Your New Favorite Label: Topshelf Records
Posted: by The Editor
Founders: Kevin Duquette and Seth Decoteau
First Release: 2006
Location: Portland, OR
Artists with recent releases: Record Setter, Gregory Uhlmann, Gulfer, Standards
Topshelf Records started as a way for Kevin and Seth to help boost the signal of their local music scene. After almost a decade and a half in the bag, they have grown Topshelf into an important label with a robust but carefully curated roster. It is easy to see why they call themselves a “genre-agnostic” label; the eruptive and intricate screamo of Record Setter, the country-tinted indie rock of Ratboys, and Flung’s quilt of glitches and loops stitched together with honest songwriting all live under the Topshelf Records roof. I spoke with the whole team about their journey to Topshelf, their innovative new website, and what makes the label unique.
Meet the Topshelf Team:
- Mack Werner (she/her): based in Philadelphia, PA. Works in content, the label’s store and social media. Favorite label release of 2020: Kind by Thanya Iyer.
- Sarah Alvarez (they/them): based in New Jersey. Creative assistant. Favorite label release of 2020: Gulfer by Gulfer.
- Seth Decoteau (he/him): based in Los Angeles, CA. Co-founder of label. Works in administration, accounting and production management. Favorite label release of 2020: Printer’s Devil by Ratboys.
- Kevin Duquette (he/him): based in Portland, OR. Co-founder of label. Favorite label release of 2020: Shaky But My Hair is Grown by Flung.
- Will Osiecki (he/him): based in Seattle, WA. Publicist. Favorite label release of 2020: Dear Humans by Elephant Gym.
Kevin and Seth, what made you want to start a label? Was that always a dream of yours, or did you have other plans before you decided to start Topshelf?
Kevin: Seth and I actually began laying the groundwork to start a label within probably a few hours of meeting for the first time. Prior to that, I was very focused on graphic design, but was sort of directionless with it – and not good at it. Seth and I were both playing in bands locally, and involved in music locally. I enjoyed creating flyers for local shows and Seth was booking a lot of shows. I had just started learning how to code by building a website for the band I played in, and then starting to build a local site to provide show listings for a scene. It is BAD, but the vibe I had in mind was to create a resource list and a community—think like, BYOFL, Just Another Scene?, or Tony and Pals. I feel like these resource sites and the blog rolls that followed in the ’10s music blog era aren’t really represented in any form in the current music landscape. Maybe, music writers giving each other shoutouts in their newsletters is the closest I have seen to this kind of camaraderie. I was drawn to it and wanted to add my voice. We were meeting people, gradually feeling more and more like we were part of something. But increasingly, it felt like what was happening around us didn’t really leave this western MA bubble we were in. We felt like starting a label could help with that, even though we definitely had no idea what that entailed at the time. Wide-eyed little babies!
Seth: Looking back, it’s funny to think that Kevin and I were both playing in bands within the same scene for a few years and had never met. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had stood feet apart from each other at the same show. I was booking shows at the time and I thought I wanted to own a venue, which is what caused Kevin and I to finally meet. We were immediately drawn to each other because we both wanted to build something community focused on something larger than ourselves. I can’t remember exactly how we landed on “a record label could do this” since neither of us knew anything about running a record label, but i think that’s allowed us to be able to adapt to the artists that we partner with.
For Mack, Sarah, and Will: Had you always wanted to work in the music industry, and what was your path to Topshelf?
