Opportunity isn’t a matter of chance. It’s a matter of choice. The fates inevitably throw us all a changeup or two. And then it’s decision time. Hesitantly watch the cowhide globe flutter by? Or swing for the fences?
There are few that are as practiced at recognizing a lucky bounce – or at least believing that every challenge is a lucky bounce – than noted curveball hitter Louis Posen, founder of Hopeless Records.
The Hopeless story is anything but, founded 20 years ago by Posen – diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at age 19 and legally blind now at age 42 – on nothing more than a dare, a thousand dollars and a book titled “How To Run An Independent Record Label .” Posen’s ironic tale is that of a man seeing more clearly as his vision slowly declines. The rest, as they say, is history.
And that storied history includes the explosive arrival of powerhouse bands Thrice, Avenged Sevenfold and The Weakerthans while on the Hopeless roster. Not only has the label released exceptional albums from established acts like Yellowcard, The Used, and All Time Low, they’ve been instrumental in developing the careers of up-and-comers like The Wonder Years, Air Dubai and Neck Deep.
Under the Sub City banner, Hopeless has raised more than two million dollars for over 50 non-profit organizations. Since its inception in 1999, Sub City has worked with non-profit organizations to raise funds with charitable albums, tours and events, including the Take Action Tour!, now in its 12th year.
Every year, the tour brings passionate young bands together – like 2014 headliners The Devil Wears Prada with The Ghost Inside, I Killed the Prom Queen and Dangerkids – to not only spread good music, but spread awareness for a host of different causes.
This year’s tour will help benefit the Living The Dream Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides hope and inspiration to children and young adults afflicted with life threatening diseases. Ten percent of the cost of each ticket sold will be donated to the Foundation and Sub City to help further this cause.
The insightful Posen chatted with me recently about the remarkable work he’s done at Hopeless as well as this year’s Take Action Tour. When asked whether it was more difficult to start the ambitious tour 12 years ago or come up with something new every year, Posen was quick to respond.
“Ah yes, both (laughing). Both have their challenges and are a bit different. Both have their rewards as well. If I had to pick between the two, I would pick the challenge of keeping things fresh and exciting. Most anything in life is a very difficult thing to do.”
Difficult that is for everyone but the master curveball hitter. Although Posen seems to be a “natural” if ever there was one, he credits others for the hopefulness. “First and foremost, people who have been in my life have showed me a positive optimistic, healthy path. Some of which are very close like my mom and some of which are long gone like Benjamin Franklin or John Wooden.”
“Those types of people that I try to surround myself with or read about are very helpful in getting out of the trenches and seeing the big picture. Plus, there’s certain logic to it, that what is the alternative? If you don’t take the positive side and try to make the best of the situation, the alternative is just misery.”
“Some people aren’t practical. They’re more emotional, which I understand. But even if you’re more emotional you still have to decide what the best thing is for you. Do you want to choose to be happy or choose to be sad? That’s what I tell my six year old all the time. It’s your choice. The other thing I love telling is the challenge is a 'dragon with a gift in its mouth.' You tame the dragon, you get the gift.”
In spite of the professed challenges, the masterful Posen makes it all look easy, due in part to a “mysterious routine.” “A nice glass of Cabernet always helps (chuckling),” he confessed. “No, seriously, in my 20 years of doing Hopeless and more than 10 years of doing Sub City, the process is always changing. I'm always learning something. Our team is always learning and discussing how we could be doing things better or how we can make more of an impact.”
“We use a philosophy that’s similar to what some of the tech companies have recently come out with. There’s a book written about it called ‘The Lean Startup.’ The idea is, instead of waiting until you have every single dot in place and the whole thing planned out in a conference room before you launch it, start something, set up the infrastructure so that you an measure how it’s going and then within that infrastructure how you can make changes to improve it.”
“That way you’re always building something based on how people are really reacting to it rather than trying to anticipate everything before you really know how they’re gonna interact with it. That’s the basic structure of the philosophy. But how to come up with good ideas, I don’t have a magic eight ball. I'm just a guy who takes out the trash like everybody else.”
The “trashman’s” philosophy has been an obvious winner for Hopeless and Sub City. And with the impassioned Posen solidly behind both projects, the label’s artists have been eager to jump on board.
“Absolutely. There was an education process in the early days and I'm sure a certain level of skepticism. When someone says, ‘Hey, we’re gonna take our resources and do something positive with it and raise money and awareness for important causes,’ I can see how people would be like, ‘Oh, sounds great. Let’s see you actually do it.’”
“So after a certain amount of years and actually raising those funds and awareness, and seeing now that we’re over two million dollars raised for over 50 nonprofits and running the tour every year, it has become easier that artists in our music community are educated about it. So we don’t have to spend time in the educational process.”
“We used to really have a hard time finding the bands who wanted to connect their talent to something positive. But now we don’t ever send a solicitation out for the tour. We wait for artists that come to us that want to do it.”
“We used to have a set time in which we did the Take Action. Every year was in the fall and we did that for seven plus years. Now we’ll do more than two Take Action Tours if bands come to us and we have the time to be able to operate it. In fact, this year we might do two Take Action Tours because another band had come to us who are interested in the fall.”
It’s taken more than just Posen’s zeal to grow Hopeless and Sub City over the past 20 years; it’s taken the awareness of changes in the industry and the willingness to adapt to them. “In some ways things are very much the same as they were at the beginning,” declared Posen.
