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EMMA BANKS: CAA'S AGENT 007
11/27/18

Top CAA agent Emma Banks was awarded the prestigious Music Industry Trusts Award earlier in November to celebrate a 25-plus-year career working with some of the biggest acts in live music. Among the acts she reps are Katy Perry, Kylie Minogue, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lorde, Muse, HAIM, Paramore, and Florence + the Machine, who saluted Banks on the win for her “strength, kindness, and intuition.” Banks is the first female executive to receive the honour, and the third female overall alongside artists Minogue and Annie Lennox. Past MITs winners include Rob Stringer, Sir Lucian Grainge, Ahmet Ertegun, Simon Cowell and Michael Eavis.

Banks started her live-music career promoting shows while at university—where she was studying her way towards a life in industrial food production. Live music was more exciting than baking bread and beans, and, after knocking on a few closed doors, she tried her luck by writing letters to agencies. One of those was Wasted Talent, where Chairman Ian Flooks gave her a chance. “He was a brave man, because [the letter] had a girl’s name on it, and it was a girl who didn’t want to do the typing,” Banks recalls. “Back then, I don’t know if there were any female agents in the U.K., so it was a leap of faith for him to employ me.”

Alongside now-CAA U.K. co-head Mike Greek, who had joined Wasted Talent six weeks earlier, Banks was then involved in building what became Helter Skelter into one of the biggest independent agencies in the world. In 2006, Banks and Greek set up CAA in Blighty at a time when no American agency had a base in England, and the London office has since gone from four employees in music to nearly 70. Tours Banks is looking forward to working on next year include Foals, Muse and Disturbed, while Kylie Minogue and Florence will continue to tour, and Norah Jones is set to play some more shows. “The mighty Tenacious D will be back, which is very exciting to me,” she adds. Up-and-coming acts repped by Banks include Stereo Honey, Áine Cahill, FEET, Becky Hill and Jessie Reyez.


Congratulations on the award. How do you feel about winning?
The MITs has a history of incredible winners who have been game-changers in their fields—people who have shaped the music industry as we know it. So to be on that list of people is phenomenal. When it gets pointed out that I’m the first female exec, and only the third female to be awarded, that is even more special. I’ve always just done my job, and being a woman hasn’t been what defines me, but I think it shows how times are changing. Now, the world can be your oyster regardless of what your sex is, or anything else about you.

Your career has spanned over 25 years—can you share some standout memories?
I knew that we had someone very special in Jeff Buckley when he came over for the first time in ’94 and played a series of tiny gigs in the U.K. It was the first time I’d ever been to a show where people were absolutely 100% silent; there was no sense that anybody was doing anything apart from standing transfixed. Chili Peppers selling out three nights in Hyde Park was a turning point within their career and also for me. They were the biggest shows that I’d ever been part of singlehandedly at that point, and for a band that I love dearly and respect, it was a wonderful thing to see and to be part of. Florence + the Machine headlining Glastonbury was a very emotional moment that meant a lot to everybody who was there. For somebody who stepped into a situation relatively last-minute and took it on, at no point did she ever come across as a second choice. It was clear that she was a phenomenal headliner for that festival.

Getting Marilyn Manson’s first London gig to actually happen was an important moment. We went to four or five venues that kept refusing to allow him to play. Vince Power—who owned the Town & Country Club at that point, which is now the Forum—was a brave man and said, “OK, you’re telling me that he’s not going to do anything illegal, and I trust you.” The show was amazing, and he didn’t do anything illegal; he was just the phenomenal performer that he is. That taught me that sometimes you have to stand up and fight and push for what you want and need to happen for your clients.

There are so many memories. I went to see Hozier for the first time at a little church in Dublin and realised there was something really special about him; he’s an artist who’s going to stand the test of time. With all your clients, you’re hoping that however you come to meet them and at whatever point in their careers, you become part of their team. So their highlights are my highlights—that’s how it works.

Who has inspired and supported you along the course of your career?
I have to thank all of the managers that have let me work with them, and all the artists who have allowed me to be their agent. Gail Colson, who I worked with at Wasted Talent early on in my career while she was managing The Pretenders, was incredibly helpful, kind and insightful. Through her, I met a lot of other incredible women in the music business, like Cathy Cremer [EMI], Harriet Brand [MTV], photographer Jill Furmanovsky and Caryn Tomlinson, who was at EMI. I had this amazing support network.

Being able to work on U2 back in the ’90s with Ian Flooks and meeting Paul McGuinness and all of the team around them was amazing. They were all incredibly kind and generous with their time, and helpful to somebody who was learning the ropes. I was given so much opportunity on that tour.

Then, I’ve had Mike Greek, who has been my rock through it all—and hopefully I’ve been that for him. Having a person you can bounce ideas off, one who tells you that you’re not crazy and occasionally tells you to go home, or have a day off, is a wonderful thing.

How has the role of an agent changed during your career?
Fundamentally, we still do the same thing, with a whole load of extra stuff added. What has made it much more time-consuming and trickier is that, with the Internet existing, the ability to have multiple on-sales and pre-sales, and the ever-constant fight or threat—whatever you call it—of secondary ticketing, especially for the artists who feel strongly about it. So trying to make sure tickets are sold at the face value they’ve determined and not a value that somebody else determines just because you can get that amount of money for it. Those things are more and more complicated.

