What Happened to One of Indie Rock’s Most Promising Record Labels?
As SideOneDummy Records restructures its business with layoffs, what does the future hold for the long-running label?
Photos by Erica Lauren
In the temperamental world of independent music, SideOneDummy Records seemed to be a bastion of hope. Toward the end of 2017, the Los Angeles-based indie record label announced the signing of two promising new artists, Kississippi and Mom Jeans. The company had recently relocated its offices from Hollywood Heights to Glendale, in a building that also housed their newly opened pop-up shop which served as both a retail space and a performance area for artists. The label, then in its 22nd year of operation, had built a back catalog of early records by bands like The Gaslight Anthem, Flogging Molly, and Gogol Bordello, as well as an impressive active roster of breakout acts like PUP, Worriers, and Rozwell Kid. The label was even in talks with punk veterans Against Me! about releasing their next album. And, perhaps most notably, the SideOneDummy staff had successfully crafted an identity for the label and built a loyal community of dedicated fans.
Then, on January 3, SideOneDummy’s founders, Bill Armstrong and Joe Sib, laid off the label’s entire staff save for one employee, General Manager Thomas Dreux. Director of Marketing Jamie Coletta, Production and Digital Director Christina Johns, and Marketing Manager Kevin Modry were all let go. Speaking by phone, Armstrong describes the move as an unfortunate but necessary restructuring of the company, which will remain operational but in a different way.
“It’s a restructuring, and maybe even an evolution,” says Armstrong. “We’re gonna focus on the things we have going. We still have active projects.” Armstrong remains on good terms with his former employees—he helped Johns land a new job at Hopeless Records and continues to employ Coletta on a freelance basis for a few remaining projects—but the move came as a surprise to the staff, who received three months’ severance pay. “It’s a confluence of things. There was no real event that kicked it over the edge. It was more of a combination of overlapping situations, both personal and professional,” says Armstrong.
“Usually by August and September, we’ve mapped out some of next year,” says Coletta. “We had some stuff, but not a lot. I remember thinking, ‘Should I be looking for records to put out? Should I be hustling?’ I never got much of an answer on that.”
Many SideOneDummy artists who spoke to Noisey were reluctant to comment publicly on their situations since their futures with the label are currently being determined. Some have pre-existing contract renewal options under evaluation, others are in the process of obtaining rights to their back catalog from the label, and those with recent or future releases are working with the label on promotional strategies going forward. And since SideOneDummy has largely been home to small to mid-level acts that largely don’t employ lawyers or managers, most have been left to navigate negotiations on their own, and lack the business acumen to do so.
Mom Jeans, the Berkeley, California-based band that was recently tapped by Coletta to release their sophomore album with SideOneDummy, was a victim of unfortunate timing. The band tweeted in October that they had signed to the label and would be releasing a record with them in the fall of 2018. But an astute Redditor noticed last month that the band had been removed from the active roster on SideOneDummy’s website and others began to speculate about the band’s future.
“We were basically totally 100 percent committed to SideOneDummy and the paperwork was in the final stages of getting squared up, just sorting out all the fine print,” guitarist Eric Butler tells Noisey. “We were a week or two away from signing the contract when we heard the news.” Butler says that while Mom Jeans was excited to work with SideOneDummy, the band is glad to have found a home for their record with Counter Intuitive Records, through whom they have previously released material.
“The heart of S1D recently seemed to be employees like Jamie Coletta and Christina Johns,” Counter Intuitive owner Jake Sulzer said via email. “So knowing that they will still be actively involved in the music industry is really the only reassurance I need to still believe labels are needed and will survive.”
One sentiment that felt universal among all SideOneDummy artists interviewed was the appreciation for the personal care and attention the label’s staff, particularly Coletta and Johns, gave their work. Many cited this as the direct motivation for signing with the label.
“I came to SideOne because I really loved and trusted and admired what Jamie and Christina were doing with the label,” says Chris Farren, who released an album, Can’t Die, with SideOneDummy in 2016. Farren says Sib informed him via phone that the label would be releasing him from his contract, in which there was an option to release another album that he was in the middle of writing, but the label would continue to press and sell copies of Can’t Die as needed. Farren’s other project with Jeff Rosenstock, Antarctigo Vespucci, was also set to release an album with SideOneDummy, he says, but it will now be released by another label.
Rosenstock was one of SideOneDummy’s greatest success stories in recent years. In his short time with the label, he released 2015’s We Cool? and 2016’s WORRY., successfully establishing himself as a solo artist after ending his DIY punk outfit Bomb the Music Industry!. WORRY. landed on many critics’ Albums of the Year lists (#11 on Noisey’s) and earned him a spot on Last Call with Carson Daly. But on January 1, he released a surprise album, POST-, through Polyvinyl Records, a move he says he decided upon before learning of SideOneDummy’s restructuring.
“I attribute Jamie Coletta to a lot of our success,” says Rosenstock, who had previously been famously label-averse, and released music through his own bedroom label Quote Unquote Records. “She coaxed me out of the shell of anxiety and fear that I had been chilling out in for years and years. I really don't think anybody would be trying to talk to me about anything if Jamie hadn't worked her ass off finding people who give a shit.”
Many artists expressed concern about the label losing the identity and community it had built over the last few years, as well as the camaraderie among its bands, who frequently tour together. There’s been a noticeable change in tone on the label’s social media accounts in recent weeks. Erica Lauren, who the label employed on a freelance basis to run its Twitter and Instagram accounts, was also let go in the restructuring. The label’s Twitter account, which once held a strong voice and actively engaged with users, now mostly reposts promotional tweets about artists.
As for signing new bands, Armstrong says the label will still be keeping its eyes out, but may scale back a bit, and may reconsider how they release music going forward. (In 2017, the label released material by Iron Chic, Worriers, Rozwell Kid, Nahko, Pkew Pkew Pkew, the Smith Street Band, AJJ, and Chris Shiflett.) “We want to take a little bit of a pause and not feel committed to sign a huge volume of stuff if we don’t have to right now,” he says, “just keep our radar up for the things we feel are special.”
At the end of 2017, Sib organized a label dinner with Against Me! and had been in touch with frontwoman Laura Jane Grace about the label’s interest in signing the band as recently as December 21. “Before the holidays, I told Joe Sib that we were going to think about it over Christmas/New Years and then the next thing I heard was they’d let everyone go,” says Grace.
In over two decades of operation, SideOneDummy has amassed an impressive back catalog of albums by everyone from Title Fight to The Casualties to MxPx, and Armstrong says the label will continue to support these releases, domestically and internationally. “We still have really good relationships with people we are working with and have worked with before, we’re still active with all that,” he says.
A big asset to SideOneDummy’s catalog was the Vans Warped Tour’s compilation CD series, which the label had been releasing annually since 1998, and whose gold records hung on the walls of the SideOneDummy offices. But the CDs have seen diminishing returns over the years, as have the Warped Tour’s ticket sales, according to founder Kevin Lyman. The Warped Tour will come to an end after this summer’s run, and the compilations will cease production as well, though Armstrong says this loss did not contribute to SideOneDummy’s restructuring, noting that the label did not own digital rights to the compilations’ songs.
For now, SideOneDummy is at a turning point as its owners reassess their business plan to navigate the fickle and ever-changing music industry. But for many familiar with the label and its artists, the change in staff feels like the end of an era.
“It was fun and, really, my dream job for years,” says Johns. “It just didn’t do as well and as fast as we’d all hoped.”
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.
Listen to an interview about SideOneDummy Records on the VICE Guide to Right Now: