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Yesteryear create high-quality audio-visual nostalgia products that celebrate Britain's glorious past. Here, Digger talks to John Boyden at Yesteryear who formed the enterprise with Andrew Humphries. They talk about how the business was created, about Yesteryear's products and their plans for the future.


 

The Royal Collection         The Royal Collection

The Royal Collection

      


 

Digger: Hello John. I didnít know which number to call you on Ė the wonders of modern technology!

John: Itís not that, itís the wonders of staircases! (Both laugh) 

Digger: You must be careful. Were you coming up or coming down? 

John: I was coming down. 

Digger: A few months ago I was coming down the winding narrow stairs of this old Northampton stone house with coffee cup in one hand and washing in the other and missed a corner step and bumped my way down the stairs on my backside. I just sat at the bottom of the stairs for ten minutes feeling sorry for myself surrounded by washing and coffee and it took a number of weeks for my knee to heal and the aches to go. 

John: A nightmare. We have got Yorkstone at the front of our house and twice I went out without thinking when it was raining and I went bottom up and smack on my back. The first time it knocked the wotsit out of me and I felt awful and just lay there in the rain. The second time I did it I was holding my two and a half year old grandchild.

Digger: God. 

John: I can remember clearly, although itís only a split second as we know, consciously pushing my right arm up in the air and she didnít hit the ground. Itís incredible. 

Digger: There's this instinctive protection going on. Amazing isnít it? 

John: Yes, it switched in and I seemed to have time to do it. 

Digger: Youíve got a guardian angel there, havenít you? 

John: I think she has. But she shrieked with sheer shock at being six feet up in the air and then bang. 

Digger: Some kids would find it quite exciting and not realise the danger. 

John: Where are you in Northamptonshire? 

Digger: Duston. 

John: I spent the war years in Stoke Goldington. 

Digger: You know the area better than me. Iím just a relatively recent blow-in. Please tell us about the background to Yesteryear and how and why you and Andrew formed this enterprise.

John: Andrew was the head of the music division of Readerís Digest and I got to know him quite well because his predecessor was somebody I had known for years. I spent my life producing records. 

Digger: Can you tell us what sort of records? 

John: I produced about 2,000. Where do you want me to start? 

Digger: (Laughs) Give us some names that weíll be impressed by. 

John: I recorded Douglas Bader. Thatís a record we still sell, of airplane noises. I did that for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF in 1968. I rang him up Ė he was the head of Shell Air Company and he was in the Shell Building on the south bank. So I went down and saw him. 

Digger: Was he petulant? They say he could be stroppy. 

John: Not a bit, no. I met him I suppose half a dozen times, maybe more, and we got on. Maybe he and I were kindred spirits in the petulance brigade. 

Digger: (Laughs) No, but you often hear these stories ďSo and so is a right wotsitĒ and then somebody else says ďNo, not at all, they were great.Ē 

John: Iíve got to say he was extremely helpful to me in other areas. I wonít bore you with what that was but he was an absolute gentleman. He used to walk me down the corridor to the lift and get the lift open for me and all that stuff. He didnít really need to do that. 

Digger: Thatís good. 

John: I thought he was a smashing bloke. I mean, he wasnít an intellectual for Godís sake, he was a blood and guts old-fashioned Bulldog Drummond type. In modern terms heíd be called a racist. But we didnít have racists then. I recorded A.J.P. Taylor and then on the classical front I recorded virtually every orchestra and over 100 different conductors. Many times in some cases. I gave all sorts of people their first chances. Iím not a company man, Iím a buccaneer, so I worked for EMI for a while and then started a label called Classics For Pleasure which is the biggest selling classical label thereís ever been in this country. I started that in 1970 on the back of sponsorship I got from WD & HO Wills. 

Digger:  Another name from the past. 

John: Theyíre now part of Imperial Tobacco. And I made a deal with them and the London Philharmonic Orchestra to make six records a year for three years and the deal ran for 15 years Ė not with me I hasten to add. And I gave people like Dame Margaret Price as she is, Sir Andrew Davis, John Lill, The Gabrieli Quartet, Howard Shelley Ė all these people their first recording opportunity. I formed all sorts of things and we sold bucketloads of records and that was the name of the business. So I worked with them all. 

