Touring agent, philanthropist, humble warrior.
One moment, one witnessed experience. Sometimes that’s all it can take to define your life’s purpose. This is what happened for Mike Toner, one ordinary day back in the science block at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. One moment of witnessing the daily struggle of another human navigating the world around them – a struggle which for that young man was the norm – but for Mike has become the driving force behind everything he dedicates his energy to.
Mike Toner, aka Irish Mike, aka Radiator, is a legend in the Melbourne dance music scene, not only because he is an incredible promoter, event creator, and DJ, but also as one of the loveliest and most humble human beings you’ll ever meet. Best of all, Mike uses this never-ending positivity to motivate and inspire those around him to be the best versions of themselves. And he expects as good as he gives, and so don’t try and make any excuses as to why you can’t strive just as high as he.
Hailing from Donegal, Ireland, Mike moved to Melbourne for a mid-twenties gap year and it was not long ‘til he discovered the famous Melbournian vice, Revolver. It was here he met future collaborator Boogs, setting the course for the next 15 years of his life. Fast forward, and Mike now owns one of Melbourne’s most well respected touring agencies, Thick as Thieves, playing host to some of the biggest names in electronic music, including Patrick Topping, Phil Kieran, and Claptone.
It’s an agency that prides itself on mateship and camaraderie, a quality you’ll find in every one of his “employees” (though you’ll never hear him call them that), and one that makes them some of the most approachable people in the game. But it’s his philanthropic efforts – we’re talking over three quarters of a MILLION dollars raised for The Fred Hollows Foundation alone – that Mike is most passionate about. That moment, over 20 years ago, forever in his mind.
I had such a great catch-up with Mike to chat about the joy he gets from pushing the people he loves to be their best, getting DJs to play for free in the name of restoring eyesight, and raising the vibration of everyone around him. Be ready to be inspired!
Mike Toner is…
Very happy and very grateful. I love my life and love pushing to try to get the best out of others as well. My ethos, and the hashtag for our business Thick as Thieves, is ‘Raising the Vibration’. But I also live a super simple lifestyle; I just like walking my dog on the beach, and helping other people, that’s what makes me happy.
Where did ‘Raising the Vibration’ come from?
I’d been trying to come up with a hashtag that encompasses Thick as Thieves for years and hadn’t been able to get it right. I was watching an interview one day with this guy Dorian Yates, he’s a professional bodybuilder, but he’s super spiritual now. He won the Mr Olympia bodybuilding competition six times, right after Arnold Schwarzenegger won it seven times. He was constantly getting compared to Schwarzenegger, and in this interview the host asked him, “Would you not want to go for the seventh title to try and equal his record?” And Dorian was just like, “That’s just ego, it doesn’t matter, trying to beat someone else. I just want to raise the vibration”. And it just hit me like a lightning bolt.
What do you do and when did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life?
I’m from Ireland but went to university in Scotland and I did an undergraduate in applied chemistry, and a postgraduate in software engineering. I ended up getting funnelled into this career and just studying stuff that I was never really into. On the side, me and a couple of mates started DJing at home, having house parties and running some boat parties. We had like eight decks and there were only three of us in the house!
When I was around 26, I decided I wanted to do a year in Australia, and so when I came over here, I started going to Revolver. I ended up at an after party one night with Boogs, and had brought a bag of records with me and we ended up playing back to back all night, which is then how I started playing at Revolver. At the same time, in a bizarre twist of fate, I started working at my favourite record shop. So all of a sudden, I was 26 years old, with a dream job in a record shop, but was supposed to be going home at the end of the year. Luckily the owner ended up sponsoring me for four more years.
Once I got my residency, I was part owner of the record store and that was when iTunes and all the digital things started to kick in. So as our record sales were falling, I started bringing over some international artists to tour through the record store – guys like Phil Kieran and Audio Jack, both who we actually still tour now.
I left the record store in 2009 and ended up starting my own company, Thick as Thieves, doing small tours and shows, but also working as a hypnotherapist while that got off the ground.
Tell me about Thick as Thieves journey and what makes it stand apart from other touring agencies in Melbourne?
