In the 15 years since Stuart Galbraith launched Kilimanjaro Live, the promoter has taken artists from clubs to stadiums, expanded with launches and acquisitions across the UK, and diversified well beyond live music. Access marks the promoter’s birthday by charting its evolution and hearing from the team responsible.

On the back of the company’s most successful year yet, with its many achievements including £100 million in turnover, more than 1 million tickets sold for Ed Sheeran’s Mathematics Tour, and a string of industry accolades including being declared Promoter of the Year at the LIVE Awards, Kilimanjaro Live has reached its 15th anniversary in style.

In between scaling the heights of Mont Blanc and the Eiger, Stuart Galbraith summoned the energy to strike out and launch Kilimanjaro Live in 2008. Named after another of his vertiginous conquests, the company started life as an independent operator primarily focused on promoting live music.

With Deutsche Entertainment AG’s [DEAG] backing since 2014, and the forming of the Kilimanjaro Group, the company has ventured far and wide in the years since its launch. It is now a multi-entertainment powerhouse that stages a diverse range of live entertainment including concerts, festivals, musical theatre, comedy, spoken word, family entertainment and exhibitions.

Among Kilimanjaro’s many interests across the UK and Ireland are literary events production company Fane Productions, festival promoter UK Live, Irish concert promoter Singular Artists, Scottish promoter Regular Music and London-based theatrical producer and promoter Flying Music Group.

October will see Kilimanjaro diversify yet further with the opening of a new exhibition and show centre, Arches at London Bridge; a 1,050sqm event space that is expected to welcome up to 400,000 visitors annually.

Stuart Galbraith

In 2020, amid repeated lockdowns, Kilimanjaro successfully entered the world of Christmas light trails with Christmas at Wollaton. In subsequent years it has rolled out the concept, staging festive events at prestigious locations including Trentham Estate in Staffordshire and Kenwood House in London.

Stuart Galbraith’s Kilimanjaro has certainly come a long way in the last 15 years, led by a core team including promoter/director Steve Tilley, COO Zac Fox and promoter Alan Day. The company’s ascendance means Kilimanjaro now not only has a strong position in the market but within the DEAG company framework.

“We’re now approaching 50% of DEAG’s European turnover, here in the UK,” says Galbraith.

DEAG CMO Detlef Kornett says the development of Kilimanjaro Live is a prime example of how productive international collaboration can be: “When DEAG entered into a partnership with Kilimanjaro in 2014, it was the starting point for a rapid win-win development for both parties.”

The ascent

One of the UK’s most experienced promoters, Galbraith began working on shows some 40 years ago as a student at Leeds University. It was there that he took on the running of the Ents team and was involved in shows by the likes of The Clash, U2, Simple Minds and ZZ Top. In later years his career saw him pass through MCP, SFX, Clear Channel and Live Nation before re-emerging as an independent operator at the helm of Kilimanjaro Live.

It was at MCP that Galbraith cut his teeth in the festival business. The company launched Monsters Of Rock at Donnington Park in 1980 and Galbraith started as a site assistant at the festival in 1984 before working up to site manager and eventually promoter of the Derby event.

Galbraith went on to launch some of the UK’s most successful festivals, including Download, Wireless and Hard Rock Calling, before leaving his role as MD at Live Nation UK to found Kilimanjaro.

While overseeing the UK festival division at Live Nation, Galbraith considered building Download into an international proposition but with the company already having rock festivals in locations throughout the world his ambition had to be put on ice until he founded Kilimanjaro.

In Kilimanjaro’s first year, Galbraith acquired music and wakeboarding festival Wakestock in Cardigan Bay, North Wales. He also partnered with K2 Agency’s John Jackson and together they approached AEG to gain its financial backing for the launch of the Sonisphere Festival. The duo built it into Europe’s first touring rock festival brand. Launched in 2009, it was staged in a dozen countries across Europe before being pulled in 2015.

Among the many landmark Sonisphere moments was the last event at Knebworth in 2014. It marked the venue’s 40th anniversary of hosting rock concerts, and among the acts on the bill were The Prodigy, Iron Maiden, Metallica and The Sisters of Mercy. Fondly remembered by fans and the team that worked on it, the festival saw the acts on the main two stages, Apollo and Saturn, alternate so that festivalgoers could see all the bands listed.

“Sonisphere was a natural extension of the work I’d done on Download, which I launched in 2002 and ran until 2007,” says Galbraith. “With John Jackson we brought Iron Maiden and Metallica on board and had some very successful festivals throughout Europe; everywhere from Istanbul to Helsinki.”

