MITs Award winner Emma Banks reveals secrets of her success

Sofa, so good: Emma Banks shot for Music Week at CAA HQ, London

Emma Banks has two great passions in life: music and horseracing. You might imagine the two worlds have little in common but, as the super-agent – who owns or part-owns eight horses – settles down in the Principal’s office at the BRIT School, she outlines the similarities.

“In horseracing, I’ve got one horse that’s won a couple of listed races [the second highest level of race] so they’re worth more money, they’re a bigger deal, everyone talks about them,” she muses.

“But when she wins those races, I get the same buzz as when the horse that I bought as a foal because he was born on my birthday – a bad reason to buy a horse, by the way! – wins a race. It doesn’t matter that it’s a Grade 5 race and the prize money is 20p and a bottle of shandy, it’s still the same buzz.

“It’s the achievement that is just so great, whatever level it is,” she adds. “Just like there’s nothing better than meeting musicians – and who knows, maybe I’ll have met some here today – and in two years time they sell out the Borderline, in four years they sell out Hammersmith Apollo and in six years they sell out The O2. It’s just amazing to be part of that journey with them.

“And even if their journey doesn’t get them that far, it’s still such an achievement. When you can go, ‘Yeah, we’ve sold out the Shacklewell Arms’, that’s brilliant because that’s what you want to do.”

Over the years, of course, Banks – who won the Music Week Women In Music Outstanding Contribution Award in 2015 and was hailed by BBC Radio 4 as one of the most powerful women in the biz – has turned many a yearling into a racing certainty on the live circuit. She represents everyone from Katy Perry to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Marilyn Manson to Kylie Minogue. And, having established the CAA London office alongside long-time work colleague Mike Greek in 2006, she has helped grow its staff from five to around 150, transforming the UK live landscape in the process (she also insists on sitting on every chair the company buys, just to make sure it’s comfortable).

It’s a far cry from the start of her career. Having not been an obsessive music fan growing up (“I did acting, debating and I had a horse”), Banks got involved in the RAG fundraising committee at Reading University and found herself booking and promoting uni gigs from the likes of The Pogues and New Order (her experience running her own gymkhana in her village in Bedfordshire stood her in good stead). She then launched an external promotions company which put on the likes of The Stone Roses and Tad/Nirvana around Reading.

By the time she left university, she was set on a career in the music biz, but definitely not as an agent (“Agents were awful,” she grins. “They were quite disrespectful to you as a promoter a lot of the time”). No other music companies replied to her letters though, so she eventually contacted Ian Flooks at Wasted Talent who called her in for an interview and, eventually, gave her a job. At the time, she was the only female rock/pop agent she knew in the UK.

The students she meets at the BRIT School today are, by Banks’ own admission, a lot more savvy than she was at the same age, leaving her confident about “the future of the arts”. She’s here today as part of her duties around winning the 2018 Music Industry Trusts Award on November 5. She’s the first female executive to do so and follows in the footsteps of fellow Luton Town fan Rob Stringer, surely the only trophy Luton have ever retained.

Banks tours the school, trading hair dye tips with the student who interviews her for the in-house TV station (always on duty, she recommends her client Hayley Williams of Paramore’s Good Dye Young brand), watching with rapt attention as an Iranian refugee plays metal guitar in his Nordoff Robbins music therapy session (Banks has a long association with the charity) and giving a frank and funny Q&A to BRIT School principal Stuart Worden in front of the ‘elite music students’. “Sometimes, you just have to bullshit your way through,” she advises them.

In person, however, there is very little BS from EB. She has always shot straight, as her career moved from Wasted Talent to Helter Skelter to CAA. So, BRIT School tour over, she sits down with Music Week to talk the MITs, secondary ticketing and, of course, the gee-gees…

Is it harder to spot talent in horses or musicians?

“Probably horses. When you buy a yearling it’s like literally randomly picking Bono’s son and Jimmy Page’s daughter and saying, ‘Because your parents are good, you’ll be really good – go and make some music together’ and hoping they’ll be as great as Led Zeppelin and U2. And they might be, but they might not be. But when you’re working out where the horses should run, it is very similar to what you do with artists, because you want to position them in the right way and you have a plan and you want them to develop. And some of them are really precocious and fast out of the gate and others take a year and a half before they even get to a racecourse. And they could be the ones that win the Grand National.”

Have you been pleased by the reaction to you becoming the first female exec to win the MITs?

