NEW YORK (Billboard) - “Hopelessly Devoted to You Too,” the 1998 compilation from Van Nuys, Calif.-based indie label Hopeless Records, had the sort of cheeky, smirking title typical of classic punk rock. It plugged the label’s name while lifting its title from Olivia Newton-John’s schmaltzy 1978 hit from “Grease.”
Perhaps by coincidence, it also nicely summed up the future plans of Louis Posen, the label’s founder/president, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
A year later, that compilation surpassed the 100,000 mark in sales, according to Posen. With a new milestone reached, Posen recognized that he could do something more than just release recordings by some of his favorite underground bands. He could start another label devoted to helping those in need.
“We realized at that point we were reaching a lot of people and that there was a unique opportunity to do something positive with that reach,” Posen recalls. “There’s some revenue being generated here. This is great for the artists, this is great for music and the fans, but there could be something great also for people that are in need and don’t have the opportunities that we do or our artists do.”
Out of that thought, Hopeless sister label Sub City was born. Its name is a play on words incorporating its mission statement of subsidizing nonprofit organizations along with a nod to the underground scene that spawned its artists.
Fast-forward eight years and Hopeless/Sub City has reached another milestone. It has donated more than $1 million to more than 50 nonprofit organizations with proceeds generated by Sub City’s releases and the label’s annual Take Action tour, all while continuing to thrive in the recording industry’s unstable environment. Not bad for a scrappy company with 10 employees that makes its home in one of the least glamorous parts of the San Fernando Valley.
The label will celebrate that feat August 26 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, with performances by Hopeless/Sub City acts Amber Pacific and All Time Low, as well as a special performance by students from Project MuszEd, the charity benefiting from the event’s proceeds.
To fully grasp Sub City’s philanthropic roots, it’s necessary to trace Posen’s own story. After growing up in an exclusive neighborhood in the hills of Los Angeles, he moved to the Valley to attend film school at California State University-Northridge. At the age of 19, the aspiring filmmaker was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare disease in which the retina of the eye progressively degenerates resulting in eventual blindness. Undaunted, Posen continued his studies and pursuit of a film career and branched out into music videos. He directed seven clips in all for acts including veteran punks NOFX and Guttermouth.
When the latter act was between labels, Posen offered to release a seven-inch single for the band from his Van Nuys garage. “I guess they felt the video shoot was organized enough that they trusted me to release those songs for them,” he says.
Since those humble beginnings, Hopeless and Sub City have released more than 130 titles by more than 20 acts with sales exceeding 3 million units, and they’ve spawned such major-label bands as Thrice, Avenged Sevenfold and Melee. All the while, Posen’s condition hasn’t gotten in the way.
“To me, not having eyesight does not mean that you don’t have vision,” 36-year-old Posen says. “In some weird way it has enabled me to be more focused and not be distracted visually by things.”
With each Sub City release the artist chooses the benefiting charity, an arrangement that Posen believes allows that act to “be intimately involved” with the concept and spreading the message about the organization. The label picks the charities for its compilations and events.
“We wanted it to be clear to the fans that when they buy a release, 5 percent of the suggested retail list price is going the charity they see on the back of the record and in the literature in the insert and they know that’s coming from the label and the artist and it’s based on gross, not on profits,” Posen says. “So they can be very clear what the donation is, where it’s going and who’s giving it.”
Punk rock’s roots are often associated with nihilism and anarchy. As Johnny Rotten famously whined in the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” there is “no future for you.” Yet the breed of bands signed to Sub City have a different take on the punk ethic.
“When I started getting into punk rock, with Bad Religion, Strung Out, NOFX, Pennywise and the Offspring in the early days, it was so much about community,” Thrice drummer Riley Breckenridge says. “Even at shows, you’d hear Greg Graffin from Bad Religion say, ‘If you see somebody fall down in the mosh pit, pick them up.’ I guess that’s kind of what the charity thing is, picking someone up off the floor that needs your help.”