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On a balmy evening last December, the four members of Hotspur were inside a house near the Rockville Metro station, doing what rock bands do: sit in front of their computers.
Drummer Scott Robinson, 24, a former computer engineering major, was finalizing details for an upcoming Florida tour on a desktop machine he built himself. Before him, in a large, open room with a treadmill and electrical cords duct-taped to the blue carpet, were a jumble of boxes containing CDs, buttons, and other band merch. The rest of the band—lead singer and guitarist Joe Mach, 24, keyboardist Dave Trichter, 24, and bassist Dave “Coop” Cooper, 19, his head cloaked by a navy blue hoodie—were typing away on their computers nearby.
Mach and Trichter are renting the space as their home and band headquarters from the father of their former bassist, and if the pad resembles an office—albeit one decorated with a busty female mannequin wearing a tight pink T-shirt reading some like it hotspur—it’s no accident. Mach, Robinson, and Trichter met at the University of Maryland, where all three graduated in 2004 with individual-study degrees in music business. On a bookshelf behind Trichter is a copy of All You Need to Know About the Music Business by Donald S. Passman.
“That’s an industry standard,” says Mach. “Gotta have it.”
Hotspur has been together for about two years, and they’ve enjoyed a few successes. Several songs from their self-released CD, Beta, have been played on MTV programs, the songs on their MySpace page (myspace.com/hotspur) have been played about 270,000 times, and last spring the quartet successfully leveraged 16,000 (now 20,000-plus) MySpace friends into a spot on the Warped Tour.
There’s just one problem: money. Hotspur isn’t making any. The cash the band earns from gigs, CDs, and T-shirt sales covers some costs, but all four members need to work day jobs. Robinson and Cooper live with their parents. And they owe the father of the ex-bassist $10,000 for financing a recording session in Nashville, Tenn., part of an effort to shop their CD to record labels.
So, for the next eight months, the members of Hotspur will work. They’ll play gigs from San Antonio to Virginia Beach, exploit their MySpace connections, use pliers to repair their van’s headlights, and walk hundreds of miles through parking lots to sell their CDs person-to-person. All in an effort to pay off their debt, grow their fan base, and maybe get a break.
“We’re like, do we want to go off and get jobs at a desk, or do we want to go out and go do it?” asks Robinson. The answer, by necessity, is both. Being in a rock band involves working at a desk job, too—and making less money than ever.
I was wondering, can we borrow your guy’s bass?” Robinson says into his cell phone as he walks with his bandmates down U Street NW. This mid-December evening is turning into a fiasco. Cooper took his bass out of the band’s van and put it back in the Rockville house to protect it from the cold. But he forgot to return it to the van, and now Hotspur is heading to their gig at DC9 searching for a replacement.
Worse, the two West Virginia bands that booked the show—and invited Hotspur to play—have canceled. Hotspur didn’t bother promoting their set. Like other regional bands and club owners, Hotspur believes that it can draw well only if it plays no more than one show a month in the D.C. area. A week-and-a-half earlier, the band played at American University, and it was concentrating on a pre-Christmas show in Baltimore. “We want to be able to draw as well as we can at every show,” says Cooper.
The punch line to all this comes when Hotspur meets Boxcar Collision, the other local band recruited to play. “Who wants the challenge of a fretless bass that’s marked?” says Boxcar Collision’s Vince Bradley, presenting the instrument, which has fret lines drawn on it. “The nice thing is if you can hear you’re out of tune, you can slide right into tune.”
Tonight the audience for Hotspur’s set is five people: me, three members of Boxcar Collision, and a bartender who thinks the headliner’s singer stiffed him on a tip. But the band starts its 40-minute set like the place is packed. Trichter’s keyboard rumbles with a low, menacing buzz, and Mach cuts in with an aggressive riff on his Les Paul. The band’s music— a catchy mix of testosterone-driven hard rock à la Guns N’ Roses and slicker modern radio tunes a la Fall Out Boy—gets Boxcar Collision’s lead singer, Ashlee Wilcox, bouncing to the beat on a barstool near the stage. Mach lets his long blond hair fall in front of his eyes as he chews off the lyrics to “5th of July”:
Left you a note by the bed sayin’ thanks for the night
Tripped on the phone as I left, and I woke up the cat
I took a long last look at you asleep on the bed
I stole a favor from your neighbor for the bus ride back
But things are never what they seem, c’mon!
