'The market has exploded': KMJ CEO on live events, grassroots, and the art of promotion

One of the most influential figures in the world of live music and events promotion, KMJ Entertainment Group CEO Stuart Galbraith has been at the forefront of his industry for over four decades. From the days of traditional print promo to today’s increasingly sophisticated methods, his ability to stay ahead of the curve has been central to his success, as has his knack for understanding how and when to diversify and extend his reach into new markets. Headliner paid him a visit to discuss what drove him from being a budding stage manager and techy while at university to become one of the music industry’s most pre-eminent promoters, as well as the trends he sees shaping the sector as we know it…

At the time of Headliner’s visit to KMJ Entertainment Group’s London HQ, the company has just released news of a significant rebrand of the company. The day before our arrival, the company, which is currently comprised of some 16 brands spanning the live entertainment industry, was known as Kilimanjaro Live. Founded by CEO Stuart Galbraith in 2008 with a staff of two, Kilimanjaro Live has evolved and expanded from a live music promoter in its earliest iteration to encompass everything from theatre, comedy, conferences, and spoken word events. Selling a combined total of over four million tickets a year across its portfolio, and with in excess of 160 staff, Galbraith felt a restructuring of sorts was required to provide a degree of clarity, both externally and internally, as to the role Kilimanjaro Live serves alongside its sister brands (Regular Music, Singular, Fane, Flying Music, Gigantic, Myticket, Belladrum, JAS Theatricals, UK Live, FORM,, Kontour, How To Academy and Arches London Bridge).

“We felt it was the right time to change the group name because Kili started off as a music company, but it was also the name of our holding company,” Galbraith explains as we join him in a boardroom lined with tour posters for many of the high profile shows and productions he has promoted. From Simply Red and Ed Sheeran to recent West End hits like Hades Town, the décor neatly illustrates the scope of KMJ’s remit in 2024. “Now, because music represents a piece – still a very important piece – of what we do, it was causing confusion that Kili was the name of the music company as well as the holding company,” Galbraith continues. “So KMJ is really the umbrella organisation that sits over all of our operating companies, and within music we have several companies that work very closely with Kilimanjaro Live.”

The eclectic nature of KMJ’s operations, and Galbraith’s relentless drive for diversification, are themes that underpin much of our conversation during the morning we spend together. From his formative years through numerous personal and professional milestones, a refusal to stand still and a distinctly proactive approach to business have been instrumental in carving out the road that has taken him from studying Biophysics and Microbiology in 1980 where he is today.

“It started the day that I went to university in Leeds,” he remembers, discussing how his aspiration for a career in science was side-lined quite literally from day one. “I joined Ents in freshers’ week as a stage crew member. I started going to gigs on a regular basis and I remember seeing the Thompson Twins at The Warehouse, which was the first club show I’d been to. From there I started unloading trucks, then became a stage manager and it moved on from there.

“As for why I moved away from stage management and production and towards promotion, I was purely and simply surrounded by good mentors at Leeds. The Ents head before me was a guy called Dave Goodman, who is still a friend to this day, and there was Andy Kershaw the BBC Radio DJ. And at that time, Leeds university was a great venue because it was getting a lot of shows as there wasn’t really another significant sized venue in the Leeds Bradford area. In the few years we were at Leeds we did U2, ZZ Top, The Clash, Simple Minds, and just before I arrived, Bob Marley played there.”

Looking at 2025, we are going to see a record breaking year. Stuart Galbraith, CEO, KMJ Entertainment Group

From his earliest experiences through to KMJ’s most recent activities, Galbraith appears to be able to recall and describe in detail moments from the past four and a half decades at the drop of a hat. He speaks quietly but with purpose. Eloquent yet economical with his words, he says a lot with little. Never faltering or repeating himself, he is an adroit communicator.

“It’s interesting looking back and revisiting Leeds university,” he continues, considering the unique learning curve it provided. “We were able to service visiting promoters and bands reasonably well and learn how to deal with agents in that process. I certainly learned how to deal with tour managers and artists as well. It was long hours and that was a good education in terms of understanding it’s not just a case of turning up for the gig.

“As the stage manager at Leeds university I ran a stage crew company, an audio company, a lighting company. It was interesting for me because I was able to learn how to mix sound, how to tech lights etc., and, indeed, some of the people we worked with in those student days are now running fully functioning commercial audio and visual companies.”

