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Myspace to Bust and Back Again: An Interview with Topshelf Records

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Topshelf Records – the Massachusetts-based record label run by Kevin Duquette and Seth Decoteau – has been having a huge year. The label recently celebrated its first two Billboard charting releases this (The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die’s “Whenever, If Ever” and You Blew It!’s “Keep Doing What You’re Doing”), announced a slew of incredible signings and has been gaining mention in numerous national media outlets. I was able to talk to co-owner Kevin Duquette about the label’s origins, the extensive discography project they have begun on their website and his reaction to having a Topshelf release chart in the Billboard 200.

How did you guys first meet and what started the idea of Topshelf?

Kevin Duquette – Seth and I first met in 2005 when he offered to — through Myspace — book my band at the time’s record release show. This all happened online because we were out on the road most of the summer and the show was to happen the day we got back. So we met the day before this show that he booked and we hit it off instantly. The idea to start a label came very naturally and almost immediately. Initially, we were merely looking to have a more professional looking entity behind the band when trying to get press coverage but we eventually started releasing music for friends and then friends of friends and I guess one day we realized we started a label, basically [laughs].

 

Photo provided by Kevin Duquette

Photo provided by Kevin Duquette

What were the early days of the label like? How did you go about signing your first bands?

Duquette – Early on, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing and were running things out of our parents’ garages and our dorm rooms. I would go to my college’s radio station every week and sift through their junk, setting aside any bubble mailers that we could re-use for our own mail orders. When we started, though, we were barely getting any orders at all. At one point, after like, a month of no orders, I assumed the store must have been broken and tried to order something from ourselves to test it. When it went through and worked we were — [laughs] — so bummed because it meant everything was in order, just literally no one gave a shit.

The first few bands we worked with were all close friends and we had elaborate, detailed contracts because, honestly, we didn’t know any better and after consulting a few sources, were steered that way. Looking back, a hug and a handshake would probably have sufficed but we were naive. We eventually kinda realized how absurd that was and started just focusing on keeping things simple and working with friends and people we liked without all the red tape. I think that’s basically what we’ve continued to do throughout our existence to varying degrees. Things obviously get more complicated and stakes get higher, but that mentality’s always at the core of it.

I know you guys shared space with Bridge 9 at one point doing the label how did that relationship come about and how did it help Topshelf grow? 

Duquette – Seth is actually still full-time at Bridge 9. Which is mind-blowing to me because he basically works 12 to 14-hour days every single day — I’m not exaggerating. Any small business owner works more than their fair share to keep things going, but he’s on another level. We still share space with Bridge 9, which works out great as it allows Seth and I to come in to the office super early, bang out a few hours of Topshelf work and then he’ll switch over to his role at Bridge 9 later in the morning while I stay on Topshelf stuff all day.

Seth started interning at Bridge 9, geez, I don’t even remember how long ago. Maybe in 2005? Perhaps earlier, not sure. Anyhow, that eventually led to him getting hired there and over time upping his involvement in what they do. That’s benefited us immensely along the way. I consider Chris at B9 a good friend and mentor now and there’s just flat out no way we’d be even a sliver of what we are today without his help and support along the way.

Photo provided by Kevin Duquette

Photo provided by Kevin Duquette

What moment (or moments) helped Topshelf become more of a full-time label?

Duquette – It’s funny because I think of huge successes and failures with equal weight here. There’ve been financial mistakes that we learned a great deal from that helped us understand ourselves and what we need to do a lot better. I think, specifically, there are a few things I can point to here though:

1.) Quitting my full-time position at The Boston Globe to begin focusing on the label. While it wasn’t the brightest personal finance decision I’ve ever made, it was one that felt right and has, I feel, completely re-charged the label. It was stressful for awhile watching my savings slowly deplete and losing my health benefits, etc. but it allowed much more flexibility and freedom to get more accomplished with the label — and ultimately offer more to the bands we work with. I never feel like I’m “working” even at the end of a 12-hour day of mailing out orders. I think that’s huge.

2.) Securing a distribution deal. I remember very early on — when the label had a very small following and modest resources — speaking with a friend and having him ask, “so if I were in a band, why would I want to work with you to release my record and split all the profits with you? What can you do that I can’t do for myself?”. While there’s loads of intangibles and I think there’s definitely something to be said for having a label that truly believes in your art going to bat for you, I really had trouble giving a satisfactory answer to that question at the time. That stuck with me for a while and when we started lining up all of our distribution channels, I felt like that was a big part of the answer. It’s crazy to see records you’ve released in stores all over the world.

3.) Not many people know this, but in the winter of 2008/2009 the label almost completely fizzled out of existence. I wasn’t into it and felt like we were directionless. I was definitely more focused on school and starting my career as a web developer. I recall everything being a challenge and it just felt like no one cared about what we were doing. We didn’t have any momentum and Seth and I had a falling out which basically involved me just completely checking out from the whole thing. We’d put out a handful of records for bands that broke up soon after or just didn’t really tour much, if at all, so it was really tough to get people to give a damn. That definitely took a toll on both of us and the label in general. I sincerely thought it’d end that year and at the time, that didn’t even really bother me because it felt like the release of a burden (the complete opposite would be the case now — I’d be devastated). After a few months, I started going to shows again and started to feel the itch to pick it back up. I reached out to Seth and we had a long conversation detailing what we wanted to accomplish. Soon after we released a sequence of albums that would become the foundation for basically everything we do: Pianos Become the Teeth’s “Old Pride, My Heart to Joy’s “Seasons In Verse”, We Were Skeletons’ “S/T”, Big Kids’ “Hoop Dreams”, Defeater’s “Travels” and Rooftops’ “A Forest of Polarity”. So, while not a “moment”, that was definitely a defining time-period for us.

