Interview with founders Mark and Shawn Stern | By Jon Coen
The digital age has already dropped the guillotine on many things that we hold dear. No need to rewrite the obits on decapitated music sales, mailed letters, and payphones—notice we didn’t say print mags… yet—but one less obvious loss from the cultural shift is a specific run of albums, the first of which turns 20 in April.
“We haven’t put any records out on BYO in 10 years,” admits Mark Stern, founder of Better Youth Organization Records, the seminal Los Angeles band Youth Brigade, and the Punk Rock Bowling festival. “We still manufacture and distribute our catalog, but it was just becoming a losing proposition.”
Though tangible things like physical releases exist now only for nostalgia, music is still being made and bands are still touring. In that respect, punk is not dead, nor is any other kind of music. However, the days of Mark and his brother Shawn Stern releasing fantastic punk music from all over the world is over.
And that has also meant an end to the much-loved BYO Split Series.
The Sterns first started putting together L.A. punk shows and releasing records in 1982. Initially, it was comps and their own band’s output, then later, 7 Seconds, SNFU, The Bouncing Souls, Swingin’ Utters, and more. In 1999, they put out the first of the BYO Split Series, which turned out to be a celebrated effort of the subculture to this day.
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I. Leatherface / Hot Water Music
According to the Sterns, the series came about simply because Hot Water Music, who were releasing their fourth record in 1999, wanted Leatherface to come over from the U.K. to tour with them. Hot Water Music vocalist and guitarist Chris Wollard made a proposition to Leatherface, and their vocalist and guitarist Frankie Stubbs told him to talk to BYO, Leatherface’s label in the States—unbeknownst to the Sterns.
“I don’t think Leatherface was really a band at that time, but then, their bass player Andy [Crighton] died and that brought them back together,” Shawn says. “They wanted to do an EP, but we told them it costs just as much to press an EP as a full-length, so they decided they’d do half a record and Hot Water would do half a record.”
BYO released the split in April of 1999 with the visuals of old jazz Blue Note series and promoted the tour, which was legendary.
“That’s some of my favorite Hot Water Music material on that record,” Mark says, “and, of course, Leatherface’s track ‘Andy.’”
“And ‘Deep Green Beautiful Levelling,’” Shawn adds.
“We wanted bands that would complement each other,” Mark explains. “It was really coming together.”
II. Swingin’ Utters / Youth Brigade
The same year, Youth Brigade were touring a lot with Swingin’ Utters, so Mark called them up for the second installment.
“Everyone loved that first one, and at that time, we had some songs but not enough for an album,” he says. “Those are some of my favorite Youth Brigade songs.”
Released in October of ’99, it included Youth Brigade’s “Let Them Know,” which became the title of the heralded 25th anniversary box set, “Let Them Know: The Story of Youth Brigade and BYO Records” that included a 31-artist BYO comp, a book, and a documentary.
III. Rancid / NOFX
The third installment, in March 2002, would be the biggest of the series. Fat Mike suggested that NOFX do a split with Rancid, but it was Tim Armstrong’s idea for the two bands to cover each other’s favorite tracks. It wound up being the best-selling record BYO ever released.
“Neither band was letting the other hear the mixes as they recorded them,” Shawn remembers. “It was kind of funny. Mark sat down with them to figure out marketing and advertising ideas, and I sat down with them to figure out what we could expect the orders to be. They were pretty right-on with the numbers.”
The album art deviated from the series up to that point. Mark brought up the Blue Note art, but Armstrong was already headed in another direction.
“At a certain point, we just didn’t have a say anymore,” he laughs.
Both bands were enjoying a huge alternative music following coming out of the ’90s and etched each other’s songs into the sidewalk of all-time punk classics.
IV. The Bouncing Souls / Anti-Flag
The fourth edition, in September of 2002, took a logical step with The Bouncing Souls, for whom BYO had distributed early records, and Anti-Flag, who they’d seen at a festival and become instant fans of.
“There was this guy who ran the radio show in Eerie, Pennsylvania. They called him ‘The Old Man,’” Mark says. “He told us we had to check out this band Anti-Flag. They were still a three-piece, and I think it was one of their first shows. They went on at, like, 12 in the afternoon, and they were amazing. We tried to sign them, but they wound up going with Go-Kart Records. They were road dogs, just like The Souls”
The jazz-inspired cover art returned, and both bands took the opportunity to do covers. The Souls did Anti-Flag’s “That’s Youth,” Cock Sparrer’s “We’re Coming Back,” and Sticks And Stones’ “Less Than Free,” while Anti-Flag spit out their version of The Souls’ “The Freaks, Nerds, and Romantics,” as well as “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” by Buzzcocks.
V. Alkaline Trio / One Man Army
In April 2004, with Alkaline Trio on top of the world after releasing Good Mourning on Vagrant Records in 2003, co-vocalist and guitarist Matt Skiba came to the Sterns with the idea to do a split with One Man Army of San Francisco.
The album cover was a takeoff of the Blue Note tradition by Heather Gable, who had been selling merch and designing album art for Alkaline Trio for years. The record introduced a number of Alkaline fans to Jack Dalrymple and One Man Army. It would be the last of the BYO splits, although it started a trend of punk heavyweights doing creative collaborations on other labels.
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The BYO Split Series was cut short before it could realize its full potential. There were talks with Dillinger Four, Dropkick Murphys, and Off With Their Heads. The latter’s frontman, Ryan Young, actually wrote the songs for a split with D4, and when it didn’t happen, the tracks went onto their first record with Epitaph, 2010’s In Desolation.
“It kind of turned into this thing where you were doing it with another band, so you kind of had to step it up,” Shawn says. “It wasn’t like anyone was going to hand over some B sides.”
But then came the age of sharing and, eventually, streaming music.
“Things were just turning for selling records,” Mark says. “It became a lot of work and no money.”
The Sterns are well-versed in the way that streaming has destroyed the economy of selling music for independent labels and all but the biggest artists. The BYO catalog has been taken off of Spotify and other streaming services. They explain how the industry model has morphed into surviving off of live performances. Their festival, Punk Rock Bowling, which takes place in Las Vegas—this year, from May 24 to May 27—is a return to their show-promoting roots, and the lineups always include bands who played on their splits.
“I still listen to every one of those records,” Mark concludes.