Since I started, the world has become smaller. I remember when going to Portugal seemed crazy. It was in the early ’90s that U2 first went to Portugal and played in Lisbon, which might have been one of the first shows that Wasted Talent ever booked in that country. It seems ridiculous now, but people just weren’t doing that—all of Asia, South America and Eastern Europe was pretty much a closed book then; now we have tours that are going to every country in Eastern Europe. And while the economies are not so strong and people don’t earn quite so much money, so you have to be very careful with your ticket prices, there’s incredible opportunity for artists who are willing to put the time in and travel. You can find pockets of excitement about artists that you never knew existed, so the opportunity for your career to last that bit longer and for you not to overplay and cannibalise other markets is probably greater than it ever was.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned about being an agent? What’s the mark of a good one?
I think what has made me reasonably successful is hard work, being tenacious, honest, straightforward and just wanting to do the very best. Also, understanding what it is that your client wants and what they need—sometimes maybe knowing what they need before they are even aware of it. Trying to have the forethought that, while in January you think that you’re still going to be going 100 miles an hour in September, you may need a break before then, because we are all human beings, and life on the road and doing promo is tough. We have a duty to the artists we work with not to run them into the ground, and sometimes saying no is the best thing you can do. You don’t want to do it too often, but you have to be able to say no as an agent. You have to make some tough decisions, you have to be prepared to disappoint people and you have to love what you do. I love what I do, I love the clients I work with and I care about them professionally and personally. I don’t want to ever lose that.

What are you looking for in new artists?
The magic. People who are able to write or perform songs and put themselves on a stage and pretty much lay themselves bare to everybody watching, and it doesn’t matter if it’s 50 people or 50,000. They are a rare breed. When I’m looking at artists, I need to see somebody who has got the talent, you want to hear a fantastic voice and it’s got to be a little bit different. They’ve got to be charismatic, and they’ve got to be prepared to put the work in. Ideally, they need to be able to take a little bit of constructive criticism, and I want them to want their career as much as I am going to want it for them. If I want it more than them, it’s probably not going to work. I can open the doors, but they have to walk through them.

You generally know pretty quickly when you meet people, although I’m not always right with the artists that I say no to or don’t pursue because I don’t get it. And I’m not always right with the artists I sign; they don’t all become hugely successful. Sometimes it’s a matter of timing, and sometimes that little seed of talent doesn’t germinate, and it doesn’t become what you wanted. That’s the business we’re in—there’s a high failure rate in media and entertainment. You just have to do the very best you can and hope you’re picking wisely, that your strike rate is pretty good and that the people you want to work with want to work with you.

How do you persuade artists and their managers to sign and stay with you?
I think it’s about relationships. I sign people and I keep them because we have a good, honest relationship through good and bad times. We’re all going to have ups and downs; every day isn’t going to be sunny and fabulous, and there are going to be some cloudy days and some thundery days, which are harder to get through. But if you’ve got someone’s back and you truly believe in them, that should be what it takes. Sometimes people think the grass is looking a lot greener somewhere else, and it’s always very easy to tell anybody all the things they should have done or could do, but I don’t think there are many agents who aren’t trying their hardest.

What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself 20 years ago?
Loosen up a bit! Don’t be worried about what other people think about you—which I think is good advice for anyone—as long as you’re a decent and honourable person. There’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like you, or someone who doesn’t fancy you, but I think we can all get a bit tied up in that.

I might have taken more holidays as well. I am the queen of looking back at August in October and going, “God it really wasn’t very busy then; I could have taken more time off.” But overall, I’m pretty happy with how it’s gone. I don’t really do regret; I don’t want to wallow in what might have been. Because it’s been pretty great, frankly, and here’s hoping it continues to be.

You’ve achieved a lot—are there any ambitions left?
Waking up every morning is an achievement at my age [laughs]. I just want to be better at what I do. I aspire to be better at time management but suspect that may be an impossibility for me. At some point, I do need to work out how to manage emails occasionally, because there are a lot of them. I’ve never gone through life with a list of achievements to tick off; what I’ve done is gone. Am I in a good place? Am I working as hard as I can? Is there something else I need to learn? I love the fact that I work with different artists, managers and genres of music, because I learn so much from each of them. I love the team that I work with at CAA because I learn so much from them as well. You need to take on board so many people’s opinions in this day and age.

Ultimately, my ambitions are that every new artist I’ve signed achieves what they want to achieve, and not every artist wants to be the biggest in the world. I learnt that with Jeff Buckley, who said early on, “I don’t think I’m ever going to want to play an arena.” He didn’t necessarily want to be the most enormous, but he wanted to be able to make his art and for people to listen to it and participate with him and the experience at live shows. What’s important to me is being able to deliver for the artists I work with.

As far as personal ambitions, one I could tick off is that I have some thoroughbred racehorses, and I really want to win a group race, which is a top-level horse race. It’s also something I don’t have to get fit for—they have to get fit for it, so that’s even better. I can just watch it.

And maybe take some more holidays…
Yes, maybe take some more holidays in times when no one will need me and I won’t miss out on anything. My FOMO is strong!

What advice would you give to someone who has aspirations to be an agent today?
The world is your oyster, but it’s not necessarily the easiest job to get into, and there’s a lot of agents around. The agent pool generally isn’t getting any smaller—not many people are retiring from the business, and more of them are joining it. There’s a lot of competition out there, so you have to know it’s something you really want to do, and you have to be prepared to work really hard.

People talk a lot about the so called “threat” of Live Nation and AEG, but I sell so many shows to those companies—they are not a threat; they are our partners. So don’t be scared of those things, but obviously you have to be aware of the touring deals they’re doing and how the business is changing in that respect.

Be open to change, go with the flow and learn every day. If you’re a young person and you want to do it, then you should do it, but do it because you love it, not because you think it’s an easy route to becoming a millionaire.