An interview with
Tony Keys

By Beppe Colli
Sept. 17, 2006

It was about four years ago - immediately after I got to know about the existence of a "Rock Library" on the Internet which, though already big, promised to become a lot bigger - that I decided to become a subscriber to Rock's Backpages.

About one year later I happened to interview Barney Hoskyns, a journalist and a critic sporting a long and rich CV; also the man who for the general public is without a doubt RBP's most familiar face. However, the main topic of our conversation at that time had not been Rock's Backpages, but the introduction Hoskyns had written for The Sound & the Fury: A Rock's Backpages Reader (Bloomsbury), a selection of pieces by writers featured on the site, especially his opinions about the role of the music critic.

It was about two weeks ago that I decided to go back to the Rock's Backpages topic. I chose to ask Tony Keys, RBP's Finance Director, for an interview. Keys kindly agreed to answer my questions. Readers will find the text of our conversation, which took place last week via e-mail, here below.

It was just a few days after I sent my questions that I was alerted to the fact of the rapidly approaching fifth birthday of Rock's Backpages, which has recently added its 10,000th piece. At a moment in time when issues such as the role played by music in everyday life, the interest for the written word, the real amount of people's literacy, the difficulties many have when trying to articulate coherent thoughts about the arts (and many other topics) are more and more the occasion for heated arguments, the existence - and the health conditions - of a firm such as Rock's Backpages can function as indicators of larger issues than our personal interest in the "rock literature".

On the "About Us" section of Rock's Backpages you are listed as being "Finance Director". Would you mind talking about your background, and the way you eventually became a part of Rock's Backpages?

I was invited to meet Barney Hoskyns and Mark Pringle (who I had already met as a website designer) by James Sandilands, an old friend who had an internet design business. James knew that I was interested in rock music and he thought I could help Barney and Mark to raise capital for their new idea, which was Rock's Backpages.

James and I invested in the business, as did the other founders, and we also raised money from other investors. James sadly died in 2001.

Before becoming part of RBP, I spent my working career in the city, first as a stockbroker, and then as finance director of a number of insurance businesses.

I've read that you are "the only member of the RBP team to have seen Otis Redding in action". What was he like?

The 1967 Stax/Volt tour of the UK featured Booker T and the MGs, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Arthur Conley and Otis Redding. I saw this concert at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon, South London. Otis was fantastic - a great stage presence, and although he was clearly doing the same set as a hundred times before, finishing with Try A Little Tenderness, it was a very exciting performance.

Of course, reading about "what was he like" is the whole point about building a rock library. What was the rationale behind this start-up?

Barney was very conscious that anyone wanting to read the great music articles from the past had great difficulty - few were legitimately available on the internet, and although people might be able to go to reference libraries in the major cities of the world, the key magazines might not be there. He  therefore approached a number of writers to see if they would be prepared to licence RBP to put up their work on the internet. The writers were supportive so we got the money together to create the site.

It seems to me that you've progressively added more "content services" to RBP - and, if I'm not mistaken, the possibility to buy individual items via PayPal. Would you please talk about that?

We want to be the first stop for anyone wanting to read the great music writing of the last 50 years. We have therefore bought  a large number of back issues of the major US and UK magazines (which forms part of the archive). We offer businesses and individuals the facility to obtain scans of articles from these magazines.

Publishers in overseas territories (particularly Japan) are interested in publishing translated versions of material on the website, and thus we provide them with a licence to do so on behalf of the relevant writers.

Although we think our subscription costs are very reasonable, many people emailed us to say that they only wanted to read one article - could we provide it to them? Therefore, and with the agreement of our writers, we now make single copies of articles available after the customer has paid via Paypal.

In the weekly updates to the RBP library I perceive a conscious effort to offer a wide range of pieces, temporally speaking, i.e., from artists from the 50s to new artists currently on top. Provided it's not confidential information: Do you perceive any regularities, any fluctuations, when it comes to people's choices? (Of course, I imagine that Nick Drake's recent success was mirrored by the amount of people's access to articles about him.)

We are conscious that interest in artists fluctuates considerably - new albums, reissues of classic albums, television programs etc. all influence our customers' selection of articles (which we track quite closely).

Of course, at the moment most of the articles that are added to the library come from the (literally) printed page. A few years ago it looked like paper mags were on their way out, but nowadays - even though most UK weeklies have gone under - it seems like the music monthly is alive and well, with more mags having appeared in the last few years. I know it's a complex issue, but I'd like to know your opinion just the same.

Yes - more monthlies have appeared and the NME still keeps coming out weekly. The quality of the writing is very variable. The better monthly magazines do commission good features/retrospectives on the artists of the 60s to the 90s but, in my personal opinion, there isn't much in the way of good "critical" comment coming out in the weeklies. Someone suggested to me recently that the younger fans of music don't like to read lengthy pieces - they want short pieces and instant opinions, particularly via the "community" websites.

Beppe Colli 2006 | Sept. 17, 2006