“The core of what we do and what music is all about hasn’t really changed. The connection between bands and fans, that music is an emotional part of people’s identity, a part of their lives that’s different than say another product that they might purchase, that hasn’t changed.”
“The part that has changed is how you make money with that relationship. The people who are continuing to do it are the ones who have figured out where money is exchanging hands between fans and artists. The bigger challenge is once you’ve created an infrastructure under one concept of where that money is exchanging, it’s hard to pivot and change as that interaction changes.”
“The companies who have had the hardest time are the ones who have gotten so large that to move to those new interactions is just too cumbersome, too expensive. It would be like taking an aircraft carrier and trying to move it quickly over to a new area. We’ve been very fortunate. We’re nimble. We’re a small company. We’re like a rowboat, ‘Oh, that’s where fans are interested now. We’ll move over there.’”
Rowboat or not, Hopeless’ longevity and success is remarkable given that Posen started it as a hobby. “I was lucky enough to be doing it at a time that I didn’t overthink it. I just did it and there was no business plan. I started with a thousand dollars from my brother and his friend, and a band who I did a music video for that wanted a seven-inch out.”
“At the time I was still pursuing directing, so music was a passion of mine. But the business part was definitely more of a hobby. I had never thought of starting a record label or being in the music business. And it wasn’t ‘til releasing three things as a so-called hobby that I realized that I really love this and it has the same goal I had with directing, which was delivering a message to make a difference.”
Not surprisingly, Posen doesn’t consider the label’s success as his greatest triumph. “Definitely my greatest success is the birth of our daughter who’s amazing,” he offered. “Success is one of those terms that everyone defines differently.”
“I tell young people when I talk to them that a really important thing to do is to find success for you. Otherwise, you’re always chasing somebody else’s version of success. For me, it’s in a John Wooden vein of success. It’s peace of mind and knowing you tried your best to be your best. That happens throughout days and not reaching doing my best happens throughout days also.”
“There’s clearly milestones that one would look at, you know, records going gold or reaching two million dollars donated to nonprofits with Sub City. These are the obvious milestones. But I get just as much reward out of a staff member saying, ‘I love working here. I've been working here 15 years.’”
“Our general manager Al (Person) has been here 15 years. That’s very rewarding to know that we have an environment that people love being in and what we do enables them to live out their dream and be able to pay their bills and do something that they really love.”
Uncomplicated rewards aside, even Posen admits to disappointments. “I have disappointments on a daily basis. But I probably don’t look at things as disappointments. I look at them as opportunities to learn.”
“Some of the things I've made the biggest mistakes on are the things I've learned the most from, so I don’t know that they were that bad. We’ve started things that have completely failed. We launched the first MP3 sites specific to punk and hard core emo called DownloadPunk.com. That’s long gone. It sounded like it was gonna be great and a lot of money. A lot of work went into it and it didn’t work, but a lot of lessons learned from it.”
“Anytime that I've been disrespectful to somebody or put my ego or pride ahead of communicating about what the facts are or what we’re trying to accomplish together, I feel bad about. I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings, especially if it’s avoidable because I'm doing it for the wrong reasons.”
“Those are probably the biggest failures. Or ones in which I say or do something that is for my own need and isn’t really taking the other person or the totality of what we’re trying to accomplish together in consideration.”
Considering what the down-to-earth Posen has accomplished with Hopeless and Sub City in the past 20 years, it’s mind boggling to consider what he can do in the next two decades. “Well, I'm always re-evaluating where the business is at and where my life is at. So hopefully I won't go too far down a path where there isn’t passion to find out I've reached an unhealthy or bad place.”
“The business is constantly changing and I'm usually changing it or leading the change on things that I care about that I think are great for the business, great for the people involved in it, the artists and the staff and the partners.”
“I haven’t gotten bored yet and I'm always adding things in my life where the business doesn’t bring that fulfillment. I don’t feel like Hopeless has to bring every need to my life. I take several classes a year in different areas.”
“One thing I've been very passionate about over the last few years is conflict resolution and mediation. I've been mediating disputes, mainly entertainment disputes because of my experience. I do about one a quarter. I'm also a founding member of Mediators Beyond Borders to teach people around the world about these skills as an alternative to violence.”
“There’s things like that that I do that allow me to continue broadening my personal life and journey. And having the passion for music and for Hopeless and Sub City brings a whole other level of interest into it because there’s so many different causes that we get to participate in and raise awareness and money for them.”
After chatting with Louis Posen for only a few minutes, it’s hard to say what the pragmatic optimist will be doing for the next 20 years. But whatever it is, it will be a home run.
For more information on the Living The Dream Foundation & Take Action please visit www.livingthedreamfoundation.org and www.takeactiontour.com. Here are the remaining tour dates for the 2014 Sub City Take Action Tour.
March 24 Raleigh, N.C. Lincoln Theatre
March 25 Baltimore, Md. Baltimore Soundstage
March 27 Lancaster, Pa. Chameleon Club
March 28 Hartford, Conn. Webster Theater
March 29 Providence, R.I. Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel
March 30 Albany, N.Y. Upstate Concert Hall
April 1 Buffalo, N.Y. Town Ballroom
April 2 Columbus, Ohio Newport Music Hall