By the time the set is over—punctuated by Trichter’s signature handstand on the keyboard—Cooper has managed to conquer the fretless bass. Wilcox is excited as she takes the stage. “We love the Hotspur,” she says into the mic. “They bring it. Even if it’s just for four people, they bring it.”
She looks around for the rest of Boxcar Collision.
“Where’s my band?” she asks.
“Where’s my tip?” yells the bartender.
Bad gigs and slow nights have always been part of being in a rock band, but Hotspur arguably has it much harder than a generation ago. For one thing, the pay per gig for a local rock band has gotten worse.
Every other Tuesday, bassist Steve Wolf plays with the Dave Chappell Blues Band at JV’s, a 60-year-old club in Falls Church. Wolf, 56, started his career in 1968 when he was a senior at Oxon Hill High School, playing six nights a week at Cousin Nick’s, a biker bar at 14th and Irving Streets NW. He got paid $15 a night back then. Calculating for inflation, that’s $90 a night now—or about $28,000 a year.
No member of Hotspur will make $90 after an average gig. The DC9 gig paid nothing. A gig at Iota in Arlington with two other bands in front of about 100 people netted less than $200. Gigs on a winter Florida tour earned everything from bupkus to $250. Still, there’s always the possibility of a gig like the one in January at Jammin’ Java, where Hotspur played in front of about 200 people and pulled in about $550—mostly in CD and T-shirt sales.
And if Hotspur gets to the level it’s shooting for? It would be something like My American Heart, a San Diego alt-rock band whose success the band hopes to emulate. My American Heart is signed to the independent record label Warcon Records and has toured throughout the United States and Europe; their MySpace page boasts 118,000 friends and more than 4.5 million plays of their songs. According to the band’s tour manager, Kyle McKinnon, the members of the five-piece band, plus their manager and merchandise supervisor, will earn about $20,000 each this year.
That’s less than Wolf would have made in 1968 at Cousin Nick’s, where the owner kept a sawed-off shotgun handy in case things got rough.
“Basically, musicians now are making the same amount for a gig as they were in 1979,” says Scott Shuman, a guitarist and owner of Falls Church studio Shuman Recording. “Bands were making $300 to $500 a night in 1976 to 1980, and now bands are making $300 a night.”
Higher pay at conventional gigs is possible. Dave Cook, lead singer of Fairfax band My Favorite Highway, says his band typically makes around $1,200 when it plays Jammin’ Java, not including merch sales—which have run as high as an additional $2,000 per night. But, he adds, such shows occur only once every two to three months. As with Hotspur, the band has to look elsewhere to make ends meet: Cook works a full-time job and two of the four live with their parents.
Lisa White, booking manager for the 9:30 Club, and Michael Jaworek, concert promoter for the Birchmere, say that the pay range for opening rock acts has remained at $100-$250 for decades, though White says some openers at her club can get up to $500. Andy Boliek, singer and guitarist for D.C.-based band Telograph said the group recently opened for O.A.R. at a show that drew 12,000 fans at the 17,000-seat Merriweather Post Pavilion. Telograph pulled in $500, not including merch sales. The band usually makes far less for its local gigs, he says—about $200—and $80 to $100 on the road.
What those numbers suggest is that pay for local gigs has declined. If bands were making $300-$500 in 1977, they would expect to be making about $1,000-$1,700 now. But they’re not. The number of venues has shrunk, too, along with opportunities for multiple gigs at the same venue, say veteran musicians.
With reduced opportunities to play locally, Hotspur has to hit the road. So in the spring of 2004, when Mach’s parents tried to give him a sports car for his college graduation, Mach wouldn’t have it.
“I even talked to my dad about it,” Mach says, “and he said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather have a sports car?’ And I said no, this is what we’re planning on doing. So I asked for a big conversion van.”
