To tell the story of Hopeless Records is to tell a story of positivity, resilience, hard work, motivation and versatility.
As characteristics, these words have become watered down in society’s vernacular. Every young, do-it-yourself garage band is considered hard-working. Every upstart record label has motivation. Positivity is a trait deeply ingrained in the DNA of the punk and hardcore subcultures.
It’s unfortunate that such words have lost some value by being overused, because there aren’t many better ways to describe Hopeless Records. The first 20 years of Hopeless have been years of constant growth: In those two decades, it has been transformed from small beginnings as the punk-centric hobby of founder Louis Posen into one of the largest independent record labels in the world according to market share, while releasing music spread across a valley of genres. It has developed a charity subsidiary called Sub City, which has raised over $2 million for over 50 different causes since 1999. Hopeless is much more than one man’s hobby now – it’s become one of the most recognizable and important names in independent music.
“We're always trying to learn and grow,” Posen says. “As a company we ask,
‘How can we do it better?’
Whether it’s reaching fans, helping our artists grow or connecting to the community, we constantly want to make sure we’re doing our best.”
But Hopeless was not started with such lofty goals. It didn’t receive startup funding from a venture capitalist. It was not the offspring of a major record corporation. In fact, its foundation was sparked by nothing more than a dare: When Posen was directing a video for now-legendary punk-rockers Guttermouth, the band asked him to put out their 7-inch despite his limited knowledge of the music industry. Posen had $1,000 to his name and a book titled How To Run An Independent Record Label. He asked friends like Fat Mike for tips on how to run a label, read magazines and paid attention to the advertisements in them, visited his local record store and learned everything by simply being a fan. The rest, as they say, is history.
Except it’s not. The story of Hopeless Records can be told as a story of a man seeing more and more clearly as his vision slowly declined. Posen, diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa at age 19, is legally blind now at age 42 – but what you and I can see is no more or less important than what Posen sees.
“In reflection, my disability has been more of an advantage than a disadvantage,” Posen reveals. “I feel as though I’ve constantly been building skills – at first unconsciously – while working around it, and these skills have been helpful in leadership, business and relationships.
“I probably would have become a much meaner person,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t have been such a good listener, I would have been less empathetic, I wouldn’t be as patient or as oriented toward problem-solving. And now, these qualities are a big part of how we approach everything at Hopeless – from being good communicators and never looking for excuses, all the way up to who we sign and who we hire to be a part of our company.”
Posen looks at his 20-year-old baby – now grown, now strong, now fiercely competitive and permanently relevant – and he isn’t satiated by the recognitions Hopeless and Sub City have received. He isn’t overwhelmed with pride. Instead, Posen sees a way to help others – from the young musicians who want to live their dreams to the charities who give back to humanity to the fans who want to find a deep and important connection to something that makes them feel alive. In different ways, 20 years is long and it’s short. Posen says it’s gone by “very quick” – quick enough that nothing is considered done just yet.
“I try to never get too complacent,” Posen explains. “There’s always something more we can do. There are always more people to reach, more people to help."
"While it’s great to celebrate Sub City’s $2 million raised and 20 years of Hopeless Records, none of that clouds what still needs to be done – which is all in the future.”
It’s not that it would be difficult for Hopeless to rest on its laurels. The label has experienced success in dynamic ways, in huge waves at a time. The mid-1990s saw the label first gain recognition with releases from 88 Fingers Louie, Dillinger Four, Atom and His Package, Mustard Plug and more, all alongside the popular Hopelessly Devoted To You and Cinema Beer video compilation series. Posen sees this era as the first moment he noticed that Hopeless wasn’t just his anymore – but that the label was able to put out records that a lot of people wanted to pay attention to.
So Hopeless began to grow. Sub City – which today is a part of the everyday fabric of Hopeless’ operations – finally launched in 1999, the result of over a year of intense personal change for Posen, his family and the people around him who helped shape Hopeless’ early years. “An idea came to us… ‘How can we take what we’re already doing with how many people we’re already reaching,’” Posen says, “‘and connect that to something positive and bigger?’” That nugget of an idea has grown into something enormous, including a flagship effort in the form of the annual Take Action! Tour. Every year, the tour brings passionate young bands together to not only spread good music, but spread awareness for a host of different causes. To date, Sub City has been recognized for its efforts by the 110th U.S. Congress, the California Senate, the Los Angeles City Council, the National Association of Retail Merchandisers (NARM), Billboard magazine, Alternative Press Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and many other publications.
Records put out via the Sub City platform see a percentage of their revenue donated to nonprofit organizations as well – and one of the most successful early releases via Sub City, Thrice’s The Illusion of Safety in 2002, helped usher in the next period of Hopeless’ rise to prominence. Thrice, Avenged Sevenfold and The Weakerthans burst onto the scene while on Hopeless' roster, marking Hopeless as a destination for not any specific genre – but for great bands in general. It was a place for art to thrive and a place where music wasn’t just about becoming rich and famous, but about making a genuine impact and becoming embedded into the lifestyle and culture of people everywhere.
Avenged Sevenfold’s Waking The Fallen became Hopeless’ first gold record in 2005 – even though it debuted with only 3,000 first-week sales in 2003. That was just the first taste of gold for the label, though. All Time Low, representing yet another phase of Hopeless’ growth in the mid-to-late 2000s, saw its So Wrong, It’s Right single, “Dear Maria,” receive gold certification in 2011 – despite never receiving much love from the radio. In 2008, the label began to grow worldwide, and it now has team members in Italy, the UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore and Brazil – where they manage territories around the entire globe.
These facts are microcosms of Hopeless’ story as a whole. Resilience. Hard work. Motivation.
They are as much a calling card to the label’s relentless, remarkable marketing efforts as they are simply plaques on a wall – reminders of what hard work can get you if you try hard enough.
Recently, Hopeless has gone big while going small. They have developed the careers of young bands like The Wonder Years, We Are The In Crowd, Air Dubai, Neck Deep and many more. They’ve released phenomenal albums from established acts like Yellowcard, The Used, Silverstein, Enter Shikari and All Time Low – a band that got its start on Hopeless. Meanwhile, Hopeless continues to attract iconic established artists like Taking Back Sunday and Bayside.
While it may seem like a polarizing roster in terms of how different those bands are, Posen explains why that isn’t the case at all. “There’s so much noise out there – online and everywhere else in the world today– that some things just don’t cut through. We’re not stuck in a particular subgenre, but rather we seek out great bands that stick out among the static. There are no ‘core’ Hopeless bands – just great bands releasing music that we think people will enjoy.”
By taking a step back in promoting itself and focusing its efforts on turning bands into their own living, breathing entities, Hopeless has shrugged off ever-changing trends. The one most impressive thing about Hopeless’ first 20 years is perhaps the lack of a plateau – the label has yet to peak, yet to realize its full potential. The desire to constantly see past ceilings and barriers is something Posen instills in the tight-knit Hopeless Records team every day – and if he has it his way, that’s how things will continue to be for as long as Hopeless is a company.
“I don’t have a Magic 8-Ball – I don’t have inside industry knowledge that others in this business don’t have ,” Posen says. “But I'm confident we will continue to seek out how we can continue to be better people and a better company each day moving forward.