For 20 years Mike Park has run Asian Man Records out of his parents’ garage. Before Asian Man sprung to life Park started Dill Records in order to release records by his band, Skankin’ Pickle, and other up-and-coming ska acts. As Dill became Asian Man the label’s roster also began to shift. After the dissolution of Chicago ska-punk band Slapstick, countless bands would form, seemingly all of which Park released records for on Asian Man. These bands, most notably Alkaline Trio and The Lawrence Arms, would signal a new sound coming out of the windy city.
Over the years Park has continued to keep his operation small, taking on young bands that channel the spirit of the ’90s punk ethic. Now in its 20th year, Park is throwing a festival in honor of the label. He’d done this previously for the label’s 15th anniversary, reuniting Slapstick for its first show in over 15 years, and bringing many of the label’s heavy hitters to tiny clubs throughout San Francisco. This year is no different, as Park has convinced Link 80 and Colossal to reunite, along with plenty of shows showcasing the modern acts that have found a home on the label. The A.V. Club spoke to Park about the fest, watching the music industry shift over the years, and if he’ll ever close up the garage for good.
The A.V. Club: For the 15th anniversary you threw a celebratory festival and now you’re doing it again for the 20th. What did you want to do differently this time around?
Mike Park: I wanted it to be less ambitious. It is a big milestone, but the problem with the 15th was that it was too much work. I didn’t get to enjoy anything. Just the fact that it was going at two venues, and just having to go back and forth, I was only able to watch parts of everyone’s sets. It’s actually bigger than I wanted it to be this year. I wanted it to just be at one venue, so I could just stay there and watch the shows. But we have too many bands. Bands kept calling me, saying, “Hey, can we play?” I’m like, “I can’t say no,” so that’s why we had to add the second venue. But I still feel a lot less stressed this time than last time.
AVC: You joked when we first started talking that the label doesn’t really get any press. Were you worried about putting in all this work and then no one showing up?
MP: No, never worried about the draw. I think every show will sell out. I think one show won’t. [Laughs.] I’ve been constantly badgering Link 80 to do something. I tried to get them to do the 15th but they wouldn’t do it, and I’ve never stopped. That’s not a lot of effort, but if I knew which members didn’t want to do it I would send them emails and text them funny little phrases. I would usually just go, “Oh, can’t wait for the 20-year. So glad you’re in.” But before they were in. [Laughs.] Or post stuff on social media of me and them going, “Oh man, 20-year is going to be amazing.”
AVC: So you’re just trying to trick them into being like, “Did we say yes to this?”
MP: No, I mean, I’m just trying to be funny. Though, the constant badgering will hopefully break them down.
AVC: In the ’90s you kind of found this family of bands that were all intertwined in this DIY community. How did you first get tuned in to that scene of bands?
MP: It was just luck. It was Skankin’ Pickle on tour, Slapstick opening up, and keeping in touch. They were getting ready to record, and I asked them if they had a label, and they said they did not. I said, “How much is a recording?” “A thousand dollars.” “What if I paid for the recording?” They’re like, “Okay!” And that was it. And so that’s how it started. And that’s been the case with a lot of bands. When they break up, they start new bands, because that friendship is so deep.
I feel like without Slapstick, so much of this would never have happened. Just the fact that that band turned into Tuesday, The Broadways, Alkaline Trio, Colossal. It really led me to working with the Smoking Popes and Honor System. So many people think Asian Man is run out of Chicago based on that. I’ve heard so many people, meeting them, going, “You’re not based out of Chicago?” I’m like, “No.” “Oh, I thought you were a Chicago label.” “No.” I would just say yes to everybody. Whatever band they were starting, I’m like, “Yeah, of course I’ll put it out.” Luckily, with Slapstick, all those bands were amazing. I don’t even think I said Lawrence Arms. The Lawrence Arms was another band out of that mix.
AVC: Having done this for 20 years you’ve seen so many changes in the music industry and the nature of DIY culture. What do you think has changed, and what was the hardest transition for you to make with Asian Man?