Even at this point of his burgeoning career, a determination to equip himself with as diverse a skillset as possible was beginning to manifest itself. But instead of embarking on a more technical path, a role with leading national promoter Midland Concert Promotions (MCP) quickly drew him away from a career as an AV engineer. It proved to be a life altering moment.

“One of the promoters that was bringing visiting shows to us in the year I was booking was MCP,” he says. “I got on well with Tim [Parsons] who was one of the co-CEOs, and they offered me a job to become a promoter. It really was a life changing moment for me. I left my degree behind, and I had the conversation with my parents about leaving university without a degree but saying, ‘I can always go back’ [laughs]. In their eyes I literally ran away with a rock ‘n’ roll band never to return!”

After becoming a partner at MCP following successful tours for the likes of Sisters of Mercy, Simply Red, and Def Leppard, the company was sold to consolidation vehicle SFX in 1999, which in turn was sold to Clear Channel. From this, Live Nation was born, and by 2005 was fully established as a promotional powerhouse. As managing director, Galbraith oversaw tours across stadia and arenas for some of the biggest bands on the planet, while also playing a crucial role in the creation of festivals such as Download, Wireless, and Hyde Park (Hard Rock) Calling.

“When SFX started in the UK I was employee number four and we moved into a central office in Grosvenor Street,” Galbraith notes, describing the early days of the company. “I was there in 1999 and left in 2007, and by the time I left we were 120 staff and selling three million tickets a year. It was a huge growth period both in terms of staff, artists, and acquisitions.”

The entertainment market has exploded. Stuart Galbraith, CEO, KMJ Entertainment Group

There was, however, according to Galbraith, a drawback that came with the exponential expansion of the company. As he saw it, the increasing scale of the business meant that the kind of personalised client service he was committed to was no longer possible.

“Around 2006 I started to become a little bit unsettled in my role at Live Nation,” he says. “I felt we were getting too big and losing the ability to have a personalised client service relationship with artists. By chance I had a conversation with Tim Leiweke [AEG CEO] who were just opening the [Millennium] Dome - soon to be renamed the O2 in London – and he didn’t have a great number of shows in there at the time. They had invested a huge amount of money in it and needed a lot of shows to make that business work.

“So, we basically set up Kilimanjaro as a joint venture and the agendas were complimentary. I was taking funding from AEG to establish a brand new company and in turn we were tasked with putting as many shows into the O2 as we possibly could in that first period. In the first four years of Kili’s existence, I think we did 40 shows, and they were everything from a horse show to a New Orleans jazz festival, Ozzfest to Peter Gabriel at six week’s notice. Our function was to fill the place while building a solid foundation for what would become Kilimanjaro.”

It was in 2012 that Kilimanjaro broke out as an independent entity, with Galbraith steering the ship through a highly challenging first 12 months, before stabilising and laying the groundwork for a future that would establish the company as one of the most formidable forces in the industry.

“We were able to stand on our own two feet but 2012 was a challenging year for us,” he elaborates. “Although we had some great shows, we made a mistake in booking a festival called Sonosphere. Within a couple of weeks of tickets going on sale we knew we’d made a mistake, and we took the very difficult decision to cancel it in our first year, which was very tough because it affected our cash flow. It was a tough year to get through.”

For those unaware, or who may have forgotten, the mistake Galbraith refers to is that of booking Queen just as Adam Lambert was unveiled as the band’s new frontman.

“We made the fundamental error of booking Queen just as Adam was announced as lead singer, and to put it bluntly, the Queen audience had not yet warmed to him or adopted him,” he clarifies. “So, we were ahead of our time and I could see Adam was a brilliant singer and that it would work, but we were ahead of the game. Now, Queen do multiple arenas sold out with Adam, but that year we were just too early. But Sonosphere carried on as a touring rock festival through Europe and we did another six or eight that year that were hugely successful.

“The following year was fine for Kili, but in 2014 I felt that we lacked scale and were missing being part of something bigger. So, we then did a deal with DEAG (Deutsche Entertainment AG) where they acquired 51% of the company and it gave us the ability to work on the highest level and not necessarily be so exposed with regards to finances. “

Ten years on, the company certainly cannot be accused of lacking in scale. Over the past decade, Galbraith’s diversification strategy has seen the business enter new verticals and gain significant traction in the ones it already occupied.