“Yes, it’s great. It’s just very odd when you’re talking about yourself. If you say it’s great, you sound like you think you’re great. But overall, of course there should have been more women that have won it up until now. There’s not a person on that committee that would be discriminating against women or minorities. It’s just who comes to the top of your head and often those people are white men who’ve been around for longer and are maybe better at self-promotion. I’m incredibly proud to be flying the flag for the girls because there are so many incredible women. But I hope we get to the point where no one comments on it.”

You told the BRIT School students that “none of us have ever really made it”. Surely winning the MITs Award means you have?

“Well, no, because you just strive for more. You can’t ever sit back and go, ‘I’ve made it’ because, while this is an amazing honour to be granted, every day I still have to get up and get my arse into gear and book shows and come up with ideas and plot and plan with managers and make sure that the clients that I work with and look after are being looked after to the best of my ability. And that’s not going to stop on November 6.”

What were those early years at Wasted Talent like?

“It was really fun. Mike Greek had started a month before me so on my first day he took me to Ed’s Diner on the Fulham Road and bought me a burger for lunch. He had long curly hair at that point. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone like him and we’ve worked together ever since, so the hair didn’t totally put me off. I don’t think I’d ever eaten a burger like that before either! I pretty quickly got involved with U2 on the Zoo TV tour. It was a baptism of fire but it was absolutely incredible. I’d been to the Joshua Tree Tour when I was at uni and suddenly Adam Clayton was ringing up, asking for me by name to talk about the support artists. It was quite remarkable. I don’t really get starstruck, and I don’t think you can in this business. You have to accept that we’re all doing our jobs but some of that was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s one of U2 on the phone I can’t believe it!’ I was booking tiny acts into pubs and then there were weekends when I’d be going to Naples with U2, it was just unreal.”

Life on the road was very different then…

“It was. I had some fun and games. Of course I did! I was the very, very square person at school and I was a very square person at uni. I didn’t really do anything very interesting until I started work – and then I made up for lost time! But not in an out-of-control kind of way. I don’t have an addictive personality, which is good in some ways and a shame when it comes to the gym! I was able to try things and hang out with people without it ever becoming a problem. I was generally one of the first in the office in the morning. You can deal with far less sleep when you’re young. To be in The Crobar until 4am and still be able to get up at 7 – they were the days! But it’s important that you have those days, it’s sad if you don’t. The music industry has been brilliant to me.”

Did you realise what a trailblazer you were?

“No. I was doing a job and I happened to be a woman. Gail Colson was managing The Pretenders and I started working with them, and she was very inspiring to me. Just a brilliant human being, really good at what she does and a really strong woman that had done things on her own terms and properly been a trailblazer, running Charisma and all the things that she did. But I never really considered the fact that I don’t think there were any female agents in the UK when I started. I didn’t necessarily try and be one of the boys all the time, I think everyone knew I wasn’t a boy, but also, if the men said something, I didn’t get too upset about it. It’s weird when I look back now how few women there were. Ultimately, as a woman, there is nothing within the role of being an agent that is gender specific. And women bring other skillsets to things, so life’s better when you’ve got some women and some men doing things together.”

Are you friends with your artists?

“(Laughs) Some of them! I think I have a good relationship with all of them, but it’s a working relationship. It’s funny in the music business, particularly in live, because it’s an evening event which is often when people are in their free time and people go drinking and you have meals so boundaries can sometimes be a little bit blurry. I’ve had some incredible conversations with lots of the artists that I work with and I’m very blessed that, with a lot of them, we’ve worked together for a long time so we’ve both had our ups and downs and we see highs and lows. People have got married and got divorced and they’ve had children and there’s been bereavements, all this stuff we’ve been through together. Musicians give a lot of themselves when they write songs and when they perform and so you find out things about people, which does probably give you a different relationship to other jobs.”

Do you disagree with your artists?

“Yeah, sometimes.”

Who tends to win the argument?

“I don’t know if it’s about winning or losing, it’s about finding a compromise or a position that everybody’s happy with. Sometimes I think somebody shouldn’t do something and they want to because, who knows, they need a new kitchen and the money comes at the right time. And, ultimately, we can all overthink what we do sometimes. There are plenty of tours that have been unsuccessful but, if the artist goes on to write some genius music next time, they bounce back. People are very forgiving, they just want to hear great music and see great shows. I don’t think I’ve fallen out with somebody about it because, ultimately, you just move on. I work for the artist but, in my work for them I sometimes need to push back. I need to say, ‘Really, are you sure? Is that the right thing? Is that the move to make? I would do it this way…’ Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t but ultimately, it’s a team. That’s how Mike [Greek] and I have worked together for so long, because I don’t always agree with him and he doesn’t always agree with me, but you need to know when to back off and when to really push your point. Fortunately, we’re not sitting in an operating theatre with blood spurting out of an artery. If you do take that gig or don’t take that gig it probably doesn’t alter the course of history. Probably.”

