Topshelf Records started in 2006 as an endeavor of founders Seth Decoteau and Kevin Duquette to promote their local indie rock scene in Peabody, Massachusetts. Originally conceived as a BYOF style resource, the project eventually evolved to the point where they were releasing records, with the first being Sixfinger’s Songs for the Escape Artist, a band that both Seth and Kevin had played in, and which became the foundation for their decades-long collaboration.
The label has since expanded, adding new team members, and branching out beyond the emo and pop-punk of its salad days, releasing material by underground hip hop and experimental pop artists. Even though its members are spread across the United States, from New York to Seattle, they are still united by a single goal: to discover and share great new music. Following this muse over the past fifteen years, the label has curated a remarkably diverse catalog of records that is the envy of any label, boutique or otherwise.
To learn more about this fantastic engine of underground discovery and promotion and what makes it tick, I reached out to the label owners and was connected with their communications point-person and all-around irrepressible music enthusiast Mack Werner. She provided some incredibly valuable insights about how the label continues its mission and meets the demands of artists and fans in the ever-changing landscape of the music industry. Her responses are genuine and enlightening while providing somewhat of a roadmap for doing what you love and getting right. I hope our conversation will inspire you to give some of Topshelf’s catalog a try.
Interview was conducted via email on April 22, 2021. The transcript has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
What is your role within Topshelf and how did you come to be involved?
My role with Topshelf is all over the place. We’re a small label with a small staff (5) all located in different cities around the US. I started as an intern in the fall of 2019, mostly helping Kevin prep to launch our new website, which was redesigned not only for aesthetic purposes, but to make space for a more interesting exploratory experience. I was brought on to help with all kinds of back end, logistical work, but also to help expand the type of content we produce with and about the artists we work with. Over the last year and a half, I’ve been hired on as staff, taking over our socials, run our webstore, send our newsletters, and work with our artists to help develop supplementary content to help extend their album cycle, give context to the music and who the artists are as people, and give listeners new opportunities to connect with the music and with the community. That’s the goal at least :)
What makes Topshelf different from other independent labels?
I’m not super sure what makes us different, beyond the fact that most independent labels are only run by one, two, or a small handful of people, meaning that personal philosophies and tastes have a lot more room to flourish and shape the label than larger companies. I think what makes us (and every independent label) unique are the relationships we’ve formed with each other and with our artists, and how we try to reflect what’s important to us and the way we exist as people through the way that we exist as a company.
How is it similar?
When talking to other people who work at small/independent labels the biggest similarity always seems to be that at the end of the day we all are doing this because we care really deeply about the artists we work with, and about doing right by them. We are of course a business, but we’re a business that pretty much only exists to try to create space for the artists we get to work with. I don’t have a personal creative practice, and I’m not a musician, but I love music, and I love the musicians we partner with and want to do what I can to help facilitate connecting them with listeners who will also love their music. It’s like being a matchmaker in a way, it can be very emotional.
Who is the core team at Topshelf, and what are their roles?
Seth: co-founder, accounting, contracts, capital B Business tasks.
Kevin: co-founder, A&R, website/asset builder, everything else
Will: PR genius & friend
Sarah: visual art, creative direction, animation
Where does Topshelf fit into the broader underground music scene, and how do you see yourselves contributing to this community?
I would say that Topshelf is in a really interesting place in the music scene, specifically because of the broad spectrum of music we release, and the many different pockets of genres and music lovers that we appeal to and have built some trust with.
There are certainly people who are strictly fans of the first half of the label’s history and stick to those releases exclusively, there are some fans that only tune in for the handful of bands we work with out of Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, but there are also a fair amount of people who are fans of the label, and give everything we release a listen, whether it’s math rock, dream pop, screamo, experimental electronic neo-soul, or anything in between. I’m not under the illusion that every single record we release appeals to every listener, but it’s really cool to engage with other music fans and hear when people check out something they wouldn’t normally check out just because we’re attached to the project. That really means a lot.
We only release projects that we all personally are fans of, and are passionate about, so it’s easy to translate that excitement into our work, I think that really shows.
How do you discover artists who you might want to work with?
There are so many ways we discover artists we might want to work with, and most of them are the same ways we discover the music we want to listen to. We’ve got a couple of different channels in our slack for submissions and music that we’re just personally digging and want to share, a lot of that music just comes from personally digging through the internet, looking into recommendations from friends and the artists we work with, listening to anything we can get our ears on, and of course, paying close attention to the scenes we’re all living in or personally familiar with, so where we grew up, where we went to school, other places we’ve lived, all of those scenes have left lasting impressions and have shaped our taste, it only makes sense to continue exploring them and try to work with artists we admire.
What makes an artist or album attractive to the Topshelf team?
There definitely isn’t one answer to this question. We come across so much music we love, and it’s easy to say “damn I WISH we put that out”, on top of that we get so many submissions and most of them are really good, it’s very difficult to weed through them and make these decisions.
