KINGSTON CALLING: How Banquet Records Beat The Crunch
We speak to Jon Tolley on how the legendary store has adapted to the digital age, the pros and cons of Record Store Day and the local scene in Kingston
The heartbeat of the vibrant Kingston-Upon-Thames music scene, Banquet Records truly lives up to its More Than Your Local Record Shop tagline. Sure it stocks an array of cracking records ranging from the latest indie, metal, punk and hardcore releases right through to obscure drum & bass, dubstep and funky house vinyls, but that's just the start of things. From bringing in internationally renowned acts to play intimate in-stores and Kingston's heaving venues, supporting bands via its record label arm, through to putting on some of the south east's most popular club nights, Banquet provide a sterling lesson on how independent record shops can not only survive in 2010, but thrive. In a bid to discover all the ins and outs of the store, Dan Jones grabbed some time with the Banquet's head honcho Jon Tolley to discuss how the store has adapted to the digital age, the pros and cons of Record Store Day and the local scene in Kingston...
We're here to talk about the Kingston scene and Banquet Records. Are you a Kingston native?
"Yeah, I went to school at Tiffin Boys. So I've lived in Kingston most of my life apart from when I went to University in Loughborough, which was a terrible shit hole, but because there was no indie scene there it kind of made me and my friends have to start one, which I guess led to that kind of mindset which we ended up doing in Kingston."
You did a degree in Retail Management in Loughborough. Did your time away from Kingston make you appreciate the area more?
"Yeah, there was always good stuff going on in Kingston and most of the stuff I was interested in was run out of Beggars Banquet and also at the time The Record Shop, which was another indie in Kingston. That was at a time when there was no HMV but there was a Tower, two Our Prices and two independents. There was always stuff going on. When I went to Loughborough it was the opposite, nothing was really going on, there was a Friday night "indie" night, which was indie because it played James and The Stones Roses. It wasn't really cutting edge or interesting, it was just about drinking really. But a few guys and us got together and sort of realised that if you work you can put on gigs, or go to gigs and meet people who like the same type of music. It was on my year in industry actually, in my third year, which I did in London that I started helping out with stuff that was already going on in Kingston. Getting away you do appreciate what's here, but I don't think what was here then was anything near as hectic and jam packed as what we've got going on now."
So when you moved back from Loughborough, how did you get involved with the Banquet shop?
"I'd always sort of been friends with the people who were running the punk side of stuff. There were shows going on that were run out of the shop, but it was run by the shop - the guy who ran the rock department was putting on gigs. You've got to try and put it context, [back then] people didn't have MySpace and didn't have Facebook, hardly anyone had a mobile phone and so the only way that you could find out about gigs was to go into a shop and pick up a flyer or talk to a guy in a record shop who would tell you about stuff. It was a lot more about word of mouth and flyers then, rather than Facebook invites."
"So I was always friends with them, came back and had a few dead end jobs and wasn't really doing much, I just wanted to skate, I didn't want to have a real job. I started working at what was Beggars Banquet part time, then the guy who was running the rock department left to manage Hundred Reasons full time so I took over his job."
Why did Beggars Banquet decide to get rid of the shop arm of the business?
"I don't know the actual facts. I know that the shops weren't profitable and had no reason to be profitable. The people who were the managers got paid the same whether it was busy or quiet and Beggars was this big multi-million pound company who were looking after The Prodigy, The White Stripes, The Charlatans. The shops, which got them to where they were weren't actually bringing them any money. I think at one point they had a dozen shops and then they were down to two in the end. The one in Putney pretty much flooded so there was just the one left and it really wasn't worth their time. It was chucking loads of money away, it was a silly time, we didn't even have a computer, leave alone a website. Someone at some point had to pull the financial plug on it and they did. So they gave it to the then manager who took it on for a year and failed miserably, so we bought it off him."
I understand when you brought the shop from the old manager the place was £50,000 in debt. That doesn't seem like the wisest business decision on the face of things.
"Yeah and it would have been hard to prove to anyone that we could have made it work other than the fact that I was working there every day. I hadn't actually been paid for eight months, so some of the debt was like £10,000-ish to me from not getting paid. I knew what we had to do to turn it around, but if you took away an oversized manager's wages and put in a bit of extra work, I always thought that we could turn it around. It did turn around but in a different way than we thought it would, but it got there in the end."
"We had to come up with a business plan, it was a lot more serious than, "Yeah, I think we can make it work". We had to convince people with money, that them giving us money wasn't a stupid thing to do."