Despite having enjoyed a hugely successful year with Sonisphere in 2014, its founders took the decision not to go ahead the following year due to a huge escalation in overheads. “Headliner fees literally trebled, and the model no longer worked,” says Galbraith.

Kilimanjaro remains heavily involved in festivals and outdoor show series. It owns Scotland’s largest camping festival, Belladrum Tartan Heart (cap. 20,000), along with England’s Pennfest (10,000) and Let’s Rock (10,000) festival brands. Its several summer concert series include Kew the Music and Live at Chelsea, and in partnership with Form Presents it promotes events including Pitchfork Festival London.

Monkey business

Kilimanjaro began as a joint venture with AEG, which Galbraith says was a hugely important partnership in the early days: “Like many small startup companies, we were not profitable in the first few years and AEG helped us get through those cash flow points.

“From AEG’s perspective, one of the primary reasons for going into the joint venture with Kilimanjaro was to deliver content into what was then the brand new The O2 arena. In the first four years we put 40 shows in that venue, including six nights of The Eagles, and Ozzfest. It was a good symbiotic partnership.”

That close relationship with AEG has stood the test of time. On 10 August 2021, Kilimanjaro was behind The O2 arena’s first major post-pandemic concert. The venue had not seen a full capacity show for more than 500 days, and the Gorillaz gig exclusively for NHS workers and their families proved an emotional moment for all involved. The band returned to the arena the following night with a show open to the general public.

As well as having many strong relationships with long-established acts such as Gorillaz, Andrea Bocelli, Simply Red, Hans Zimmer and Stereophonics, the promoter has played an integral part in helping acts such as Sam Fender and Ed Sheeran go from clubs to stadiums.

Since the outset, Kilimanjaro Live’s promoters have proven astute at spotting fledgling talent and working closely with agents, managers and record labels to nurture their careers.

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Stages of development

A former journalist, DJ, and musician, Steve Tilley was a regional promoter and venue owner in Stoke-on-Trent before he relocated to London in 2008 to join Galbraith at Kilimanjaro Live. Since then, he has been instrumental in the company’s success, not least because of his enduring partnerships with acts including Sheeran and Fender.

Steve Tilley

Tilley was first struck by Sheeran’s on-stage prowess while watching him perform a support slot for Just Jack at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire one November night in 2009. Also at that gig was Jon Ollier, who would go on to become Sheeran’s agent and run One Fiinix Live. Like Tilley, Ollier has worked with Sheeran ever since.

“It’s been fantastic working with Steve,” he says. “I remember when he joined Kili, I was standing next to him at the Borderline and he said to me, ‘I’m setting out on this journey now to be a national promoter and I want to show people that you can do it and still be a nice guy’. That has really stuck with me. With Steve there is no bullshit, no bravado, everyone knows what we’re trying to achieve, and we can really pull in the same direction in a way that is impossible with a lot of other people. That shows in the work that he’s done with Ed at a stadium level, in a co-pro partnership with FKP Scorpio.”

Tickets for Sheeran’s Mathematics Tour went on sale on 25 September 2021 and sold so strongly that new stadium dates were swiftly added, with the UK leg including four dates at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium, two at Belfast’s Boucher Road Playing Fields (42,000), four at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium (63,000) and three at the Principality Stadium (74,500) in Cardiff.

On the back of more than 1 million tickets having been sold for the Mathematics Tour, it was action stations again for Tilley and the team early this year after Sheeran announced that he would release new album Subtract in May. To support it, a string of surprise underplays were organised in March that saw Sheeran perform at The O2, AO Arena, OVO Hydro and Eventim Apollo.

“Obviously to have Ed again this year was a very pleasant surprise,” says Tilley. “It was a very short turnaround between announcing the shows and having them go on sale, but it was incredible.”

There have been numerous other highlights during Tilley’s work with Sheeran, not least shows at St James’ Park stadium, Newcastle United’s home ground, where Tilley was a season ticket holder during the 1990s. In June this year Tilley returned to the venue for two shows by Sam Fender that saw him become the first Geordie artist to headline the 55,000-capacity venue.

“I’m an expat Geordie and Newcastle United fan so putting Ed Sheeran on there was one of the proudest things I’ve done. If someone had told me I’d come back and present a Geordie there I’d have never believed it. It was a very emotional weekend for me, my family was there with me, and the atmosphere was absolutely amazing,” he says.

The shows proved landmark moments in a busy year for Kilimanjaro, which has involved concerts by a diverse array of acts including Lewis Capaldi, Don Broco, Cat Burns, Hans Zimmer and The Cult. The team may have its hands full but Tilley says he is somewhat relieved that the workflow is not as intense as it was in 2022.

