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Tuning in to Tonality

Tonality Records’ Julian Seth-Wong is just your average 19-year-old who owns a record store
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Tonality Records owner Julian Seth-Wong sits amongst his records. EDGAR VARGAS/THE VARSITY
Tonality Records owner Julian Seth-Wong sits amongst his records. EDGAR VARGAS/THE VARSITY

Tucked into the tip of the trendy Roncesvalles area sits Tonality Records. Located at 2168 Dundas Street West, the shop is now in it’s second year.

It’s a brightly lit space with albums and guitars adorning the walls. Crates of records are set out around the store for patrons to peruse, while vintage record players are proudly displayed on a table near the entrance. The layout is reminiscent of someone who has spent their whole life dedicated to music, and indeed this is true of founder Julian Seth-Wong who is just 19. We sat down with him to talk about owning a business at such a young age, creating a following, and ditching labels.

The Varsity — How did it originally come into fruition? How did you decide ‘I’m going to open a record store’?

Julian Seth-Wong — It wasn’t really in its entirety a record store to begin with… Records were going to be one part of it. It was supposed to be vintage audio [and] collectibles… It’s definitely taken a turn to focus more on the records, which I’m happy about because that’s always the way I sort of wanted it to go. But originally I just didn’t think anyone would be interested enough to have a store packed of just indie releases… It wasn’t really that long after the store opened that the idea came up. Those things just kind of happened very fast… It was supposed to be like a father-son project to begin with. My dad is really into guitars, instruments, and that kind of stuff… But I was more into the finished product of music. It was supposed to be a half and half between the two of us, but as time went on, we realized that the record thing was really catching on and it became the focus.

TV — What do you hope to do with it in the future? Do you hope to make a bigger store, another location?

JSW — I’m planning on having another location, I think that would be really cool. Ideally it would be really nice to be able to have a record label as well, because that would be going straight to the artist in order to support them right from the source, rather than just supporting them through carrying their music… If we were to have another store location aside from in the city [of Toronto], there may be one in Montreal or another in the US somewhere.

TV — What’s a normal day like in the store? Are there a lot of regulars? 

JSW — There are a lot of regulars, surprisingly we’ve been getting more and more foot traffic in the last little while. I think people are realizing that we exist… We never really focused a lot on advertisement, it’s more just word of mouth. And we’re in an area that’s up and coming too. When we first opened up it was kind of dead around here. But in the last couple years, things have kind of turned around.

TV — Do any big Toronto musicians come in? Have you ever seen anyone famous or semi-famous?

JSW — We’ve had a couple people. We had a guy from Blue Rodeo come in and sell his solo project… We’ve got a couple copies here. Not like the super big names yet, but it’s been pretty fun. We’ve got a lot of smaller artists that I would have known about for a while, since we’ve carried their music. They’ll come in and never even realize that we had their stuff stocked, and they’ll be like, “Oh! This is our record!”

TV — What do you think has been the hardest part of starting the business almost entirely by yourself?

JSW — I think that keeping a good collection is a big thing. Just kind of constantly moving forward, making sure that we always stock new releases.

TV — How do you balance owning a full-fledged business in Toronto [and a social life]? 

JSW — It’s difficult… Thankfully I’ve got two very hard working employees, [Sinead and Mac], that can take up a lot of the shifts here, which means I have some time to myself as well. But even then I’m constantly keeping an eye on the store, and I’m constantly doing something related to work.

TV — You now have [Tonality organized] by sub-genres. That takes a lot of dedication too. When did you decide to that instead of umbrella terms? You have an ‘Ethereal’ category, which is very specific.

JSW — Yeah, straight off the bat when we switched over from label to genres, I kind of knew that we wanted to keep it slightly more diverse, a little bit more kind of zeroed in on smaller genres, so people would know exactly where to look.

TV — Makes it a bit easier [ to look] here.

JSW — Over the course of the two years that we’ve been open, we kind of realized that some things are not ideal. There are a few genres that you can’t really define. There are a few things that we’re going to be cutting out, a few things that we’re going to be adding as well in the next little while.

TV — What are your top three albums?

JSW — Top three albums of all time would probably be… fuck [laughs]: Radiohead’s OK Computer… UNKLE’s War Stories… and The Unicorns’ Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?… A cult classic from just over 10 years ago.

TV — What hot stuff has come out this year you would recommend to those reading The Varsity

JSW — Crystal Castles’ [2016 LP] is great because they’re Toronto based too or at least they were. I don’t know whether they still are. The new Blood Orange is really good as well, Freetown Sound.