In the early ‘90s, Louis Posen bought a how-to book on running an independent record company to inform his new business venture — what would become the influential punk label Hopeless Records. “I’m still about three-quarters of the way through it,” he says. As it turned out, Posen didn’t need the book. Since founding Hopeless in 1993, the Los Angeles-based label has launched the careers of bands including Thrice, Avenged Sevenfold and All Time Low.
Hopeless’ roster alone makes it an undeniably important label in the history of punk rock, but its work in the nonprofit sector is what sets it apart. In 1999, Posen launched the label’s charitable arm Sub City, which incorporates a philanthropic component into every Hopeless Records release where it makes sense (Posen estimates that 25% of the label’s releases have a social action element).
The venture grew out of Posen’s desire to, in his words, “do more than make bands rich and famous” — an undertaking that feels prescient in light of today’s developments, when seemingly every major music company (particularly in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests) now makes a point of touting its social action initiatives. But Hopeless stands as one of the earliest labels, major or independent, to make giving back not just a side project but a core part of its mission.
Running a record label was never a part of the plan for Posen, who as a film student at California State University, Northridge had his mind set on becoming a director. But that dream circuitously led him to establish Hopeless after the punk band Guttermouth — who had hired him to direct a music video — asked if he could put out their 7-inch. “I said, ‘How do you put out a record?’” Posen recalls. “And they said, ‘We don’t know, that’s why we’re asking you.’” With no music industry knowledge to speak of, Posen pressed ahead with the 7-inch release and established Hopeless Records, named after the EP’s lead track. Further releases would soon follow, though Posen viewed the fledgling label as secondary to his filmmaking aspirations. That all changed in 1995, the year Posen received a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa — a condition that leads to a progressive loss of eyesight and often results in blindness (today, Posen has no light perception in his right eye and only a small amount remaining in his left). The news forced him to reconsider his longtime dream of becoming a filmmaker, leading him to focus on Hopeless Records full time. Four years later, he launched Sub City and established the mental health initiative, Take Action, an annual tour and compilation album that benefitted a particular charity each year. Though it was discontinued in 2009, Take Action was instrumental in the passage of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which ensures equal insurance coverage for the treatment of mental illness and addiction as for physical illness. Posen, who worked with Mental Health America and Congressional leaders on the initiative for a total of three years, calls the bill’s passage “one of the biggest accomplishments of our history as a nonprofit.”
Ahead of every Hopeless release, Posen and his team meet to discuss incorporating a nonprofit component into the campaign. “We have a weekly meeting [where] we go over the projects and ask, ‘Is there something that could be added on or thread throughout something we’re already doing?’” says Posen, noting many artists already come in with ideas. In 2002, for example, Thrice chose to donate a portion of the proceeds from its second album, The Illusion of Safety, to the nonprofit youth center A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles. The money helped subsidize the construction of a recording studio, which remains today and has provided a musical education to young people in the neighborhood. (More recently, Sub City financially contributed to the construction of a second recording studio at the New Directions for Youth Center in North Hollywood, which began operating in January before shutting down due to the pandemic, delaying its grand opening.) After the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March, the company set up a relief fund for its artists that paid out over $40,000 in non recoupable payments. Since then, Posen says Sub City has instituted “more effective and sustainable ideas based on each artist’s strengths and needs,” adding they have also created a subscription membership system to help benefit their artists.
Sub City has grown to a team of 26 people worldwide (13 out of its Van Nuys headquarters and another 13 internationally), and Posen estimates it has mounted “over 50, maybe over 100” different types of initiatives, with every dollar raised going to charity. The non-profit’s largest initiative in recent years has been Songs That Saved My Life, an annual compilation album to which artists contribute covers of songs that helped get them through difficult periods in their lives. Proceeds from the albums are donated to a variety of mental health and suicide-prevention charities (the initiative has raised $50,000 in just three years) and includes an annual $10,000 grant that bankrolls an idea centered around mental health from dozens of applications. This year’s grant — announced on World Suicide Prevention Awareness Day (Sept. 10) — went to ProjectQ, a Los Angeles-based hair salon/community center that offers therapy and self-empowerment workshops to queer youth of color.
Since Hopeless launched nearly three decades ago, Posen has also volunteered his time to give back to the independent label community, sharing the lessons he’s learned with others by serving on the boards of the American Association of Independent Music (which he used to chair) and the Music Business Association. “I find that very rewarding to help out new labels, strengthening the independent community,” he says. “I really feel like the independent community is where innovation and change happen.” As for Sub City, it’s continuing to innovate as well: this year the nonprofit started a “charity of the month” initiative, highlighting and benefitting causes from the Spina Bifida Association in November (in support of Hopeless Records A&R head Eric Tobin, who suffers from the condition and recently did a two-day hike to raise money for the cause) to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank this month (which supports hunger relief in L.A. County). No matter the cause, Sub City doesn’t tend to make a big show of its charitable efforts. As Posen says, it’s reflective of its under-the-radar ethos: “‘Sub’ is about underground, and we think change comes from the bottom up, not the top down.”