Mack: I actually never intended to work in music, but I stumbled into it a few years ago and I’m so glad I did. When I was in college in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, I was studying film and spending a lot of my free time on live music videography and music videos for local and small touring bands I loved. I came up in that house show scene and wanted to be able to offer something to the musicians I admired in return for all the amazing nights I spent listening to them in my friends’ basements. While I was in school one of my best friends, Lucy Dacus, started to get noticed by the industry at large and was heading out for her first regional and national tours. I offered to tour manage for her since I figured “producing” a tour couldn’t be all that different from producing a movie, and we could figure it out as we went along. Neither of us can drive, and at least at the start, I mostly just hung out, sold merch, and got into arguments with promoters who tried to short us. But that was the beginning for me. I’ve been touring with Lucy on and off for years when I can make it work, and last fall I quit my office job to start a ten-week internship at Topshelf. Fast forward a year and here I am on staff! I’ve done some booking and freelance music journalism along the way, and I’ve recently been asked to start managing a new project that I’m really excited about. Working in music has been the way I’ve been able to work with people I love and admire on projects I’m genuinely excited about, it was the dream I didn’t know I had.
Sarah: Yes and no. As much as I’ve always considered music to be very, very important to me, sometimes more important than other forms of art, I didn’t really see a way into “the music industry.” I loved music, but didn’t know where to start with that. I also loved other art forms, and had a tiny morsel of artistic talent that I could rely on. So, I figured working my way into a “fancy” art college was the safe route. While in “fancy” art college, I was too busy desperately trying to make shit happen to actually think about what I wanted. When I applied to intern with Topshelf this past summer, it was very much a Hail Mary – I was stupid unhappy and figured I should just try to pitch myself to them and see what would happen. When I got the internship, I loved it so much that I was terrified to lose it. When I was actually hired this past October, I started restructuring my life and my mind around the idea that I could have a sense of direction that isn’t tied to my sense of desperation. So now, I guess I’ve brute-forced my way into the music industry, and I simply will not leave.
Will: When I first got into music, it was as a musician. I started playing drums when I was around 10 or 11, then started my first band when I was around 13 years old with David Mitchell, who now plays bass in Gulfer, and with whom I still make music. I never had any real “industry” oriented aspirations growing up, but I was always immersed in all aspects of music, which is essentially what carved my path to Topshelf. In 2012, I lived in Montreal when my then-roommate mentioned that he wanted to start a sub-label for our friend group that was part of a loosely knit math-rock/emo/etc scene. My roommate, Charlie Juarez, came up in the Mexican screamo/hardcore scene in the mid-aughts and had worked with international bands like Suis La Lune and Kidcrash, but had since stopped and pivoted to electronic music with his still-active label, Infinite Machine. I had just come off of organizing a successful multimedia art party with a shitload of local artists at our house, so he let me and a few others take the idea of the sub-label and run with it. This was the beginning of Stack Your Roster. Over the years SYR cycled through different objectives/identities, ranging from collective to tape label to shitty house venue to makeshift dungeon recording studio. That’s definitely the path on which I cut my teeth, and it was always fairly removed from the music industry in the sense that there was essentially no capital going around or money being made. It was all very cobbled together out of necessity, ramshackle, and mostly for its own creative sake. It was also a fun, interesting place for American bands to stop while on tour. Paramount for me was just working towards shared goals with my friends, no matter what kind of creative work they were doing, and trying to uplift the people I surrounded myself with through collaboration (not always successful, but we tried). Of course, in the world we live in, that’s not really sustainable without some sort of cash flow. but my experiences in running the amorphous thing that was SYR formed much of the CV that I eventually sent to Topshelf in April 2018 when they posted a job listing for an in-house publicist.
Are there any labels that inspired you?
Kevin: Early on, niche local labels like Clean Plate, Kill Normal, Big Wheel, Said Sew were super inspirational and to be honest, probably the sole source of any desire to start a label. I definitely didn’t have much of a perspective for things beyond New England or on a national scale at the time. As my musical horizon started to expand, I would say Polyvinyl and K Records became beacons of inspiration.
Seth: I was following what Big Wheel, Fork In Hand, Jade Tree, and Kill Normal were releasing and what their artists from New England/New York and New Jersey were doing. I saw flyers for their releases around town when they played shows within a short drive from me, and I’d often see reviews or interviews for their releases in magazines. At the national level, I took a lot of inspiration from Asian Man, Epitaph, Fat Wreck, Polyvinyl and Sub Pop.