I’ve never really looked at other agencies and said, what stands us apart? I just look at what we do. We’re very connected as a unit, everybody in this office loves coming to work. You know that expression, if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life? That exists in here. We’re all mates, we’ve all got each other’s backs. I’m the owner, but that’s just on paper. All the decisions are made as a group. Everybody’s input is vital. And I think that resonates outwards.
I think the public like the fact that we’re all approachable and I’ve never interviewed anybody for a job. I always find people that I’ve really liked and that have the same value system as I believe in, and then I’ve created a role for them.
As for the evolution of the business, at the very start, it was me and Boogs. That’s where the name came from – my friend said that Boogs and I were like thick as thieves. From there, as the gigs grew, I started bringing people on like Jess Foster (Operations Manager) and Damon Walsh (Head of Events and Marketing). The first really big gig we did, we had everything on the line. Like if this doesn’t work, I’m going to be in a financial black hole, so luckily it worked. We’ve now started doing more and more big events, shows at Coburg Velodrome and Burnley Circus, and we had a show on track for with Patrick Topping for Easter Saturday at The Wool Shed before COVID-19 that would have held 8,000 people!
Sounds like you’ve sustainably evolved as a business as you’ve needed people?
Yeah, it’s been very organic. It’s never been, we need 50 people tomorrow. We do have targets as well, but most of my targets are around philanthropy.
I feel that your mind goes where your energy flows, and my energy goes on that stuff.
A huge emphasis of Thick as Thieves is around giving back to some of our more vulnerable communities. You’ve had some of the biggest names in electronic music play for free at these fundraising gigs. When did this concept come about and how easy a sell is it to DJs?
When I was back at college in Scotland, when I was 18 years old, the area where the science block was had a long white hallway with a big floating staircase. One day, there was an albino guy walking really fast along the hallway. And he was so short-sighted that he walked straight into the floating staircase and cracked his head. I was 30 meters away, so I couldn’t stop it. Then all these other dudes started laughing at him. And I was like a red rag to a bull. I went over and tore strips out of them and tried to console a guy. And he just gave me this look, like ‘mate this shit happens to me all the time’. It genuinely broke me. I went home that night and I was so upset. And I just kept thinking, what did that poor guy do to deserve to have a life like that?
That night I made the decision that if I was ever in the position, I was going to help people who are blind or haven’t got a hundred percent vision. So when I moved to Melbourne and the business was starting to get a bit of momentum, I didn’t want to wait any longer. At first I approached the Guide Dogs Association and spent probably the first year doing fundraisers for them. But it costs $30,000 to train a guide dog!
I was driving one day and I saw a sign saying – $25 to restore the gift of sight. And I was like, fuck, this sounds like a joke, but I went home and googled The Fred Hollows Foundation, and started looking into what they were doing. I walked into their office and said, “I want to fundraise for you guys”. The guy working there was like, “So you’re going to run rave parties? All right on you go with that man”.
I have a really good relationship with Claptone, one of the artists touring at the time – he’s a really good guy. I said to him, if your Sunday show sells out, would you give up an hour and a half of your time the following Thursday to play? You’re going to be in Melbourne anyway, all you have to do is show up and play. I’ll do the rest. And that’s what happened. We raised $20,000 that night.
Once I got like four or five shows under my belt it made it easy because I was going to agents saying here are the pictures of Claptone, and the pictures of Patrick Topping doing these events that were going off! It was a no-brainer for them.
There are now more people within the 18 to 35 age category that follow Fred Hollows in Melbourne than any other city. And by a long shot. And people who follow a charity from a young age generally follow it the whole way through their lives. So for them to get people engaged at such a young age is great.
You’ve raised well over $750,000 for the Foundation, what other events are you doing to raise this money?
In 2015 I decided I was going to do an Iron Man triathlon and raise some money for the Foundation doing it. I’d never done anything like that before, but I got loads of support and it was great. But it was seriously time consuming – you have no life. So the following year I found that there was a walk called Coastrek, which raises money for a different charity for five consecutive years, and Fred Hollows was the charity that year. You can do a 30km or 60km walk, and you have to do it in a team of four. And as the idea originally came from a women’s walking group, the team has to be 50 per cent female. The first year there was four of us, then the next year we had two teams and we raised a good amount of money. And then the third year, when I put it up on social media, I had loads of people!