The agency world is now dominated by US corporate companies. Do you think about the competition?

“Of course you think about it. If you’re a driven person and you want to be the best – and that doesn’t necessarily mean being the biggest, just that you do amazing work for your clients – then you have to be aware what else is going on in the market. The big American companies are clearly in the marketplace now and they weren’t 12 years ago, but we’re all still just people. In a lot of cases, it’s the same people working under a different umbrella. There’s room for all of us and I hope what CAA or UTA or William Morris brings is that wide-ranging remit which, for some artists, is absolutely crucial. The independent companies that are still very much music talent agencies are similarly doing an amazing job. I decided that, for me, working with CAA was the best route and that we could generate other opportunities for clients. Is everybody in the movies? No, of course they’re not, that would be ridiculous. Does everybody have a global fashion deal with Gucci? No, of course they don’t. But the fact that, at the end of an internal phone call, I can get in touch with somebody in China or LA that knows the head of the Paralympics or the designer for Burberry or Steven Spielberg or whatever it might be, is just an incredible resource. How much you and your clients use it comes down to them.”

Where do you stand on secondary ticketing?

“It’s just not a good thing. It’s not right, it’s not fair. It’s capitalism clearly, and we live in a society that believes capitalism is right. And I’m a fan of capitalism, don’t get me wrong. But when you’re buying something so finite and there’s not an option to go to another day, I’m not a huge fan of it. There was something much more honest about a geezer in a raincoat going, ‘Buy or sell’. Ultimately, we work for the artist and it’s up to the artist how strongly they feel about it. But as an industry – and this is an important point – we need to stop being obsessed with how fast tickets sell. The big news story ‘Tickets all sold out in four minutes’ means scalpers bought all the tickets. It’s just not possible to legitimately sell that amount of tickets in arenas or stadia, in that amount of time. The pressure is on, you go on sale at 10am and at 10.15 you’re getting emails going, ‘Have we sold out?’ Well, no, because we took a route which is going to take longer because you don’t want to be scalped. A slower rate of sale is a positive thing. If you want to try and get rid of the big, problematic scalping, you have to spend more money on advertising and accept a slower rate of sale. It’s really important that people do that.”

Do you worry about market saturation as a result of too many big tours happening at the same time?

“It’s an unavoidable consequence of the modern music business. The market can actually handle a lot, it really can. That month this summer [when Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Jay-Z & Beyoncé and The Rolling Stones all played stadiums] proved it because, even if not every show was sold out, none of them were embarrassing, they probably all did as well as they would have done had they not been in such a busy time. And it’s a brave person that says to a major artist, ‘I’m sorry you can’t tour because all these other acts are touring’.”

Coda’s Alex Hardee told Music Week agents were “overpaid and under-skilled”. Do you agree?

“Yeah, probably! It depends what skillset you’re looking for. Because if you put an agent into any other situation, they’re probably very much under-skilled. But someone who’s not an agent couldn’t do our job. Even other people in the music industry find it difficult. Are they overpaid? There are plenty of agents that get paid very well, but that’s like saying a Premier League footballer is overpaid. If people are paying the money to go and see Man Utd play football then they should be remunerated because, who else should get that money? It’s the same with agents. If you’re doing the job and everybody’s happy and the money is there, it’s only fair and reasonable that you get paid.”

What’s left for you to achieve in the future?

“I want one of my horses to win a group race! I’m getting a tattoo of the first horse to do that, and I don’t have any tattoos. Not of the actual horse, probably its name and the race! But the future is just doing this more. Occasionally you’re tired, it’s busy, you feel like you’re drowning under the work and then you go to a gig or have a conversation with an artist, you hear some new music and you go, ‘This is the best job ever’. And this is the best life ever. It’s given me so many opportunities. I’ve been around the world, met interesting people, I’ve got to do so many things and I’m not ready for it to end yet. So we’ll keep on going.”

For more stories like this, and to keep up to date with all our market leading news, features and analysis, sign up to receive our daily Morning Briefing newsletter

subscribe link free-trial link

follow us...