I recently read an article that stated the fact that there were 734 independent record shops in the UK in 2005, falling by over half to 269 in 2009. So how does an independent record store like Banquet survive these days?
"I think that all the shops that are doing well have an extra something that makes them different. I haven't actually been to Pure Groove for a long time, but Pure Groove has very much an "art" feeling to it, having exhibitions and stuff. Rough Trade has a coffee shop and a stage built in meant for in-stores. I think that what we've tried to do is to sell music as not just audio. You know, people who like CDs also like going to gigs, may also be in bands, may also need PA hire, and just try and bring in more than just selling audio and make more of a 360 degree package."
How difficult is to compete with the big chains? Here in Kingston you've got the big HMV and then there's the online stores like Amazon, so how do you get the punters in?
"You know what, I think that HMV should actually be more threatened about what independents can do, rather than the other way around. The independent is always going to be more able to react to changing times, to find out about new bands, to find out about new ways of buying music and new trends and fads. We do have to offer something a little bit extra, whether that be knowledge, sometimes that's price, sometimes it's exclusive signed stock. Obviously we do a lot of in-stores, we do a lot of album and show tie-ins. It's just about giving the customer something more than trying to sell a package, trying to sell one CD and take the ten pound and put it in the company bank balance. It's about giving the customer a reason to want to buy stuff."
How do you think the shop has been affect by illegal filesharing? How do you remedy the fact that record sales are dwindling quite dramatically as a result?
"As a precursor to this I'd like to say that I'm massively against illegal downloading, it's wrong and it's illegal. However, that said, I don't think that the way to sell more records is to tell people that they're bad for illegally downloading, that's not going to make people go, "Oh okay, I'll buy a record". What you've got to do is try and encourage people to want to buy the record. A lot of the time record labels and these bands are coming up with these reasons to buy, fancy packaging, free download with a vinyl, an in-store/club show tie-in. I don't think technology is something to be scared of or whatever. I download music, and I will download one track if I don't want the album, because even for me with my staff discount it's going to be cheaper, so I know how it works. But, having said that, I will buy vinyl of bands I really like and never play it and that's the sort of collectability side of stuff that happens. Also, as the technogical revolution or whatever has gone on, we've benefited from the other side, as the website is really good and really strong and brings in about the same as over the counter sales do. It enables us to put on shows and sell tickets, and sell out Vampire Weekend or Foals in two days – so it's nothing to be scared of."
Last weekend was Record Store Day. Do you think record shops really need such a day?
"Two years ago Banquet was massively against it and I was against it, I thought it was rubbish. I thought that selling records by like MC5 and The Stooges, whilst they may well be incredible bands, it wasn't relevant to what we do in the shop or what we like as music fans. But this year it was really different, I thought it was really good that bands who are relevent to Banquet and bands who as fans we like, Deftones, Foals, Bloc Party, The Cribs, Yeysayer, even Tinie Tempah – are releasing stuff just for Record Store Day. That gave it a different slant, all of a sudden it was kinda exciting to be a part of it. Obviously there was a lot of fuss about the Blur 7" and The Beatles and yeah, that was annoying when you saw it on eBay for £200 when you sold it to a kid for £6, that was kinda taking the piss. However, that hype created the success of the day, it was really good once the initial rush had gone for The Beatles and Blur records, it was good because people were just excited about being in a shop and talking to other music fans, talking about records, excited to pick up records.
It was a really good day and as a fact it was the busiest day that Banquet have had ever, even going back to the Beggars Banquet days. So whilst I think it's a shame you have to celebrate being a record store one day a year, because obviously we're a record shop every other day of the year. There were people who hadn't been in the shop for years, but came back because they'd read about it in The Guardian or had seen it on Sky News or something. So I'm not going to say it's all bad anymore, I think it was actually quite a fun thing."
In the shop earlier you were talking about football, and of course Banquet sponsor the local team Kingstonian FC, which from the outside seems like a strange association. Do you think the average football fan shops in independent record stores?
"No, and to be honest that was never really a goal. Banquet has this tagline, More Than Your Local Record Shop, and I think it's quite important that not only does Banquet do stuff in its local community, but we also get seen to be doing something in the local community. This sponsorship of Kingstonian, only if it's for the councillors or the MP who sees what we're doing, those councillors are the same people who could decide whether or not we're allowed to put on Tinie Tempah at D.A.N.C.E or put on an all ages All Time Low show. It's quite nice to show these people that not only are we a successful buisness in the community, but we're also giving something back to the community. For the same reason we take work experience kids from the borough, to be honest sometimes it's a hassle, you forget how little you know as a fifteen year old and obviously you have to learn from somewhere, but the whole deal is that we can't just be this company that takes money off people, we've got to give something back, and it's quite a fun thing to be involved in. Whilst the average football doesn't buy music, the average football might well come to a nightclub or whatever, so there is a tie-in as we do a lot of other things rather than just CD sales."
