Below is a conversation with musician and Asian Man Records founder Mike Park, a truly crucial figure in DIY punk. Whether you're familiar with the 350+ punk/ska/emo/indie records released by his label or not, Mike's focus and ethics are admirable. In the past, I've talked a lot about finding your own definition of success, and I think Asian Man Records is a prime example of setting your own boundaries in a way that provides you longevity and a sense of self that many of us only dream about.
Since the '90s, Mike has started the popular ska band Skankin' Pickle, founded the Plea for Peace Foundation, toured and written music with countless other acts including his most recent band Ogikubo Station, in addition to supporting independent bands through Asian Man Records. That might sound like a lot, but Mike is adamant about maintaining the label's "level of smallness". He focuses on new bands and supporting the punk and ska scene without lengthy contracts or promises of a PR hype machine. The limits of the label are well defined and intentional - important factors in any creative pursuit.
I appreciate the level of smallness and unwillingness to bend to the whims of the larger music industry or other people's expectations. There's no one way to be in a band, put out records, run a label, etc. and it's always good to remember that when it comes to these sorts of things, you don't have to do anything.
But whether or not you sign a contract or hire a publicist doesn't make you more or less ethical or honest or in it for the right reasons. Some things that might seem "not very DIY" can be the thing that levels the playing field or provide access for underrepresented voices. Just because you don't have to do something doesn't always mean you shouldn't.
The point of all this is to figure out what feels right for you and carving a path that can provide for you emotionally in the long term. It rules that Asian Man Records has done just that and helped to start a path for bands like Alkaline Trio, Joyce Manor, Lemuria, Shinobu, Laura Stevenson, Smoking Popes, Bomb The Music Industry, and a whole lot more. With a list like that, you know you're doing something right!
Two months ago, Asian Man Records turned 25. The community surrounding the label is an extensive one, and Mike celebrated with the following tweet:
Without further ado, let's get into it! The following interview has been edited for length.
Lauren: Since you just had the 25th Anniversary of Asian Man Records, at this point, would you like to be doing things differently? Have you learned things that you would’ve made you structure things differently over the past 25 years?
Mike: Not really, to be honest. I feel like it’s been a pretty good path. There are a few bands I feel like I missed out on that I could’ve worked with, but that’s fine [laughs] because there’s some bands that I did work with that I probably shouldn’t have worked with. So it all evens out.
I like where we are now. I’ve liked the journey from the beginning till present day. I like just kinda doing my own thing and not really caring. As long as the bands are cool with what I do. I just want to make sure that they understand my limitations. I do make that clear. It’s not a question of “as long as I”. I definitely make it clear that this is what I do. So that’s key to being able to maintain the level of smallness. Does that make sense? The level of smallness?
Yeah, well I think that is what really interests me too because I end up having a lot of conversations with people about sustainability; how there’s a difference between being in music to “make a lot of money” and just wanting to make it sustainable. Have you butted heads with folks about that at all?
I have very little, once in a blue moon, I’ll have “maybe I should have” or “I could do it this way” but it’s really rare and it’s really kind of – maybe it’s jealousy if I see someone else succeeding in a way that garners more commercial viability for their artists, and I feel like “oh, this band A or band B is just as good. I should be doing more for them.” But then I quickly learn that’s a lot of work I don’t want to do! [laughs] That’s pretty much it. It’s very rare. The music industry is a funky game and it’s a lot of stuff I’m not into. I like just being able to do what I want at my pace and I’m pretty happy with it.
That’s so commendable because I think so many artists struggle with that. Especially after this past year, have there been any changes with the bands and what their pace is? Or how they want to do things?
I think there’s still so many unknowns. But across the board, I don’t know that I should be speaking for every band, but I think everyone is just dying to do something live. Everyone except me! I’m the only one who doesn’t want to play live at all.
Was that the way you felt before the pandemic?
Yes. Since the ‘90s! Honestly. I was burnt out since the ‘90s and I’ve never been able to recover. My true joy was ’89 to ’91 then it just started going downhill. A lot of social anxieties with performing. Stress. Stress about everything. Trivial stuff. I’m very good at stressing about trivial stuff. The most trivial stuff you can imagine. But I’m very good at it.
Is that how maybe it’s easier to both write music and run a label if you’re not also trying to tour all the time?
I guess so but I’ve always been prolific as a songwriter even when I was touring heavily. To the point where I just had an overflow of songs. Even back in the early ‘90s. That’s never been a problem, but the touring thing has been – don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great experiences in the last 27 years since I’ve been burnt out – it’s so up and down and so inconsistent. So I know, for my mental health at least, that part is over. Unless it’s on a plush tour bus. Unless I’m touring with Yo Gabba Gabba Children’s Tour, then I’ll do something. If it’s super plush. But I can’t do any more punk rock tours.
Is there a form you’d want your music or label activities to take that they haven’t yet?
Not really. That’s the beauty of having my own label. I can do whatever I want. So a recording project or whatever side project or whoever I want to ask to do something, there’s nobody to ask except myself and that’s the beauty of it. There’s no rules. And there’s no deadlines, just whatever I put on myself.
You've talked about other labels like Dischord and Epitaph and folks who are putting out their own music, and taking that creative control. Those choices are now up to you. Obviously, a lot has changed about the music industry between when you started the label and now. Do you feel like bands have a different opportunity to take those choices into their own hands without starting a label?
Yes. Of course. Even to this day, I’ve told so many bands this past year “why do you even need a label?” It’s not the smartest thing to say as a label owner, but why? The only thing I see with a label is community. You become part of a community. If they’re a community-based label. You know like a bigger label like Epitaph, nothing negative about them, it’s such a larger scale that it’s not a community. Or maybe that’s not fair for me to say, I don’t know if that’s a fair example.
