Veteran UK Promoter Talks Pulling Sonisphere, Crowded Fest Market, Selling Out with Ed Sheeran

Courtesy of Kilimanjaro Live
Stuart Galbraith

On January 16, a statement was posted on the Sonisphere website announcing that the popular U.K. heavy metal festival "will not take place in the U.K. in 2015," as organizers had been unable to secure a "line-up that we felt was good enough."

"Unfortunately our last irons in the fire have just been extinguished and it's clear that we won't be in a position to run the event this year," the statement went on to say.

Speaking exclusively to Billboard, Stuart Galbraith, founder and CEO of Sonisphere promoters Kilimanjaro Live, explains his reasons for pulling the U.K. festival and why it will return stronger than ever.
 
Billboard: What was key factor in deciding not to run Sonisphere in the United Kingdom this year? 

Stuart Galbraith: From the very start we said that we would only run Sonisphere when we felt that we could deliver a quality product. It is therefore not necessarily going to be a festival that is going to run every year. After not running in 2012 and 2013 we were very, very pleased with last year's event at Knebworth, where we had our biggest and most successful year to date in the U.K. But it has always been the case that Sonisphere will only take place at Knebworth when we feel that we can put together a bill that we're proud of, and that delivers quality to the customer.

How advanced were plans for this year's event before you made the decision to pull it? 

From July last year, even before the festival had taken place, we were discussing potential headliners and those conversations continued for six months. We had one last opportunity where we had a headliner that we felt would make sense. That fell through in the very first few days of January, which is why we then made the decision that we were not going to run this year.

Although the festival will not be staged in the U.K. this year, 60,000-capacity one-day Sonisphere festivals will be held in Switzerland and Italy. Has the U.K. festival market become oversaturated?

I wouldn't say so, but in the U.K. there are many more options for acts to play. More so than, say, in Italy, Switzerland or indeed many other European markets. In the U.K. rock or heavy metal acts have the option to play Download and other festivals. Metallica played Glastonbury last year. This year they are playing Reading/Leeds. Then you have got smaller specialist festivals such as Mud Stock. Whereas in somewhere like Switzerland or Italy, there are relatively fewer choices, so it's easier to put a bill together.

You recently announced that Muse will headline Sonisphere Switzerland and Metallica and Faith No More at the Italian leg. Has the rest of the bill for those events been locked down?

Not yet. We're in the process of booking. If they were secured we would have announced them. There is a perception in the industry that [announcing acts] is held back. That's not my experience in regards to Sonisphere. As soon as we have something confirmed we will announce it.

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How are ticket sales for those two European events? 

Italy goes on sale this week. Switzerland is very strong. We're very, very pleased with it. We have opened up as strong as we have ever done with Sonisphere in Switzerland.

Heritage acts often dominate the headline slots at festivals, but this seems even more so in the heavy metal market, which typically sees the same names top the bill at every rock festival.  

That's true to some extent, but equally I think there are bands that are coming through, whether it be Biffy Clyro or Avenged Sevenfold or Slipknot. You could argue that those are several or many years old now. But the difficulty of putting a rock headliner bill together is that some of those bands that have come through are now at the point where they can play stadium shows themselves, and those shows are, on occasion, more appealling than playing a festival. I can completely understand why AC/DC and Foo Fighters are playing Wembley Stadium this year, both of which would have been perfect for Sonisphere. In the case of the U.K., I think that they have made the right decision. 

You've been working in the heavy rock festival industry for over thirty years. As the market has grown, has it got increasingly harder for promoters?

No, I don't think it has. I was involved in Monsters of Rock at Donington from 1984 to 1996, and there were a couple of years were we didn't run Monsters of Rock because we couldn't put a bill together that warranted the scale of the event that we were looking at. Sonisphere is exactly the same and we would much rather be open and honest rather than roll something out that is not strong enough. We have made that mistake once before, which was in 2012, where we put a bill on sale that the customers told us very clearly that they didn't like. Within two or three weeks we made a decision to pull it. We don't want to repeat that mistake again. We only want to come out when we have got something that we know people are going to go: 'Wow. That's really good. Let's go to that.'

