Topshelf label notes absence of DIY infrastructure

“We didn’t come to San Diego just to find our talent here."

Kevin Duquette and Seth Decoteau sniff out the market for cassettes.
  • Kevin Duquette and Seth Decoteau sniff out the market for cassettes.
  • photo by Hannah Chan

“Since we moved here two years ago one of the biggest questions we always get is what San Diego bands have we signed,” says Topshelf Records co-founder Seth Decoteau. The label has a roster of about 30 artists from the indie-rock, emo, math rock, and singer/songwriter categories.

“We didn’t come to San Diego just to find our talent here. When we were in Boston, we didn’t seek out bands just because they were from Boston.”

The local scene is not what drove Decoteau, his wife, and co-founder Kevin Duquette to transplant Topshelf. “We each made a list of our top-ten cities,” Duquette says. “San Diego was the only city that appeared on all three lists.”

“Not Again,” the Ratboys

The two founders and two full-time employees run Topshelf out of a third-floor office in the Art Center Lofts on 13th Street in the East Village. This year the label will release some 18 titles by New Jersey’s Prawn, Chicago’s Ratboys, and Tricot from Japan, among others.

Over 11 years and after having worked with 100-plus artists, the only local band released on Topshelf was Weatherbox, which Duquette says moved on to New York’s Triple Crown label due to a “better offer.... We never had a chance to counter-offer.”

Duquette says he wasn’t fazed when two other Topshelf bands moved on to Epitaph, the famous L.A.-based label.

“There is no ill will with Brett [Gurewitz, Epitaph founder],” says Duquette about the bands Epitaph pinched. “Sometimes he releases their full albums and we’ll still release their [shorter] EPs.”

Duquette says he misses the music scenes of the East Coast that don’t exist here.

“The younger audience is the lifeblood of any music scene, but the DIY infrastructure simply is not here. It seems like the local music scene alienates the young people. There are no house parties; most houses out here don’t even have basements. Things like that matter.”

Duquette says Topshelf recently started releasing everything on cassette as well as vinyl and CD.

“There is a certain impermanence with digital formats,” says Duquette. “People want to walk away with something when they buy music.” But vinyl, he says, is expensive and takes months to get product back from manufacturers. “If you want to milk that nostalgic teat, cassettes are the next big thing.”

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