A question that we come back to a lot is “yeah, this is very good, but is it special? Does it have that extra something that’s bringing us all (with our varying tastes) back to it again and again?” I think an intangible quality we really gravitate towards is a record that feels like it unfurls to reveal more and more layers on each listen, which doesn’t have to mean it’s a huge production or a particularly “serious” concept album or anything like that, it’s just that quality that keeps us coming back for more over and over again until we realize we must work with this artist.
We try to only release music that everyone on staff is stoked about. There are plenty of records that fit all of these criteria that we still don’t have the resources or bandwidth to release, picking up a new artist or a new record is a very complicated and very rewarding process.
Does the label have a thesis or philosophy that guides it, what is the vibe?
Our guiding philosophy for at least my full tenure at Topshelf has been about music discovery and highlighting the importance of music being “new to you”. We’re trying to push back against the expiration date that’s put on each new release, and trying to encourage and promote discovery all the time, not just in the week that the album is released and then on its subsequent anniversaries.
If music is new to you, if it’s the first time you’re hearing something, it’s new! It’s still exciting, the novelty doesn’t wear off just because something came out six months or six years or 60 years ago. We’ve released music with 130+ artists over 15 years at this point, there’s a lot of incredible stuff in our catalog and out in the world to discover, we just want to find ways to encourage that exploration and erase the idea of “relevance”. Even for me, joining the Topshelf team in 2019, there were years and years of releases to explore, I was familiar with some of them of course, but not every single album. It’s been a real treat to slowly familiarize myself with our full catalog, and it’s really changed the way that I approach listening to music and finding music in my free time as well.
Some projects we’ve started to help achieve this goal include asking artists to curate playlists of music that inspired their new records, trying to start a larger conversation about multi-genre inspiration and what sticks with people and why, we’ve built out parts of our website that make discovering anything in our catalog kind of an interactive game, and we highlight releases from our full catalog on social media and in our newsletter. We of course try to give as much attention as we can to new releases to give them the foundation they deserve, but I think we’re shifting to a place of trying more to paint a larger picture of what our full evolution has been, instead of thinking of past releases as only existing in the past.
What have been some of Topshelf’s biggest successes or triumphs?
I talked these more “origin story” and “evolution” focused questions over with Kevin, who’s been here since the beginning, and made me realize that our growth, both personnel-wise and on individual personal levels really speaks to the shifting of our mission and to our triumphs as a label. The fact that this label was started by two friends in college who really wanted to shine a light on the bands they loved, and has grown to include so many other people, so much more exploration, and collaboration, that’s a really beautiful thing.
I think one of the most important parts of growing up is when you take a step back from the idea that you have the best taste and the best recommendations, and you learn to listen and to explore and to learn from your peers, in a way this label has grown out of adolescence into adulthood over the last 15 years. I think more than anything we’re trying to do right by our artists, but we’re reaching a place where we have more ideas and voices internally that are also listening to and learning from more voices externally, becoming a part of a larger ecosystem instead of trying to be an island.
What is one of the greatest ongoing challenges?
One of the greatest challenges is coming up against the clout/attention economy of the music/entertainment/media industry at large, and the way the superstructure of these industries work non-stop against independent creators. We try to meet the artists we partner with where they’re at, we’re never going to ask them to post more on social media, or try becoming an influencer to get more plays (even though these are actual, real pieces of “advice” that corporations often give), we’re not going to make them jump through hoops to say “hey look at me!” every 5 minutes so they stay higher in the algorithm.
Our job as a label is to find the ways to best navigate the landscape we’re in right now, which to be honest is frightening. I think that as a company and as individuals we’re all very aware of the fact that without the artists we work with and the art they create we wouldn’t have jobs, creators are the reason we as a label exist, so our goal isn’t to profit off of them, but to help them navigate the “industry” and support them first and foremost. There’s a lot of red tape and a lot of nonsense that goes into releasing music, I just want to make that easier for artists.
I dream of a world where all artists are able to survive and thrive without having to scramble to find a “side hustle” (or 2, or 3) just to be able to pay their rent, a world where megacorporations don’t get to dictate who gets attention and who gets paid. In the meantime I take it as my personal responsibility to advocate for the artists I work with, to try to re-establish connection and community in the music scene wherever I can with the platform I’m given, and I know that my co-workers feel the same way, which is one of the reasons I love them. We’re trying to make use of the resources we have, and we have some fun plans for 2021 that we’re hoping will bring us closer to the artists and other music industry folks that we haven’t been able to see in person for over a year at this point.
What role do you see a label like Topshelf providing artists and music enthusiasts in 2021?
The role I hope we can play in 2021 and beyond is largely of coordination and facilitation. I deeply miss live music, I deeply miss discovering bands in person, meeting people at shows, exchanging information, introducing people to each other, booking showcases, and making connections! We’ve tried to figure out how to do this 100% digitally through the pandemic, and some of the networks and practices we’ve established will definitely outlast lockdown, but I can’t wait to translate some of that into more in-person connections. I always want us at Topshelf to be finding ways to remind music enthusiasts that artists are people, not just “content creators”.