Eight-hour days of band work are routine for each of Hotspur’s members in addition to their day jobs. Mach waits tables at the Front Page in Dupont Circle and does graphic design work for a Maryland-based liquor distributor, Robinson records other bands and does audio work for local TV shows, Trichter is a substitute teacher in Montgomery County, and Cooper is looking for work. The band’s daily tasks range from chatting online with fans, booking shows, writing new material, practicing, and making promotional efforts like passing out fliers at other local shows where fans would likely enjoy Hotspur’s music.
It’s a lot of effort, but music is in Mach’s blood. His dad, who hails from the Czech Republic, played bass in a polka band called the Czech Mates. He later gave the instrument to his son, who used it in his first rock band as a sophomore at Good Counsel High School in Wheaton. Mach met Trichter in 2001 at the University of Maryland, where the two bonded at a Ben Folds concert. (“Our first date,” Mach says.) They soon formed a band called Day Station and, on the sly, recruited Robinson, a Silver Spring native who received his first drum kit at 13.
“Our drummer was out of town for a couple days,” Mach recalled, “and we asked [Robinson] to fill in, which was kind of a sneaky way of getting him to join the band.”
The final recruit was bassist Phil Stablein, a mutual friend of Mach and Trichter. According to Robinson, Stablein later left to attend graduate school and was replaced by Cooper, who met Hotspur while booking them at gigs in a church basement in Bethesda. (Stablein declined to comment for this story.) Before he left, though, Stablein participated in a brainstorming session with Mach in September 2005 that produced the band’s new name to go with a harder-rocking sound: Hotspur, after a British soccer team, which in turn was named after a hot-tempered character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
In the pre-dawn darkness on May 15, 2007, the blue glow of a computer screen is visible through the second-story window of a single-family brick house in Woodacres, a quiet suburban neighborhood in Bethesda.
Inside, Cooper is hunched over his desktop, a bowl of soup in his lap, frantically sending out a few last messages. He and his bandmates have been at this since March 9, when Smartpunk.com, an online retailer of CDs and music-related merchandise, kicked off a contest to win a handful of spots on the Vans Warped Tour, an annual road show of punk and alt-rock bands, signed and unsigned, that hit 45 cities this year, drawing an average of 12,000 fans at each stop.
Getting in won’t be easy. More than 4,000 bands applied to enter this year’s Warped Tour, but organizers will choose only 50 to 70 of those to play on most dates. Hotspur’s chance to slip in through the side door comes from a contest that seems designed to maximize time, effort, and physical suffering. Bands that, like Hotspur, sold merch on Smartpunk.com, would try to get their fans to vote for them online. The top three vote-getters would play five dates on Warped Tour. The fourth- through seventh-place vote-getters would win slots on two dates.
Fans could vote once a day every day for two months, so the contest favored bands who were willing to ask their fans to vote again. And again. And again. Further complicating matters—though perhaps making them more lucrative—each CD sale on Smartpunk.com would count for three votes.
So for two months, Hotspur band members spent hundreds of hours posting comments and sending private messages to most of the roughly 16,000 MySpace friends they had at the time. At various points along the way, and increasingly toward the end, Cooper would send out vote requests from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., when most recipients would likely be asleep, and he could maximize his time by avoiding online conversations. But even that schedule wasn’t enough as the contest came down to the wire.
“A few times I stayed up for 36 hours straight,” he says. “We joke about this because otherwise, we’d jump off a bridge.”
Meanwhile, Smartpunk.com continuously updated the Top 10 bands on its Web site but did not reveal how many votes each band had received. Hotspur climbed to first place at one point, dropping to seventh and then climbing to sixth. No one knew how close the band was to falling out of the Top 7 or climbing up to the Top 3. So Cooper is up in the wee hours, desperate to know his band’s fate the instant that word arrives.
So much was riding on the Smartpunk.com contest in large part because there may not be many other ways for Hotspur to break through. The explosion in home entertainment in the past three decades has made live concert-going less appealing—the Washington Post’s TV listings comprise 94 channels today, up from eight in 1976, a year when home-movie watching and video games were in their infancy, the Web didn’t exist, and radio was much more open to unknown artists.