Digger: Because Music For Pleasure used to get al the hits that there had been in the last few weeks and record new versions of themÖ 

John: MFP was the parent of CFP and I was taken on by MFP in 1967 and I started CFP three years later. It seemed an eternity at the time, but when I think about it three years wasnít really a long time to wait. Anyway, I gave that up and went to become the first Managing Director of The London  Symphony Orchestra, which wasn't a great success because I sacked Mr Previn which I thought was a thoroughly good idea!   

 

Yesteryear Scrap Books    Yesteryear Scrap Books    Yesteryear Scrap Books

Yesteryear Scrap Books

 

Digger: Mr Preview as Eric Morecambe used to call him. 

John: Well, absolutely. This is huge subject and I donít want to get you into it because it will take two books! But then I went back into the record business and started a thing called Enigma, where I recorded Angela Rippon when her legs were famous Ė you talked about Morecambe and Wise. And I got her to do Peter and the Wolf and we had a big success with that. Then the people who owned the business sold it under my feet to Warner Bros. So I was with Warner Bros. I was with them about 18 months and then they had a really bad spin and they closed everything down that they werenít really interested in, including us. So I was out on the street again. So I started up several businesses, some of which still work and I was given a consultancy by Pickwick group. This was the first non-full price CD label two years before EMI even started one. We did terribly well and gave a lot of new people chances. Andrew asked me to produce some middle of the road discs for him for Reader's Digest and I did that. We got talking idly and he said he really wanted to run his own thing and I said ďWell, I need to make a living and I havenít got anything particularly on at the moment thatís exciting. We could form a company.Ē So, in 2003, we formed the company. About a year later Ė in 2005 actually, we started trading and the company was called Green Label Music Company, which is a daft name and nothing to do with me I hasten to add. (Digger laughs) 

Digger: Did it have everything to do with Andrew? 

John: I think so Ė he liked it! But we couldnít trade with it. I came up with the name Yesteryear and we started with one CD, which weíre still selling, called Weíll Meet Again. Itís got Dame Vera on it , of course. Andrew was still working for Readerís Digest Ė this was six years ago. I, being an ex-army bloke, because I did my National Service, rang up military museums and wrote to them and I started there selling it to their shops. Because the high street was hopeless even then Ė it clearly had the blight of death on it as far as recorded music was concerned. From that we developed into approaching all sorts of heritage centres and we developed a set of over 300 alternative outlets. 

Digger: There are some very impressive venues there on your list. 

John: Yes. I think that's the secret for our success Ė because weíre undoubtedly a success as we didnít have any capital Ė maybe £200 to invest each at the start and that went on the first pressings. The first order I took was so big itís never been repeated. I thought if we can do this, weíve hit the money. I actually got an order from Blenheim Palace for 300 units Ė we didnít, but it happened at the right time and it made us fluid. 

Digger: Another guardian angel. 

John: Exactly. That was fantastic, so in February of the following year in 2005 Andrew quit Readerís Digest. But we still have an association with them and weíve produced a lot of triple disc box sets for Readerís Digest, which is a hangover from the old relationship which lasts to this day. And which has proved very good for us because we sold them product under our brand. Of course they then sell it and we have it for the rest of the world to do what we like with. 

Digger: The demographic is similar overseas, I suppose? 

John: We have to come up with all the ideas and the products and itís all based on nostalgia. So we built up very quickly, in fact, by not taking any money out of it. We ploughed all the income in and achieved fluidity by growth which was pretty smart stuff. Then, at the start of 2007, we bumped into a chap who said something about newsreel. He said he could get hold of newsreel. We didnít use this fellow, we didnít need to, but it suddenly dawned on us that if we used newsreel then we could attach it to discs of post-war music. Because the copyright law - and we work entirely under copyright, is fifty years on the mechanicals meant that every year there was another yearís worth of stuff. But nothing happened after the war, you know. I mean after the war itself and all the incredible associations you could sell popular music in a very clear way that had nothing to do with music. But suddenly, post war what do you do? You canít make rationing exciting or the Korean War or the Malayan Campaign or any of those things. 

