Jon Tolley, Banquet Records

By Andy

Too many crappy bands, too many crappy labels, too many crappy publicists and too many crappy keyboard warriors hiding behind the anonymity of a computer screen – how, after all these years, do you remain so positive and vibrant about not just running Banquet, but also by contributing – and in some ways running – the Kingston scene?

Well, it’s an easy thing to be positive about. What we do here is either fun for us, and/or important to us. Often it might only be one of those at a time, but either way it makes you motivated to do your bit. Everything the shop does in contributing to the Kingston community is an extension of what we do as, not so much a business, but a group of like minded friends. It’s just like a paid hobby a lot of the time, so that’s easy to be positive about. Sure, shit happens from time to time, but when you look at the bigger picture the highs far outweight the lows.

Going back a bit, which bands did you listen to when you were growing
up? Can you remember the first band you saw live? What was your
favourite record ‘back in the day’?

I was solely an indie kid back in the day. Bands like The Stone Roses, Blur and Pop Will Eat Itself is what got me hooked on music, and I guess through PWEI I discovered socio-politically driven stuff which got me more hooked on the likes of Senser or Carter USM, and eventually I discovered Face To Face’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ which is what got me hooked on punk-rock. It was, not surprisingly, the guys at (Beggars) Banquet who turned me onto this, and I guess when I started appreciating the UK stuff, CapDown particularly, I realised the UK DIY scene was more than just mates’ bands in a pub.

When did you decide a life in the music industry/trade was for you and
how did you end up getting a foot in the door?

I can’t recall a point when this was decided. Just like there was never a point where I decided to never drink again. Since becoming aware of what Beggars did for the music scene in Kingston back then (bands like Cable, A, MU330, Strung Out, etc.) I became involved to a point of handing out flyers or helping on show day (back then, before even Myspace, the notion of handing out flyers was a bigger deal than it is now). I started working at Beggars part time when I left university. It was okay, but I only had to do the shit jobs when I started – I’ve kept this tradition going(!) – and to be honest I didn’t really enjoy it. Beggars, as it was then, was a very different cultured business then. No-one really cared about the overall success of the shop, more their own little parts of what they did, be it putting on house raves, putting on punk shows or drug dealing… I just wanted to skate every day and after a little while I decided the dogs-body role wasn’t for me. I got a well-paid job at a lighting place and was happy there…

As Hundred Reasons grew, Mark, who at the time was managing them and running the indie / punk bit of Beggars, decided to leave so he could look after Hundred Reasons full time. He asked me if I wanted his job. I really didn’t, but I was persuaded of the importance of what Beggars does and practically all my social life would be lost if Beggars stopped putting on clubs and shows (there were some good shows like LostProphets, Reel Big Fish, Rival Schools and Hundred Reasons back then). So I took the job, the massive pay cut, the more hours etc. From that point I worked full time for Banquet, had a bit more say in how things were run and started enjoying the job. The lack of money suddenly didn’t seem important.

How did you end up taking over Banquet? What state was it in when you
did it? How steep a learning curve was it?

So I’d been working at Beggars full time for about two years before the parent company, The Beggars group, decided to give up the retail arm of what it did. What was once a chain of a dozen or so shops, was just two… The Putney store closed and then Kingston was the last of the shops. Beggars practically gave the store to the then-boss. He kinda ran it into the ground and 6 years ago, we were looking at going bust. I hadn’t been paid for 8 months in a row, but didn’t take my wages; instead choosing to make sure we got deliveries in of the stock that made the shop so good. I was making enough to get by from DJ money so it was cool. I was doing all the management and accounts, often working 60-odd hour weeks for no money. I saw how the company was working, and how it could work. At the beginning of 2005 we were days away from going bankrupt. So i made an offer to buy the business off the then-boss. Having done the accounts for ages I figured a massive cash injection, and no manager’s sized wage, would be enough to keep the company going. And that was important to me, because even then I could see how much we, at Beggars, contributed to the Kingston music scene (again, this is in a context of way less internet based activity)…

We bought The Company for a pound and took on the £50,000 of debts. I’d recently split with a girlfriend who I’d bought a house with, so I took my half of the sale of the house – less the mortgage – put it into the shop, worked really hard and really long and took it on from there. It wasn’t too steep a learning curve because we – and mostly I – had been doing this job for years. All the staff stayed the same (apart from the exiting owner), we changed a few things about, built a new counter till midnight. I called in a few favours from one friend who was an accountant, one friend who was an IT guy, my mum gave me “my inheritance early” and my degree in retail management adequately impressed our solicitor / bank manager. It was tough turning it around, but we soon saw cashflow improve and the ship was steadied.

How long did it take you to realise that simply selling CDs would no
longer cut it and you would have to diversify to survive? What ideas
did you have which were never implemented?

