The Little Indie Label That Could: Jade Tree Marks 100th Release with Package from Seminal Punk Band

In Times Square, the record companies are in giant buildings with revolving doors, huge reception desks and meticulous lobbies. In Delaware, they’re in an unmarked windowless warehouse off Maryland Avenue near Newport.

Jade Tree is, anyway, and that’s where co-owner Darren Walters spends his days, sifting through the hundreds of demos that pour in weekly to his parents’ house in North Wilmington, where the label maintains its mailing address.

Despite the humble digs, Walters and his four-person staff are looking forward to the label’s 100th release—Lifetime’s Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey—coming out on March 21.

Lifetime was the New Jersey hardcore band whose albums Hello Bastards in 1995 and Jersey’s Best Dancers in 1997 positioned Jade Tree as a punk tastemaker and an indie powerhouse.

The success of those records—Hello Bastards sold about 20,000 copies the year it came out—was like nothing the label had seen before.

“It was unprecedented,” says Walters, who started Jade Tree
with partner Tim Owens in 1990. “The average sales for us at that
time were around 2,000 to 3,000 copies [per release].”

In the wake of Lifetime, Jade Tree hosted a landslide of likeminded
punk and emo acts that included The Promise Ring, Kid
Dynamite and Jets To Brazil.

“Lifetime and The Promise Ring were
the two bands that helped establish Jade
Tree,” Walters says. “Up until Hello Bastards,
all the releases were one-offs. Having
a band like Lifetime get really big drew attention
to all the other bands on the label.”

In the late ?°»90s and early 2000s Jade
Tree broke tradition and embraced the melodic
indie rock of Pedro The Lion and the
electronic experimentation of Joan Of Arc
and Statistics. They caught bands on the way
up—releasing a split single by My Morning
Jacket and Songs: Ohia in 2002—and on the
way down—signing Girls Against Boys after
their major label debut flopped in 1998.
They rejected buyout offers and made a conscious
decision to stay put.

“I remember back in college getting into
this huge argument with my dad when [indie
label] Sub Pop sold [to TimeWarner] for, I
think, $20 million,” Walters says. “But to me
it wasn’t worth it. I’m easily awed by big,
tall buildings and people paying for your
train ride to New York and a nice dinner. But
the focus is on the longevity, being a touchstone
for our bands.”

Jade Tree’s decision to remain 100 percent
independent means competition with
corporate-owned labels that favor placement
in chain stores and an internet marketplace
that has redefined what it means to be “indie.”

“I’m old enough to remember when
R.E.M. signed to a major label and how people
bitched about them selling out,” Walters
says. “But independent music as a whole is
much more of a commodity now. Unknown
bands are getting six-figure contracts.”

Fans have also changed, especially the
younger ones who don’t feel the need to
champion indie labels and the do-it-yourself
ethics that created them. But Walters is still
stung by the memories of growing up a punk
fan in Delaware.

“I remember what a musical void it
was,” he says. “I clung to anything that had a
shred of being local,” he says. “Having a label
here, I would hope that it would comfort
someone who feels like an isolated music
fan.”

—Lifetime’s Somewhere in the Swamps of Jersey
includes two versions of the band’s 1993
Debut, Background, as well as singles, compilation
appearances, covers, demos and live
tracks. Go to www.jadetree.com for more.

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