Paul-Henri Wauters is the director of Le Botanique in Brussels, programming concerts for the venue as well as the much-loved Nuits Botanique festival. He shares with us his career history, his job and all the challenges he’s facing.
What did you do before working at Le Botanique?
I was a teacher. During the first year of my master’s degree in musicology, I started giving flute lessons to twelve-year-old pupils. The following year, I gave two more classes, which also included plastic arts. In addition, I also studied a degree in philosophy at university. Wanting to expand my knowledge, I then studied a two-year post-grad in cultural anthropology at Louvain-la-Neuve. Later, I worked at a minister’s office at the French Community of Belgium, which was in charge of youth and continued education. This was like the university of life, as I learnt how to manage budgets and write speeches, and not only because the ministerial staff had asked me to take managerial training. It was sort of like a high-level école d’administration, or a senior civil service school, as we were dealing with real-life, day-to-day issues.
Is it true that you’re also a classically trained musician?
I wanted to be a professional classical pianist, but a hand injury meant I got behind, forcing me to embark on a musicology degree. I was later able to take up where I left off at the conservatoire, finally earning the Prize Medal of the Belgian government. At the time, I used to go to Le Botanique a lot as a spectator. They were looking for an assistant in music-cinema, so I applied and got the job.
Not having a rock and roll past and coming from a background of classical music has worked in your favour, as it meant you had no preconceptions.
Perhaps. However, I’m forever improving my classical knowledge, as every morning I play piano. It’s what I love doing and I need it — it’s what keeps me grounded, like my ground socket, if you will…. I listened to pop rock more than anyone else, I’m not closed off to different genres and, by necessity, I’m able to recognise pretty fast what I think is interesting or not. It’s just a question of habit…
Does being a musician, as well as having listening capabilities, been an advantage in your career?
What’s interesting about learning classical music is that it helps you develop a good ear for music. It’s a question of music education, which gives you a certain distance and enormous respect. I would never say a group is rubbish. However, I’ve got to be decisive, and say whether I pick them or not depending on Le Botanique’s policy. And I can also get it wrong sometimes …
When it comes to classical music, are you able to appraise renditions of old compositions?
Yes. However for rock music, the question of performance is important when it comes to Le Botanique, because we only put on original shows. But nowadays, many groups and artists do covers, on the basis that a track by late musicians such as Bowie or Prince can be interpreted in a really brilliant way or not. When a musician dies, the question is whether a performer can come up with a unique cover today that still refers back to the original version, as is the case in classical music. This is something that will become increasingly important in the years to come.
How do you explain Le Botanique’s success and what advice would you give to someone who wants to embark on a similar journey or experience?
Patience…. First of all, this is a job where you can’t plan on how much time and energy you’ll invest, and contrary to what many people may think, it can be quite a lonely job when you’re the one making the decisions.
Previously, record sales used to be an indicator of popularity. It’s really difficult to understand what drives the public. I remain convinced that you have to develop everything in this business – except your ego. We’re working with artists who are risk-takers. As concert programmers, we have to ensure that everything runs smoothly — a bit like a butler.
Considering that people no longer buy CDs and record labels now take a commission on gigs, how do you see the business in the future?
There’s always some sort of proselytism. As digitalisation takes over, we must create support and interest. We’ve got to set up camp on live music’s territory. This means making music more easily accessible and making the live experience the best it can possibly be.
But Le Botanque is a venue that possesses such monumental beauty and charm, which we can transform into a musical palace where spectators feel truly at home. Right now, we’re focused on how we can improve the experience on all levels.
So the environment itself plays a part in Le Botanique’s success?
I don’t think so. It’s part of the global experience. We’re the leading producer in the country in terms of output. We even surpass the Ancienne Belgique in production alone, reaching 270 concerts annually for a total of 500 artists.
Do you think Le Botanique’s success is also down to its friendly vibe?
Yes. We clearly demonstrate a desire to maintain a capacity that’s inevitably limited to its walls. You have to consider the dialectic between the object itself and how it’s developed via its image, the record and all the potential developments that technology now makes possible. However, everything that enables us to go back to the original music experience will remain.
The end of the physical record market signals that the record is simply a postcard of the landscape. And at Le Botanique, the landscape entails seeing a show at only eight and a half metres away from the performer and welcoming 600 people into the Orangerie room.
The future is in hosting residencies. Every year, we’ll offer residencies to around 30 different groups that last around a hundred or so days. We also plan on opening the Bota studio where you can capture both image and sound.
What are the criteria for selecting an artist as part of a residency?
The audience, the artist’s context and the authenticity of their work. Also, the development potential that can be felt with certain people. This turns out to be a deep and interesting human experience every time.