Sweet Adeline

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

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."

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