Banquet Records, one of Kingston's most popular and unique High Street assets, has an almost uncanny ability to be a catalyst for one of the UK's liveliest music scenes.

It helps Kingston borough punch well above its weight when it comes to performance arts, staging world-famous artists from Gary Barlow (later this year) to Stormzy (January last year) being cases in point.

The Surrey Comet caught up with the man at the heart of it all, Banquet Records owner and Kingston councillor Jon Tolley, to discuss how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the business and wider arts scene in Kingston.

How have you managed to keep Banquet going during the Covid pandemic?

So Banquet is divided up into three arms between in-store sales, the gigs we put on, and the online stuff. Now we are just one of those arms. We haven't opened the shop up at all. The online stuff has been going really well so we've just been concentrating on that. We can't socially distance at work. That's the whole charm of a record store, it's a small, little cramped space. We could let in two people at a time, but I don't want to be hurrying up a customer when they come in. It's not really what a record shop is about. We decided to concentrate on the website, made it run better and changed how we do stuff and that's been good.

We've done quite a lot of online gigs, something we've never done before. We've done some socially distanced gigs, and we will again before things open up properly. And we've been announcing loads of gigs that just keep getting postponed but will happen at some point.

How is Kingston's music scene for smaller artists doing during Covid in your opinion?

It's just hard. For everyone really. I don't think everyone is pissed off or upset with it, it's just how it is. Everyone knows someone who is a nurse or whose grandparents didn't make it. No one is surprised because they understand the context. I feel for people like freshers who haven't had their year of finding themselves in the town, for bands who haven't had that year of playing smaller venues and putting out demos. It's tragic, but the whole thing is tragic. We'll be back. It seems like The Fighting Cocks and Pryzm are going to get through it, we're going to get through it. It feels more like things have been on pause for 18 months rather than having to stop and start again because it's hard to get that momentum up.

What will happen if there is another wave of Covid infections?

If we have another serious wave before things open up again I think it will be a nightmare but if we have a wave in say November-December-January, at least we had some gigs, at least we had some life different from just screen time.

What's the structure of Banquet Records today?

We used to be owned by Beggars Banquet, with the Beggars groups, who look after Adele and The White Stripes but they sold us off some time ago, so now it's just us. We do have a small record label that is kind of dormant at the moment. We found that the best way to help bands and give them a step to another level is through the shop and the shows and the exposure that we can do. If we're putting on bigger artists, bands that we also like can support them and that's something we can do. Our time and effort is getting some of the biggest bands in the country to come and play in Kingston and that's really cool. If we can do that then we can give other bands exposure to play to a thousand people in the area as opposed to putting out their CD without a promo team that maybe 20 years ago we could have done.

In terms of funding during the pandemic, the government announced a £1.57 billion investment into Arts in the UK. Have you seen any of that?

We haven't. We shouldn't, to be honest. We're doing well. Although two-thirds of our business had to stop, the other third was doing well and made up for it. We didn't go for the Arts funding. We did get the High Street grant, which was welcome, as was the rates reductions and so on.

I'm quite aware of what's happening with Arts funding generally. For example there's an organization called Music Venues Trust that has been really good at supporting small venues. I've always been a bit cynical of Arts Council funding. It seems to be that the person who writes the best PDF gets the money, and not necessarily the people who are most in need of it. That's why they employ people who can write good PDFs to use the write words, 'key performance indicators' in place and so on, which is language if you are say running a pub you might not fully appreciate.

As a high street retailer we can't fault the financial help the government's given us. I would rather have less help and there be less reason for help to be required. Perhaps if the pandemic was handled in a different way maybe we wouldn't have had to shut for six months and wouldn't have needed all that support to get us through those six months. I can't help but have my councillor hat on when it comes to things like this.

What's on the horizon for Banquet at the moment?

From mid August I think we've got a gig a day, and these aren't just small local bands but acts like Gary Barlow, Idles, Architects, big legit touring artist day after day. It's going to be really good, quite hard staff wise but we're looking forward to it. They're going to be mostly at Pryzm but they let us have the diary for everything before 10pm.