Co-founders of the Tacoma-borne independent record label, Youth Riot Records, Daniel Cohn and Spencer Johndrew, met each other in the lobby of a hotel the day before their first day at the University of Puget Sound. For anyone who’s gone away to school, the first day (or even the day before the first day) can be especially nerve-wracking. Where am I? What is this? Will I make any friends? These are the questions that can rattle aimlessly in the mind. Unless, of course, you find someone to cling onto. Thankfully for Cohn and Johndrew, they found each other and, since then, the seeds of their friendship have gone on to sprout one of the most important indie music labels in the region.

“It was meant to be,” says Cohn. “Right then and there, it was just like, ‘You’re cool!’ Already we knew each other going into the first day of school.”

“You got to find a friend off the bat,” says Johndrew. “That was nine years ago.”

Together, in 2014, Cohn and Johndrew started Youth Riot Records. The foundation for the label came together from several avenues. The two friends love music and both grew up with it, influenced largely by family and friends. Cohn, since staring at his giant family’s closets full of records and CDs as a kid, has been obsessed with collection. Johndrew is more instrument-centric. He plays in five bands (Cohn plays in one), and he’s responsible for much of the tracking, mixing and mastering the label does. Cohn, who has worked for labels and distribution companies, does much of the administration. Though both say, there are no official titles.

Youth Riot Records
A show Cohn and Johndrew played at a house in Wallingford called the “Tacoma Dome” in September 2017. Photo credit: Jason Johnson

To begin Youth Riot Records, Cohn and Johndrew started a band and recorded a 7” single, which they pressed to vinyl and sold. With that in hand, they began to approach other regional bands to offer them the same deal. Cohn and Johndrew, as Youth Riot Records, would front the cost for pressing and other responsibilities and then they and the bands would split what came back 50/50. While Youth Riot Records is still a modest operation, the outfit has worked with several significant bands from the Northwest, including Mommy Long Legs, Dark Smith, Versing and, most recently, internet darling fuzzy rock band, Enumclaw.

“Something I think we realized recently, is that we don’t really sign the artist as much as we sign the release,” Cohn says. “Anyone who has ever put out a second release with Youth Riot Records, it’s just because they like that it went well and wanted to come back. We try to be as accommodating as possible.”

A lot happens in the Northwest music scene by word of mouth. One of the most significant aspects of the community here is that most are willing to collaborate with just about anyone. It’s a do-it-yourself, experimentation-friendly haven for creativity. As a result, many of the relationships Cohn and Johndrew formed with the bands they’ve worked with came from parties, day jobs and friend recommendations. They linked with Dark Smith after a chance meeting in a grocery store, they met Enumclaw after a conversation about inexpensive recording options, and they simply reached out to Mommy Long Legs over Facebook.

“They loved how authentic and how no-pressure we were,” Cohn says. “And with Versing, we went to school with those dudes.” 

Youth Riot Records
Cohn and Johndrew playing at Werewolf Vacation in February 2018. Photo credit: Tony Calabrese

Sometimes, Youth Riot Records will press 20-25 cassettes or CDs for a new release, or sometimes it will be ten times that and extend the effort to the more pricey and time-consuming vinyl albums. But in each label-band relationship, Cohn and Johndrew don’t force a superimposed template.

“We take it on a case-by-case basis,” Johndrew says. “Realistically, we leave it up to the bands. What kind of stuff – CDs, tapes, vinyl – and how many they feel comfortable making?”

When it comes to scale, Cohn and Johndrew have dreams of growing their operation bigger, even to possibly include a multi-purpose brick and mortar shop. While both still work day jobs, they’d love to have Youth Riot Records pay their bills eventually so they can devote more time to their burgeoning business. Today, they boast about 20 artists and bands on the label, with another dozen or so who have worked with Youth Riot in the past.

“We have dreams of one day opening a storefront,” Johndrew says. “Where we can make a multi-purpose space, sell records and support the local scene.”

Youth Riot Records
Founders Cohn and Johndrew on the BART in SF in September 2017. Photo credit: Jason Johnson

While Youth Riot assuredly has room to grow, expand and spread its wings, there is great promise. Their roster is strong, diverse and growing. Their ambition is sturdy yet flexible. The co-founders continue to learn and strengthen their savvy. Research is key, both into new technology, technique and business habits, as well as the history of the region, its tastes and evolutions from punk to hip-hop to folk and rock. At the end of the day, Cohn and Johndrew are students of the Northwest as much as they are suppliers of its newest songs.

“From the cover to the expression through song,” Cohn says, “I’ve always loved listening to music.”

“Not to be cheesy,” says Johndrew, “but music is my passion. It’s the thing I wake up and start thinking about. The thing I go to bed still thinking about, listening to music while I fall asleep.”