Straight Outta Kingston: Inside Banquet Records' independent retail masterplan

Straight Outta Kingston: Inside Banquet Records' independent retail masterplan

Last year, Kingston’s Banquet Records won Music Week’s coveted Independent Retailer Of The Year Award. And, in 2018, they’re still going from strength to strength. Here co-owner Jon Tolley explains how they’re making independent retail not only work, but thrive…

"That’s one day’s delivery,” gestures Banquet co-owner Jon Tolley to Music Week. The thing to which he is pointing is a huge pile of cardboard boxes containing vinyl and CDs neatly stacked on each other. It looks like a child’s been building a big fortress.   “We get that kind of stock every day,” he adds. “That’s certainly not the biggest delivery. Every year I think the vinyl revival will slow down, it doesn’t seem to be for us.

"Music Week and Tolley are sat on stools situated on a small stage in Banquet’s secondary store space, located just next door to its main shop flooded with vinyl.  Reassuringly, there is no crowd gathered to watch us, though there will be later on tonight as London indie crew Gengahr play an intimate performance for Banquet.

Which speaks volumes about why we’re here: to find out more about the groundbreaking store that won Best Independent Retailer at last year’s Music Week Awards. Formed in 2004, the shop was purchased from the then-struggling Beggars Banquet chain of stores by employee Tolley, who decided to add the words ‘record shop co-owner’ to his CV alongside indie club DJ. With fellow co-owner Mike Smith, and management team member Jane Unwin, it has gone on to become a thriving part of the Kingston community.

Banquet is, among other things, a label, issuing releases for the established likes of Tonight Alive and Modern Baseball, as well as local bands looking for a step-up. They are also a promoter, putting on gigs at several local venues. Additionally, they have become known for putting on rather special in-store events, with last year seeing colossal queues form to meet Stormzy.

In light of all this, they are, naturally, also a key name in the independent retail sector - a sector, Tolley stresses, which doesn’t so much regard each other as rivals as they do allies.

“What you guys probably don’t see as much is the stuff behind the scenes,” says Tolley. “Collective bargaining to make sure we get indie exclusives and curate Record Store Day releases. It’s just sensible – you’re not going to win on your own if you fight HMV, Amazon or whoever.”

Even with those major retailers in the picture, Banquet is thriving in 2018. Tolley – a passionate, insightful interviewee – says its staff are currently preparing for what should hopefully be another huge Record Store Day for them in April (“ABBA is the big one,” he says of the month’s essential release).

But the truth is Banquet have fought extremely hard over the years to be in this position.

“It’s been a labour of love for many, many years,” explains Tolley. “It’s only really in the past couple of years that we’ve made any cash.

When we were going bust, I went nine months without any wages. I got my money from DJ-ing – you could command a better fee back then! I always saw that Banquet, or Beggars as it was, was fundamental to things happening in Kingston.

”There is, at the heart of Banquet, a rathersimple philosophy that has turned around their fortunes.    

“You can’t stand still,”observes Tolley. “If you’re waiting for customers to come to you, they’re not going to.”
Here, Music Week speaks to Tolley to find out how Banquet have navigated an era in which people can buy houmous and vinyl at the same time from a supermarket…

What’s the best decision you made as a store in terms of making indie retail work?

“Two things. One is to make mistakes, and not be scared of that. Second, what Banquet tries to do is to marry up the customer buying physical releases with the customer going to gigs, because they’re often the same person.”

Devil’s advocate – is that actually true? There are a lot of people who only go to a few gigs a year...

“One of the beautiful things about being independent is I don’t have to speak on behalf of the whole industry. A lot of our [insights are] anecdotal; the reason Mike and me are still on the shop floor is so that we can get that vibe.

As soon as you’re in an office and looking at stats and figures and algorithms, you lose the human interaction that makes record shops what they are. I don’t spend all day on the shop floor, but I’m on the shop floor every day.

Just what you might hear from a 17-year-old who’s picking up a Tonight Alive record, what they’re into, how they find out about new music – because that’s not how we find out about new music. The bigger picture about independent retail is that sometimes you need to give people an extra reason to part with their cash.

If you spend five grand a month on High Street rent, you need to make that five grand work. [You have to ask] what can you do with your physical space on the high street where you create experiences?”

To that end, how important has it been that Banquet operates in the live sector too?

“I was putting on gigs before working here, and Jane was also involved in putting on gigs before working here. We’ve always been a promoter. You learn the logistics of it and how to get over losing a lot of money and how to put on bands and give them the right experiences.

And you find out what some bands want. Some bands want cold hard money, some bands want to help sell some albums, some bands want something that’s just cool. When Stormzy did a signing this time last year, we had 1,200 people pass through the shop.”

How did you get Stormzy when he was so in-demand?

“I think Banquet’s quite known for being flexible, we can do things quickly. We’d been on Stormzy probably before most other indie shops were, I’m not saying we’re cutting edge grime but we have a history of putting on stuff other people maybe hadn’t.

In 2015, JME was our album of the year. He came to a signing, saw the PA there and played a gig in the record shop just for the fun of it. When we approached Stormzy’s people, they knew we would do it well, that we’d get security and manage the logistics of it all.

When you’re sitting in a London office and you get, ‘Errrr, can we do Stormzy?’ It’s like, ‘No, of course you can’t!’ But when we do Stormzy it’s like, ‘Well, they did that and didn’t fuck it up.’”

How has the live side of what you do evolved?

