Impact International UK/Euro: Steve Tilley

Steve Tilley
Director & Promoter
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Steve Tilley says he’s “a glass half full type of person so even if the chips are down I’ll always try to find the positive or a way through whatever scenario we’re in. I approach the business like that. I have often likened it to a rollercoaster. Great highs, terrible lows, so the secret is to try and flatten that particular curve and stay on a level as much as you can. I do hate rollercoasters by the way.”

Personally, he says, he’s never been better. “I understand who I am, what I am good at and what I am not. I worry a lot about the future of the industry but probably because I care too much. I also care too much about what people think about me when I should probably, having made Pollstar’s International Impact list 2023, finally get over my imposter syndrome.”

There’s a reason the director and promoter at Kilimanjaro Live is on the list, of course. His role includes having a handle on everything that’s going on at Kili, from advising on Singular Artist’s Collins Barracks concerts in Dublin, Ireland, or booking Belladrum Festival in Scotland. His “personal standout moment of 2023” came in the form of Sam Fender’s two sold-out concerts at the history-steeped St James’ Park, home to Tilley’s favorite soccer club, Newcastle United. Promoting shows there was “literally ‘Roy Of The Rovers’ stuff,” he says, adding “Google it,” when confronted with puzzled silence (“Roy of the Rovers” is a classic British soccer comic that dates back to the 1950s).

“It’s A Very Small Business, We Can’t Afford To Have Enemies”

Fender’s concerts marked Tilley’s fourth and fifth time promoting at the stadium. The first three came in the shape of Ed Sheeran, who sold 149,226 tickets across three nights in 2018, grossing $13,498,865, according to Pollstar’s Boxoffice. Someone once told Tilley that he was lucky to be representing this force of nature, suggesting it was easy to make a list like this if you worked with one of the biggest touring artists of all time. That someone forgot Kili has been on Ed Sheeran’s side since he started out in pubs. All that has happened between then and selling more than 420,000 tickets across five shows at London’s Wembley Stadium in the summer of 2022 can hardly be reduced to luck. “I have worked incredibly hard to be this lucky,” says Tilley.

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Steve Tilley with Example, who he’s been working with since joining Kilimanjaro. Tilley says, Example has “played a key role in my career for several reasons. He was one of the first acts I was working with to have a proper hit and then go on a live journey that took me through student unions, academies and then into my first arena shows as a Kili promoter. And on one of the early tours he did he took out a young kid called Ed Sheeran as the support.”

He admits that the pressure of these past three years has been “ridiculous” at times, and “although I may appear calm there are occasions where my mind is racing and the stress is probably manifesting itself in different ways. There are also times when, like anyone, I may let the stress out with a burst of anger or emotion but again I think it’s because I care about what I am doing. I would say if you do ‘lose it’ for a moment, don’t be afraid to apologize and try and repair any bruised egos or relationships if necessary. It’s a very small business, a village even, we can’t afford to have enemies. Even the most powerful people in the business have had bad days, failed at something, messed it up. Don’t be scared of failure, you have to fail a lot to be successful.”

Tilley began as a journalist, DJ and musician, before becoming a regional UK promoter and venue owner by opening the Sugarmill in Stoke-on-Trent in 1994. Some of the mantras that have guided him well since then: “Treat people like you want to be treated. Always trust your gut, it’s almost always right. Another one of my catchphrases is ‘I’d rather have a day off than lose money on a gig.’

Apart from during the pandemic, when I would have happily lost money just to be back doing what we do. That has worn off now though, ha! Also never ever base any important decision purely on money alone. Sure, take that into account, but to do something purely for the money, even in the music business, is probably a bad decision, and someone somewhere is sticking pins in your doll as a result. Same applies to anyone who wants to trample over someone else to get ahead.”

During lockdown, many reflected on the fast-paced and exhausting lifestyle this business demands. Vows were made to return with each and everyone’s mental and physical health in mind. However, things seem to be moving at a faster pace than ever before. “It’s a brutal business,” Tilley concludes, “it takes lots of sacrifices in terms of your personal work-life balance, and time stops for no one in this industry, hence the huge impacts on everyone’s mental health which is finally getting acknowledged (Check out Tamsin Embleton’s awesome book on the subject). There must be easier ways to make money than putting on gigs. I am a sucker for punishment, I enjoy it or I’d get out.”