Mack: Even before I was involved with a label, I’ve always admired Double Double Whammy, Father/Daughter, Keeled Scales, Luminelle, and Sacred Bones. Recently, I’ve been really into Mama Bird, Fire Talk, L.I.E.S., Habibi Funk, Lame-O, Orindal, and Wharf Cat, among many others. Getting really into Bandcamp in the last couple years has been one of my favorite things. It’s so fun to follow a label and just deep dive and really get a feel for their scope.
Sarah: Topshelf, Lame-O, and Awful Records have all been important to me since high school. I discovered International Anthem halfway through college, and I’ve been obsessed. They’re on a mission and they’re growing fast – it’s a powerful thing to bear witness to. I have a similar relationship with Sacred Bones, and Orange Milk Records has been picking up steam as well.
Will: Before I discovered Topshelf circa the end of high school/freshman year of university (2009 or 2010, or maybe even 2011?), I was taking a lot of inspiration from Sargent House, and before that it had been Equal Vision, Triple Crown, Tooth & Nail, labels of that ilk–but only in terms of what I was listening to, not like, “I have found these labels and now I will start one.” I was always loosely aware of the labels that were home to many of my favorite artists, as my main path of music discovery has always been connecting dots between artists and following the breadcrumbs that they leave everywhere they go, whether through label affiliation or liner notes or social media posts or references in music – like, following Circa Survive’s work back to the book House of Leaves was formative for me in that sense. It’s something I still do if I discover a new artist I like; I’m going to track them down and dig through everything the way I did when I first learned about Sargent House and the little world they were facilitating. I see labels as these little communities or schools of thought and I think that’s a perspective I still hold, in a way. In a COVID-19-dominated world, that sort of loose collectivization or intentional school-building feels more crucial than ever to me, especially in the context of the rise of platform capitalism. Essentially, I see us as striving to create our own platform that doesn’t have to live solely in the Big Tech ecosystem (a somewhat Sisyphean task, for sure).
What is your favorite part of your job, and what is the most difficult part?
Kevin: For me, it’s the network of friends I have made through music over the years in doing this. That has evolved over time, and it’s way less wild than it used to be. But sincerely, the majority of my favorite memories and most cherished experiences involve romping around the globe in a dumpy van or screaming my head off in a basement somewhere, and the kindness complete strangers have shown me. The doors that have opened. It changes your perspective and it’s something I wish I could share with everyone.I also really enjoy getting to be part of releasing people’s art into the world. That’s a really rewarding process.
The most difficult part, I think, also involves navigating interpersonal relationships—telling people “no,” feeling like you let someone down, feeling like you’re not doing a good enough job—mainly accountability and imposter syndrome stuff. I’m in my thirties now, so I have shed a lot of those kinds of negative feelings of doubt and insecurity as I have become more comfortable and confident with myself and my convictions. But being hyper-aware of whether or not I’m doing a good enough job in these areas is an ever-present thing, and something I am always trying to grow with and improve upon. I’m very happy to be surrounded by everyone we have at the label now because they’re all brilliant and all but completely alleviate those thoughts for me.
Seth: I agree with Kevin on all this. Topshelf is still a small business at the end of the day, so there’s limits – and a difficult part of that is having to be the person on the team to hit pause on an idea no matter how cool you think that it’d be.
Mack: My day-to-day favorite part of my job is when we all hop on Google Hangout together for hours at a time and get a bunch of work done, but also hang out and catch up. It rocks to actually love all of your co-workers. It’s wild that we live scattered all over the US. My big-picture favorite thing is that at the end of the day, all of my time and effort is going into helping build up this network and ecosystem of music makers and lovers who I want to support and connect. That rocks! The most difficult thing for me is how amorphous the role of a label can be these days, there’s no rule book and we’re such a small team that we each have a lot of wiggle room. This can be really freeing, but also really daunting for me. I have really high standards for taking care of our bands and I can put a lot of pressure on myself to always be innovating how we’re pushing that further. It’s a double-edged sword.