There's also the Banquet label as well. What's going on with that at the moment?
"We do a lot less than we used to, to be honest. Before we owned the shop I was running a label [Gravity Dip – home to the likes of Tellison, Dave House, Hundred Reasons, Jacobs Stories, Dartz!, The Steal, Get Cape Wear Cape Fly and Capdown – DJ], along with a couple of other people, out of my bedroom which was sort of doing alright, but again that was in a time before people were downloading and before most people could buy stuff online. As it started to change we found that we weren't necessarily making enough of a difference to the band by putting stuff out on our label. Where what we found out with bands like say Tubelord, we did put in an offer to put out that record and I really wanted to do it at that time. They signed to Hassle and as it turns out that has worked out really good for us because Hassle gave us like exclusivity on the record, a nice pre-order price and we did an in-store and everything and we just sold a lot of the album without any financial risk to us. Had we put out the album, we probably wouldn't have done as good a job as Hassle did to be honest. So the thing that we're trying to do now is join in with labels we like or we have good relationships with, that might include like Hopeless, who sorted us out these All Time Low shows, and you get a thousand kids wanting to buy an album to see All Time Low live. That's really exciting, even if you don't like the band, that's really exciting to be a part of."
Funnily enough I was looking at the All Time Low action figures in the shop earlier.
"Yeah, it's amazing that they could even exist, you know, kids buy them so fair enough. We're still playing around with the New Slang label, which is a bit more sort of throwaway and collectable, well not throwaway and collectable, the vinyl is collectable, limited to 200 copies and its just like a handshake deal, it's not a contract, it's not a digital distribution deal. It's like we're going to put out some records, we're going to give you a hundred and we'll sell a hundred ourselves, and we'll just celebrate that we like your band and you want to put out your record on our label."
So things are slowing down for the Banquet label then?
"Yeah, it's not dead and we've got a couple of ideas that we're going to play around with, but they're probably only vinyl releases, and we're going to work with other labels where they will keep doing the digital side of stuff and we'll just be doing the physical side."
Of course, you also put on shows and nights like New Slang, New Noise and D.A.N.C.E. How did you first get into putting on shows? From your university days?
"It was actually the people who were working at Beggars at the time were already putting on shows and I started helping them out, and that was before I even took the job at what was then Beggars. So I've always been helping, be that doing the door or letting bands stay at your house or whatever. As an eighteen/nineteen year old that was all I wanted to be involved with. As we took over the shop there was obviously a lot more capability to put on other shows, to do in-stores, to be a bit more pro-active hunting down bands you like and putting them on in your own town. So yeah, it was just a sort of evolution from what was already happening."
Unfortunately there was the tragedy at The Works in 2007 [A man was stabbed to death – DJ] - the venue where New Slang was held in - and after you moved the night to McCluskys. When The Works reopened as The Hippodrome you moved back and there were a few words said between McCluskys and you when they launched their rival Proper Slang night, what exactly happened there?
"It's been quite well documented and if you ever want to read my full take on it, it's on the website, there's a Proper Slang section. Basically, at The Works there was a tragic incident, it was horrible and the club was, not falling apart, but people weren't coming. The only night which was strong was New Slang, but their Friday and Saturday's were dead. So we jumped ship before it sank and we went to McCluskys. We had a good time at McCluskys, and whilst we were there everything was really good and we had a really good relationship. At the time The Hippodrome, the building that was The Works, reopened, they asked us back. We were sort of umming and ahhing, deciding whether or not to go, but they made a commitment to get a new PA, which sounds very much better than anything we could have had at McCluskys, just because of the size of the room you can do more with it. I like the room, I like the facilities of the room, there's a proper backstage and stuff like that, so we were happy to move back and got a bit of money for moving back and yeah, it's been so much better since we've been back here. We've been able to get in these bigger bands, who wouldn't have played McCluskys, not any disrespect to the venue but you can't get like Vampire Weekend to play a 800 capacity room, but they will play a 1,400 capacity room, and that's the difference. Words were said and stuff was done which I think both parties probably regret and the less said about it the better really. It's all water under the bridge, I think a lot of stuff was done that wasn't very professional and there's a lot of stuff which still most people don't know about, but it's done now."
You just mentioned Vampire Weekend. How on earth do you manage to attract a big band like that to a town so close to central London?
