set up. And that was the pinnacle of our work across those four years. So, the 100 young people that were on the pitch were actually representing something  more like 10,000 who’d been working with us in the previous years. And we’ve gone on to develop that work. And I think a lot of the music organisations across the UK that are involved in music education work do focus their resources on this type of group. It’s not to say that we’re ignoring others but others have more opportunity.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Absolutely

Kathryn McDowell

We know that their parents will bring them to events that the LSO organises or to concerts. So, we focus the majority of our work on those that would be unlikely to reach us by another means.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Staying on the subject of diversity, male musicians, female musicians, I mean, in terms of those in the profession, is there a pretty even split or is there work to be done from that perspective?

Kathryn McDowell

In terms of gender diversity, things have improved immensely. In the case of the LSO we’re at about 45% female. In terms of our staff, it’s almost slipped the other way, you know, we are probably at 90% female within our heads of department. So, you know I think on the gender side it’s quite a good record now. On the broader areas of diversity and in terms of race I think there are certain culturally diverse backgrounds that are more challenging in music than perhaps in other fields and we have to work on that.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Yep. Returning back a bit to our conversation in relation to the current pandemic, it’s obviously a really interesting time for the arts. In terms of kind of innovating and thinking about the longer-term impacts of this year, can you give us your predictions for the future of the LSO?

Kathryn McDowell

Well, of course I hope that the future of the LSO is brilliantly successful. That we will resume our international activities, albeit maybe on a different pattern, a little bit less would not be a bad thing. But I just want to bring the thrill of live orchestral music-making to the widest possible audience and to support that worldwide through the digital programme.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

I’m conscious of time and I know that you’ve got a meeting straight after this so I don’t want to keep you too long. But I just wanted to say, thank you so much for giving us your time today because I have found this incredibly interesting. We’ve touched on a number of topics and I’m sure everyone who’s been watching has really enjoyed it too. So, thank you very much from me and from Mishcon.

Kathryn McDowell

Well thank you to you and I hope it won’t be too long before we can all meet together and hear live music together.

Suzi Sendama, Managing Associate, Mishcon de Reya

Absolutely, thank you so much Kathryn and thank you to everyone for joining in to this afternoon’s Digital Academy Session.  Thank you.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit Mishcon.com

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