Digger: No, you have to wait for the birth of rock and roll and the sixties. 

John: Yes, you have to wait for all that rock and roll and clearly we werenít waiting for that. So I thought that if we added newsreel, put it on the CD because you can have one called an enhanced CD and itís playable on a computer or through your TV. Youíve got all your tracks of music and then you finish up with ten minutes of newsreel. Well, we were going to do that and then Andrew said ďNo, youíve got it wrong." which of course he often does because thatís what youíre in business with someone else for. I said ďWhy?Ē and he said ďNobodyís going to understand anything about an enhanced CD with the market weíre selling to. Theyíre tending to be older people. They won't understand it and youíre wasting your timeĒ I thought he was right and so we dropped that and I then went back to ITN who were licensing the newsreel and did another deal for a further ten minutes of newsreel and we then produced it calling it The Scrap Book. We dealt with subjects of social history. The first three, there was National Service, Transport Racing and Record Breaking and Pageantry and The Crown, because I knew that The Queenís wedding was coming up. So we 'bunged' The Queenís wedding on and we made a mistake. We made it CD-sized, so the little pack held a CD, a DVD and a booklet, but it didnít look like anything much in the shop. It had no presence. So were selling it off the page in terms of advertising brochures, mail order and all that kind of stuff but not doing as well with it in stores as we should have done. But then, thatís why we repackaged it all and weíre repackaging the last title at the moment.   

Digger: Thatís important because of the nature of the technology now what you're buying isnít very tangible so you have to bump it up. 

John: You do. Itís the old perfume gag Ė a great big fancy box and a little pot inside. Well, weíve got a bigger pot inside but itís a bigger pack. And itís cost us a lot of money, in fact, but there you go you learn by your mistakes. But the impressive thing that happened was that we brought these out at Easter in 2007 and in summer I got a phone call from Buckingham Palace and they said ďCan you do a DVD of this stuff?Ē and I said ďWell, weíve already got the Scrap Book.Ē And they said ďNo, no, we donít like that. Itís got popular music and we just want a DVD of the wedding.Ē There wasnít enough material so we bumped it up with Coronation stuff but that got us as a supplier to The Royal Collection which is the commercial wing of The House Of Windsor. We did terrifically well with that and we made a deal with The Daily Telegraph, selling to their customers through that. We really made hay. So the business leapt ahead considerably and at this point we were each still working from our own houses Ė I still do. But the company, of course, has now got premises out in Romford in Essex near where Andrew lives. He runs the thing there, weíve got staff, weíve got overheads and all the paraphernalia and we do all our own distribution and donít go outside for any of that. We do a fair bit of export but not a huge amount. We have only just got a website that works going because we didnít have the money.

Digger: Are you exporting to ex-pats and so on? 

John: Yes, we supply Reader's Digest Australia Ė weíre just making a deal at the moment with an actual distributor in Australia and New Zealand. Iím very surprised there was even a market for our stuff because itís very Anglo-centric. 

Digger: What about The Americans? 

John: The Americans are another thing. So the company moved on and we formed associations with all sorts of people Ė The Imperial War Museum, The Bader record for example and a charitable deal with the RAF at Hendon so we pay them a little bit more, and so on. The analogy I use is one Iíve used for forty years, which is of the walking wounded in a battle. Youíve got one good leg and another blokeís got another good leg and between the two of you youíve got two good legs.

Digger: Yes. 

John: And thatís it. Youíve got to form associations with people whose interests are not exactly the same as yours but broadly in the right direction. To do it all yourself Ė to promote and advertise and so on is so expensive. And although the heritage market or the nostalgia market, or whatever you want to call it  is bigĖ I think itís more heritage than nostalgia now. Weíre not dealing with music anymore and weíre now dealing with a different sort of product and itís very important in business that you know what business youíre in. Because a lot of people think theyíre in one business when in fact theyíre in something else and it colours everything you do. I mean, for example, if Arthur Scargill knew anything about marketing, apart from knowing anything about politics, he would have realised that if heíd changed the name of The National Union of Mineworkers to The National Union of Energy Workers heíd still be in business. 

