The legendary rock promoter talks candidly to Steve Jenner about his masterplan for Sonisphere, life after Download, the joys of working with Axl Rose and why being ousted from Live Nation was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Donington Monsters of Rock (1984-1996). Oasis at Knebworth (1996). Ozzfest (1998-2002). Download (2003-2007). Wireless (2005-2007). Hyde Park Calling (2006-2007). Red Hot Chili Peppers in Hyde Park (2005). Live 8, Hyde Park (2005)… Just some of the highlights on Stuart Galbraith's CV.
In 2007, Galbraith stood unrivalled as the most successful live music producer in Europe, having built the UK's largest festival empire for corporate giant Live Nation (his employer), crowned by Download and Wireless. Then, his soaring trajectory within the firm came to a very sudden and dramatic end, when he was dismissed, accused of conspiring with global rivals AEG.
This acrimonious departure was to redirect Galbraith's personal and professional life onto a radically different path as he bounced back into the industry at the opposite end of the spectrum – as an independent festival organiser (albeit with some backing from AEG). Armed with the same formidable business acumen and drive that had propelled him to the top of the corporate ladder previously, Stuart also now had a new weapon in his armoury. Free from Live Nation's industrial framework, he was able to unleash an infallible resource that could not be acquired with all the money or power in the world – his heart and soul.
The independent sector welcomed its new defected ally with proud applause as he initially lent his backing to three of its jewels – Wakestock, Bloodstock (dubbed the uncontrived Download) and, most pleasantly surprising of all, eco-champion Big Green Gathering. And now he has created his own new festival, Sonisphere – perhaps the most ambitious debut event ever attempted. And yes, it IS personal…
Virtual Festivals: So how's 2009 shaping up for you?
Stuart Galbraith: Yes, good. Our ticket sales for Wakestock were way ahead of anything we've done previously so we're very pleased with that and Bloodstock is also set to have its biggest year ever. And then we've got Sonisphere in its inauguaral year.
Can you tell us a bit about the vision behind Sonisphere and how it all came about?
Well, when I was at Live Nation, back in the early days of Virtual Festivals, we came up with the idea of Download which was, to be honest, a replacement for Ozzfest, which in turn was a replacement for Monsters Of Rock. In the first couple of years Download became quite successful so we thought 'there's scope to replicate this in other territories where there isn't necessarily a rock festival'. We did it in Ireland which was very good and one in Scotland, which didn't go so well, but the problem was, within the confines of Live Nation, each of their offices in each territory already had something else and they didn't really want to do one. So having left Live Nation, we revisited the idea and we've been able to create a Sonisphere in each territory with Metallica headlining them all and many other bands appearing too – Linkin Park, Slipknot each doing a couple, Die Totenhosen doing Germany, etc. and then really it's taking this touring concept and we're not overstretching it, just doing one per weekend, and just taking the brand value into each territory.
So it's a continuation of what you started with Download?
Yes, it's certainly no different from the idea we had five or six years ago.
How tied in are Metallica? Are they going to headline every year, like Ozzy at Ozzfest?
No, they're not going to play every year. I think that limits you to what you can do with it. We're incredibly lucky to have Metallica headline it in year one and indeed as we roll it out in other territories in future years we hope we'll be able to get them back to headline those as well.
The UK hard rock festival scene is already a little cosy with Reading, Leeds and Download. How will Sonisphere steal its share of the market from these established behemoths?
Hopefully just by running a good rock festival.
But what will be its points of difference? Those are all good rock festivals…
The first point of difference is this… having run Monsters Of Rock from 1984 to 1996 we started off with one stage and six bands. Then we added a second stage and flip-flopped it so everybody could see every band. Then when we created Download we added more stages which enabled us to add a lot more bands to the bill, but then we started to see people complaining that they couldn't see everything. So Sonisphere is a bit of a step back to what we used to do, where the two main stagess will not clash at all – they will literally flip-flop when you walk from one end of the arena to the other and you'll be able to see everything advertised on the poster. This year at Download, for instance, Slipknot and The Prodigy played at the same time which created all sorts of decision-making for fans who would have liked to have seen both.
Isn't there a third stage as well?
Yes, actually we were going to run a late night stage in a tent and then we came to the conclusion that as we were paying for it to be there during the day and it wasn't doing anything, we might as well put some bands on it during the day too. So in some respects we've gone back on what we said but in other respects what we've tried to do is programme that with brand new little bands. So if somebody's not into, I don't know… Anthrax, they've got something else they can go and watch and we're trying to programme it so it's different, musically.
How does it feel to be going head-to-head against a festival you created, in Download?
It's a bit odd, a bit disappointing, whatever. I think Download did well this year and I hope that we'll end up in a marketplace where there's room for both of us. Not really my concern I guess, now. I guess in some respects I'm glad to see Download more successful this year than it was last year. Last year it struggled terribly which was very upsetting to see.
Do you still feel a paternal bond towards Download?
