Volume 12, Number 2, 2003

Indie rock's hottest label

Establishing a record company" is easier than people might think," Darren Walters says, "but it's a lot more difficult than people might think, too."

Walters, AS '94, is the co-founder of Jade Tree Records, a Wilmington, Del., based independent label known for its eclectic catalog, adventurous roster and genre-hopping sound.

While the label's two best-known bands, Jets to Brazil and Pedro the Lion, play independent rock, everything from the hardcore punk of Strike Anywhere to the atmospheric drone of Denali, from electronica to Americana, has found a home on Jade Tree.

The label itself has earned rave reviews: Billboard magazine recently hailed Jade Tree for putting out "some of today's most anticipated and treasured underground records," and Entertainment Weekly has dubbed the label "one of indie rock's hottest."

"Musically," Walters says proudly, "we're all over the place."

Walters grew up in Wilmington. There was music in the family; his father played the accordion and the saxophone, and Walters briefly took up the instrument himself in the fifth grade. "I wasn't much for practicing," he recalls.

But, he did love music, getting hooked first by AM pop ("lots of Shaun Cassidy and Kiss") as a youngster and moving on to mainstream arena-rock and '80s New Wave, the latter while he was in junior high. Walters also discovered the local music scene; Philadelphia-area bands such as the Hooters were happening and he became interested "in the more independent, different types of bands." When a friend came back from military school with a stack of hot hardcore punk discs from bands like the Violent Femmes, Walters found the sound that propelled him into the music business.

If punk/hardcore can be said to have formal principles, then surely DIY (do it yourself) is first among them. Walters took DIY to heart, first by founding and performing in a punk band called Straight Away, and later by establishing his first label, Hi Impact records, in 1989. "My band had fallen apart, and it was a way I could stay involved in music," he says. "If not directly, then indirectly."

Hi Impact was a singles label, releasing only 45 rpm vinyl records. And, it was successful--one disc alone sold 7,000 copies, no small achievement for a fledgling company in the pre-Internet era. But, by the fall of 1990, Walters' interests had shifted; he'd been accepted at Delaware and had decided to major in English, with an eye toward becoming a teacher.

"I put the music on the shelf," he says.

But, not for long. Walters' friend, Tim Owen, who'd founded a record label of his own in Washington, D.C., came up with the idea of creating "a label that wouldn't be defined by anything," Walters says.

"My interest was piqued again."

So the two borrowed money from their parents and co-founded Jade Tree Records. The vision: "To put out whatever we wanted, whatever we liked," Walters says. "No rules."

It was slow going at first, one reason being that Owen was living in upstate New York.

In 1995, the label signed a crop of bands "and really started to take off," Walters says. A 1996 release by a Milwaukee-based outfit called The Promise Ring gathered a great deal of attention, and by 1997, Owen had moved back to Delaware "and we were finally in the same place."

Jade Tree has done well, commercially as well as artistically. It has sold somewhere around a million records and now has a staff of six.

"We pay for the manufacturing and production of the record, which is done off-site," Walters explains. "The bands get to choose the studio where they want to record. We do the cover art, the promotion to radio, magazines and the Internet and handle the mail order (business).

"It isn't that difficult to start a business," he continues. "It's maintaining and growing a business that's difficult."

It's also important not to repeat mistakes. Jade Tree spent more to produce a couple of its early releases than it could sell them for, he says.

The co-founders "are very hands-on," Walters says, "especially regarding what bands to sign."

"A lot of it is intuitive," he explains. "As long as Tim and I like it, we put it out."

Although Internet file-sharing has cut into CD sales nationally, "we've bucked the trend," Walters says.

Perhaps the Wilmington location has something to do with the refreshingly against-the-grain nature of Jade Tree, which recently released a compilation cheekily titled "Location is Everything, Vol. 1." The CD features a stylized map of Northern Delaware on the cover.

Walters notes that while Wilmington isn't New York or Los Angeles, it is smack in the middle of the East Coast megalopolis. Cities from Richmond, Va., to Boston are less than a day's drive away, enabling Jade Tree to keep tabs on who and what's happening in a variety of local music scenes.

"I always hoped I could create something locally," Walters says. "Now I'm seeing that young people are starting to notice that we're here."

--Kevin Riordan