Sarah: I share everyone else’ thoughts on this: the job is amazing, and the flexibility is both good and bad. I think my favorite part is watching everything come together on a release day. We have this silly little thing where we’re like, “happy [insert artist here] day,” but it really does feel like it’s their day and all the steps taken to get there were just part of a big ritualistic celebration. I kind of like indulging in the perspective that we’re a group of acolytes that work to honor artistry and music. Then you get stuff like “Mack the Monk.” “Sarah the Satellite.” “Seth the Servant.” Kevin and Will don’t get one because I can’t think of any synonyms beginning with “K” or “W.” Sorry, y’all.
Will: The best parts of the job are too numerous to count. I mean, a huge part of my job is rinsing sick music on repeat and making sure that people hear it and click play and connect with it. Like, that is all objectively Good Shit, you know? But of course, the other side of that coin is rife with plenty of rejection and being ignored and unmet expectations. Sometimes you might have a string of successes or victories followed by an inexplicable lull, and then your motivation is completely sapped. It can be hard to get back on the old horse, but it helps that sometimes all that takes is just putting on the newest forthcoming record and being reminded that your responsibility is to make sure people engage with good art. Not a bad deal! I am indescribably grateful.
What was the impetus for the site redesign? It is like no other label site I have seen, and you have really focused on music discovery, which is awesome. I have spent actual hours on the site just exploring. What made you go in such an unconventional and creative direction?
Kevin: Thank you! It’s actual years in the making so I’m super glad and relieved it’s out there now. I think the main thing was, kind of like you said, I just don’t feel like label sites – or even most music-centric online experiences – put much energy into curation and discovery in thoughtful ways. And if they do, it’s very algorithmic and pedestrian. I feel like we have set the table with this redesign, and my hope is that we’ll keep expanding upon it in fun, whimsical, and informative ways. What a record label is and does is not at all what it was when we started 15 years ago – and that could be a scary prospect, but I find it pretty much only super exciting. So yeah, I’m trying to dive into curation, discovery, recommendations, embracing the fact that human beings run this thing, that human beings create the music we release, that human beings create everything you experience about a piece of art or media and tapping into everything we can about that as a concept and letting it evolve into…I don’t know, we’ll see! Very excited about it. I want this to feel like a digital sketchbook of sorts, constantly changing and evolving.
How has COVID-19 affected how you operate as a label? How have you had to change your approach to promotion/social media engagement?
Kevin: For some context, 2015-2016ish was super hard for us, financially speaking. We were just coming off of some of the most successful releases the label has had—by any metric. So, we took a chance and decided to move across the country, get our own warehouse and office space, and hire a couple of new employees. And then, very abruptly, this year-over-year-over-year growth and success we had seen basically since we started just stopped happening – and we were all of a sudden in the most financially vulnerable position imaginable. A lot of our label peers closed up or went under around this time too. It really, really sucked ass for a while and I became hella depressed, but the kind of depression where you don’t know you are depressed until you have to look back on it years later and it’s plain as day in hindsight. We tried to weather that, but Southern California is a pretty expensive place to try to make that work. All that to say, we made the decision to disband the office and warehouse and to start working entirely remotely – which, at the time, was difficult. We all moved to different cities and outsourced our warehousing and fulfillment. Fast forward to 2020 and that’s like… what everyone is doing now. So, we have accidentally arrived into this COVID landscape like, very prepared. It hasn’t changed a thing about how we run other than that I fucking miss everyone and wish we could all be together in person. Some of us have actually never met each other IRL despite working together every day, which is kinda bonk.
