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Published on September 22nd, 2009

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Blog: Community & brands integral to Sonisphere

In the latest in our series of Boom! blog interviews, Justin Crosby met up with Kilimanjaro boss Stuart Galbraith about his ambitious move into an already crammed UK music festival circuit.

Stuart Galbraith is arguably the most influential rock promoter in the UK and he now has his sights set on Europe. Following his acrimonious departure from the world’s biggest concert promoters Live Nation in 2007 he has created a new promotion company, Kilimanjaro, and has the backing of another corporate concert player, AEG.

Galbraith has specialised in the heavier end of the rock market, cutting his teeth at MCP with the Monsters of Rock mega gigs in the 80’s and 90’s and creating it’s festival successor Download at Donington Park. He also has considerable credentials in the more mainstream end of music promotion too, having created Wireless festival for O2 and producing Live 8 in London’s Hyde Park as well as the legendary Robbie Williams and Oasis shows at Knebworth – the home of his latest outdoor touring extravaganza, Sonisphere.

For the uninitiated, Sonisphere is a touring rock festival, headlined by superstar artists supported by artists from all persuasions of the rock market – from the extreme to the mainstream. The variety of the bill was highlighted by Metallica, Linkin Park and Bjorn Again’s performances at this year’s debut show at Knebworth in front of over 40,000 devotees.

“The concept of Sonisphere is nothing new. It’s a reiteration of events that have happened previously – Sonisphere takes the best attributes of them. For example, there’s been a touring rock festival before – it was called Ozzfest, but it only ever toured in the US. There has been a contemporary touring festival in the US – Lollapalooza but it never played in Europe. What we were looking to do was take the inspiration of the US model and combine that with over 25 years of experience of running festivals here in the UK and Europe.”

Conventional wisdom dictates that establishing a new festival on the British summer circuit takes 3 years. The first to introduce the brand. The second to reinforce and amplify. The third to reap the rewards and hopefully negate the losses of years 1 and 2. Presumably that’s where AEG’s backing for Kilimanjaro comes in.

“What we have done is taken the Sonisphere brand and bring it into markets in Europe where we felt there was an opportunity for a new rock product and in some cases take it into a competitive market. So, for example we have come into the UK marketplace which is busy – there’s Reading, Leeds, Download, Bloodstock. Does the UK need another rock festival? Probably not. Certainly not as much as Finland needed a rock festival. What we have been able to to is use Finland, Spain and Germany to support the finance of coming into the UK and effectively created a cross collateralized financial model that works as a tour. Each one of the shows wouldn’t happen in isolation but 6 events together made sense.”

“When we launched Sonisphere it was just a made up word – it doesn’t mean anything. Our ambition this year with was to establish the brand and make Sonisphere a recognized term in the rock community’s vocabulary in exactly the way we did with Download. I think we have achieved that.”

So with so much at stake – especially considering the inflated fees superstar artists can command in the new music landscape of 2009 and the not inconsiderable matter of sterling’s weakness against the dollar on a bill of predominantly Stateside talent – establishing a strong brand from day one is crucial. What does it take to create a successful brand in live rock music? And…why the rock genre?

“The reason I like working in rock particularly is the customer. I’ve worked with them for about 3 decades. The rock customer has an enormous amount of loyalty, an enormous amount of camaraderie and the strongest sense of community than any other genre of music. Certainly in the UK and I believe certain other territories in Europe as well. The key to creating a successful rock brand is to ensure you really engage with the customer and in the UK we have certainly done that. Our website has received over 3 million page impressions. We have 10,000 followers on Twitter, 10,000 Facebook fans and over 5,000 people active on our message boards. Sonisphere has been established as a UK and European rock brand. We’ll reinforce that over 12 months of the year as we’ll use the Sonisphere brand to promote everything we are doing in the rock market at Kilimanjaro and we’ll use Sonisherefestivals.com as our sales outlet for the rock market”.