Digger: Yes, yes, yes. 

John: Thatís the point. You can go on all your life trying to sell something which actually nobody wants anymore. But trying something elseÖ 

Digger: Yes, sometimes with maybe just a few subtle changes. 

John: Yes, and change your attitude and thatís very, very important so weíre consciously now trading, although still as Yesteryear, we only changed the registered name Ė the company name about two months ago. 

Digger: Whatís the difference between nostalgia and heritage? 

John: I think itís an interesting point. I think heritage is a sort of classier thing. Itís more substantial. Itís to do to some extent with bricks and mortar and ideas. Whereas nostalgia is the sort of fleeting feeling when you suddenly smell something and it takes you back to three years old. I mean, I remember going on a bus into Northampton and there was a big brewery called Phipps on the southern side. A big red brick place and I think itís Carlsberg now. I always remember the smell of the hops.

Digger: That still wafts across if the wind is right even to us here. 

John: It was fantastic and if I get that smell Iím suddenly six years old. I think thatís nostalgia. And another thing we have to remember, well we donít have to remember anything actually because weíve got computers havenít we?! But what we ought to remember is that the real meaning of the word nostalgia has nothing to do with remembering the past. The original Greek is remembrance of place but weíve corrupted it. 

Digger: As we do. 

John: Itís become a memory of time. 

Digger:  What are the most enjoyable aspects of what you do?

John: The freedom.   

 

 

Victory 1945 CDs    Victory 1945 CDs    Victory 1945 CDs

Victory 1945 CDs    Victory 1945 CDs   

 Victory 1945 CDs    Victory 1945 CDs

Victory 1945 CDs

 

Digger: What sort of feedback do you get from customers and retailers? 

John: Weíve always, I must say, had a very good feedback. There are several reasons, the first being originality Ė weíve gone for putting in new ideas right from the beginning. The second one, not necessarily inferior to that, is Mr Humphriesí dedication to quality. 

Digger: You do all of the research and creative stuff? 

John: I donít do all of it by any means but I do a lot of it. 

Digger: I mean you don't outsource it? 

John: We occasionally outsource notes on popular music because I donít really know a lot about that. 

Digger: Ask me! The sixties and the seventies are my speciality. 

John: Mr Humphries is very good at that. He did nothing but compilations for Readerís Digest and he was brought up on it. Heís a young chap Ė heís half my age. And so itís very good. I donít know how he puts up with working with a geriatric like me, but he does. 

Digger: He probably appreciates wisdom and experience and all those sorts of things.

John: You and I know that they are just memory and irrelevant. I always look for the angle to try to look to see how we can do something thatís going to leave the opposition in difficulties. 

Digger: There is opposition, is there? 

John: There is opposition but we donít take any notice of them. I never ever did, even when I was in the classical music business pure and simple, which is the subject of fashion as much as anything else. Marketing for me is dead simple and Yesteryear is an example of that Ė it begins with the conception of the product Ė itís not to do with selling something, itís to do with marketing which is to get the right product to the right place and the right price at the right time. That's the end of it and youíve got to make something that fulfils a need. If it doesnít do that youíre not going to sell it. People have got to think ďI want to buy this. I want to know what happened to rationing or in The Blitz and hereís a thing with a book, a CD and a DVD of the period.Ē That is the sort of package you can give Great Aunt Maude when youíre out at Polesden Lacey and you think youíve got to buy the old bat something. 

Digger: Or if somebody has a project to do?

John: Yes we still have a number of people who ring us up and order and theyíve done so since the early days. They buy them for their grandchildren and they want them to know what it was like to make do and mend. The make do and mend and National Service ideas Ė thereís very little of them these days and there's hardly any literature available on National Service. 

