Runway Artists founder Matt Hanner.
The IMI 10th Jan 2023

'I wanted to build something that would bring people in and look after them as much as their artists'

Matt Hanner on founding Runway Artists and fulfilling an early artist development role in the live booking space…

Since launching the company in March 2020, Matt Hanner has built Runway Artists on principles of community and talent development.

That applies to artistic talent, with Hanner willing to invest in artists early and help them connect the dots with wider industry at the start of their journey, rather than waiting in the wings for proven acts that have already done the hard yards themselves.

It’s an approach that clearly chimes with artists themselves, with the booking agency having quickly established a 100+ roster including The Futureheads, Emmy The Great, The Boo Radleys, Public Image Ltd, Mulimba, Karl Benjamin, John Smith, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead, and Cattle & Cane.

But Hanner is also keen to establish Runway as a home for emerging executive talent. Alongside former Primary Talent stalwart and industry veteran Steve Backman, who joined the new independent in March 2021, he wants to develop his staff both personally and professionally so that they can grow with the company and lay claim to its success.

The Runway team grew to six in February, with the addition of two agents in Dotun Bolaji and Craig Wylie, new music A&R scout Amy Greig, and assistant Heather Mosselson – and Hanner has just added another assistant in Georgia Chrysanthopoulos and book keeper Karen Murray to help with the company’s increasing activity.

A focus on community has also led to two recent Runway initiatives in particular that set it apart from your average agency. In February, Runway launched an ongoing industry showcase called In Transit, which aims to give new artists (not just those on Runway’s books) a flexible vehicle to get in front of the right people by partnering with other music companies. Then, in November, Runway hosted its very own mini-conference, titled Take Off, which brought together a number of young music professionals to learn about career development and issues affecting the industry at large.

We sat down with Hanner to talk about Runway’s growth to date and why inclusivity and community are so important to him…

Can you talk us through where you were immediately before Runway and why you chose to set up independently?

I was at ATC Live. There, I’d had the benefit of a company that, through Alex Bruford, was happy to invest in people that can build a roster. When I started Runway, I had that in my mind. I wanted to build something that would bring other people in and look after them as much as their artists. I started the company on my own and it seemed a long way away at the time. The fact that, two and a half years later, we’ve just hired a book keeper and another assistant that we hope will progress and go on to represent talent of her own is incredible to me. We’re really committed to training and giving our people the support they need to do really well in the role so that they can take some ownership over what they’re doing.

"A lot of people that we work with might be just a band and a rookie manager starting out. In that case, it’s as much about helping to educate them."

You set up Runway during a turbulent time to say the least. What were your first moves?

It was such a hard time to see the wood for the trees in a way because there was so little happening. I made outlines of what I’d like the company to fulfil but you never knew what was around the corner. I think the key was that I was open to conversations. I had conversations about partnering with someone in the business that would have been less conventional, but then the opportunity to work with Steve came up. I knew it was going to be better if I could bring other people into it, but I didn’t think I’d be able to set up alongside someone with Steve’s experience. So, it’s worked out very well. That allowed us to get some scale and then I could push into some of the principles that I wanted to base the company on – looking after people, providing services for artists and working with people from the ground up. The roster that we have means that we’re alongside a lot of independent artists and managers and we’re trying to bring as much value as we can.

Can you go into that a bit more? What kinds of things are you doing that may be seen as above and beyond the traditional role of a booking agency?

I think part of it is a willingness to engage with artists at a level where you’re not making any money to begin with. We’ve got the freedom to do that because we don’t have a paymaster. We don’t owe anyone so we don’t feel the need to churn out offers and we can use our time and our contacts to connect the dots. A lot of people that we work with might be just a band and a rookie manager starting out. In that case, it’s as much about helping to educate them. We all know different people, Steve and I. Whatever the next deal may be, we can get an act in front of A&Rs, music publishers and so on if needed. That’s why we run the showcases – to give people the opportunity to build their teams and to showcase in a way that works for them. Because it’s our event, we can give them the guestlist that they need or be flexible on set times. It’s about being part of that core team at the start of growth and being a real advocate for the act at an early point. As well as pitching to promoters, we also have a network and relationships that we can use to help in a very intentional way.