The thing is, we’d always been doing this. As I said before, I’d had no wages for the best part of a year but survived off DJ money. I’ve no doubt I wouldn’t have been able to command such a fee unless I was the guy from the record shop (again, this was a time when few people were using MP3s so if you wanted that exclusive remix / promo copy you really had to have links with the inside of a record shop). At the point where we’d taken over, the label that I, Jane and Mark were running – Gravity DIP – was already established and had quite a good sales history for a DIY label. All we did when Banquet diversified was to put all the stuff that the employees of the shop were already doing, under the banner of Banquet. This meant if shit went wrong the individuals didn’t suffer. If things went right, then Banquet did good off it. We saw a massive increase in people buying albums for bands who were playing Banquet shows, the job security was there. The risks we could take were bigger and we were doing more the kinda stuff we’d only hoped about doing.

Having said that, we are still VERY much a record shop and will always remain one I think. The biggest thing we sell over the counter is drum ‘n bass vinyl. We sell a lot of cds and vinyl to people that aren’t involved in going to live shows so much. To 30/40-somethings who have £50 a week to spend on music in their lunch hour, but not one night of the week to go out to a club. We will sell literally hundreds of copies of releases from bands that are dear to us, like Tellison, The Gaslight Anthem, Frank Turner etc. It’s important to know that whilst we are “more than your local record shop”, we still are very much “your local record shop”.


How far does the personal touch go, such as handwritten notes and
extras, when you consider your main competitors are the major firms
like Play and Amazon?

Everything we do has the personal touch. The hand-written notes are indicative of the personal touch, rather than being the personal touch. The content they have, the stuff we try to stock, the bands we put on, and just trying to help customers, non-customers and bands out. It’s what we do. The fact is that we care, and it is our job BECAUSE we care. The corporates of the word care because it’s their job. It’s a massive difference. Play and Amazon aren’t really our competitors anymore. The stuff they sell in such massive numbers – it isn’t stuff we can compete with. The only unfortunate side of this, is that if we cant buy the product for the price that they buy, then there’s little point us stocking it. This makes it look like we’re snobby. Normally we aren’t being so.

At a tangent though, I don’t like certain parts of these businesses. Any companies that operate outside of UK VAT laws (and I’m talking generally here rather than these specific examples) have such an unfair advantage and are taking cash away from the country. I just don’t know why that loophole isn’t tied up. Similarly, buying SECOND HAND music off Amazon and eBay and the like, this doesn’t support record labels or artists or the industry in any way and I’m massively against the consumer led side of this.

How much has the website added to the overall
package? Could you survive as a business without it?

It’s absolutely integral to everything we do. Obviously we take a revenue from it, but it’s used as a resource for a lot of the other things we do. So it’s instantly a gig guide, it’s a way for us to sell tickets to Kingston shows (be they 20 people at the Cocks or 1500 at New Slang), it’s a place to host / show videos, it’s a resource for people to find out about new records, even if they then come in and buy it physically. Every day people come to the store and open a sentence with “I saw on your web site…. “

Did you fear the worst when Virgin, Zavvi etc pulled out of the high
street? Why has Banquet survived when so many other indie stores have
failed? There’s hardly a town left with an indie record store!

I’ve been predicting this for ages. I sincerely believe that a strong independent store has way more security than the bigger chains. We can adapt quicker to stuff that’s going on. It’s survival of the fittest. The strong record stores will be stronger and unfortunately the weaker stores, however tragic this is, have had to go under. I think it’s a massive shame, and I think it’s at the detriment of local music scenes, but market forces don’t care for music scenes, and if rents / rates / VAT goes up, you can only operate within that framework, or call it a day.

Each healthy store I know of has something extra to it. Be that publishing, in-stores, coffee shops(!), art, selling other bits and bobs, distribution, labels, etc, etc. Realistically, being “just a local record shop” isn’t enough in the age of The Interent.

What has been your all-time favourite New Slang performance and why?

imageThere are loads of different ones. There are loads of ways to gain success. The first ever show we did there with Frank Turner plugging a guitar lead and mic into the DJ mixer was great but we couldn’t get away with that now. The first one where we had a proper stage and PA with Young Knives will always stand out. Some of the charity fund raisers are ethically a better night than any of our favourite bands playing… but I guess, for me, the best New Slangs are ones with bands who are never off the play list, such as The Cribs, Mystery Jets, Two Door Cinema Club and the like. Both New Year’s Eves we’ve done have been incredible, but having said this, I’m most proud of New Slang when a small band plays to albeit not many people, and we still manage to get in 400-500 by the time the pubs have shut, on a Thursday night. Its also true of New Noise – our punk / emo nght. I think that says a lot for the vibe and quality of the nights, that people regularly come out and the night is always fun.

On a similar note, what have been your best and worst in-stores? Are there any bands you’ve worked with that have come in and acted like complete prima donnas? Any good stories to share?

The best are the sell-out acoustic ones for me. That’s the time when everyone in the room knows they are at something special. So bands like Mystery Jets (at the time of the first and second albums when they weren’t playing at New Slang) Frank Turner, The King Blues, Jamie T etc. Cage The Elephant gave us one of the best shows we’ve ever had and a mosh pit both inside and outside the shop (we should never have given him a 20 metre long mic lead!).

