'It was a baptism of fire': MITs winner Emma Banks on her early days as an agent

Emma Banks

It’s a huge week for music business awards. On Friday, it’s the sold-out Music Week Women In Music Awards, honouring the most successful female executives in the business.

But first, tonight will see CAA super-agent Emma Banks pick up the Music Industry Trusts Award. Banks – who won the Outstanding Contribution gong at our Women In Music event in 2015 – will become the first female executive to win the award and is likely to put on a spectacular show at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.

Banks starred on the Music Week front cover last month, giving her typically frank and fearless views on the industry, including secondary ticketing and market saturation. But now, as a preview for tonight’s bash, we sat down with her to talk through the early days of her career, when she became one of the very first female rock and pop agents in the UK.

Read on for more tales of Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2 and gymkhanas…

Why do you think you’ve been chosen to pick up this year’s MITs Award?

“I suppose because I’ve got a big mouth and people know me. I’ve put the 28 years in and you get some pay off!”

And yet you’re weren’t particularly into music when you were at school…

“No. I listened to music because it was in the car, we listened to Terry Wogan on the school journey to Bedford. I bought the Floral Dance for God’s sake, I’m not that cool! I didn’t go to many gigs at all before I went to university, it wasn’t something I did. I did acting, debating and I had a horse and I did schoolwork.” 

So it was Reading University that sparked your interest…

“Yes. I went to Reading, got involved in the RAG fundraising committee and I was booking shows. I used to run a horse show, it’s not that different. When I was growing up, there wasn’t a gymkhana in the village I lived it, so I started one and it became bigger and became a horse show, quite a lot of people came to it. It’s just event organisation so, when I went to uni, I knew how to do event organisation, do a little budget. There was an annual beer festival which we ran and we ran gigs. I loved the gig thing, I really enjoyed the musicians and talking to them, meeting them and helping them, but I also liked the business of it. I liked that you had to think, ‘How many tickets will this sell? How much money can I spend on the act’ because, at the end of the night, there needs to be some money left over that we’re going to give the charity.”

Which bands did you work with?

“Of course, you can only ever remember the big ones! We promoted quite a lot of ‘70s acts that were still on the circuit, acts like The Sweet and Showaddywaddy. But we also promoted The Pogues and New Order and that was amazing. Myself and a guy called Neil Richards in the year above me set up a little promoting company and promoted people like The Stone Roses, Tad and Nirvana in Reading.”

But when you left university, you didn’t want to be an agent…

“No, because I thought they were awful. They were quite disrespectful to you as a promoter a lot of the time. When I started there wasn’t the internet or electronic transfer of things so, when you needed a photo, someone had to physically put it in an envelope and post it to you. You could wait weeks and weeks and you never got any promotional material, which was so frustrating. It’s your money on the line and yet nobody is helping you. It was tricky. I don’t know why it put me off because I should have thought, ‘If they’re not very good, I could do a better job’ – and ultimately that’s what I did hopefully achieve.”

So why did you become an agent?

“Because needs must! When no one else will give you a job you go, ‘OK, this is the last chance saloon’. My dad was starting to get somewhat agitated that I was not fulfilling my potential, so I wrote to a bunch of agents and, thank God, Ian Flooks at Wasted Talent called me up two days after he got my CV and said, did I want to go in for a meeting, which of course I did. I got dressed up and went, and realised immediately that you didn’t need to get dressed up for a meeting at a talent agency. It took him a long time, I had to go back and have another meeting with some of the other agents there and it took him a long time to get to the point where he gave me a job. He was probably travelling with U2 so getting some muppet to book shows was probably the least of his worries at that point!”

How were those early years at Wasted Talent?

“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, bought me a burger for lunch. He had long curly hair at that point, which was quite funny. I don’t think I’d ever met anyone like Mike at that point 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’d just had McDonald’s at Bedford. Because Ian Flooks had brought me in, I ended up doing a lot for him. He was working on The B-52s, he’d been the agent for Kraftwerk for a long time and got me involved with them and Joe Jackson. Then I pretty quickly got involved with U2, the Zoo TV tour. It was a baptism of fire but it was absolutely incredible. I learned so much from that, just sitting in meetings, being there. I think I’d only been to one stadium show at that point never mind booked one! Just being part of it and helping to book the support acts, it was absolutely mind-blowing to me. I’d been to the Joshua Tour when I was at uni and suddenly Adam Clayton is 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!” It was really special. That was an amazing tour, an amazing album and they’re an amazing band so to be part of that was an incredible experience. 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.”

Wasted Talent became Helter Skelter and you took on more and more acts. Which artists have been most important to you over the years?

“They’re all important to me – they really are, because they’re all my family. There are ones that maybe have taken me from A to B or given me an experience that others haven’t. Jeff Buckley was an important person for me, just for the time he was there and what he achieved and what he did and how he was. The Chili Peppers in Hyde Park was a big moment for me – it was a big moment for all of us! I’d told Peter Mensch – who’s a manager I work with a lot and who I have a huge amount of time and respect for; he’s really great to work with because he lets you do your job – we could maybe get two of these, when Hyde Park was 85,000 capacity. He was like, ‘Oh right, sure, OK we’ll hold the Sunday anyway’. We went on sale on a Saturday morning and I left a message on his answer machine about midday saying, ‘We’ve sold two shows out’. I remember him ringing me back saying, ‘I couldn’t quite hear your message – it sounded like you said we’d sold two shows out which clearly can’t be right’ and I was like, ‘No, we have – and I think we can do a third’. We added the Wednesday and that sold out as well. That’s pretty amazing because this was before Ed Sheeran was invented so it was a big deal! The Chili Peppers were the biggest act I’d ever represented at that point. We played stadium shows all round the world and I loved them, they’re all amazing people and I’ve learned a lot from them. There are all these points in my life and they’re about my clients, they’re not about me, but the process and the learnings that you get from them just keep building you to the next level.”

You and Mike Greek then launched CAA in the UK. What made you want to do that?

“I decided that working with CAA was the best route for me and I felt 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.”

To read Emma Banks’ recent Music Week cover story, click here. To subscribe and never miss a vital music biz story, click here.

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