Digger: Thatís strange because it was such an important and huge part of life for decades.

John: It officially started before the outbreak of the Second World War but it was revived after the war because they realised that The Empire needed far too many people to look after it, protect it and especially as it was going to be run down and they couldnít do it with just recruits. People had to be dragooned in and that was what it was all about and we were very cheap, of course. 

Digger: What are your plans for Yesteryear? 

John: Well, weíre now developing a new series, the first one of which has just come out Ė itís a very exciting thing and weíve made four on Westminster Abbey and itís very much like a Scrap Book but itís not a Scrap Book . It has a much bigger booklet, much fancier and in colour. And we have a DVD with twenty minutes of Pathe newsreel of the Abbey, including the bringing of The Unknown Warrior in 1920. Weíve got Churchill making an appeal, The Blitz, weíve got holes in the roof and holes in Big Ben and in the old Houses Of Parliament, which were bombed. Thereís all that stuff. Weíve got the American Army going in for Thanksgiving in 1943. Weíve got The Queen for the 900th Anniversary of the Abbey and then we branched out completely. We actually made a video of the inside of the Abbey which lasts 25 minutes, with a commentary by the Dean of Westminster. The audio disc is a completely remastered and revamped and terrific sounding selection of the music from the coronation, plus some music by Purcell who was the organist there. 

Digger: This has been digitally remastered? 

John: Yes, it was the BBC who recorded it on tapes from EMI and, of course, it was compressed in order to get it through the medium wave. There was no FM even then, so we digitised it and expanded all the climaxes so it actually does sound thrilling. You can actually hear the resonance of the building, which is beautiful. 

Digger: I have heard the music from that and itís very evocative. 

John: You know the choir was 400 boys and men? 400, itís such a collossal sound and that is going out like flies. Itís so successful and itís only been out for six weeks. At the moment itís only being sold by the Abbey. 

Digger: Are you moving forward through the fifties and into the sixties?

John: This series weíre going to do for other heritage centres in the same format so thatís a whole new line and it will be available to all trade customers, of course. But, initially, the Abbey has got a six months exclusive on it. We will repeat that formula because itís clearly so successful. Thatís very exciting. Now, as far as popular music is concerned, yes, of course, weíve just issued a new series called We Remember Them Ė Iíve not had anything to do with it but theyíre single artist recordings Ė Vera Lynn has started it off and thatís really flown off the shelves. Then weíve got Glenn Miler and all the usual villains and thatís got tremendous packaging as well Ė we donít stint on them. We put great sleeve notes in.

Digger: Yes, they look fantastic. 

John: They also fulfil what is the necessity as far as Iím concerned of having human faces on them. One of our competitor companies, who I shanít mention, go for a very stylised design which is really fine and very well done but thereís something inhuman about it. The bloke we deal with at ITN says weíre the only ones who have successfully found a method of selling newsreel. Because other people do it by date, because it was your year or something. But all of those events donít mean anything because they were all random. 

Digger: I think also people arenít very good at remembering when something happened either. 

John: No, but if you take a subject like we have and you put all the items on the newsreel, all belong to that subject. Then you canít watch more than 20 minutes of it. Youíd go mad. But 20 minutes of it and youíve got a very good idea of what it was like on that particular subject and thatís really why weíre scoring. Itís the honing it down to the essence of the subject and dealing with it comprehensively. 

Digger: What youíre also doing is tapping into the modern thing where people donít have much of an attention span. 

John: Thatís sad and a sign of the times. I got an email from a PR company the other day and it was full of errors. Why would I use their services? 

Digger: Yes, I saw one of my friends was using an 'author' for content for his site and the authorís site was full of spelling errors and typos! People donít seem to realise that these things are their companyís window to the world. 

John: Exactly. I still prefer to send off a letter rather than an email, especially if itís important. 

Digger: Well, John, thanks for letting us know more about Yesteryear and your products and the very best of British for the future! 

John: Thank you David. I look forward to seeing the Feature.

Digger: Thank you. Take care.

 

 

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