Free agent: Primary Talent International enters new era with business 'bigger and better'

Free agent: Primary Talent International enters new era with business 'bigger and better'

Primary Talent International managing partner and CEO Matt Bates has given his first interview following the agency’s management buyout.

In 2020, Primary Talent was sold to ICM, which was subsequently acquired by CAA last summer. In March this year, the London-based agency re-established its independent status. 

“There was an understanding that trying to merge Primary into CAA wasn’t necessarily going to work for everybody,” said Bates. “It became obvious that there was scope to try and put something together and buy Primary back. It was always amicable.”

The buyout was led with former ICM founding partner and COO Rick Levy, who Bates described as “instrumental”. Levy has been made a Primary Talent partner and will act as senior advisor. 

“It’s very liberating to be able to forge our own identity in the music world again,” Bates told Music Week. 

Primary Talent’s roster of over 450 acts includes The 1975, The Cure, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Alt-J, Rina Sawayama, Beabadoobee, Ziggy Marley and Wolf Alice. 

The management buyout deal was privately financed.

“There’s no outside investment, we’re not answering to people who want to see a [specific] profit margin,” said Bates. “To be purely independently owned by the agents is such a rarity.”

The company elevated agents Laetitia Descouens, Sally Dunstone, Martje Kremers, Ed Sellers and LA-based Simon Clarkson to become partners. Veteran agent Ben Winchester will continue to serve as a board member with Bates and Levy.   

Primary Talent focuses on bookings in Europe, including American acts represented by its agents in LA and New York. Last month it recruited Pete Nash, who had joined ICM in 2020. Based in New York, the Primary Talent partner’s acts include Kings Of Leon, Pet Shop Boys, Regina Spektor, Steve Winwood and Travis. 

With the sector returning to full operation last year, Bates said that Covid-19’s impact had been a defining moment for the firm.

“The pandemic definitely made it more of a people business again, relationships became more important,” said Bates. “People who checked in with their clients through that time, even though there were no shows, were the ones that did well and survived.”

Primary Talent clients including Rina Sawayama, Beabadoobee and Sports Team actually broke through during the pandemic.

“People had big debut albums while there was no touring, which was very strange,” said Bates. 

Rina Sawayama, who is signed to Dirty Hit, has since made the leap to venues such as O2 Academy Brixton, prior to its closure.

“Rina’s been a great artist coming through, Sally has done a fantastic job building her,” said Bates. “She is a global artist that could break everywhere, she really ticks so many boxes.”

It’s very liberating to be able to forge our own identity in the music world again

Matt Bates

The agency has booked summer outdoor shows and festivals for The 1975 including Parklife, TRNSMT and Finsbury Park. 

“For The 1975 on this campaign globally, ticket sales have gone up again,” said Bates. “The Finsbury Park show in London literally sold out in seconds, and that was after doing a whole UK arena tour. It was just phenomenal. 

“They’re evolving with every album, they’re growing and the fanbase is getting bigger. This summer is going to be a very big one for them across the world.”

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds will play multiple outdoor UK dates, including Splendour Festival and Bingley Weekender.

“Noel’s ticket sales never diminish, he’s so strong and such an important British icon,” said Bates.

In 2022, the Primary team booked around 4,500 shows globally. Their busy schedule last year was down to the full return of live, including gigs that had been postponed before the pandemic.

“This year is going to be bigger, better and busier in every shape or form,” said Bates. “It’s actually bigger than last year – no one thought that could happen. Talking to promoters, it’s the same across the board. So it does feel that we are truly back now as an industry, which is wonderful.”

While the top end of the industry is thriving, Bates stressed that it is tougher for smaller acts, particularly new artists.

“It’s getting harder to break new artists and keep them out there touring, because costs have gone up and fewer people are buying tickets,” he said. “It’s about how we find a way to give them the right foundations to grow from.”

Ticket prices have recently hit the headlines, including The Cure’s intervention against large booking fees in the US

“Nobody wants to be seen to be exploiting their fans,” said Bates. “Unfortunately, over time, some practices have been put into play without artists’ knowledge. 

“With the promoters, we have to ensure there’s transparency and that [artists] are comfortable with the mechanisms around a tour, which could be dynamic pricing, platinum tickets or VIP packages. You can’t just force them on an artist.”

A key priority for Primary will be expanding its dance business. 

“When we first talked about going independent, it was the first department that I identified as wanting to grow,” said Bates. “We’ve always had a really strong footing in the dance world.

It’s something that is still thriving, still growing, and I feel very passionate about Primary making it a priority to grow that space.”

Bates is also bringing a greater focus to brand partnerships.

“I want to make it a much more fully-rounded entity,” he said. 

As the agency enters a new era, Bates summed up his vision. 

“I want to be seen as an agency that digs deep, rolls its sleeves up and really works for clients to get what’s best for them,” he said. “You want your artists to have the utmost trust to let you get on with your job so that they can carry on being creative and not worrying about the business.” 


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