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SJM’s Chris York: becoming the guvnor

Richard Smirke speaks to Chris York about the promoter’s integral role in the rise of the SJM empire and the chance encounter that changed his career trajectory forever

By IQ on 07 Feb 2019

Chris York

Chris York


The first time that Chris York recalls meeting Simon Moran was at a Levellers concert at London’s Brixton Academy in 1993, promoted by Moran’s company SJM Concerts. “I was there purely as a punter and this man came up to me and berated me for trying to steal his acts,” remembers York with a smile. “I pointed out, probably not as eloquently as I might have done, that that was actually my job seeing as I didn’t technically work for him. He retorted, ‘Well, you should do then.’”

A few months later, York made the 200-mile journey up the M1 from London to Manchester to take up Moran’s offer and join SJM. Back then, there were five of them working out of a nondescript workspace shared with post-punk band The Fall, where the “much-missed” Mark E Smith could regularly be seen “swaying in the lifts in the mornings.”

Fast-forward a quarter of a century to today and SJM employs 65 people, puts on around 2,500 concerts and events a year, and proudly stands as the UK’s biggest independent promoter, with The Stone Roses, Take That, Coldplay, Muse, Robbie Williams, Peter Kay, Adele, The Killers, Arctic Monkeys, The Courteeners and Little Mix just a few of the many acts it has worked with in recent years.

“I’ve always felt at home at SJM,” says York, who recently celebrated 25 years at the company that he has played a key role in turning into a promoting powerhouse. “It’s always had the right ethos. We’ve always been artist-focused and tried to develop talent, and I think Simon and I share the right attitude about how we want to take things forward. Certainly, whenever we’ve been recruiting new staff we are always keen to add people who aren’t identical to ourselves. In order for the company to keep progressing and be relevant to new challenges, you’ve got to find people who aren’t doing exactly what you do.”

“In order for the company to keep progressing and be relevant to new challenges, you’ve got to find people who aren’t doing exactly what you do”

“Chris has been a huge part of the SJM story over the last 25 years,” says Moran. “He’s made a massive contribution in all facets of the business – clients becoming bigger, getting and retaining new clients, growing the business and gaining people, [investing in] buildings. He’s a very, very bright guy. He works hard. We’ve become really good friends and we’ve got implicit trust.”

“I think Simon’s style and my style are distinctly different, but they work well together, and I guess the biggest barometer of that is that we have gone on to be a very successful company,” reflects York, whose personal clients include Noel Gallagher, Foo Fighters, Massive Attack, Stereophonics, Lily Allen, Smashing Pumpkins, Underworld, Fatboy Slim, Green Day, Placebo, Lorde, Robert Plant, Morrissey, Kraftwerk, Swedish House Mafia, and The Chemical Brothers, among others. York is also one of SJM’s four directors alongside Moran, Rob Ballantine and Glenn Tyrrell.

Respect and admiration for the 49 year old extends throughout the industry. “Chris is, if not the best, one of the best promoters that I have ever worked with in the world,” says Underworld manager Mike Gillespie, who has known him since the mid-1990s. “He is loyal and sticks with his artists. Whereas a lot of promoters are naturally very cautious and hedge their bets, he is a bold and confident risk taker and is always looking at what the next step can be.

“At the same time, he can be stubborn, belligerent and awkward, but that’s part of what makes him brilliant. He will tell it you like it is and he doesn’t hold back. When you have an act that is doing well people tend to tell you what you want to hear. Chris isn’t one of them, and I really like and respect that. He understands that you’re only as good as your last gig and he’s not afraid to say to the manager or the artist, ‘That’s not good enough.’”

“Chris is, if not the best, one of the best promoters that I have ever worked with in the world. He is loyal and sticks with his artists”

By way of an example, Gillespie turns the clock back five years to when “Underworld had reached a ceiling” in terms of how many tickets they could sell. Through working closely with York over a series of releases and tours they rebuilt momentum and were able to sell-out two nights at London’s 3,000-capacity Roundhouse.

“Chris’s response off the back of that was, ‘Now we do the (10,000-capacity) Ally Pally,’ which really knocked me out,” recalls the manager. The gig sold out six months in advance and Underworld are now selling more tickets in the UK than ever before, he states. “A huge part of that is down to Chris’s willingness to take a risk, his determination to be bold, and his clear vision.”

York-shire
The Roots of York’s promoting career can be traced back to his childhood in Yorkshire where he developed an “unhealthy interest” in music from a young age and became immersed in Leeds’ post-punk and goth scenes as a teenager. To earn some extra cash while studying chemistry at Warwick, he began crewing and stage managing bands that visited the university. That led him to being elected cultural affairs officer in 1989, booking gigs by The Sundays and De La Soul, and gaining a first real taste of how the industry operates.

“It was a steep learning curve initially, but through that I developed good friendships with people that I still work with today,” says York, who moved to London after finishing his studies and spent 18 months as a booker at punk and indie club The Venue in New Cross.

“It was a really exciting time in music and we put some great bands on,” he says, listing memorable shows by Lush, Pulp, Suede, PJ Harvey, New Model Army and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine. The job also saw him establish with Steve Lamacq the inaugural NME On Nights with On For ‘92, which ran at The Venue from 1991 to 1993, later evolving into the NME Awards Brat Bus tours.

 


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