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Older and wiser: Ancienne Belgique turns 40

21:58 14/09/2019
One of Brussels’ favourite concert halls celebrates its 40th birthday this month – but the AB has in fact been around much longer

story might be apocryphal, but it’s readily told in Flemish circles in Brussels. At the end of the 1970s, Flanders and the French Community had to divide some assets between them. The Ancienne Belgique, a dilapidated concert hall in the heart of the capital, surrounded by private homes. And the former botanical garden at the edge of the city centre, known as Le Botanique

Botanique was a splendid building with an enormous garden, dating from the early 19th century. But it was dilapidated, too, and the restoration would cost multiple times that of the Ancienne Belgique.

Flemish politicians, it is said, had their eye on the former, but they conceived the cunning plan to let it look like they desperately wanted the Botanique, hoping the Francophones would overrule them and leave the Flemings the Ancienne Belgique.

And that’s exactly what happened. In 1979 the Ancienne Belgique (AB) reopened.

The 'new' AB

It had been a music hall with that name since 1931. It was the spot where, for instance, Jacques Brel made his debut. But by the end of the 1960s, the decline was unmissable.

The celebration of the Ancienne Belgique’s 40th birthday this year – with a series of concerts dubbed AB40 – is of course that of the “new” AB. During those four decades, it has become one of the key venues for rock and pop music – in the broadest sense of the word – in all of Europe.

The main hall holds 2,000 people, while the intimate Club space has room for just 280 melomaniacs. The rooms serve a different function, explains Dirk De Clippeleir, who became AB’s general director in 2011.

“A sold out concert in the main hall delivers a profit, whereas” – he waves in the direction of the De Munt – “a sold out opera performance is still not-profitable. The main hall is our economic motor. We get an annual subsidy of €2 million from Flanders, but that covers only 20% of our budget.”

While Flanders expects to see a fair amount of local artists on the stages of AB, there are no quotas. “More than 40% of our concerts are local artists anyway,” explains De Clippeleir. “We also offer a platform to artists whose lyrics are in Dutch. Where else in Brussels could Bart Peeters or Kommil Foo play?”

With the money generated by the main hall, the AB can invest in new projects, like the BRDCST festival or the shows in the Club, which flat out lose money. “We have about 120 clubs shows each year. It’s a place to support young and up-and-coming talent. It’s a matter of principle to pay the artists a decent fee and to keep the ticket prices low.”

When you talk to concert-goers in Brussels, they often complain that tickets have become a lot more expensive in the last decade. De Clippeleir: “Not at the AB. The average ticket price in the main hall is €25 or €26, whereas a decade ago it was €23. So that’s an increase of only 10%.”

There are exceptions. Last year Beck played the AB, and, to break even, the ticket price had to be set at €55. “We has seriously discussions before scheduling this concert,” reveals De Clippeleir. “Beck is an artist who generally plays huge concert halls. Seeing him in the AB is a gift to his fans. They are willing to pay €55, so who are we to prevent them doing so.”

The more expensive ticket prices are usually attached to more classic artists who attract an older audience. “Hip hop concerts are always rather inexpensive, like €18. For young people that’s already perceived as a lot.”

I want it all, and I want it free

He also doesn’t agree with the notion that millennials are more willing to part with money for concerts than for music. “For them, music is like water. One twist of the tap, and it streams freely, for very little money. That’s why €18 for a concert feels expensive to them.”

It’s a constant preoccupation among the AB crew: How can they continue to reach out to young music fans? “They don’t mind spending a lot of money on festivals like Tomorrowland or Pukkelpop, but then they are buying more than music: a weekend out with friends. They perceive music differently than the previous generations.”

“Experience” is a buzzword, but that’s not so easy to sell in a rock and pop hall. “We do our best with small interventions,” says De Clippeleir. “But maybe we’ve become a somewhat old-fashioned format: You pay to attend a concert during for 90 minutes, and you’re not able to do anything else.”

That sounds like an ominous message. “I wouldn’t go that far,” he says, “because our attendance figures are still excellent.”

Last year AB sold 314,621 ticket to nearly 500 events. It was a record number in its venerable history. Last month the institution announced a renovation, complete with a new restaurant and rooftop terrace.

“But in the long run,” he says, “looking ahead 10 or 20 years, we have to come up with new formats. This autumn we are launching a series of concerts in churches, for instance. On Car-Free Sunday, we’ll host concerts on the street. But I’m not convinced that we have already found the perfect setup.”

AB40 kicks off on 21 September with a free night of concerts, curated by Deewee studio and Stroom record label. Every AB40 concert night is curated by a special guest

Photos: Famed DJ Lefto (top) curates AB40 on 13 October; the dudes of Deewee and Stroom (above) on 21 September
©Courtesy AB

Written by Christophe Verbiest (Flanders Today)