Does the fact that you don't run Sonisphere every year, at least in the U.K., strengthen or damage the brand?

I think it does both. It gives it a stamp of quality, but it doesn't give it that year-on-year return factor. We always have to start from lower start point, as it were. But it's a decision that we have made and its one that we will stick with. 

What are your plans for Sonisphere going forward?

We're already looking at 2016 and we have got a long list of territories that we're looking at. We're already talking to headliners and, if anything, the fact that we're taking 2015 off gives us a better lead time into 2016. Italy and Switzerland we are convinced will be successful. We're very happy that we have those in the bag. But we're now turning our attentions to 2016 and talking to acts already. 

Do you still have faith in the heavy metal touring festival model?

Definitely. Each year we will do as many markets as we feel makes sense. Over the years we have played now in twelve different territories, but it was always going to be the case that some wouldn't work and that some would be more successful than others. We had a couple of great years. For instance, in the Balkans -- but if you look at the economy there and the market generally it's really hard work to sell tickets in the likes of Bulgaria and Hungary.

When Sonisphere made its bow in 2009 it visited six European markets with the number of territories almost doubling the following year. This year you are operating in just two. Can you foresee a time when Sonisphere will once again be staged in multiple countries?
 
I'd certainly like it to be. It depends on the talent that is available and whether the acts make sense. Some acts are big in some territories and small in others. Slipknot, for example, are strong through Central Europe, but when you get up into the likes of Scandinavia they are not strong enough to be headliners. Whereas other acts like Metallica, Foo Fighters, Iron Maiden or AC/DC, to name but four examples, are strong in just about every territory. So it all depends on the headliners that we arrive at. 

You've so far shied away from taking Sonisphere to South and North America. Is that something that you would ever consider?

It's certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. We have had conversations and, again, when the opportunity is right we will not discount it.

Outside of the festival market, how did Kilimanjaro Live perform in 2014?

We're very happy. We are now doing about 600 shows a year. I would say that in 2014 we probably turned over about a million tickets and 2015 is already looking very strong for us. We have got three sold-out shows with Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium. We have got a huge comeback tour with Simply Red and Catfish and the Bottlemen have just announced their biggest ever show at O2 Academy Brixton, and I think we'll see them explode in 2015. We feel the market is healthy. 

In addition to running Sonisphere, Kilimanjaro Live also looks after the U.K. leg of the Vans Warped Tour, which didn't run last year. Are we likely to see it return in 2015? 

We chose not to do a Vans Warped Tour in 2014 because, again, we felt that we couldn't put together a bill that contained enough quality. We're certainly in deep conversations now about running in 2015 and that's a project that we run in conjunction with Vans and Kevin Lyman. We're in the process of looking at budgets, headliners and dates now.

This summer also sees you promote Ed Sheeran's biggest ever U.K. headline gigs with three sold-out shows at Wembley Stadium. Has the high demand for tickets taken you by surprise, at all?  

If you had asked us three months prior to the on sale date, 'Would we achieve three sell outs?' We would have probably said no. But as soon as we started to get people's reactions we could see that that business was there. The third show sold out in a day and if we had chosen to go for it, I think a fourth show would have comfortably sold out as well.

What do you think is at the heart of Sheeran's appeal?

Every step of the way Ed has more than delivered. What you get with Ed onstage is what you get in the dressing room. He's a really talented, huge star that is genuinely a really nice person and that comes across in his press interviews and his performances. I can't think of anybody that I would be happier for that success to happen to. He's hugely ambitious and he has worked his absolute tail off for three years. The culmination of that is three sold out shows at Wembley Stadium and he thoroughly deserves them.