“I bought my house because of airplay on WHFS for one record,” says Steve Wolf, the bassist at JV’s. In 1985, he was a member of the Tom Principato Band, and someone handed the group’s record, Smokin’!, to a DJ at the now defunct Bethesda-based station WHFS. Soon, the band was playing to packed local clubs and touring Europe. But as Post columnist Marc Fisher details in his recent book, Something in the Air, radio has largely closed its doors to up-and-coming artists. Consolidation in the ’80s and ’90s created large conglomerates like Clear Channel that cut costs by sending the same programming to markets in every state, a system that left little to no airtime for new musicians—or veterans like Wolf, who now makes a living by playing in several bands while teaching yoga and martial arts on the side.
Hotspur has appeared on DC101’s Local Lix show, which airs between 9 and 10 p.m. on Sunday nights. According to Arbitron ratings, the listenership for that time slot averages just 3,000 people for every 15 minutes.
Music-focused blogs and Web sites will occasionally help a band find a larger audience—Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are notable examples. But blog readership remains relatively small. In August 2007, when there were an estimated 105 million blogs, ComScore Media Metrix, a company that measures Internet traffic, showed that only about 100 blogs reached an audience of 100,000 or more Internet users in the United States during that month. Of these 100 blogs, a grand total of two focused on music: hip-hop site sohh.com (613,000 unique visitors per month) and alt-rock site stereogum.com (208,000 unique visitors per month). By comparison, historic Arbitron ratings on file at the University of Georgia show that WHFS reached an estimated 86,000 to 112,000 unique listeners each week in 1985, when Smokin’! was a hit. Regular airplay helped ensure that a greater portion of the weekly audience heard the album’s tracks. And, because the station was local, Wolf’s band didn’t have to tour to reach its fans.
The ComScore data suggest that music, or information about bands, usually won’t spread very far online. “When you think about the amount of information that is published to the Web, it is a physical impossibility for the vast majority of that stuff to spread virally,” says Derek Gordon, marketing director for Technorati, a San Francisco firm that tracks the popularity of blogs based on the number of other blogs that link to them. Gordon adds that “against all odds,” some hits might break through. For example? Well, there was that video of two young Chinese men lip-syncing to the Backstreet Boys.
So the whole band is waiting to hear from Smartpunk.com. At 3 a.m., the moment of truth arrives and a message flashes on the Web site’s screen: The voting is done…but CD sales have yet to be tabulated. They’ll have to wait.
Trichter IMs a stream of profanities to Cooper.
A week later, the dust clears: Hotspur finished third with 14,800 votes, earning five gigs on Warped Tour. It beat the fourth-place finisher, Rookie of the Year, by 458 votes.
You guys wanna listen to a little music?” asks Mach as he stands in front of two teenage girls sitting on a low concrete wall. “We’re from Maryland.”
It’s Aug. 4, 2007, at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum, a concrete arena that in the winter is home to the New York Islanders. Right now, though, the summer heat is only intensified by the vast asphalt parking lot filled with a forest of merch tents where dozens of bands are hawking CDs, T-shirts, underwear, and anything else they can put their names on.
Mach’s targets are Casey Culligan, 16, and Diana Jacobsen, 15, two high school juniors from Manhattan. Mach produces an iPod from his blue backpack with two sets of headphones so the girls can listen at the same time. Hotspur has loaded their music onto four different iPods—one for each band member to work the crowd—and cut the tunes into 30-second snippets so potential fans can quickly get a sense of the music and, hopefully, buy a CD.
This is all part of Hotspur’s financial plan for Warped Tour. To be sure, those five gigs were important. Hotspur played on the Smartpunk.com stage in Orlando, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., Virginia Beach, Scranton, Pa., and at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. (The band got a bonus gig in San Antonio: According to the band, tour founder Kevin Lyman accidentally booked the group when it showed up, and after Hotspur explained the mistake, he gave it the slot anyway. “It was sort of a lucky misunderstanding,” says Robinson.) Thousands of potential fans heard the band’s songs, and at its “hometown” show at Merriweather, Hotspur drew 5,000, its biggest crowd ever.
