For the last 15 years, Asian Man Records has been synonymous with do-it-yourself ethics and a fan-friendly approach. Such methods have earned the label a sizable and devoted fan base, as well as a reputation for prioritizing its ideals over any kind of business plans. Owner Mike Park founded Asian Man in 1996, after parting ways with his first band, Skankin’ Pickle. Along with Skankin’ Pickle’s other members, Park had previously run Dill Records, but after leaving the band the time was right for him to start his own label. Since its formation, Asian Man has grown significantly, issuing more than 200 releases and achieving both national and international acclaim. This June the label will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a five-day festival in San Francisco, which will encompass ten shows and over 40 bands. The event will not only celebrate Asian Man’s past accomplishments, but also serve as an affirmation of its plans to continue releasing music for many years to come.
Asian Man’s earliest releases were ska/punk albums from bands like Less Than Jake, Mu330 and Slapstick. Several months into the label’s existence Slapstick broke up and its members formed two new bands, The Broadways and Tuesday. This occurrence helped Asian Man to diversify its roster and begin releasing music of varying genres. It eventually led to the label’s relationship with future flagship band Alkaline Trio, as their bassist/singer Dan Andriano also played in Slapstick and Tuesday. In March of 2000, Asian Man released Alkaline Trio’s second album, Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, signifying a turning point in the history of the label and band alike. “You could definitely tell that Alkaline Trio’s popularity was growing,” Park said. “That album had the same release date as Link 80’s The Struggle Continues. I predicted Link 80 would outsell Alkaline Trio and I remember this from when we initially pressed both. I think I pressed 5,000 copies of Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and 10,000 copies of the Link 80 album to start, thinking that was the way it was going to ship. I totally guessed wrong. I also remember Dan Andriano being around when the releases came out and the phone ringing off the hook. It was nonstop, every five minutes. I could just answer the phone and say, ‘Do you want to order Alkaline Trio?’. I remember Dan being there to see that and him being so shocked. That’s when it really started taking off.” Park continued, “Alkaline Trio really introduced tons of people to Asian Man; especially back when physical product was in such high demand. The paper insert we put in CDs that explained what we do, that was how they were introduced to the label. A lot of it was people who were buying Alkaline Trio CDs”.
Unlike Alkaline Trio, the majority of Asian Man’s bands have not sold hundreds of thousands of albums. Some of the label’s lesser-known acts surprised Park in terms of how they were received by the public. “The band Polysics from Japan, I really thought they were going to explode in America,” he said. “They were a very eclectic band, visually inspired by Devo and musically they were pretty far out there. It was kind of like King Crimson meets Devo meets Frank Zappa. It was really bizarre, but really good. They were even getting good reviews from websites like Pitchfork. I thought they were going to be huge in the U.S., but it just never happened.” Other Asian Man bands have gone the opposite way, with Park underestimating how popular they would become. “There are a few that surprised me in terms of numbers overseas. We put out this band Softball, which consisted of three high school girls from Japan playing pop punk. We sold over 60,000 copies of their record in Japan. Same thing with another band from Japan called Potshot. We sold over 30,000 albums with them in Japan. It was a very big surprise. That just doesn’t happen anymore. Nowadays if you sell 5,000 records it’s a huge accomplishment,” he said.
As Park hinted, these days the music industry isn’t what it once was. When Asian Man began, the bulk of its sales came through mail order and independent record stores. Presently, music is mainly acquired digitally, legally or otherwise. This evolution has unmistakably changed the way in which Asian Man operates. “The biggest thing now is that I went from having employees to not having employees. Now it’s just run by me. I have some interns that come in once in a while, but it’s not as profitable as it once was,” Park said. “It’s also something I felt like I was on top of way before anybody else. I felt the decline probably seven to eight years ago and I started cutting costs back then. I started cutting print promotion, recording budgets, everything got cut. I think I had a good step ahead of everybody, so we never went into debt. We did have a couple months where I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the bills, but it was only a couple months. I know several labels that were struggling to make ends meet for a much longer time. I was able to survive and make a game plan as far as how to go into the next phase of the music industry.”
