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- Posted on Feb 4th 2013 3:40PM by Rob Rubsam
Seth Decoteau, 29, and Kevin Duquette, 27, started Topshelf in 2005 as a means of distributing their own band, Sixfinger, "a glorified Texas Is the Reason rip-off band" according to Duquette. "We weren't getting responses from distros [...] so we thought it would be more formal if we had a label sending out our stuff," he told me in a phone interview in November. Though their group broke up soon after, the apparatus was in place, and they started releasing records by Massachusetts-area bands like Baker and Get Up Get Down.
Topshelf's horizons began expanding in the fall of 2009, with releases by the Massachusetts hardcore band Defeater, My Heart to Joy, a post-hardcore group from Connecticut, and true-blue Maryland screamers Pianos Become the Teeth. Put out in rapid succession, "the combination of those three releases and the exposure and the press that those bands got, and the touring that they did, really helped us," says Decoteau. Now, the label's focus is hardly local to its Western Massachusetts origins. In 2012 alone, bands with releases on the label spread from Philadelphia to Las Vegas, Brooklyn to Orlando, and even internationally: Suis La Lune and toe hail from Sweden and Japan, respectively.
But though the label may no longer be strictly local, its founders still have the mindset that comes from growing within a scene. Both Decoteau and Duquette stressed to me that they only release music they love, from people they love and, in order to do it justice, they have to put as much effort as possible into its design, pressing and distribution. To them, this is a crucial aspect of being involved in a community.
The idea of community comes up frequently in our conversations. This can mean among musicians, but also, interestingly, with other labels. Topshelf has shared office and Warped Tour van space with Run for Cover Records, another Boston-based company, and has been involved in cross-promotions with California's No Sleep Records. Every year, Duquette and Decoteau put together a mixtape, composed of songs by bands on their label, as well as others like Run for Cover and No Sleep, and release it for free on their website. According to Kevin, "a lot of times we're trying to work with the same bands and you'd think we're stepping on each other's toes and stuff, but it stays a really friendly, cordial thing." It's amazing, he remarks, that not only can multiple, similar businesses coexist in close contact, but they can even benefit from one another. "That says a lot about the community that we're in."
"They are some of the best, most easy-going guys that I have ever met," says Pianos Become the Teeth's Michael York. Though the band released their debut full-length Old Pride with a friend, it quickly went out of print, and so after completing a U.S. tour, they contacted Topshelf, only to find out that the label was already interested in them. Rafael Diaz from Philadelphia's We Were Skeletons, who released their second full-length on the label last fall, tells a similar story. "We approached them, but they had apparently already been talking about contacting us anyway. I had pretty much at that point learned that cold-call contacting of labels gets you nowhere, so it was super lucky that they were already interested in the first place!"
"It's just one of those things where if you're going about something that's worthwhile, people will gravitate to it, and people will pick up on it," says Duquette of both the label and its bands. He clearly puts a lot of faith in the bands he represents.
As do they to him. Greg Horbal from The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, a twinkly Connecticut band, only had positive things to say about Topshelf. "I could call Kevin at 3 in the morning with a question about something and he would pick up." Diaz and York both also told me that the label is there when they need it, as during distribution and promotion, and absent when they don't. Though some of the label's records are put out by contract, others aren't, and yet even artists who aren't legally obligated return.
And as the profile of the label rises, so do those of each artist involved with it. While a few of the biggest bands to work with Topshelf, like Into It. Over It. and Moving Mountains, have mostly been involved in one-off records and are signed to other, bigger companies, these releases bring people to the label, who, hopefully, stay. Most exciting to Duquette and Decoteau, Topshelf-affiliated bands not only help each other out, they voluntarily work together on tours and releases. Horbal, though his work at Hope This Helps Booking, sets up shows for a number of bands on the roster. For instance, The World Is a Beautiful Place and Pennsylvania's Slingshot Dakota, who released their Topshelf debut this past election day, have toured together on several occasions, and this coming winter Horbal's band has dates with numerous other Topshelf acts. "We have bands that actually enjoy other bands on the label," says Decoteau, "so if they play a show with them, they actually care about it."
In that sweaty Bushwick basement, though, something else was clear: A fan community was developing around the label itself. "I always think it's awesome when we're out on tour, or even back at home when I see kids wearing Topshelf Records T shirts," Horbal says. "It's a wild concept." Though some stereotypes about a "Topshelf Sound" have developed (as Duquette jokingly describes it, if you "have a telecaster and you twinkle a little."), a brief look at 2012's releases describes the pure variety of bands currently attached to the label: Slingshot Dakota's emo-tinged indie pop, the dissonant post-hardcore of We Were Skeletons, the largely instrumental math rock of toe and Suis La Lune's classic screamo.
Online, they certainly do a lot to grow these kinds of fans. Connected to the main Topshelf website is a message board with over 600 members, and their Facebook page has over 13,000 likes. They also maintain an unusually high profile on tumblr, much of it thanks to the effort of Duquette, who works to get fans involved in posting content like photos and videos, which he then reblogs, exposing them to a larger audience. When pre-orders go up, the label "pins" an announcement to the top of each follower's page, essentially a harder-to-ignore banner ad, but with information a fan might actually be interested in. They also have been involved in giveaways of free, cheap items, a token of thanks that helps to draw closer the bond between them and their fans.
All these accomplishments stand as more impressive for the fact that neither of its founders counts Topshelf as a full-time job. Decoteau works as a label manager at Bridge 9, yet another Boston-based record company, and Duquette does Web design. Though they recently hired a friend to help with mail order, both primarily do work on the label during their off-hours, answering e-mails, updating the website and boxing up records. And according to Seth, most of the profits from records go straight back into the label. "We don't get a paycheck, even when releases do well."
In our conversation, Kevin mentions several times that in the years since founding Topshelf, he's had to constantly update his goals as they are met and surpassed. In early 2013, the two are planning full-length releases from Las Vegas' Caravels, The World Is a Beautiful Place, and Empire! Empire! (I Was a Lonely Estate), a Michigan group whose Keith Latinen runs his own small label, Count Your Lucky Stars. While Duquette both hopes and expects that these releases will do well, he seems unwilling to plan beyond immediate goals, wary of too large a plan.
"I've been trying to grow in a way that sort of feels natural and doesn't alienate people that we've always had along. And a lot of trying to branch out to things that we haven't traditionally done, in terms of standards like that, I want to have things be as they've always been, but on a larger scale, and that's incredibly hard to have." These are smart concerns for someone who is so heavily investing in something he isn't seeing much out of, monetarily. But if things continue to grow as they have been for Topshelf -- and if that packed and humid CMJ showcase was any indication, they will -- maybe Duquette and Decoteau will have more branching out to do without worrying about alienating anyone.