You guys recently launched a new website with a pretty comprehensive discography page that you put a lot of time into. What made this such an integral part of the site? I don’t think I have ever seen a label who had such an in-depth discography page and it looks awesome!

Duquette – Thanks! We’ve always wanted to do this and Limited Run (the platform we built the store on) has a module that made it super simple. We realize that the niche we’re in caters largely to the type of person who buys physical media (like ourselves) and totally warrants — demands and expects, even — this type of thing. We wanted it to be a one-stop for anything and everything about any of our releases. We’ll slowly be adding more to each entry including behind-the-scenes accounts and interviews with producers, engineers, band members, artists and ourselves who were involved with the release as well as a complete photo vinylography for each release. We hadn’t seen another label try it to this extent and saw that as a cool challenge. In building this site, I wanted it to be so much more than just another website. I actually spent the most time on this section because it was just so fucking sexy to see all of the records we’ve released laid out like this [laughs]. I’m glad it’s appreciated.

What was it like to have The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die place in the Billboard 200? What do you remember about that day and did you anticipate such an overwhelming response?

Duquette – That was cool. Honestly, not a big deal to me, personally, but definitely the type off thing you put out there as like a, “Look mom! Look dad! I promise I’m not a complete fuck up!!” [laughs]. It’s crazy to me that the landscape is such right now that we can have a record we release sneak in the backdoor of something like the Billboard Top 200 for even a week. That says volumes about so many things which are separate conversations all their own. You Blew It’s new record, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing”, actually just charted as well and I can’t believe that it’s even a thing that is happening. The responses to both of these records were similar in that they’re both bands that we’ve released all of, or nearly all of, their previous material. It was great to watch them each just have their own respective little coming out parties. Sitting back and monitoring the reaction online, I knew things were gonna be insane because everywhere I looked people were talking about it. When that’s a thing — when people are willingly sharing something because they like it and not because you’ve bopped them over the head with it a thousand times and convinced them it’s good — when something is spreading and catching on organically like these two albums have, that’s really great to watch. The leak with “Whenever, If Ever” stressed us the hell out — that’s actually what I remember the most from that day [laughs]. Trying to figure out what to do about the biggest record we’d ever released leaking months in advance [laughs]. Whatever!

The past year saw you work with two bands that I am sure were long-time personal favorites (Braid and The Jazz June). How did those opportunities happen and what was it like getting to work with bands you admired before you started the label?

Duquette – Short answer: the internet is fucking wild. Long answer: I first heard about Braid from a cassette mix tape my friend Greg made for a girl at his church camp over a decade ago. He somehow never managed to give her the tape so he gave it to me instead. It had “Killing a Camera” on it amongst a bunch of other stuff. My old ‘94 Dodge Ram van’s cassette player long ago ate up that tape, but it served its purpose in introducing me to so much incredible new [to me] music. It sparked a passion for music and is something I can look back on as a catalyst to why this label even exists. It goes without saying that we’re ecstatic about this. I met Bob at SXSW in I want to say 2010? Anyhow, we kept in touch sorta-kinda since that point and we’d always expressed our interest but never really expected anything to come of it. Over that time-period, the label really grew a lot and came into its own and I think the climate was just perfect for it. In the midst of reunions and anniversary tours and the old guard headlining all these festivals and loads of young bands picking up where 2002 left off and #emorevival or whatever, this just made a fuck ton of sense to us and I think we’re a great fit for each other at this point.

The Jazz June thing came together around CMJ. I can’t recall the exact point of initial contact, but Bryan [Gassler] from the band and I got in touch at some point. We were trying to put together one hell of a show for CMJ and part of that involved getting them to reunite for it alongside flying in Braid, bringing Enemies over from Ireland and having Caravels and Have Mercy round it out. Looking back, I can’t even believe that show came together basically without a hitch. Organizing something like that is super stressful but that all just melted away when they started playing. Definitely a highlight of last year.

Doing the toe discography and bringing them over for a US tour was also the most unreal thing ever. They’re my actual favorite band of all time so to work with them in any capacity is just a dream.

Photo provided by Kevin Duquette

Photo provided by Kevin Duquette

 What would you say are 5 releases that really shaped what Topshelf is today?

Duquette – I kinda touched on this in a previous answer, but in the context of our entire catalog, I’d say these five are definite milestones:

Grown Ups “More Songs”

The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die “Whenever, If Ever”

Pianos Become the Teeth “Old Pride”

By Surprise “Mountain Smashers”

Caravels “Lacuna”

Going with the Bridge 9 question, you guys do a lot of work with other labels on split releases. What is it like working with your friends and how has it helped shaped Topshelf?

Duquette – Save for a few, we’ve basically done a split with all of our favorite labels [laughs]. I think it’s really rewarding to collaborate on stuff. It definitely strengthens the idea of their being an overarching broader sense of community around underground music and it’s just nice to meet and work with other people and see how they do things. It’s helped us learn a lot and establish a lot of great friendships in the process. Funny thing is, we’ve somehow never managed a split release with Bridge 9 [laughs], but we’ll be correcting that oversight later this year ;).

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