So the rock market’s sense of community must dictate that social media channels are key to success in such an aggressive marketplace?

“The community and the means of us engaging with them through our social media tools such as our message boards, Facebook and Twitter are the absolute hub of the festival. We not exactly reinvesting the wheel – we’re repeating what we have done with Download but honing it and making it more effective. All we’re really doing is reinventing what we did with Monsters of Rock. Going back to 1980 when there was no such thing as the internet – back then it was letters pages in Kerrang!, petitions and voting for bands etc. That connected the rock community. Now we’ve got access to tools that we’ve never had before. The websites forum traffic peaks in the week before the festival – but then increases even higher after the festival when the fans want to share what they did, who they saw, share their photos and experiences. After the event we’ve been focussed on driving people to watch the Sonisphere show on TV on Channel 4 and a hub for the community – providing information about the kid who got injured on the fun fair, new merchandise etc. The two weeks after the event have been the busiest on the website.”

So whilst Kerrang! once used to be the primary source of interaction for fans pre and post event – this has been replaced by a whole host of commercial and social media platforms for Sonisphere.

Indeed the serious accident that befell an unlucky youngster on the festival’s fun fair has failed to adversely impact the event from a PR perspective. Well on the way to recovery, he’s been inundated by goodwill messages on the forum by concerned festival goers. Luckily the negative PR impact of the accident was contained mainly to local press and specialist website coverage and hasn’t fed into mainstream negative coverage.

“We’ve created a two hour weekly rock show on NME radio on which we’ve teamed up with Metal Hammer – called ‘Metal Hammer Meltdown’. Sonisphere’s going to be involved with that for the next 12 months – so I guess we’re the first UK festival to have it’s own weekly radio show.”

So how will Sonisphere differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace?

“First of all I think there is room in the marketplace for Download and Sonisphere. We were able to achieve a lot at Knebworth, based on the lessons we’ve learned over the past 25 years of creating festivals. We thought long and hard about where and when we would run Sonisphere in the UK. The criteria we were looking for were a site that was within striking distance of London – because London is the strongest rock market in the UK. We needed somewhere where we could camp and somewhere we could run it as a true festival. If you look at Reading and many other festivals around the country – come 11pm most things have got to finish because of the proximity of housing and other licensing issues. In considering Knebworth our first question was – can we camp? There hasn’t been a camping event there in years. The answer came back from The Hon. Henry and Martha Lytton Cobbold and later the police and local authorities – “yes we can”. Can we run music through until 3am? “Yes you can provided the sound limit come down after 11pm.” So we decided to run our two main stages until 11pm and then other entertainment until 3am. We could run until 5 or 6am but I don’t think the rock customer necessarily wants that.

We wanted to create a rock festival in the true festival tradition of, say, Glastonbury. If you look at what we built over the years at Donington – Monsters of Rock ran from 1980 through to 1996. That was just a concert. It started off with 6 bands on one stage. In its latter years I was instrumental in adding a second stage and we used a system of alternating the stages because we didn’t want people having to decide between which acts they could see. We wanted to bring that idea back for Sonisphere so we alternate our two main stages. We never wanted to have a clash like – say – Slipknot and Prodigy at Download which we picked up on our message board as something that really annoyed rock fans. Next year I’d anticipate much more activity running through until 3 or 4am and underline our status as a true festival as opposed to a big gig.”

So the format of the event also seems to have worked. So what about a crucial component in subsiding costs for a promoter in todays live music scene – the sponsors?

“I’d rather talk about partnerships and not sponsorship. All the partners we had this year added to the festival experience – that was key. The biggest partnership deal we had was with Activision which ran across all 6 European festivals but we were also able to get Activision to do activity at Metallica’s indoor tour prior to the Sonisphere dates.