“Kilimanjaro Live did in excess of 800 gigs last year, that’s at all levels from pub to stadium shows,” he says. “We coped, our staff are amazing, it’s down to them that the company had such an amazing year. They all went the extra mile to help us achieve it.”

Tilley was instrumental in helping set up Irish concert and event organiser Singular Artists in 2020 – a joint venture with promoters Fin O’Leary, Brian Hand and Simon Merriman, in which Kilimanjaro Live holds a 55% stake. He also has a strong day-to-day working relationship with Regular Music CEO Mark Mackie who has continued to oversee the Edinburgh-based concert and festival promoter since it was acquired by Kilimanjaro in December last year.

Also under the Kilimanjaro banner are two in-house promoting arms that focus on specific genres; Kili Presents and Action! Presents. Kili Presents is dedicated to promoting new artists, while Action! Presents focuses on rock and metal acts under the stewardship of Alan Day. Forthcoming shows include Therapy? Death Cult, Baby Metal and The Sisters of Mercy.

“Alan is a powerhouse, he is the best rock promoter in Britain and the most passionate promoter in the game,” says Tilley.

Illustrating the breadth of Kilimanjaro’s music offering, Peter Thompsen, who started at the company as an intern, is now developing a strong niche with French and Spanish speaking artists.

“He’s going out and finding incremental business,” says Tilley. “I’ve always encouraged everyone who works for us to build their own acts and find their own business.”

Independent spirit

Zac Fox has worked with Stuart Galbraith, off and on, since the mid-1990s when she turned her back on an army life and began working as a receptionist at MCP. She worked her way up at the company and saw it absorbed by SFX and Clear Channel Entertainment before joining Galbraith at Live Nation to work on projects including Download. Fox re-joined him at Kilimanjaro Live in May 2008 as head of operations and is now the company’s group chief operating officer.

Zax Fox

“One of the things we decided right from the start was to make sure the individuals at Kilimanjaro feel like it is theirs,” she says. “That’s what we’ve been holding on to since the first day when there was a handful of people in the room. Now we’re across Ireland, Scotland and all over England but we have managed to hold on to that even though we’ve grown so much. As we’ve brought new companies or started them, that’s the culture that we’re creating – that everyone’s opinion matters.”

Fox says the personal approach is also maintained with artists: “We don’t hand them over to anyone. We don’t want to have so many shows that it becomes a problem showing up and being part of the event that you’ve helped plan. There are artists who appreciate that, and when they come back and they see all the same faces again they’re delighted because it feels like a safe space.”

DEAG took a controlling stake in Kilimanjaro in 2014 but Fox says the independent spirit has been retained: “I don’t think we can ask for a better parent company. They have been incredibly trusting and respectful of us, there’s been no dictating, they’re really supportive. I don’t know if we’d have got to this point with anybody else.”

Another key member of the team that has been with the company for more than a decade is San Phillips. She joined Kilimanjaro as an executive assistant to Galbraith but as the business grew, both in terms of the team and the diversity of its work, the need for a head of promoter operations became apparent.

San Phillips

Phillips, who has been in that role since it was created in 2019, says, “As we expanded as a team, we needed more leadership and organisation in terms of clear definitions of what people’s roles involved and the necessary processes.”

She says there have been many highlights during her time at Kilimanjaro but among the most rewarding projects were the post-pandemic Gorillaz gigs in London and the Stereophonics shows in June last year at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium: “We moved them from December to June because the of the Omicron outbreak. It was an exhausting and challenging time but the shows with Stereophonics, Tom Jones, Feeder and Gruff Rhys were an absolutely brilliant experience for everyone involved.”

During the pandemic, Galbraith was instrumental in helping to establish the UK’s first trade body representing all elements of the live music industry. LIVE (Live music Industry Venues & Entertainment) was launched in early 2020 and provided a unified voice that helped drive change at a government level.

With the Covid 19 lockdowns an ever more distant memory, and with the flow of business returning to more reasonable levels, Galbraith is confident that Kilimanjaro Live has a bright future: “The success of Kilimanjaro is a reflection of the strength of our team; they’re all fiercely competitive and ambitious. We like the fact that we can provide an independent boutique alternative to a global multinational. We continue to deliver for our fans, clients, artists and authors with passion, and will continue to do so for many years to come.”

Tilley says that after 15 years, promoting has definitely not got any easier: “The competition for new talent is probably as intense now as it has ever been. Artists and their teams have got the choice of working with a lot of big companies and a lot of great promoters. It’s about staying relevant, competitive, and achieving the business that you want. It’s hard but it’s enjoyable. I’m still bang up for the challenge of it all.”

A fuller version of this special anniversary feature is included in the Autumn edition of Access All Areas. Read it here