Culture Music

How NJ surf label Hi-Tide Recordings cultivates its unique sound and aesthetic

See for yourself Aug. 19-21 during Hi-Tide Summer Holiday in Asbury Park, a weekend music festival featuring surf and other eclectic artists, plus vendors, food, drinks and more.

This weekend, thousands of people will descend upon Asbury Park for the beachy sounds of the Hi-Tide Summer Holiday music festival. Surf, calypso and other eclectic artists like Los Straitjackets, Southern Culture on the Skids, Messer Chups, Charlie Halloran and the Tropicales, and more will play Aug. 19-21 at The Asbury and Asbury Lanes, to go along with vendors, tropical cocktails, record hops and more.

It’ll be a scene, but it’s also a showcase of Hi-Tide Recordings artists, the label and less-heralded genres of music. Husband-and-wife co-founders Vincent Minervino and Magdalena O’Connell launched Hi-Tide a little less than a decade ago, specializing in “surf, lounge and exotic sounds.”

Minervino says the inspiration to launch Hi-Tide came after moving from Rochester to New Jersey in 2007. Now, Rochester and the Shore don’t have the same vibes (to put it delicately), and Minervino was taken by his new, sandy digs—”Living by the beach was super-inspiring for me,” he says.

He wanted to “immerse [him]self in the local music scene,” and so started a band called The Brigantines, which Minervino says was like, “The Beach Boys meet The Smiths.”

The Brigantines opened for acts like Southside Johnny and Dick Dale. O’Connell, who grew up in South Orange, was at one of those shows, and running in similar circles, she and Minervino got together and eventually married in 2014. They had hoped to honeymoon in Italy and attend the popular Surfer Joe Summer Festival in Livorno. But they were short on funds after paying for their wedding, so they texted some local connections in Asbury Park, and asked if they could put on their own festival. Asbury Lanes said yes, and so came to be the first Asbury Park Surf Music Festival. Eight years, some venue changes and a pandemic later, the festival endures as Hi-Tide Summer Holiday.

Minervino and O’Connell had dug into the surf rock world, both because they liked the sound—Minervino started another group, The Black Flamingos, in which he plays drums—but also because they noticed a need to support and promote the international array of surf bands. 

“The surf thing happened to be the world we could create in. We sort of recognized the opportunity and stepped in there and carve out this little scene,” Minervino says.

Over time, Minervino and O’Connell got to know surf band The Surfrajettes, from Toronto, and realized that they had challenges releasing physical music in the U.S. Looking outward, to all hemispheres of the globe, they realized other bands in oft-overlooked genres had difficulty bringing their music to market. There were also not only challenges with physical music like vinyl pressings and CDs, but with marketing, booking and more.

So Minervino and O’Connell launched Hi-Tide Recordings in 2016, based out of Freehold, to serve this group of artists. Today, they have 38 bands on the label, and Minervino says about half are international. And, they’re always on the lookout for other hardworking bands in their milieu. 

“We have this huge network of people who are like-minded and do what we do. We just constantly scour social media and we get a lot of stuff sent to us. For example, if The Surfrajettes play a show, chances are a local promoter knows the best band to put on a bill. We’ll check ’em out to go see how they sound. We’re active in growing this little, small world.”

Part of the appeal of surf rock is the aesthetic. The Surfrajettes, for instance, play shows in beehive haircuts and vintage go-go outfits. Hi-Tide doubles down on the aesthetic appeal of its bands, hiring any of a dozen graphic designers to work up album covers, merch and promotional material. 

“We very early on dedicated to not cutting corners on graphic design. We sort of realized anyone can put out music, but it has to look great. So very early on, we would spend more than we could afford on graphic design products. For example, early on, Black Flamingos would play a show on the boardwalk; the pay would be 300 bucks. And, in theory, everyone would get $100, but I’d spend my $100 on a poster for it. That was one thing we’d committed to early on … and we’ve never strayed from that.”