Er, no, I dunno. It's something we came up with… I came up with the name and put the whole thing together, but the world moves on and the beauty of what we have with Sonisphere – and I was up there yesterday – is that Knebworth is gorgeous. It's such a wonderful place to do a camping festival. We've got a focus group of twenty customers that we're taking there tomorrow to get their views on it and stuff, and I hope that they'll be blown away – it's a brilliant place.
How come nobody's ever done a multi-day camping festival there before?
Well. actually they did back in the seventies and early eighties but they all got too big and out of hand. And then I did Oasis there back in '96 and got quite friendly with Martha Cobham who runs the Estate – the family seat – and I called her up and said 'I've got this idea – it's not as big as Oasis or Robbie Williams or whatever, it's a third of the size, but can we have a go?' and they were up for it, the local council were up for it and everyone's really enthusiastic about it. So hopefully we can create something that will be there every year and the Estate like it because they'll get an income from it every year rather than from a big gig every five years.
What are your expansion plans for Sonisphere at Knebworth?
Well we've got a capacity of up to 60,000. This year we've gone for two days which is deliberate. I'm thinking that we'll probably do 40,000 tickets over the two days, and we'll see how we go on. If we think we've got the strength and depth of talent available, I'd love to run it for three days. We ran Download for two days in the first couple of years before we expanded it to three when the line-up warranted it.
Would you consider having a twin site for it in the UK?
I don't think we'll actually need a twin site in the Uk and, having explored that with Download, I don't think the rock market is strong enough to support two rock festivals the same weekend. But what we do have, obviously, is a number of other European locations – in this case, six Sonispheres that are all on different weekends but on years going forward, I can see no reason why we couldn't run England and Holland on the same weekend, for instance, which is infinitely do-able.
Any plans to expand the European ones to multiple days?
Yes, that's certainly the hope. This year we started off with one day events but if I think we can find the headliners and the market's there for two days then, yes, we will grow the European ones as well.
What exactly does the word 'Sonisphere' mean?
It means nothing. We spent ages… it's always really interesting trying to name a festival. I've done it now with Download, Wireless and now sonisphere. We went through all sorts of iterations that were proper words with proper meaning and every time we came across a brand registration issue so we just made a word up.
What real words did you come up with?
'Hemisphere', we liked, because we were planning to run something in the Northern hemisphere and something in the southern one, but it turned out there were already people out there using that. So we had someone design an image of a 'Sonisphere' – whatever that is – it's completely made up.
It does seem tremendously ambitious for a festival in its first year to take two days at Knebworth with camping, nevermind also touring across Europe. Is this you throwing down a big gauntlet as if to say 'I'm back folks, and this is how you do festivals!'?
No, I don't think I've thrown the gauntlet down at all. I think with Metallica and Linkin Park we've got two brilliant headliners and then, getting Nine Inch Nails and Heaven And Hell in there as well, we've got two great second-on's, and the rest of the bill is fantastic. We costed out Knebworth, we knew we could make it work and we're just having a go. There's no gauntlet, it's just what we can do, and I think with the team we've now got together, we've got more than enough experience to present a good festival in year one. I'm not going to be naiive – we'll make lots of mistakes and we'll hold our hands up and say 'we'll do the best we can in year one – it's the first time we've used Knebworth as a site and we'll apologise in advance for the mistakes we are going to make but we'll do our best and we'll improve on it and, if we can get a festival that's 70% right this year and one that's 80% right the following year… we'll never get to 100% right because then it's time to give up as you've become complacent, but we'll get this year out the way and build on it for future years.
How has your life changed since you left Live Nation?
My life's changed enormously in the last two years since I left Live Nation. I've got divorced, I've moved from the midlands to London and it's very different running a small company like Kilimanjaro, albeit with major backing from AEG, but we're very much the David to Live Nation's Goliath now. It's interesting but it's very rewarding. As well as getting Sonisphere off the ground this year I'm already really happy with what we've achieved with Wakestock. Last year with Wakestock was tough – we tried the twin site at Blenheim which, in hindsight, was a mistake. We went at it too much too soon. We got Abersoch really nailed down this year and it was a brilliant festival.
Is it a better place to be for you now, running a smaller company rather than being part of a masisve machine like Live Nation?
I think it's more satisfying being in a smaller company and we can deliver a better personal service; the customer doesn't tend to get lost so much in a company that sells four or five million tickets per year. We're not truly independent because we've got the backing of AEG but we've got people here that live, eat and sleep music and I think that comes through in what we do.
How have you seen the recession affect the festival marketplace so far this year?
It is definitely tougher out there without a shadow of a doubt, but I do think that festivals still represent enormous value for money and, even if you're spending £150 on a weekend ticket, the number of bands you get to see is great value. Take Sonisphere as an example – you'd spend ninety quid just to see Metallica and Linkin Park in separate concerts but now you're adding in Nine Inch Nails, Heaven And Hell and twenty other bands plus the whole festival experience, so I think festivals are standing up fairly well. What has hit more than the recession, from an organiser's point of view in trying to regulate the ticket price when you're dependent on American bands, is the weakening of the pound against the US dollar. It means we're actually having to spend up to 40% more on the same bands now!
Sonisphere takes place at Knebworth, Stevenage (just outside London) on 1st and 2nd August. Tickets are available here.