Mack: I was officially hired in March after my Fall internship, so I’ve almost exclusively worked at this label within COVID-19 times. The first big project I took charge of after the hire was turning our SXSW showcase “Friend Oasis” into an all-day streaming event, and that was actually really satisfying to coordinate. I feel like at this point, I’m just excited to be able to expand the scope of my work to eventually include touring and to be able to meet more of our bands. The day we get to host some big showcase with all of our favorite musicians will be the happiest day for me.
Will: Personally it’s impossible for me to overcome the grief of hundreds of thousands of lives lost, over and over, every day – not to mention the other atrocities accelerated by the pandemic. It’s just about carrying that as gracefully as one can and being more sensitive to the realities of the harsh world we live in, and being mindful of the amplified precarities of capitalism. I don’t think label operations have changed per se. But I do put a renewed emphasis on patience and compassion (which we should all do, covid or no covid). A huge part of my job is bothering people to open emails and click play, you know? I’m still navigating how is best to go about that. A lot of it is just being genuine and understanding that everyone’s stretched extremely thin right now.
What is a valuable lesson you’ve learned through your experience in Topshelf Records?
Kevin: It’s just reaffirming stuff that any old head will tell you—like, that your grandma will tell you—just focus on what you have control over. Can’t get bent out of shape over stuff you can’t control. Play to your strengths and recognize that other’s success doesn’t equate to your own demise. That’s some rotten brain shit. Also, recognizing that this is a platform and what we say and do (and don’t do) has matters and has consequences. Shoutout to The Alt for fully embracing this concept.
Seth: Not everything is a competition and there is a lot of room for positive relationships in the music industry. It’s okay to pick people up without looking weak. I think a lot of people forget that and only take a “what’s in it for me” approach. Like Kevin just touched on, play to your strengths and be willing to admit that you’re wrong or don’t know something.
Mack: I think the biggest thing for me is learning to take a step back and not only judge my work based on day-to-day quantifiable progress. We all have days where we wonder if we’re doing anything well (or doing anything at all), and it’s especially hard to have a sense of communal accomplishment when we’re all remote. But I think doing this more amorphous work has been really good for my psyche in general. I think it’s helped me unlearn a lot of toxic ideas and habits that we learn about ourselves and our work and our value under capitalism, which has been a years-long journey for me. Of course, at the end of the day we’re still selling entertainment and selling records, but what’s so much more important to me about this job is getting to see bands we work with get excited about the reception of their work, and see fans get excited about new music from their favorite artists. I think deepening the relationship between creators and consumers and reminding ourselves and each other why we love this music, and connecting over it is so beautiful. But it takes time to build those networks and I’m learning to be more patient with myself.
Sarah: I guess I sort of said it already, but as of right now the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that I just have to be more trusting. I’m sitting here working with a label that has always had a relatively strong presence in my life, and doing a job that marries two of my greatest passions – that’s a very powerful place to be as someone who literally just graduated. Part of me finds that super overwhelming, for a lot of the same reasons Mack touched on: it’s hard to do work you’re so excited about and feel like you’re doing enough and doing it right. Especially for Mack and I, where we’re collaborating and contributing to the label through content creation, it almost feels like there’s TOO much that we could be doing. But then you slap yourself a little and realize that one of the things that makes Topshelf special is exactly what we’re working on – its voice and its community. On top of that, something integral to Topshelf’s voice is that it’s crafted by silly, fallible, passionate people. We’re all silly and passionate, and I, for one, am MAD fallible. What’s important is choosing to do something and follow through with it, even if it’s not the best choice. We can all trust each other to share honest feedback and to keep each other on track, so perfection becomes a selfish desire instead of a valuable work asset.