"There's a lot of different ways, there's not one hard and fast formula. With Vampire Weekend it was a whole album tie-in and that only works because we run the record shop. If we weren't running the shop then there's no way that band would have played, but they obviously set up that thing where you could buy the ticket for a certain price or buy the album and ticket for a certain price. We did like 1,100 albums that week, so that's why Vampire Weekend played because they could do 1,100 copies of the album in the first week of release. It didn't go number one, I think it was top five quite comfortably, so that's what those bands do and it was a horrible gruelling schedule, I think they played four gigs that day. They flew in, landed in Heathrow and soundchecked here, went up to Somerset House and played a gig, played in an in-store and then played here. Foals was just about them wanting a warm up show and obviously we've got a good reputation with them since when we put them on in an in-store in front of sixty people back in the day. So that's just about reputation and some bands just play because they need a lot of money." [laughs]
And there's Alkaline Trio coming up soon too.
"Again that's like an album tie-in and also it's a warm up for their tour. Alkaline Trio is a bit of a coup because I was buying those records long before I started working in a record shop and it's quite exciting when a band whose posters you used to have on your wall, still do actually, comes to play your place."
Have you ever had any regrets about putting on any bands when it just hasn't been worth all the hassle?
"There's loads of stuff that goes wrong but you learn from your mistakes. I can't think of anything that ended up in shouting matches. There's some stuff where you can end up losing a four figure sum on a gig, but you still need to remain a pro with it and shake hands and just try and enjoy the gig as much as you can even if you're expecting 600 people and only 150 people turn up. You've got to realise that those 150 people who are there, are there because they want to be and just enjoy what you've got."
Gallows - Live at The Peel, featuring Jon Tolley
One of the last times I saw you at a show, Frank from Gallows got you onstage to sing for them. Shows like that must make it all worth your while.
"That was fun. I do like Gallows and I do like the boys from Gallows, and obviously we've put them on countless times and put some of them on in their previous band My Dad Joe. At The Peel shows and The Cocks shows, I'm a lot more of a punter, where at New Slang it's a little more on edge and more of a job. Obviously I'm going to grab the mike when I can!" [laughs] "It's a little bit embarrassing because sometimes, all too often people think that Jon Tolley is the guy who is sorting this stuff out and really Jon Tolley works for Banquet and Banquet sorts this stuff out. A lot of people don't get anywhere near the recognition as they deserve. Dave House and Mike, who work at the shop, they do so much more that people just don't know about."
Are there any particular highlights that stand out from running the shop and putting on shows? Any heroes you've met?
"I don't really have heroes in the music world. When you have to work with them it's a completely different thing. I really love The Cribs and when I went to see them at the recent Barfly show it was amazing – fully sweaty and jumping around kind of thing. If The Cribs play here, when The Cribs play here, it will be a lot more, handshake, "Hello I'm Jon", and you break down that hero thing. But there have been a lot of events that have been really amazing. The first time Young Knives played here, which was the first time we had the stage up as it is now, that was a really magic event. I couldn't believe what we'd achieved. The new years eves here have been pretty special, The Movielife show at The Peel was amazing, how that band, Vinnie and Set Your Goals played their only headlining show in the UK, I couldn't believe that was happening. The Get Up Kids at The Peel and Alkaline Trio here, when it's bands you've been buying and listening to for a decade come and play."
To finish with, why do you think the Kingston music scene is so strong? There's dozens of other similar London suburbs, so why is the music scene so healthy here in comparison to other places in the area?
"Well I don't want to say it's all because of the shop, but the shop is a big part of it. It's good to have a HQ, somewhere where people can go to find out about music. I know so many people who have met their girlfriend or boyfriend in someway indirectly linked to this shop. When I started working at Beggars I was told that wherever there's a thriving scene, there's a thriving independent record shop. I don't know if that's true and I don't know if it's chicken or egg, which comes first. There's people who've moved to Kingston because they've heard Kingston's good and it sort of snowballs from there. Dave House, who works for us, used to travel from Camberley to Kingston for shows or whatever, and ended up moving to Kingston and working for us. I guess there's a bit of that as well, people hearing that it's good and would choose the Kingston show over the Brighton show or whatever. I don't have a real answer for that and I don't think it's all Banquet, but there's definitely some good in having an entity which is going to be there for the long haul. I know a lot of people who've started putting on shows, really good shows, really exciting and then they get a full time job and don't have time for it anymore, and it's quite a thankless task, but people who work full time around music and have a passion for music, that's going to last a bit longer I guess."