I can totally see what you’re getting at. If it’s a community, it’s just much different than a label with a smaller number of active bands.
So yeah, I don’t see the positives of being on a label other than being a part of something. I think it’s hard for bands to get out of their shell of that’s the only way to succeed is to be on a label. If you’re caught in that mentality, most likely you’re never gonna go anywhere. You’re 18 years old, next thing you’re gonna be 36, still loving music and trying to get a label. But you just have to do it. You can do it on your own, especially with digital distribution. Just do it. I feel like if you put out something good, people are gonna hear it. The word will get out. Not in every case but in most cases if you put out something good, and you’re a good live band, it’s going to spread.
What kind of conversations do you have now with bands you’re thinking about working with?
Well, I haven’t added any new bands in the last year. The only band I added was a band from San Jose who were all siblings who were living together with their parents during the pandemic. I had known them from another band. So it was just like, let’s do this. I helped them produce it. And I was like oh, I really like this! So I helped put it out. But with newer bands, I haven’t talked to anybody. I’ve been sending a lot of No Thank You emails. I try to write back to all the bands. That’s pretty much it.
Let’s say for example I did see a band and I was like I really like what they’re doing. I only want to work with bands who are new bands. I don’t want to put out a band that was successful 20 years ago, you know what I mean? I don’t want to be a rehash label. I want to start from the beginning with bands. And then of course bands I’ve worked with if they want to do another record, I’ll do another record. In terms of new bands, I’d just say this is what I can do, this is what I can’t do, what do you think?
I can just imagine that especially when newer bands can have an understanding of how you get a record pressed and how you get digital distribution and a lot of the kind of basics of potentially putting out their own record. Have you seen more pushback from bands about what they expect?
No, because I think I’m a rare case where I’m so different than most “indie” labels. Nothing that I do makes sense. When people ask to do internships here, I don’t know what to tell them because I don’t do anything! I don’t know what to teach them. I’m so bad, I don’t even keep up with a press list. It’s usually when they email me and they say hey, we want to write about you.
I like talking with people about process and about how you arrange your life to do what you do, and it seems like you have it down.
I got lucky. I feel like you have a better chance of winning the lottery than doing what I’m doing because it makes no sense. And to be honest, I’d do better if I stopped putting out new records. If I just sold the back catalog, it would be great. I wouldn’t have any overhead, you’d know exactly what you’re getting into with represses of successful records. But it’s no fun!
I feel like there’s a lot of talk about another wave of ska happening or a wider popularity coming back. Are you actually experiencing that right now or is the existing scene just being noticed more?
A little bit of both. It’s definitely getting mainstream coverage. I guess that’s kind of cool because they keep interviewing me for all these articles! I’m pretty sure if I released all the ska back catalog on vinyl it would sell but it’s just so much stuff. I only have so much time in the day and vinyl takes five months to press these days. But I’m getting there. I’m slowly repressing a bunch of the old stuff. So yeah, ska is happening.
I’m just going to straight-up say that it’s due to Jeremy Hunter from Skatune Network. Singlehandedly they’ve reinvigorated the genre and made it, what’s the word I’m looking for, relevant? At least someone who’s not afraid to just talk back to people. Anyone who says something bad about ska, Jeremy is there to just go you’re an idiot. You don’t know anything about this genre. I kind of like it! I’m so unconfrontational. That’s been part of my longevity, I try to not wrinkle any feathers. I have my views but I’m not ready to get into debates with people, especially online, but I like reading it.
I really appreciate how they've fought for it.
A warrior! There’s a lot of neat bands doing cool stuff. And bands that have something to say. A lot of people of the new generation are trying to get out of that party mentality like ska being equated to frat-boy party good time music. I feel like it was so bastardized by the mainstream. Any time something is popularized by the mainstream it gets destroyed to some degree and that’s what happened with ska.
I’ve just been really excited to see the new bands. And like you’re saying, kids with something to say. Going back to a lot of the political content that has historically been a part of the genre. Are you finding that it's being received better in the past couple of years?
Yes, because there’s new blood into the genre. Some of the old hats are closed-minded. That’s to be expected with anything in life. You have your ways and that’s the only way. I know a lot of old-school skinheads who will just not accept ska-punk and that’s fine. They just want the original sound. That’s my favorite genre of this music too but I’m open-minded to progress so you just can’t have the Skatalites and only the Skatalites.
After the big anniversary, is there anything big on the horizon to celebrate?
A few years back I was gonna go for the cruise ship. You know how bands will do the cruise ship? I was gonna go for the Asian Man 25 Cruise. After looking into it, oh my god it’s a lot of work. I’d have to hire someone if I was gonna do it. I always try to do these on my own and it’s gonna be too much. I’d lose my mind. I’d have to get an investor. I don’t know if I could even break even because the costs are insane. I just thought it would be fun!
In terms of your approach to the label or the scale at which you feel most comfortable, would you have any advice for someone trying to figure out what their comfort level is in music?
Especially with the label, I think a lot of kids – or not just kids, adults too – want a label because they love music so much and their heart is always there at the beginning. The problem is if you have expectations of it being other than a hobby, it’s not going to happen. If you’re trying to make a living solely off of your label, it’s not gonna happen. That’s why all these labels, successful indie labels, are getting called out because they’re not paying their bands! They’re paying themselves and paying for their families and you can’t do that. That’s how you fail. So if you’re gonna do it just have fun. And that goes for music too. You can’t control the level of success and I know everyone wants to do well. I want to do well too but I know the reality of how things work and my limitations so you just gotta have fun with what you do and if that’s not good enough, it’s never gonna be good enough.
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