Larger companies tend to view and market artists as consumable products themselves, and that’s unfortunately become the norm, especially with the pervasive nature of social media, which has given fans instant, constant, personal access to the people who create the art that means so much to them. I think a label like Topshelf exists in a part of the music scene that can really push back against that expectation and that new norm. I want as much as possible to facilitate spaces where creators and fans alike can feel comfortable, safe, and enthusiastic about connection however they would like.
Is physical distribution still important? What is the proper role for digital distribution?
I would definitely say that physical distribution is still important. A huge part of music discovery that has been missing for me over the last year (plus) is going to record stores and just crate digging. Especially when you can connect with the people who work at a record store, or you find a place where you really trust the curation and are willing to take chances and recommendations, that’s so special. Retail has continued though, and we’ve even seen an uptick in physical retailing through the pandemic for our titles, which has been incredibly exciting. I think that one of the pervasive practices that I am optimistic will outlast covid has been the massive upswing in paying for music.
I personally have bought more music in the last year than in the decade preceding, and with Bandcamp Fridays (huge shoutout) the culture of buying music has just become more normal and expected. I don’t blame myself or other music fans for getting swept up into the streaming model when it was thrust upon us, but it’s really encouraging to see push back against that and support in both the physical and digital sphere for independent music just exploding right now. I think the proper role of digital distribution right now (as I see it) is to help garner interest and attention for the music, providing accessibility as far as discovery goes, but that it’s hopefully a step towards listeners sharing that music with friends and purchasing it if they can and want to.
Has COVID affected your operations, and how?
In some ways it has not, we all live in different cities and work remotely regardless, so it’s not like we had to step away from the office or anything like that. Though the caveat to that is that I was hired in October of 2019, and was meant to meet Kevin and Will in Austin for SXSW in March of 2020 which clearly didn’t happen, meaning I’ve never met my co-workers who I talk to all day most days. Technically I sold Will a beer at a showcase I booked at SX in 2019, we dug up a venmo transaction between the two of us, but besides that, we’ve been stranded on opposite sides of the country for the entirety of my employment.
I would say the biggest ways that covid has affected our operations have been in two areas: 1. Artist relationships and 2. Manufacturing.
In the same way that I really miss discovering new (to me) bands at live shows, this is something that’s been missing from our ability to forge relationships with the artists we’ve begun working with in the last year. One of the last shows I attended before covid hit was the Ratboys album release show for Printer’s Devil in Chicago, and since that show they’ve dropped an entire follow-up record. Every band we worked within the last year missed out on touring their records. We didn’t get to host them in our respective cities, we didn’t get to see them perform or meet them in person to just hang out before taking a leap together, we’ve had to go off of video chats, vibes, and of course the music itself. That really changes the depth you can form in relationships with the artists you’re working with, and just getting to meet and hang out with my co-workers and the artists I listen to constantly are extremely high on my list of priorities when it’s safe to do so.
With manufacturing delays starting to compound more and more rapidly we’ve had to rethink the rest of our year. In 2020 we were able to release 12 records, 3 EPs, a standalone single, and a label sampler, which just won’t be possible this year without sitting on 8 month physical delays. It’s giving us a lot of time and space to re-think what we can be doing beyond our day to day tasks. It’s really easy to fill all of your time with “what needs to be done today, in this moment to make this release go smoothly” when you’re juggling that many releases at once, and it’s also easy for things to slip through the cracks. This year we’ve still got a lot of amazing projects to offer, but we’re working on assessing what we can be doing to better reflect our philosophy and our politics in our work, as well as just thinking of fun and exciting ways to continue pushing music that’s already out and still rocks. We’ve done a lot of organization on our end, we have new practices, we have new systems, which exist to help us do better by our artists and by our community. It would be really disheartening I think to come out of something so globally devastating as this pandemic without having learned anything about how to better support your community, and we’re trying to harness that energy not only in our personal lives but in our work.
Mack’s Picks from the Topshelf Catalog
addy – Eclipse (2020)
This release is really special to me for a few reasons: addy was signed a day or two before I was hired on as an intern, and they just happen to be one of my best friends. I met addy when I was 15, and was actually living with them when this project began a few years back. When we were both brought into the fold at Topshelf we were living in different cities, keeping up a long-distance friendship and it felt like such a beautiful way to begin at this new job, working a record I love by a person I love.
Really From – Really From (2021)
The new self-titled Really From record has a really special place in my heart. I first heard this band when I was booking a showcase for SXSW in 2019 and my friend Jer from Lost + Found Booking suggested Really From. I fell in love with them instantly, and their live show is incredible. We all know that genre means very little these days when people are really playing with finding their sound by combining a little bit of everything that makes them, and I think this record embodies that.
Thanya Iyer – KIND (2020)
I am just a massive Thanya Iyer fan and I can’t wait to meet her and see her play live. This record is everything, and we really saw listeners connect with KIND and run with it. The intricacy, the craftsmanship, the creativity, the depth, it’s all there. She’s a performer with incredible vision and an incredible team of collaborators, I love the way they experiment together.