Will: Patience and the necessary slowness of learning. I told Mack just the other day that I feel like it took me a solid two years to come into my own as a publicist – not to say I’m a pro’s pro by any means–there’s still so much room to grow. I think, too, being more patient and understanding with people I work with (artists *and* writers *and* my co-workers alike) is something I’ve developed more and more throughout the year. Just treating people as people (duh!), meeting them where they’re at, being mindful of the fact that we’re all subject to the whims of the fascist state and because of that, nothing is guaranteed. Of course, all of that’s like, the most basic shit of all time. But I try to keep the perspective that one should always be a student, no matter what they’re doing. You stop improving at something the moment you think you’ve seen it all, you know? Or however the koan goes.
What do you think makes Topshelf unique? I have answers for that myself, but I would love to hear what each of you think.
Kevin: I think we get pigeon-holed as an emo label, but to anyone who thinks that and exclusively that, yes, I also read a USA Today thinkpiece on “Emo Revival” in 2014 or something. From the very start, we’ve kinda embraced this genre-agnostic approach to what we release. There’s definitely been waves of different stuff that we’re leaning into FOR SURE, but I think the long arc of what we’re doing is indicative of a diverse musical palette and I’m personally psyched about continuing to expand on that as our collective tastes co-mingle and evolve. You’re always going to be influenced by experience, peers, prior successes (and failures), but I’m sincerely trying to run a label that people know for like, being this genre-agnostic purveyor of highly curated objectively “good” music things. It might not always be your thing, but it is gonna be good for the thing that it is, y’know? I pass on releasing records all the time that I know we are like, supposed to do—like, albums people expect us to release and would do well on our label—like we would make money! But I’m just not feeling it. I’m not saying other labels don’t do that too, obviously. We’re definitely always trying to have whatever we’re doing be something that we are authentically massively into without fussing over if it fits some archetype of what we are known for or whatever.
Mack: I think we’re unique because we’ll release anything as long as we love it. A friend told me the other night that he loves Topshelf because you never know what you’re going to get from a new release from us, but it’s always good. That was so satisfying to hear because that’s exactly what I want for our label. We acknowledge that genre is dying and we welcome it! Our catalog is varied and so are the people we work with. It’s a really exciting way to work. We get submissions all the time that we know would do well, but we don’t pick anything up unless we all genuinely love and care about it. That’s what it has to be about.
Sarah: Not to be lazy and repeat myself, but I still think its uniqueness is tied to its voice and its community. When I say “voice,” I’m not just talking about our tone on social media and in emails – I’m thinking about our presence. Maybe even our vibes, if you want to go there. Just like everyone else has been saying, the label puts out what we love, and I feel like that love has become more and more nondiscriminatory over time. It feels very right to me to look through our catalog and see a bunch of splits, some artists that went onto different labels, some artists that only existed for a little while, and some artists that really rode out/are riding out their career with us. The annihilation of genre aside, that diversity in our roster screams “we do it because we believe in it.” We make choices, and we put our all into each one. We use music to forge a community because that’s where we find purpose. In a way, the label is such an extension of the people running it that Topshelf is like a little Sarah-Mack-Kevin-Seth-Will chimera. It’s just a little imaginary person made out of all of our thoughts. At this point, I think I’m a few hyperboles away from describing a tulpa, so hopefully you get what I’m trying to say.
Will: Similar to Kevin, I think we have a general inclination to branch out from what people expect from us, and a generally shared desire to not remain beholden to industry norms. Of course, we do plenty of normal label things by the book, but I’m pretty sure that all of us are eager to adapt to ever shifting music industry landscapes by responding creatively. I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel or anything, but I do think the crux of it is that we embrace the fact that there’s not one sole method that dictates how a label should be run. We are allowed to make up our own rules and we try to embrace that!
Finally, Kevin: If you could go back in time before you started Topshelf and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Everybody Hits closes in 2019 so you only have a little over a decade to start a band, get good enough to tour through Philly, book a show there, and get on a baseball card! Also, buy as much bitcoin as you can.
Check out Topshelf Records’ website and this playlist filled with music they’ve released.
Jami Fowler // @audiocurio
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