But Hotspur didn’t jump off the Warped Tour when it didn’t have gigs scheduled; instead it switched its focus exclusively to a shoe-leather retail operation. Before the trip, the band purchased a trailer advertised on Craigslist. They spent about $2,000 for it, including maintenance expenses. They also printed 5,000 copies of their CD for $1 apiece to be transported in the trailer along with other gear. The plan: Sell the CDs for $5 to $10 each, making at least $1,000 a day. That would gross them somewhere around $25,000 over the course of 25 dates on Warped Tour. Enough to pay themselves, pay off the recording debt, and make new fans.
The band gambled that contest officials would let them set up their merch tent and roam the crowds to sell their CDs person-to-person—not only at the shows where Hotspur was invited to play but also at 20 other shows, like today’s show in New York. Neither Smartpunk.com nor Warped Tour had said that Hotspur could put its plan into action, but Hotspur worked it out on the fly. The band gained entry to the venue by helping to set up one of several stages each morning—and continued to pay each venue 10 percent of merch revenues, as Warped Tour requires. A Warped Tour spokesperson says the tour doesn’t condone the practice, but Hotspur says they weren’t the only ones doing it. “Everybody knows there are piggybacking bands,” says J-Stone, guitarist for Phathom, a Los Angeles band that played Warped Tour this year.
Throughout, the band members economized. Over the course of their 24-city route, they drove approximately 10,000 miles and spent approximately $2,500 on gas. On several longer drives between venues, they slept in the van, whether on a futon mattress in the back or in the plush brown reclining seats. They sometimes stayed with friends, and about half the time they sprung for a motel. Even then they cheaped out, spending about $70 per night for a two-person room that ended up sleeping four.
“When it’s time for the continental breakfast, it’s really awkward,” says Robinson.
They each walked more than 100 miles through seas of tattoos, body piercings, bare midriffs, and at least one sticker on the front of a girl’s shorts reading i [heart] sluts. They sometimes went without showering and ate at fast food restaurants and gas station convenience stores for only a few dollars per meal. They repeated their sales pitches thousands of times, perhaps most often to teenage girls, who seem to comprise the majority of Hotspur’s fans.
“I’ll give you two for $10,” Mach says, completing the sale with Casey and Diana.
Casey, it turns out, had already heard about the band through MySpace.
“They contacted me,” she says, “and I kept in touch with them because they’re really good.”
“You spend a lot of time on the Internet, and you don’t know if it’s doing any good or not,” Mach says later. “Some of it works.”
Hotspur featured on The Hills season premiere!” shouted a line on Hotspur’s MySpace page on Aug. 15. The band’s “Skydive” was played briefly on the title screen of one episode; “She’s Got to Go” played in another episode. The band’s music has also appeared on an MTV dating show called Next, Robinson says.
In a time when the music industry is tanking—the New York Times recently reported that music sales are down even when CD sales and downloads are combined—such side deals are more important. But Donald Passman, the author of the music-biz book on the shelf at Hotspur’s headquarters, says new revenue sources haven’t been enough to fill the void, leaving record companies with less money to invest in new bands.
“We’re in a period where CDs are clearly dying,” Passman says, “but there’s nothing to replace it.”
Not everybody agrees. Terry McBride, CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, a Vancouver-based firm that manages acts like Barenaked Ladies, says that the odds of making it haven’t changed, and there are new ways to break through. McBride says he recently helped Barenaked Ladies make $3 million on sales of just 500,000 CDs through its own label, Desperation—a feat that would have been impossible had the band been signed to a record company as it had been in the past. McBride’s strategy: Give the band full control over its intellectual property, allowing the group to assign itself a higher royalty rate than it would have received under a conventional record deal.
Yet it’s one thing for the Barenaked Ladies to make money this way after being signed to record labels, selling millions of CDs before illegal downloading and file sharing really took off, and receiving extensive radio play. What about new bands like Hotspur? McBride says that of eight artist-run labels launched by Nettwerk in the last year, seven are doing well financially, though he declined to specify dollar figures.