Activision’s ‘Guitar Hero Metallica’ activity also promoted Sonisphere at 39 indoor arena shows running up the the 6 Sonisphere shows. They also ran regional heats and competitions to get to our festivals and meet the band. It was a beneficial deal for Sonisphere both promotionally and financially, it was a benefit to the fans in terms of entertainment and I understand it was a benefit to Activision who saw a spike in their sales in each territory as the tour and festivals progressed. We’ve yet to have an official debrief but we understand they are very happy with the activity.”

“Similarly with Monster Energy we have done 4 festivals in the territories their product is available. We are already in conversation with them about doing the whole tour again next year. They brought something very positive to the festival – in the day time they brought their ‘Wall of Steel’ stunt display team and most importantly to me they brought something very positive to festival at night – as they had their sound system running to 3am and it was still absolutely heaving.”

“The fit between Sonisphere, Activision and Monster was perfect. Audience demographics were spot on. And with Jagermeister and Jackson it was similar. They are two brands made for rock and Sonisphere represents rock in it’s broadest sense so all four brand partners were fantastic. What’s interesting for me is that instead of my previous experience of trying to shoehorn consumer brands into different genres of UK festival events – here we have one festival brand across multiple territories. We are not trying to fit a brand into multiple events – none of which may be ideal for them – but collectively make sense. What we have with Sonisphere is the opportunity for those brands whose audience is of a perfect fit to partner with us across multiple territories and we’ll certainly be looking to partner with more brands across Europe next year.”

Would you accept naming rights deal for Sonisphere?

“I think I would be only if the product or brand in question had a resonance with the customer. As much as I never like to turn down good money, I think I am unlikely to consider a naming rights partner before 2011. Sonisphere needs to develop it’s own identity first and then we’ll consider whether any commercial brands are the right fit.

68% of our audience is between 18 and 34. And of that 63% is male. I can see a lot of scope for video games partnerships going forward. Also for telephony. They just have to understand our specific demographics. I’m sure if you did a survey of the Sonisphere audience there will be just as many people with mobile phones as there are at T in the Park, Reading or Wireless. We’re not mainstream – we never will be but I am hoping our partnership income will increase in year 2. I’m happy with what we’ve done in year one.
We spent a great deal of time, effort and money ensuring we ran a smooth festival in year one, ensuring our brand partners were happy as well as the bands and the customers. I think that despite a little niggle here ad there, everyone went home very happy. I think we will get repeat business from our partners and I think we will get new ones next year. There are already conversation going on with beer brands regarding pan European deal next year.“

What other great examples of brand partnerships has he seen in the last 20/30 years?

“There’s more brand activity in live music than there ever has been before. Deals such as Hard Rock Cafe for Hyde Park have now developed into what I see as a perfect branding partnership. Equally if you look at Snickers at Download which ran for 3 years. That was good – they brought the Snickers Bowl to the event – but it didn’t quite fit as well as Monster or Activision have at Sonisphere. They brought something positive to the event (the Snickers Bowl street sports installation) but it wasn’t quite what our rock audience was about – whilst Activision, Monster, Jackson and Jaegermeister were absolutely integral to what Sonisphere was about this year.”

And how about the Wireless shows you created – how do they rank?

“I can remember the very first pitch that myself, Julian Campling and Simon Lewis (from Live Nation) went to and to be quite honest – we heard what O2 were looking for in the UK and we built something for them – Wireless. Wireless at Hyde Park was built on a bespoke basis for O2 to get their sponsorship money in. It then developed through the years. Wireless is very much a mainstream city centre, sanitized event and as such I think has suffered a little from this in its ability to attract cutting edge artists – but it’s ok. It is what it is.”

So in one fell swoop in 2009, Galbraith has introduced a unique model into the European festival circuit and placed a stake in the ground in the UK live rock market. It’ll be fascinating to see how this develops. Judging by his past successes and the current mergers in the live music industry and wider economy, 2010 looks set to be the year that Kilimajaro will capitalise on the upheaval.

Copyright Boom Dialogue 2009



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