MP: Gosh, yeah, lots of changes. When we started it was right in the middle of the ska boom so it was rather easy. And the amount of money that came in was ridiculous. When we started, I was 26 years old and that first year we grossed over a million dollars. This is just me and my dad in my garage. So coming from a super-strict Korean upbringing, where my parents had told me from the day I was born that I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer—and then when I started touring in Skankin’ Pickle, seven years of touring, still every day they’re telling me it’s a waste of time and to go back to college. And then, from that to Asian Man starting and all that money coming in, my dad just going, “Whoa. What’s going on?”
We got lucky. We got picked up by this distributor called Mordam Records. At the time, probably the most sought-after, independent distributor. We were an exclusive label to them. It was Lookout Records, myself, Alternative Tentacles, Kill Rock Stars, Sympathy For the Record Industry… not a lot but very hand-picked. It was a co-operative, so everything got voted in, and that included Asian Man. I got lucky. So I had this great distributor early on, and everything was selling like crazy. CDs were so cheap to manufacture and anything I put out I’d sell at least 10,000 units. To do that now, to sell 10,000… I don’t think I’ve done it in the past 10 years. Especially physical. There’s just no way. So that first wave came in, and I was just smart with my money, saved it, invested it, and set myself for the future.
As a 26-year-old I was still fairly young, hip to what’s going on, and then as I got older, into my 30s, I kept releasing bands that I’d been working with, and of course they’re getting older, too. Sales started dwindling, and I realized, I’m not in touch with what young people are listening to. I wasn’t going to shows as much, especially the DIY shows. I made a conscious effort to start going to these house shows, getting my body out again, and just seeing what’s out there, and kind of researching.
And then the second wave hit when these bands came in: Andrew Jackson Jihad, Bomb The Music Industry!, Lemuria—I don’t want to miss any… I’m going to open up my garage and look at my records. The Wild, O Pioneers!!!—I think it was that wave of bands that were all very active in their own community, putting on shows, like The Wild doing stuff in Atlanta. I think Lemuria was just very active, and Alex [Kerns], their drummer, had their own label. So they were doing stuff. And then Bomb The Music Industry! was just leading the pack, doing everything DIY for their community. So it was this next wave of bands that were super active, and doing it for the right reasons. Instead of what’s in it for me, it was what’s in it for everybody, how can we help people? That kind of brought in the next wave. We put together a tour called Making Punk Fun Again… I can’t remember the exact name, it was something like that. Every band was happy—Lemuria, Bomb The Music Industry!, Andrew Jackson Jihad—who else was on there?
AVC: Maybe The Queers?
MP: Oh yeah! The Queers, of course, were nice enough to headline it. Am I missing anything? Kepi Ghoulie… That kind of got me back into it.
I was falling off. I was putting out—I don’t know if I should name the releases but it was more indie-rock stuff. Bagheera, Just A Fire—it just didn’t make sense with our audience base. We were a punk and ska label, and suddenly I was putting out this more indie singer-songwriter stuff. I’m sure our fans were just like, “What the fuck is this?” And just realizing, okay, I guess it is a business. I always felt like it shouldn’t have to be a business. If I put something out good it should hold its own. But I don’t think it’s that easy. I still think it should, but I’m just being more careful in what I do put out.
AVC: How did the shift from CDs to digital change your approach?
MP: We never spent a lot in the first place. We never did South By Southwest, or North By Northwest, or CMJ. We were never one of those labels. So we just never spent like that. We never did ads, other than once in awhile we’d do one in Maximum Rocknroll or Razorcake. And I saw the change happening. I swear to God I was a fortune teller on it, I was like, “Everything is shifting.” And I cut everything. I gave bands a budget to do college radio promotion and video promotion. I cut that. So any new band we worked with, I just told them straight-up, “We’re not spending anything. If you want us to put out the record, all we’re going to do is put out the record, and that’s it.” So we were able to survive that crash, where other labels continued to spend the amount of money they were used to spending when they were selling larger numbers. And that’s how we survived that digital age. We just cut everything. We cut staff. We only had three people here at our peak, and I had to let one go. And then we were just bare-boned and made it work.