Asian Man is known for being a label that’s run out of Park’s parents’ garage. This arrangement has been particularly favorable during tough economic times. “Financially it’s been beneficial because I’ve saved on rent. Living in northern California, the rent here is ridiculous. If I tried to do this in an actual space, even in an industrial area where square footage is cheapest, you’re still looking at $1.00 to $1.50 per square foot. That would be ridiculous. The biggest thing is that it’s free,” he said. “I think that’s how a lot of punk labels start. They start in your bedroom. I wanted people to know that we weren’t like other labels. No knock on any of these labels, but we’re not like Fat Wreck Chords or Epitaph or the many, many labels that are out there. It’s important for people to know that we’re different. Even more so today, I want people to know this is run by me. The mail order you’re getting is from me, the phone that’s being answered is me and the e-mails are from me. I don’t want to be some random voice in my business. I want to be a part of it and feel the agony of working 14-hour days and shipping pre-orders to kids all over the world. Sometimes I don’t like it, but for the most part it’s awesome.”
Another one of Asian Man’s defining characteristics is the no-contract policy it has with all of its bands. “I don’t know what contracts do other than cause problems. If you look at the history of bands that have publicly gone out of their way to voice displeasure about their label, it’s because they’re stuck in a contract. It’s a smart thing for a label to have leverage and keep their bands shackled, but my take was always if a band isn’t happy with what I’m doing, then why do I want to work with them? The idea of Asian Man was to be a community of friends and to enjoy what I’m doing. If it’s not enjoyable, then by all means I don’t want to work with you. A contract is only going to cause problems,” Park said. When asked if there was an artist he never thought he’d work with but eventually did, Park was quick to cite Jesse Michaels and his latest band, Classics of Love. “Jesse Michaels, the vocalist of Operation Ivy, that’s the one. I can’t believe I’m working with him. To have become really good friends with him has been a treat, and just to see the brilliance of this guy. He’s a funny guy too. We have so much in common; we’re the exact same age. To think about Operation Ivy and their lyrics, written at the time by an 18-year-old kid, it’s unbelievable. This guy has scrapbooks full of lyrics that have never been used. I wish he could give those to me and I could say they’re mine, (laughs). That’s definitely the one,” he said.
Three years ago, Park celebrated Asian Man’s 12th anniversary with a show headlined by The Lawrence Arms. Every year since he’s continued to host an annual concert, but this year he wanted to do something special. His main goal was to get some of Asian Man’s older bands to reunite, and fortunately he succeeded in doing so. Several bands that haven’t played in years are scheduled to perform, including Slapstick, Mu330 and The Broadways. However, organizing a festival such as this has been no small feat. “It’s just a massive amount of work and the little things are piling up. I’m trying to be very organized and write everything down anytime an issue comes up,” Park said. “An example would be that Slapstick is coming in the Sunday before everything starts and they’re practicing here for two days instead of in Chicago. I have to plan on getting the practice studio for them, getting a vehicle for them and that’s just one band out of 40.” On a lighter note, Park is very much looking forward to seeing old friends, as well as meeting new ones at the festival. “Seeing a lot of people I haven’t seen in a long time, especially that first day with Slapstick and Mu330. We’re all friends and I haven’t seen a lot of those guys in years. I haven’t seen Peter Anna from Slapstick in many years and I haven’t seen Chris from Mu330 in at least eight years. Surprisingly with Slapstick, I still talk to almost all the members regularly, which is crazy to me. Even though we talk, I probably haven’t seen Matt Stamps from Slapstick in almost five years. Seeing everyone is going to be exciting and so is meeting some of the newer bands on Asian Man for the first time. I’ve never met The Wild or Spraynard, so I’m looking forward to actually getting a chance to hang out,” he said.
More than anything, Park is thankful for the 15 years that Asian Man has been in business. He doesn’t view his label as work, rather he considers it something to cherish and feels lucky to be able to do it. “I’ll probably do it forever, as long as I can make a living at it. Even when I can’t make a living at it I’d still like to do it for fun, because I think that’s the true test of whether you’re doing it for love or not. I know for certain I’d still do it, even if I had to get a second job,” he said. Looking ahead, Park is most enthusiastic about his continued involvement in music. “I’m excited about being able to still be active in punk rock,” he said. “The idea that I’ve been able to be a part of this community and work with new bands is exciting. That’s what I’m most excited for in the future is to still be able to meet common-minded folks, especially younger folks. I think a big thing to me has always been to work with youth through music, even through the Plea for Peace Foundation. It’s always gone hand-in-hand with the label, using music as a teaching tool. I’m excited to just continue doing that and using music as a positive force in everyday life.”