Mike Batt, 60, is a hard man to pin down. As a singer-songwriter, he's written such hits as A Winter's Tale for David Essex and Bright Eyes for Art Garfunkel. But as the founder of £15m-a-year record label Dramatico Entertainment, he's a successful entrepreneur too, discovering the talents of platinum-selling singer Katie Melua among others. "People don't really know who I am. But that suits me just fine. It means I can pop out of any hole when and where I want." And the first hole he popped out of was a burrow a Womble burrow, in fact.
The son of a civil engineer, Batt learned to play piano by ear, after struggling with the hand-eye coordination required to read and play music at the same time. By the age of 18, he was writing string and brass arrangements for other artists at 50p a time, "just about enough for food and electricity". It was the early 1970s, and times were hard. Living on a houseboat in Weybridge, married with two children, he blew £11,000 ("all the money I had") recording a rock orchestral album that nobody wanted to hear. "I was completely skint, and wearing my bank manager's patience thin."
Then the producers of a new TV show The Wombles asked Batt to write a little jingle for it. Instead of the £200 fee, he asked for the copyright for musical production. "They said fine, it's worth nothing to us." His mother made some costumes for a Wombles band out of old plastic washing-up mats and "a black ping-pong ball for a nose". Touring around radio stations, he ended up on Top of the Pops when The Wombling Song went to number four in the charts.
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While others might have left it at one song, Batt had been five years in the music business without a hit. "I saw it as an opportunity to make up for lost time. I just filled my boots." He had seven more top-ten hits, including Banana Rock. The Wombles were the biggest chart success of 1974, and by 1975, Batt had made a cool £1m. "I had learnt a lot about retention of copyright, so made sure that if I had a success, I wasn't sharing it with 20 other people." He ditched the houseboat for an 11-bedroom house, quite a change from "emptying the chemical toilet and carrying the coal up a tow path on top of the baby in a pram".
Yet he's had a far-from secure career since. He's had brushes with bankruptcy, notably in 1991 when he turned Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark into a West End musical. It was a flop, leaving Batt "hanging on by the skin of my teeth" and facing repossession. The recession saved him: "Everyone else was welching on their mortgages and handing in their keys. I had a word with the bank manager and they gave me some leeway".
A Wombles compilation album in the 1990s boosted his fortunes, and he set up Dramatico with £1m of his own money in 2000. He signed Melua to his label the next year, releasing her first album in 2003. After an initial struggle, an appearance on the Royal Variety Show saw her go from selling 60,000 records in November 2003 to 1.8 million and counting. Batt admits that, without her, he'd have had financial problems. "But the good thing about being independent is that you can put all your resources behind one thing and make it big."
Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.
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