AVC: How did it feel watching some of your peers—most notably Lookout Records—go under during that time? Did it ever make you worry about Asian Man’s future?
MP: No. Not at all. The Lookout demise, more than anything, had me wondering what the hell they were spending money on. I just couldn’t fathom how a label that had two Green Day records, Operation Ivy, The Mr. T Experience catalog, Screeching Weasel’s catalog, The Queers’ catalog, Avail’s catalog, Ted Leo, The Donnas… how could a label go under? It’s mind-blowing. That catalog was insane. One of the most important punk labels ever, and to have it all gone, I just think they got involved in trying to be the next Sub Pop, or whatever. They were doing all the South By Southwest and CMJ showcases. Those things were expensive. I still don’t understand—what do they do for your label? It’s always seemed to me, they’re fun to go, it’s like an excuse for industry people to party on the company’s dime. So yeah, I don’t know how they went under. I was never concerned at all. I was just more confused how they made it happen. I would have loved to have been Ant-Man and been able to sneak into their office and look at their books, because it’s just still mind-blowing to me.
AVC: It’s also interesting, because you’re existing in that world of everything changing, people not buying records, but you’re also willing to take on a band like Bomb The Music Industry!. Their entire thing is, “We’re not going to put something out if you can’t also get it for free.”
MP: You know, it’s always been my philosophy to do what’s best for the band. It was never profit over potential, or profit over friendship. In Jeff’s [Rosenstock, the band’s frontman] case, when he said, “Okay, all our music is for free. Will you put out our music?” I said, “Yep! Definitely.” It was inspiring. It was inspiring to see him do the donation-based distribution before any of the major labels, like Radiohead’s free download of their record. He was doing it before anybody. It was inspiring, and it was also interesting to see how young people were being creative in getting their music out and going with technology and kind of figuring it out instead of souring on technology. Now, if you share it a couple times, and if it goes viral, who knows how many people have heard your music? It could be hundreds of thousands, it could be millions, and then if you’re a good live band or musician, that’s going to translate into money coming in to your pockets through your live shows.
AVC: And a lot of those bands you took on ended up getting successful and going to bigger labels. I’ve heard that you’re really supportive of people leaving when they get a bigger offer. Is that true?
MP: I fight them to leave. [Laughs.] I try to get them to leave. Honestly, I’ve called so many labels on behalf of bands on our label, trying to get them to bigger labels. Andrew Jackson Jihad was the perfect example. This band was way too big for Asian Man. They’re selling out big venues—big venues in my mind is like 400 people—I couldn’t understand why labels weren’t fighting over this band. And so I reached out to so many labels going, “Here’s this band, they’re already huge, you’re not going to have to do any work, the next record’s already done. They’ve laid all the groundwork.” They just didn’t understand. Thankfully, Side One Dummy picked them up. With Jeff, same thing. We Cool? was going to be on Asian Man. And then Side One came with an offer, and Jeff called me, and just asked me my advice. And I said, “You’ve got to try something different. You’ve got to go for it and see if it helps you. I know my limitations, and I’m not going to do anything to further your career.” I see it the other way. They’re doing something to further my career.
AVC: Is that why people are willing to come back and do this festival? You never put on airs that you were going to make them huge, and you let them go when the opportunity arose.
MP: That’s exactly it. That’s the goal. If they want to make a living with music, I’ll do whatever I can to help them get to that point. If that means getting them on another label, calling friends of mine to see if they can get on a tour, I’ll do whatever I can. But yeah, it’s about friendship first. The business—I hate music business. I have nothing in common with it.