“Because we’ve been putting on shows for years, what we do quite often is put on gigs where, if a band has an album out, we’ll do release shows. In the 2,000 capacity venue the Hippodrome, you can put on an artist who would usually play Brixton or Ally Pally and put them in a relatively small place.

It depends how they want to do it. Sometimes we have to pay them a lot of cash, sometimes a little bit of cash but they can sell extra albums on the back of it. We get to see our favourite bands and some money, it’s so win-win.

But you have to already have the relationships with the venues. So it’s a lot easier for us as a tried and tested promoter to say, ‘This is what we want to do – can we?’ We use six spaces regularly in Kingston, the Hippdrome around the corner, we started using 10 years ago.

We booked Hundred Reasons to play a 1,000 capacity show – the singer lost his voice so it was a disaster for the first gig, but the support artist was a little known guy called Frank Turner who plugged his guitar into the DJ mixer.

We gave him £50 and some beers and had a great time watching him. Turns out he went on to huge things!”

Where would Banquet be if you hadn’t branched out into the promoting side of things?

“I don’t know because I can’t imagine it. We’ve always been doing it. You could flip the question to: ‘Where would you be as a promoter if you didn’t have a record shop?’ Live music has always run through our business mentality.

When we first took over the business, we had loads of gig posters in the window and I remember my accountant saying, ‘You need to promote the records, why are you promoting the gigs? You’re a record shop!’ I said, ‘These gigs bring people into the shop’. It’s a reason why people will be loyal to the brand – because it shows you’re doing something extra.

I think that extra thing – whatever the extra is – you have to show it as an independent venue. That could be us speaking out for music venues in Kingston, it might be how we speak out for homeless people in Kingston, or artists.

You have a role and responsibility as a leading independent to do something more. You can’t just take from your community, you have to give back. People want to put their money into something they feel gives a shit.”

How else have you been doing that?

“We just stopped giving out plastic bags, we’re giving out cotton totes. We’re trying to encourage reuse. I think it’s important independent shops can inspire a change in how customers act. We give people one tote bag and say, ‘From now on we’ll expect you to use a bag – ours or anyone else’s – if you don’t, you don’t get the loyalty stamps.

People can blag or lie to us, but people don’t come into an independent record shop to try and screw them over a bag. We’re here to persuade a habit change, that’s what we have to do as a society. We’ve all seen Blue Planet II.

It costs us, but it’s an investment we have to make. Once we prove it works we’ve got commercial proof – these are eight times more expensive than plastic bags. If someone reuses it eight times, we’re quids in. Then we might have a commercial response to an actual problem.”

Speaking of quids in, the BPI recently reported that there was a 26.8% increase in vinyl sales in 2017. Is the ‘vinyl revival’ a passing trend or is it here to stay?

“I’ve always thought – and it’s not rocket science – the reason vinyl’s on the up is as an immediate reaction to how consumable and how much of a race to the bottom everything else is. Music isn’t a commodity – it’s your art collection, a working man’s art collection.

If you really love an artist you want something more than an MP3 or a stream. Records are that, more than a CD. If that’s why it’s happened, and it’s not like streaming is just going to stop, there will be the counter to that. I don’t think physical music is going to stop. I think there are way bigger challenges.

For me, as a retailer, the actual challenges of running a High Street position are harder – the rates and the rent and the standard bills, and making sure your staff are paid. We’re certainly busier than we’ve ever been, but because of that we have to pay more money.”

Every year we see more and more artists reissue their catalogues. How important is that to what you do, in terms of tapping into customers’ completist habits?

“If you look at the top vinyl sales, it’s Ed Sheeran, Amy Winehouse. These aren’t back catalogues. I’m always amazed Ed’s still in the charts, who hasn’t bought that album yet? I only speak for Banquet, but what I see people buying isn’t predominantly reissues.

We are particularly excited for new music, and so is our customer base. We do 200 gigs a year, all of those are current performing artists.

Absolutely, we will serve a person in for the reissue – we sell Bowie, Beatles and Nirvana every week – but our raison d’être is new music and helping bands get to that next level.

We’ve never done second-hand because I don’t think it contributes anything to anyone.

The label doesn’t get any more money, the artist doesn’t get any more money. You’re not giving back.”

How important is Record Store Day to you in 2018?

“Financially, for us, it’s the most important time of the business year. More than Christmas, absolutely. Our business year is based around April, in that one week in April we will take more than in November and December put together. It’s a big deal.

Everything is based around it. You can have holiday in December, you can’t in April – that kind of thing. The other thing Record Store Day does is it allows people who would normally walk past the shop to come in.

There are queues around the block, it’s a reason for us to have an article in The Guardian. It’s a focal point.”

How has the supermarkets’ move into stocking vinyl affecting you?

“I don’t worry about it. I think it would be a different thing if they were doing Record Store Day. I think you would have to be quite arrogant to think that your shop, and shops like you, are the only ones allowed to sell a certain type of product.

I mean, we could sell bread if we wanted to. We’re deciding not to, one day we might and undercut them. I think it’s good there’s a stepping stone into music – if you’re that person who’s thinking about getting a record collection again and you see that Stone Roses record or Smiths record, and you buy it, cool.

You’re not going to then go, ‘Right! I’m going back to Sainsbury’s next week!’”

So there’s not much overlap?

“It’s about the experience and offering something extra.

That something extra might be expertise and knowledge. When they come in and ask about problems with their record set-up, we can say, ‘Have you tried this?’ and, ‘While you’re here…’.

You’re not going to get your record player fixed at Sainsbury’s and you’re not going to know about a new version of the jangly indie Manchester band you might be into. It’s about offering an experience.”

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