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
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
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
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
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
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
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
© Beppe Colli 2006
| Sept. 17, 2006