I started Asian Man strictly as an outlet to put out my own music. So it’s an extension of that. But it’s all about friendships. I don’t care if you sell one record or 1 million records. I’m going to treat every band the same, and it gets a little harder considering we have over 300 releases now, and how many bands we’ve worked with. But I feel like I’ve got a good relationship with so many of these bands that we talk on a regular basis, we text or interact on social media. It’s really important. I want it to be like family. Whether or not you’re currently on the roster, putting out music with us actively, or not. It doesn’t matter. It’s like, once you’ve done it, even if it’s a 7-inch, I still feel like we’re connected. And I appreciate any band that’s willing to let me do anything with them in any capacity.
AVC: With this ever-evolving scene does it still feel like it did in the ’90s?
MP: It still feels so fresh that it’s kind of scary. I still have these same anxieties that I did 20 years ago, that nobody knows who the heck we are. When I go into a record store and ask them if they carry Asian Man Records stuff, I’m always worried they’re gonna go, “I’ve never heard of that label.” So the insecurities are still there. Nothing has changed. So I feel the same as I did in 1996. It’s very weird to see time go by that fast, but in my mind I feel like I’m on a new label.
AVC: How does it feel to see these kind of younger bands still picking up on what it was that you and the bands you worked with were doing in the ’90s and still kind of approaching it from the same place? Do any of those bands come to you and say, “Oh, this label is the reason I got turned on to this.” Is that part of it as well?
MP: Well, yeah, with Cayetena, they’ve always wanted to put something out on Asian Man. When we first met, that’s how the conversation started, and then I said, “Let’s do a 7-inch, super-easy, low stress,” and that’s how that relationship got started. And then, with Spraynard, there was a kid from Philly who went to college out here and was volunteering, and just kind of saw the way we ran things, and told them about it, and we started working with them through him.
I’m just really transparent. I lay it all down. “We are going to do this, we are not going to do this.” If they agree, there’s no gray area. I think the problem is a lot of labels promise so much, and then if they don’t pull through, there’s a lot of resentment. You know, we’re not trying to be the next big label. We’re just trying to be part of it. Part of it in an ethical way. Plus, our accounting… I’ve never missed a sales report, ever, in 20 years. I just did a sales report where the band grossed 12 cents. But I still do the statement for every single release. It’s three full days of accounting every three months. And that’s what I think bands really appreciate. I’ve heard from bands, so many bands, that have just never seen a sales report. They have no idea what they’ve sold. They know they’ve sold a lot, but no one ever told them. Never seen any money. And that’s maddening to me. It’s like, why? Why wouldn’t you do accounting? Even if it’s not a lot, you’ve got to show the bands what’s selling.
AVC: If you were to give advice to someone, a kid today who was trying to start their own label, what is the thing that you would try to impart above anything else?
MP: Be honest, be completely honest. It’s not about you, it’s about the band. The problem with a lot of labels, I feel like they take all the credit. “Well, without us, you never would have sold this many records.” That’s bullshit. It’s the band, it’s their music, it’s not you. You might have gotten lucky and somehow an influential blog picked up on it, and people started listening to it, but it’s the music, essentially, that draws people to a particular band or sound. If you’re a label, just be humble. Work for the band, be part of the community, try to help, don’t take credit for stuff. Just be a part. Make it a collective. Have fun with it. If it becomes stressful, stop.
AVC: Is there a day when day where you see Asian Man ending?
MP: Sure. There definitely is. I can see it. I’ve thought about if it’s time to do something different. There’s a lot I still want to do. I’m closer to 50 now. What’s next in life? Do I continue doing this? I still enjoy it, so I’ll still continue to do it. But I think when it becomes no fun or a process to go to work, I’ll stop. But it’s still fun. I like working. It’s cool. A lot of my work is listening to music and talking about music and talking to bands and hanging out and going to shows and cooking dinner for bands. It’s fun, I really like it! But who knows? As my kids get older who knows what I’ll want to do? So I don’t know what the future holds, but I’d like to keep it going, and maybe my kids will want to do it after me.