That aesthetic will be obvious at Hi-Tide Summer Holiday, but also in the forthcoming retail location Minervino and O’Connell are planning to open in Freehold. In it, there’ll be Hi-Tide records for sale and various other on-brand retail items.  And music, of course.

Minervino says Freehold, which is home to a diverse, creative community but could use more spaces to showcase it, is an ideal fit for the retail location. There’s “a nostalgia for” what Hi-Tide will be offering in its space, Minervino says—apparently the building used to house a record shop, coincidentally enough.

But nostalgia is a fitting, although limiting, word for what Hi-Tide traffics in. Surf rock—which is rooted in the ’60s (with a Pulp Fiction-related spike in popularity in the ’90s)—and vinyl is the perfect marriage between medium and message. Though Hi-Tide artists certainly are evidence of the genre’s evolution, both the music and the form on which they’re shared evoke a unique vintage feeling. Hi-Tide is facing both the challenges and opportunities of that head on.

“There’s definitely this mentality with some people as they get old of, ‘All the good music has already been made.’ They just stop caring about new music. So that’s a challenge. Some people are like, ‘Ah, you know, the last time I listened to this was Dick Dale or that ’90s Pulp Fiction wave.’ We always get that skepticism from people … but there’s this whole aspect of our audience that is really passionate about it and wants to find new artists. We’re one of a handful of labels bringing bands to market in this world. Modestly, we’ve risen to the forefront in this world.” 

Hi-Tide is indeed blending old with new, and rising to the top in doing so. They distribute with Virgin Music, and if you go to digital streaming platforms, their music is not only easily accessible but doing well in a sea of competitors. In short, Minervino and O’Connell are hustling; Minervino recently quit his full-time gig (O’Connell handled the day-to-day business for the last six years), they’re getting their music out to new crowds via the shows and events they DJ, and they’ve created an annual open-arms spectacle and platform for the music via the Asbury Park festival. They mind the details and they know what they’re about, and it’s paying dividends.

“I think what we do is very specific,” Minervino says. “Anybody that started a label that just said, ‘I’m gonna put out good music,’ it’s almost like you get swallowed up in the vast world of the music industry. But if you say, ‘I’m gonna put out music that’s very specific and high-quality and is the best of what we do,’ that’s the way we’re gonna make traction in this world. It’s very unexpected though, I’ll be honest.”

And they’ve recognized opportunities to promote more artists. Inspired by Staten Island’s Jazztronauts, but not having quite the necessary fit for Hi-Tide, Minervino and O’Connell launched Nu-Tone Recordings to bring them in and other artists don’t fall into Hi-Tide’s niche. 

Now, the appeal of vinyl—great sound quality, unique art, the joy of holding something tangible—does not come without the challenges of producing it. Minervino says the business has changed since the pandemic, with supply chain issues, but also because of the recent resurgence in vinyl sales for all artists. 

“When we first started the label, we could submit a vinyl record and get it in two months. If we can get a record made in six months now, that’s fast. Some will take a year,” Minervino says. “Some of it is just the revitalization of the format in general. Years ago, all the major labels, the Universals, the Sonys, those labels had their own pressing facilities and when vinyl started to decline and CDs took over, they closed their pressing plants. Bow that vinyl is surging … the major labels are sending their vinyls though the indie process.” 

Hi-Tide, for instance, will seek to press a couple thousand copies of an album, but if a major record label, which is pressing its entire catalog, requests 300,000 copies of one album, it jams up the system. Starting an independent vinyl pressing facility—as Jack White recently did—is cost prohibitive, so the solution, Minervino says, is to “shift our timelines. Everyone understands.”

At the risk of sounding naive, it’s a fitting attitude for the brand and its music. And, not for nothing, it’s refreshing when creatives like MInervino and O’Connell, and their artists, commit to quality in a time period when shit’s just flying out the door from millions of creators every day. And so while we wait for Hi-Tide’s next album, and the opening of their Freehold shop, let’s go get a taste of the surf and exotic sounds they produce this weekend in Asbury Park.

For more on Hi-Tide Recordings, go here. For tickets to the Hi-Tide Summer Holiday festival Aug. 19-21, go here.