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Sweet Adeline 

A determinedly small Oakland label proves that punk is still a viable sound

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
The last decade hasn't been easy for Bay Area punk rock. Since its inception, the genre has existed as a series of explosions and implosions, media blitzes and hasty retreats, people cashing in and yelling sellout. It began in England in the late 1970s and continued in New York, L.A., and other cities throughout the early 1980s. Much to everyone's surprise, it eventually happened in the Bay Area in the early 1990s. Almost overnight, bands like Green Day and Rancid were vaulted to superstardom, the "Berkeley sound" became a household term, and 924 Gilman Street found itself a tourist attraction for snapshot-happy teenagers. A scene that had once been comprised of underground venues and a tightknit community of promoters and fans suddenly became MTV's next big thing; Green Day and Rancid, which had once claimed a couple thousand supporters, were now beloved by millions.

Fast forward a decade. Punk, for the most part, has passed from mainstream consciousness. Twentysomethings focus mainly on electronica and hip hop, while teenagers are more concerned with mainstream R&B and testosterometal. For every success story, there are dozens of acts that were dropped like hot potatoes when they couldn't live up to their labels' unrealistic expectations. Bay Area punk, once red hot, has been left to pick up the pieces and move on. And so, quietly, without seeking media attention, East Bay residents have built a new scene, centered around labels like Fat Wreck Chords, Lookout!, and, most recently, Adeline.

"We never really know what we're doing and what's going to happen next," explains Adrienne Armstrong, co-founder of Oakland's Adeline Records. "We don't feel pressure, and that's what's so great about owning your own label."

Of course it helps that the fledgling company, barely two years old, has been an unexpected success. In an industry in which independent record labels can take years to build up brand recognition and successful bands -- often folding before they do -- Adeline has done remarkably well, remarkably quickly. The label's roster now reads like a who's who of Bay Area punk and includes such outstanding acts as One Man Army, AFI, Pinhead Gunpowder, and the Criminals.

All of this is a far cry from Adeline's humble beginnings. Founded in 1997 by Armstrong, her husband Billie Joe of Green Day, Jason White of Screw 32, Jim Thiebaud of Real Skateboards, and Lynn Parker, Adeline traces its roots to a night when the five friends sat around a fire in an East Bay back yard, discussing how they'd enjoy releasing albums by bands they liked.

"Jim had always wanted to do a record with One Man Army," Parker explains. "The next morning he was still talking about it."

The friends set up a makeshift office in their dining room and got to work. Early the following year, Adeline released One Man Army's LP Dead End Stories.

"When we first started out we were doing everything ourselves," Adrienne Armstrong says. "We didn't know what we were doing." But she and the other owners did know one thing -- they were adamant about not capitalizing on Green Day's popularity, and wanted to build a name for Adeline based on its own merits. Unfortunately, no one had heard of the label or One Man Army. Distributors wouldn't talk to the staff and stores barely carried the release. "I was calling stores, and I would get all excited if they'd buy three CDs," Parker says.

Adeline began working to gain a foothold in the punk circuit by putting out solid releases like Pinhead Gunpowder's Shoot the Moon and AFI's A Fire Inside. Meanwhile, AFI and One Man Army toured incessantly, gaining national exposure for the label. (The constant gigging finally paid off this summer with a Vans Warped Tour spot for One Man Army.) Adeline added a full-time intern to its staff and began advertising its catalog aggressively in magazines like Thrasher, Lollypop, and Slap. Receiving support in the form of frequent reviews and features from high-profile punk zines MaximumRocknRoll and Punk Planet, Adeline's catalog started selling better, and stores became interested in stocking the albums.

"We finally got to the point where we were big enough to get someone else to [distribute] for us," Parker says. After researching several options, Adeline chose Mordam Records. "Other companies like Red or ATA all have ties -- they're all in bed with other people," Armstrong says. "But Mordam is not affiliated with any label; they're really and truly independent."

Adeline now has international distribution and an impressive catalog of albums, but it's still a small operation. She and her co-founders are more focused on providing quality support for their bands than selling lots of albums. Ironically, some of the bands the label has helped launch may soon be too popular for it to handle. "One Man Army was our first release, and now they're a huge success," Parker says. "That's a great feeling for us. But there's a point where such a small label just can't do everything a band needs. [In terms of size,] even moving to another Bay Area independent label is a step up from us."

Adeline recently moved its headquarters out of the dining room and into a one-room office. Until recently Billie Joe and Thiebaud printed band patches and T-shirts in their garage, and the owners still try to listen to all of the demos they receive in the mail. "We keep the demos in a big box," Armstrong explains. "Whenever Billie Joe comes home he digs through. He'll sit there for hours. Pop in one tape, listen, pop in the next one."

Even at Adeline, it's unrealistic for a band to think that an unsolicited demo will lead to a record deal, but it worked out for one group. "None of us had ever heard of the Thumbs," Armstrong says. "Billie Joe listened to their tape and then he called them up and said he wanted to do an album with them. Just like that." Several months later Adeline released All Lesser Devils, the Thumbs' first EP.

Adeline's founders aren't sure how much the label will grow in the future, but believe it's important to stay small enough that they're able to guarantee the quality of their product. "There are things we could be doing to make ourselves bigger," Armstrong says. "But we're not sure that's what we want."

The label is moving ahead cautiously, and has several releases in the works. Silver, by Fetish, is immodestly billed as "some of the most rocking, original material to come out of the Bay Area in years." Check Please, by the Influents (featuring Adeline co-owner Jason White), and an album by One Time Angel are coming out soon. Also, Adeline will be the exclusive domestic distributor of the new Green Day 7-inch Minority and the vinyl pressing of the forthcoming Green Day album Warning. "Green Day wanted its vinyl to go into mom-and-pop stores, and that's exactly what we do," Armstrong explains. "[Warner Bros. doesn't] care about vinyl. They weren't going to do [a pressing of Warning] in the States at all." So Adeline picked up the contract.

And though -- at least for the moment -- national attention has shifted away from Berkeley's punk scene, Adeline's founders still embody punk's famous do-it-yourself ethos, even when it comes to running a small, successful business while raising families. Four of the five owners have recently had kids. "We don't have baby sitters," Adrienne Armstrong says. "When we have meetings we're trying to eat pizza and talk and take notes so we don't forget what we're talking about, and the kids are running around.

"When we think about the way we do it, it's so exciting that it actually works."

About The Author

Fred Medick


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