Jerry DePizzo, saxophonist for O.A.R.—a popular jam band that, like Hotspur, has roots in Rockville—says the new media world has been a “double-edged sword” for his band. Internet word-of-mouth, he says, “helped a great deal” to spread the band’s music in the late ’90s, before the band had radio airplay or a record label (it’s now signed to Atlantic). But much of that word-of-mouth came via illegal downloading, which “also takes money out of our pockets.”
DePizzo, 28, began playing with O.A.R. in 1997 and joined full-time in 2000. He says that he has been able to earn a six-figure salary since he was 23 or 24 through touring. He stressed, though, that his band has not been hurt as much as others by downloading and file sharing, because the band has always made most of its money by playing live. (Pollstar, a company that tracks music ticket sales, ranked O.A.R. among the Top 200 grossing acts in North America in 2006.) He says that it’s possible for bands to make it without a label but agrees with Passman and Lyman that downloading has made it harder for new bands to get a record deal.
“There were four or five labels that courted us when we started,” he says. “The only one that’s still in existence is Universal, and it isn’t even in the same form it was.”
When Hotspur released Beta, the band quickly got a taste of the new music economy: Just a week after it went out, the entire disc was available for free online. The band found that on one site, the CD had been downloaded 50 times—a good day of sales on Warped Tour for one of the guys. Hotspur decided not to pursue legal action, figuring that the 50 people wouldn’t have paid for the CD anyway. But legal sales aren’t filling the gap: Hotspur’s MP3 sales are modest, according to Robinson.
Hotspur eventually wants a record deal, and in January 2006, when it had been in existence for less than six months, the band made a serious effort to make that happen, playing before industry executives at a showcase in New York set up by Chris Grainger, one of the producers of Hotspur’s album. David Boxenbaum, general manager for A&M/Octone records, a joint venture with Universal Music, saw the band there. He liked Hotspur’s songs but felt that the live show needed to be “a little bit more dynamic.” He added that it usually takes bands about two years to gel. Robinson says that after the showcase, Hotspur just kept working to get better. “We’re never in a place where we’re like, ‘We’re good to go now,’” he says.
Boxenbaum adds that cutbacks have forced labels to be more selective. “The industry can’t sign as many unknown artists anymore,” he says.
Demand for recorded music is still high; it’s just not being paid for. Passman notes in the 2006 edition of his book that at the time when iTunes reported it had sold its 2 billionth song in less than four years, listeners were illegally trading 600 million songs on Web sites every week. Apple Computer “earns little from iTunes after paying fees for the music and credit-card processing,” the Wall Street Journal reported; iPods are the company’s musical cash cow.
And TV deals, like the Hotspur song featured on The Hills? Passman says that many such deals offer no money up front, and that performance royalties for TV airplay are modest. Hotspur’s deal is a little better than that: It’ll get $1, plus royalties.
“I’m surprised they gave them a dollar,” Passman says.
Hotspur has yet to receive a check from MTV.
I took [the van] in yesterday,” Robinson says. It’s Aug. 23, the band is off the road, and he’s back at the Rockville pad. “I got a call this morning, and they want $3,000 to fix it.”
The marked-down trailer Hotspur purchased on Craigslist wasn’t as good a deal as it seemed; the wiring was faulty. The band members thought they had sorted things out when they paid a repair shop to rewire the trailer before Warped Tour began so that the van could control the trailer’s brake lights. But somewhere between New Jersey and Indianapolis, smoke began pouring out of the dashboard inside the van, and the brake lights on the trailer went out. Robinson and his bandmates fixed the trailer for $140 but knew that the van would need more repairs when it came home. They just didn’t think it would cost this much and hoped that the original repair shop would pick up the cost.
On top of that, the financial results from Warped Tour were worse than expected. The band netted about $13,500, primarily from sales of about 3,000 CDs after subtracting money for gas, food, and hotels. The musicians used $5,000 to pay off the credit card debt they used to buy the CDs. They planned to use $4,500 to pay for new T-shirts.