“What I’ve done is take my and my team’s knowledge and applied it into different areas,” he says. “Many of them, from marketing and ticketing and administration, are similar, whether you are talking about a theatrical production, an exhibition, a comedy event, a music show or festival. So we’ve applied ourselves in different areas and have successfully seen other companies and partnered with them or acquired them to bring in their expertise.

“Kili started in 2008 with two of us. Then there were four, then eight, and the ambition was that we would get to a head count of 20, maybe 30. As of this week we are 165 and it’s because of that policy of expansion that we’ve grown to that scale.”

It’s hugely important that the grassroots are nurtured. Stuart Galbraith, CEO, KMJ Entertainment Group

The incorporation of new and diverse talent across the KMJ portfolio has also been central in helping the company evolve with ever new promotional methods and approaches. On the matter of whether or not the fundamental skills that underpin his craft have changed much over his 45 years in the market, he is philosophical.

“The answer is yes and no,” he considers. “It’s a lot more digital and more labour intensive. The process of running social media and digital marketing takes a lot more people hours than placing ads in papers or putting up posters. The skillsets have changed, and specialisation is incredibly important.”

Another staple of the group’s success through the years has been the long-term partnerships Galbraith and his team have forged with some of his roster’s biggest stars.

“We are very fortunate,” he notes. “We have a large number of artists who we’ve worked with from the very early stages of their career. Simply Red is the ultimate example. I did my first gig with them on June 15, 1985, and we’ve done every show they have done in the UK ever since. Similarly, artists like Ed Sheeran have been with us from the start, so loyalty is very important.

“However, there are certainly some artists along the way that we’ve seen working on global deals with the likes of AEG and Live Nation, so the market has become more competitive. And the margins in music have become a lot tighter, which is another reason for the diversification strategy, whether it’s exhibitions, small outdoor festivals, the market isn’t as crowded, and you are able to get a better return from a finance point of view working in those areas.”

Galbraith also draws attention to the efforts KMJ is making at grassroots level. Both from a business perspective and for the future prosperity of the music business, he insists that it is imperative to support new artists from the ground up.

“It’s hugely important that the grassroots are nurtured,” he says. “We’ve always had shows that play at that level, and that sector is facing challenges in many areas, whether it be significantly increased costs or business rates. Social habits have also changed. Students no longer go out on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and drink eight pints of lager, which is what was funding those venues. So, it is crucial that the sector is supported.

“Having said that, it’s not the only route to market today. We are seeing increasing numbers of artists coming in and being able to play to 2,000, 4,000, 10,000 or more people without having to go through those small venues because of the proliferation of music on social channels. You can become a huge star without having to go and play to 200 people driving around in a van.”

While the challenges facing the grassroots community are among the fiercest that sector has ever faced, Galbraith believes that the entire live events ecosystem is navigating particularly choppy waters.

“Post-pandemic we’ve seen changing buying habits – people are buying tickets later,” he says. “The likes of Ed Sheeran are still selling tickets the day they go on sale, but on our marketing and ticketing side we have had to adapt to the fact that sales are coming later. Furthermore, there has been a huge escalation of costs post pandemic, whether that be in venue charges or fuel charges. Post-Brexit labour has become more expensive, so there are new ways of touring at a lower level where it’s no longer financially viable to tour your entire production, so increasingly we are seeing acts make use of the production facilities already installed at the venue, as opposed to driving four trucks around the country, which is also environmentally damaging.”

With a busy schedule awaiting Galbraith, we wrap up our conversation with a look to the future. Unsurprisingly, he is eyeing further growth and expansion opportunities, both with regard to the brands already at his behest and potential acquisitions further down the line. And despite the challenges outlined moments ago, he is convinced that the industry as a whole is about to outstrip its pre-pandemic heights.

“The entertainment market generally has exploded,” he closes. “There are huge areas of growth that we can achieve with the components we have and it’s about making sure all those components are working together in the best way possible. We have huge repositories of talent and expertise and it’s about making sure everyone can make sense of those. We are looking to grow organically and through acquisition.

“Last year was our first normal year post-pandemic, and while there were certainly challenges from a sales point of view, the market has become stronger and stronger and today is significantly bigger than it was in 2019. And from where we are now looking at 2025, I think we are going to see a record breaking year.”