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C2C announces 2020 return after record year

Following its best-ever year in 2019, Country to Country (C2C) will return for its eighth outing next March, the festival’s UK and Ireland promoters have announced.

C2C 2019, headlined by country music superstars Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum and Chris Stapleton, took place from Friday 8 to Sunday 10 March. It welcomed 80,000 fans across three venues – the O2 in London, the SSE Hydro in Glasgow and 3Arena in Dublin – in what SJM Concerts’ Chris York, whose company co-promotes the event with AEG, calls its “busiest year yet”.

The festival also expanded to Germany, holding its first German event at AEG’s new Verti Music Hall in Berlin on 3 March, and the Netherlands, with the first C2C Amsterdam, co-promoted with Greenhouse Talent, taking place at AFAS Live (6,000-cap.) the following night.

C2C 2019 welcomed 80,000 fans in London, Glasgow and Dublin

C2C Australia, which has a different line-up, is staged on 28 and 29 September in Sydney and Brisbane, respectively.

The flagship C2C 2020 will take place on 13, 14 and 15 March, returning to London, Glasgow and Dublin, according to AEG and SJM, with earlybird tickets available from this Friday (15 March).

Read IQ’s recent feature on how Country to Country – along with the tireless support of the Country Music Association, radio DJs, local promoters and others – helped country music conquer the world here.

Big country: How country music conquered the world


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Big country: How country music conquered the world

It’s official: country music is cool.

Long stigmatised as restrictively America-centric, country, shed of many of its unfashionable ‘country and western’ trappings, is finding a new generation of loyal fans in the UK, Europe and Australasia, playlisted on commercial radio and championed by tastemakers at Vice, i-D and the NME.

Riding on the rise of festivals like AEG’s UK-born Country to Country phenomenon (now in five countries and counting), crossover success for artists such as Florida Georgia Line, Midland, and Kacey Musgraves, European radio support and the backing of the Country Music Association, country is increasingly big business outside its US heartland – with visiting Nashville A-listers, as well as a mounting number of homegrown acts, helping to build a major new touring market.

(A slice of the) American pie
According to WME Entertainment agent Akiko Rogers, global bookings for WME’s country and Americana artists have increased 14-fold in the past decade alone. “In 2009, 27 international dates were booked out of Nashville, all comprising country artists,” says Rogers, whose roster includes both country (Thomas Rhett, Frankie Davies) and non-country artists (Greta Van Fleet, Alanis Morissette), as well as those sitting somewhere in between (rising southern rockers the Marcus King Band).

“In 2018, that number went to 400 booked international dates comprising country and Americana artists, and sometimes a hybrid of both.”

Global bookings for WME’s country and Americana artists have increased 14-fold in the past decade

“The market interest in country music only continues to grow with the demand for US acts to tour internationally,” adds US-born, London-based UTA senior agent Sean Goulding, whose country and Americana roster includes Jimmie Allen, Ashley Campbell, Logan Mize, the Wood Brothers and High Valley. “C2C [Country to Country] London, the landmark international country music festival, has been growing steadily since its inception in 2013, which is a good indicator of the genre’s impact. Having expanded to Scotland and Ireland previously, it’s now visiting Amsterdam and Berlin this year. A number of our clients have performed at it over the past few years, using it as a springboard for the international market.”

The majority of promoters, agents and managers interviewed by IQ highlighted the C2C phenomenon, as well its various international spin-offs (in addition to Britain, the Irish republic, the Netherlands and Germany, there are also two Country to Country festivals in Australia) as being key to country music’s explosive growth in new markets over the past five years.

Chris York of SJM Concerts, which created C2C in partnership with AEG, says the festival’s genesis formed part of a “conscious decision” to build and grow the market for country music in the UK. “I’d always perceived country as being promoted in a very old-fashioned way,” York explains. It was all about, ‘We’ll pay them some money, put on a show at Wembley, maybe get a tour out of it…’ They weren’t interested in building a community.”

In contrast, York continues, C2C – bolstered by support from radio DJs such as Radio 2’s Bob Harris and Chris Country’s Chris Stevens – helped to establish a tight-knit community of fans, to the point where there is also now a sizeable country touring market in the UK.  “We did 45,000 tickets in London [for C2C 2018]. Four or five years ago that would have been beyond comprehension.”

“We did 45,000 tickets in London. Four or five years ago that would have been beyond comprehension”

Live Nation’s Anna-Sophie Mertens started promoting in her own right three years ago, and is now the “go-to person” for country shows in the company’s UK office, she explains. She says the number of country acts who want to play in the UK has more than doubled since then, including both big names worthy of headlining C2C and smaller emerging acts keen to stake a claim in the increasingly crowded country touring market.

Spurred on
Add hit drama series Nashville into that mix, too, suggests Milly Olykan, vice-president of international relations and development at the influential Nashville-based Country Music Association (CMA). “The contributing factors in those first five years [since the launch of C2C] were the internet, the TV show Nashville and Taylor Swift, but now we can add to that with the growth of C2C and, as a result, the volume of live touring and the radio support of the BBC,” says Olykan, who, as VP of live music at AEG Europe, set up C2C UK alongside York. “Radio 2 and Bob Harris have been long-time supporters, and this year we saw BBC Radio 1 play-listing country for the first time.

“We’ve got a momentum going now, and more and more fans are discovering they like country music.”

Anna-Sophie Mertens says the number of country acts who want to play in the UK has more than doubled in the past three years

In Germany, promoter Oliver Hoppe of Wizard Promotions also identifies Nashville as being a key driver of interest in country music – and ticket sales. “Our most successful tour so far is Charles Esten from the Nashville TV show,” he says. “1,500 tickets, five dates, all sold out.”

Hoppe, who describes himself as the main “country guy” in Germany, says the popularity of country music accelerated “six or seven years ago” after the CMA set its sights on conquering Europe. “A year or two before C2C in London started, we started to pick up shows here in Germany,” he explains. “Ossy [Hoppe, Wizard Promotions founder] used to bring Garth Brooks here in the ’90s, [but] that was a completely different animal – it was a worldwide phenomenon, and he played arenas over here that sold out instantly.

“It really picked up when the CMA put Europe on the agenda and we started doing grassroots work bringing over country and Americana acts.”

Hoppe says while the market is still “some years behind” Britain, “country is on the rise in Germany.

“It was a trickle at the beginning, but for every show we put on, more people come the second time around. We started with one country tour – the Band Perry, in 2012 – and now we’re at 25. We’ve been growing the market very organically but the interest is definitely there.”

“Country is one of the few genres of music where radio airplay can definitely move the needle”

The growth of country festivals such as C2C and CMC Rocks in Australia has been “instrumental in swinging the pendulum” towards country music outside the US, maintains Rogers. “Artists who historically did not want to travel outside of the US are standing in a queue to bring their music across the pond, to share experiences and life stories… I always love it when they return to the US with their stories of fans in Germany, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark singing all their songs back to them.

“It is so gratifying when a country artist plays a support slot on a festival, goes back in six to eight months and plays a headline club tour, goes back in another six to eight months after that and headlines a theatre tour, and then ends up headlining that same original festival.”

Like York, Rogers sees radio, as well as record label promo, as being a “huge factor” in country’s rise in Europe. “Country is one of the few genres of music where radio airplay can definitely move the needle,” she says.


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 82, or subscribe to the magazine here

SJM’s Chris York: becoming the guvnor

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.”

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.


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 80, or subscribe to the magazine here