"I enjoy walking into a gig venue and seeing a poster that says ‘in association with Runway’ and I personally had nothing to do with it. I think that’s amazing."

You’re talking about taking on an artist development role there…

When things are going well and offers are falling in your lap, it’s as much about saying no as it is yes. Everyone who wins agent of the year has had a great year booking bands but some of the rosters you see mean it’s hardly been a slog for them. They’re working with a lot at their disposal. At our end, we’re working hard to get artists off the ground. We work with acts that we believe in as both artists and people and want to open a few doors for them so that they can go on to have good careers and, hopefully, make us a bit of money on the way.

Are there any standout achievements so far that have cemented what you’re doing in your own mind?

It’s been tough. We put Sleeper on at The Roundhouse in Camden – the first time I’ve put an act on at The Roundhouse – and it didn’t do the business we would have hoped for in a more buoyant market. It was a great gig but people’s confidence wasn’t quite back yet after the pandemic. Good things have happened but it’s not a fairy tale. That’s the reality of running a small business – in this climate in particular.

I enjoy walking into a gig venue and seeing a poster that says ‘in association with Runway’ and I personally had nothing to do with it. I think that’s amazing – the fact that I have a team of people booking shows and the whole thing gets on with itself. We have a team of eight people two and half years after the company was birthed. It’s incredible that people have come on this journey with me.

The roster is quite big now as well…

We’re up to around 100 now, which is credit to the team. They’re actively out there signing deals and trying to develop people. It’s been great to see someone like Steve getting back to picking up new bands, compared to his previous role where the numbers were a bit more important and time was limited. You do need volume as well as quality, which will hopefully stand us in good stead, but it creates extra work, which is why we’ve recently invested in the staff.

You’ve taken on a responsibility to find and grow new acts. Is that something that’s lacking in the wider live sector?

Obviously, it’s happening. You only have to talk to the people at Music Venue Trust to hear about the role small venues have in incubating new talent and the pipeline that exists, but there are a lot of people in the business that are waiting for acts to get to a certain point. If you’re a bedroom producer and you want to develop a live show, who’s out there helping with that? Who’s willing to sit down and put a bit of time, investment and creativity into that process? It’s probably fair to say that we’ve rested on our laurels for a while in some areas of the industry. Obviously there will always be successes – Wet Leg, Holly Humberstone and the likes – but a lot of the music that is being brought to us comes with the context of people getting on and doing it themselves. We should be asking ourselves how can we partner with people to make that more successful.

Was that the thinking behind the conference?

It started off as some training for our own team but, as I put it together and brought people in to speak, it felt like a bit of a waste for just the eight of us. We invited young, developing managers to come along. A lot of the topics were important for our team to be across but they were also things that I thought any young manager or music professional should be aware of. We looked at personal and professional development, career planning, digital marketing, audiences, the democratisation of the industry since Spotify, label services, distribution, and sustainability beyond green touring and single use plastic – taking in sustainability in terms of people and economics as well. We also had an introduction session where people came in to talk about their companies for 10 minutes, rounded off by beatBread, who sponsored the event.

It was a great day. It went well enough that we will look at doing it again, especially if we can find a partner who is also interested in professional development. We could do it on a bigger scale and make it even more worthwhile.

What have you got coming up in 2023?

As a company, the showcase nights will continue to run quarterly. We’ve actually got a short tour with three of our artists for Independent Venues Week under the In Transit banner. It’s the first time we’ve taken that brand outside London and we’ve got a great partner supporting in The Rodeo Magazine. It’s three acts that wanted to tour in that period and, hopefully, we’ve managed to do it in a creative way that works for all of them rather than just sending them out on their own, on a ticket that doesn’t make much sense.

We’ve got a number of artists coming to the UK for the first time next year as well, which is exciting, and we’re planning for the spring touring and festival season – trying to get our acts on as many bills as possible.

In general, seeing the company and roster grow over the past couple of years, a bit of routine would actually serve us well, giving people on the team time to bed in, and Steve and I a chance to build a solid foundation for further growth in 24/25.