This year we were going to participate in the Great Ocean Round Running Festival, where you could run a half marathon, a full marathon or an ultra-marathon, so I wanted to raise money for Fred Hollows doing that. I posted a call out for people to join the team, and woke up the next day with a full inbox. I couldn’t believe it – I’ve got like nearly 140 people signed up. And deal is everybody has to raise $1000 to be part of the team – we’ve essentially got $140,000. So we were all registered to do the marathon, and then it got moved, and then I got moved again. And now we are actually organizing our own marathon instead!
That’s exciting, tell me more!
I can’t say where yet, but I’ve got one, possibly two high profile people who are going to be involved in some capacity.
Can you give us a hint?
I can tell you one as it’s public knowledge – Carl Cox. The other we haven’t confirmed yet as they don’t know if they’ll be in the country.
Currently we have 140 who have committed to it, lots of people from the nightclub industry – promotors, DJs, and crew – so I’m actually hoping to raise between $200,000 and $250,000. At this stage it’s scheduled for the end of October.
It’s been absolutely amazing with everything currently going on, having everyone meet up and stay fit together. It has been such an incredible injection of positivity for people’s mental health. So many have come up and said to me that this has got them through this time. And that’s why Carl’s involved, and he’s going to be at the finish line and present the prizes.
What does health and down time look like for you, especially working in an industry that operates in extremes?
Ten years ago you couldn’t be more accurate. But now, if you saw the list of people doing this run – you have every DJ and promoter and club owner – it’s so rewarding for me, as health and fitness is such a big part of my life. There are people who tell me that they can’t do something and two months later they’re doing it. And that’s after two months, imagine what they’re going to be like after six months, or a year! I get such a kick out of seeing people lose weight and better themselves and there’s a high level of positivity that comes around being fit as well. I’m also not afraid to ask people to do shit if I know it’s going to benefit them and me. It has to be reciprocal, it’s that whole sense of paying it forward.
I want to come back to the topic of mental health – are you seeing a lot positive effects from the running club around mental health, is that a pretty big reason that you’re doing these kinds of events?
I knew it was going to have a positive impact on people’s mental health but I had no idea how deep it would run, to help people stay connected with each other and stay healthy as well. This year has definitely taken its toll on many, in the last few weeks in particular, with progress going backwards again, everyone is really feeling it right now.
I can imagine this has been an extremely difficult time for your business, with the industry pretty much shutting down. How have you and the team been supporting each other and staying positive?
That’s a great question. We do a Zoom meeting regularly and the reality is that the only work we can do are live streams. We don’t make money, they actually cost money, but it’s something we can do to make sure we’re not dying off.
It would also be a way for you guys to have a platform to continue to share your passion for music? I can imagine there’s a difference between just playing in your living room for yourself and then actually knowing there are people out there watching you and getting that feedback.
Yeah absolutely, it’s been great. When you see the streams there’s a full production setup, with four or five cameras and the lights! With Melbourne in lockdown again, and obviously no pubs and clubs open, people are still want something to do Friday and Saturday night from home. And everyone has really enjoyed it so far!
What’s coming up in your world?
I was probably one of the most optimistic people on when we were going to get back to it – I originally thought we’d be doing stuff in September or October. It was always contingent on the second wave, and here it is with a bang! And I think nightclubs are going to be the last thing to open, I think outdoor events will open first. But in every situation there’s an opportunity; you’ve just got to seek it out. So if there aren’t a lot of big festivals on, chances are we might be able to run smaller outdoor day parties.
Has this business got room to move into something else?
Yeah, but we’re going to keep doing what we do. The business model will have to change a little because we’ll be more focused on local acts, rather than internationals for the moment. Melbourne’s got such a great offering, and I think the cream will always rise to the top. The guys who are producing good music will definitely always have a huge audience and people will want to come and see them.
To find out more and tune into the Thick as Thieves live streams: https://www.facebook.com/wearethickasthieves
To donate to the Fred Hollows Foundation: https://www.hollows.org/au