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Primary Talent’s Matt Bates has built a reputation as a wizard of artist development over a phenomenal 20 years in the business
By Gordon Masson on 22 Jan 2019
Many of us, when young, dreamt idly of running away with a band or the circus. When Babyshambles kick-started his career as an agent, Matt Bates did both.
Growing up in Shrewsbury in a house where Dire Straits, Fleetwood Mac and Status Quo were on heavy rotation, Bates was initially into Michael Jackson, New Kids On The Block and Ace of Base. The release of Blur’s Parklife in 1994 was to prove the catalyst for music taking over his life.
Blur’s show at Birmingham NEC on The Great Escape tour in November 1995 was Bates’ first concert, getting the coach from Shrewsbury. “I had never been to a gig before and that made me want to go to gigs every night,” he says. “Now I would do anything to not go to gigs every night of the week!”
It was a Britpop baptism of fire and his first three shows were reasonably close together, and combined made up what he terms “the holy trinity” – Blur, Pulp and Oasis. “There was no hiding what I was going to be into. I feel I was quite lucky growing up during Britpop.”
When he was 16 and at college, he began to address the musical drought in Shrewsbury – a place very few bands played – by lying about his age to hire out local venues to put on indie nights, and DJ-ing there, too. The agent instinct was already there – even if he wasn’t exactly sure what an agent was. He would use a nearby pay-phone, as he was too nervous to use the phone at home in front of his mother, to try and get bands to come to his town.
“I would phone around agencies and ask, ‘How much does it cost to book Oasis?’” he laughs, remembering his first steps in the business. “I was completely naive! But looking back it was a great rounding. I didn’t know what an agent really was then. But I knew I wanted to do something with live music.”
“Overnight I had become the agent for Babyshambles from my bedroom in Stoke-on-Trent … I suddenly realised I was an agent!”
He was a self-starter and, like a twist on the line in Field of Dreams, he was sure that if he built it, they would come. By 18, he was studying journalism and English – believing writing was his way into the music business – at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, and also putting on nights there. “The first proper gig that I put on that made money was when I was 18 or 19,” he says. “I booked a tribute band called The Complete Stone Roses. They brought with them the real life Mani [from The Stone Roses] as a DJ, and I met him. I was a geeky little kid and just spoke to him. I had never really met anyone properly famous at that point. He took me under his wing.”
Mani returned to DJ at his club nights and from that came introductions to Clint Boon from Inspiral Carpets (“the world’s nicest man”) who in turn introduced Bates to Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays, Mark Morriss from The Bluetones, Rick Witter from Shed Seven, and Tim Burgess from The Charlatans, all of whom he got to play records at his club. “These were all my heroes and I started DJing with them,” he says.
As he was approaching the end of his studies in Stoke, he and a friend were offered the chance to buy into a business in the city, as the adult club that was in the building was moving to a new location. “It was a lap-dancing club with the wonderful name of ST1, which was the area postcode, but it looked like STI on the sign,” he laughs.
Using his student loan, he turned the venue into The Underground and enjoyed the independence of owning and running his own club. He also put on touring bands and hired venues back in Shrewsbury so he could book bands into both, eventually expanding into nearby Wrexham and Birmingham.
The loss-making gigs often outnumbered the profitable ones (“because promoting is gambling”) but he loved the hustle. “Hats off to all the independent promoters out there because it is a lifestyle,” he says. “You didn’t know if next week you were going to eat or not. Sometimes I would live on bread and jam for a week because I just didn’t have any other way of feeding myself.”
Acts he put on in the 300-cap. venue included Arthur Lee & Love, The Cooper Temple Clause, John Cale, The Misfits, Keane, and Razorlight. Then fate came rambunctiously knocking.
“It was so exciting. People with broken arms and broken legs; people getting arrested. This is what I always thought music was about!”
A complete ’shambles
Pete Doherty had left The Libertines and formed Babyshambles. Via a friend of a friend, Bates managed to book them to play The Underground. The night they played, however, Carl Barât showed up and the gig became a mini Libertines reunion. Chaos ensued.
“So many people were excited that this was actually happening and tried to get in that the club got absolutely trashed,” he says, his eyes widening at the memory. “The ceiling collapsed. A wall collapsed. All the lights came off the wall. Everything was destroyed. They ended up doing a gig on their tour bus outside the venue. The police were called and they had to cordon off all the roads […] It was so exciting. People with broken arms and broken legs; people getting arrested. This is what I always thought music was about!”
Babyshambles returned the next week to play their own gig at the venue and Bates was asked to book them more shows. “Overnight I had become the agent for Babyshambles from my bedroom in Stoke-on-Trent,” he says. “Within about a month I had booked Babyshambles on Glastonbury. I suddenly realised I was an agent!”
He went on the road with the band, tuning guitars, running the guest list, getting Pete out of bed, and doing the accounts on the road.
“Babyshambles were one of the most notorious bands in the country at that point and I was this little kid in the eye of the hurricane,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a computer. I didn’t even have a business bank account. Deposits for the shows at Glastonbury or the Brixton Academy were going into my personal student bank account. I look back now in wonder at how the hell these people took me seriously […] It was carnage as you can imagine. It was the worst and the best time of my life in equal measure.”
He moved to London to work with the band and Pete Doherty remains one of his acts to this day. “My whole career was built around being given an opportunity I should never have been given,” he says. “I had no right to be their agent.”
Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 81, or subscribe to the magazine here.