Very few of the bands act like dicks. On occasion their crew find it hard to handle the constraints of a small venue. Often they’re professional sound men on tour and don’t get what they can do with only 10 channels for an acoustic set when they’re used to sorting the sound out for a 1000-capacity room. If people do have preconceptions of something bad, then it’s easily sorted out just by chatting to the band / crew. But realistically, most bands who play an instore know that it is what it is. Attitudes have no place here.

Over the years you’ve diversified the types of act that have performed
under the Banquet banner in some way – from the likes of The Wombats
to Kids In Glass Houses to Tinie Tempah. How important has it been to
be all-encompassing, embracing lots of different genres rather than
focus on the more ‘traditional’ sounds Banquet is perhaps best known

Banquet is indeed a big umbrella. We’ve always sold drum ’n’ bass and house/dance music for as long as I’ve been here. I really think that some of those scenes have things that all music types can take something from. For example the kids into drum ’n’ bass who set up pirate radio shows and the like or spend hours in their bedroom practising their mixing; how is that any different to a punk kid writing a zine or strumming a guitar? As soon as the framework is in place for promoting a show or selling a record, its very easy to replicate with a different genre’d façade on top. There’s no way we could have put on Tinie Tempah the week he was at number one, unless we were already in that venue using that venue with a proper PA and staff to deal with that many people and the necessary promotion of it. As long as we don’t lose sight of where we came from, I’m very happy to be doing this kind of stuff. There’s always a very real crossover in the crowd that goes to such events. Perhaps because it is all under the same banner of Banquet, I dunno.

How important is Record Store Day? Do you not think bigger labels
should think a bit more about special releases all year round than on
just the one day? How big an impact does it have on the shop?

First time round I hated RSD. I thought it was irrelevant to us and what we do. I thought it dumb that a forward thinking store like ours (is I hope) should be associated with re-releases of The Stooges or whatever. We are a record store days 365 days a year, not just one, so it was almost offensive. In 2010 it was completely different. Bands we love were putting out releases for RSD and it was a real exciting day. So much of the excitement here is about in-stores or sell-out gigs and the like, so it was great that for that week the excitement was more about records. It was actually our busiest day in the 35 years this shop has existed. With two Cancer Bats shows and Tinie Tempah playing that night, it was also one of the most exhausting!

Linked in to that, do you feel with the slow, impending death of the
physical product, that more care needs to be put in on a more regular
basis in terms of artwork, etc to encourage people to spend their hard -earned cash?

I don’t think physical releases are dying. Sure there are less of them, they’re less important to the charts or whatever, but to the customer who buys them, they are probably more important than ever. Music is a form of art. Customers, particularly from the indie and punk worlds, want to own something. Not in a materialistic way, but in a collector’s manner. MP3s can’t replicate this. The two music types can and will run hand in hand for many years more yet. But yes, it is harder to get people to buy a release when they can stream it for free, illegally download for free, or buy for cheap from an online digital music store. The challenge record labels and record stores have is to try and ENCOURAGE people to want to buy, rather than DISCOURAGE people from wanting to download. It’s not too hard. A little extra care, a little more value for money, and people are fighting to get these releases.

imageWho came up with the idea of sponsoring Kingstonian? How has it helped Banquet, if at all, and what impact has it had on the local community?

I went to K’s as a school-kid. I stopped going when I started working here full time, but as I became the boss and could choose my own hours I started going again. It’s a hobby sure, but there’s a very real business decision underlying it too. As “a local record shop” it’s important for us to give back to the community that feeds us. It’s nice to be seen to be doing so too. Whilst we may have gained a very small amount of extra business by being involved in the local football club, the thing we get more is that the local council, police, and wider community know that this business of ours is involved in Kingston more than just taking peoples money at The Hippodrome on a Saturday night. Also, I get a free season ticket for the year!

Looking back, knowing what you know now, would you still have taken
Banquet on? Do you have any regrets? If you could change anything what
would it be and why?

The only regret I have is raising the money by selling my property. I wish I still owned a house or somewhere to live. This property ladder is looking scary now. Other regrets are solely personal mistakes I’ve made in my personal life. Other than that, everything that has gone wrong has taught us lessons for the future, and that’s why – touch wood – we’re a pretty stable company right now.

What does the future of the music industry hold?

God Knows. I don’t think we need to know. All we need to do is be ready to adapt to it. And that’s why this job will never be boring.

How long before the death of the CD and what replaces it?

I can’t see this happening.. but like I’ve said before, we don’t need to know if it will or wont, all we need to do is react to changing customers needs and we’ll be okay and enjoy finding it all out.

What do you have planned for 2011?

I think we’re gonna keep going as we are. Its great being involved in selling music and around live shows, so we’re gonna try and continue growing each side of what we do. Our web site is good, but will soon be better and we need to tell people about this more. We want to put on shows with some bigger bands, some smaller bands, and there’s talk of an open air event for 10,000 people in Kingston next summer which we’re fully involved with. The label should put a few things out.. All of us here are a gang of like minded people passionate about music (of various types) so the aim is that we can make enough money to be able to afford to pay our staff what they’re worth.


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