Rocking to Give Back:
Take Action! Tour founder Louis Posen talks about how to run a punk label and help the community at the same time.

Louis Posen pic #1
(photo courtesy of Hopeless Records)
It's sad to admit, but the whole idea of a punk community, with members helping one another and the whole scene in general, seems to have generally fallen by the wayside in recent years. Some relatively mild-mannered political sloganeering aside, most punk bands seem to content to crank up the volume and let the cash come rolling in. Really, it was only to be expected, given the punk "boom" of the '90s, when punk bands (and those of other related genres) finally became viable as a money-making musical commodity.
Thankfully, not everybody has given up the old-school punk ideal of using music to make the world a better place and right wrongs (and if you doubt that that was part of the point way back in the beginning, go ask Joe Strummer's ghost). Take Louis Posen, for one -- eight years back, the Hopeless Records/Sub City impresario co-founded the Take Action! Tour, which attempted to meld activism and information with good old-fashioned punk rock, with the goal of actually, y'know, helping the kids in the punk scene.
Oh, tours like this had definitely been attempted before, it's true, but in the past decade or so, none have been as successful (or have stuck around as long) as Take Action. The tour's streamlined and refined its efforts impressively, pairing up with the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, reaching bigger and bigger audiences and raising more money each year. It's a noble effort, and one for which we here at SCR have a lot of respect, so we gave Posen a call and hit him up with a few questions...

SCR: I read somewhere that you kind of came into this music label thing sort of from a different angle than most people who come in, who're like, "oh, hey, I'm in a band" or "I know somebody who's in a band, so I'll put out their album." I wasn't sure exactly what it was talking about, though.
Louis Posen: Correct. I came in from the film world -- I went to film school, was directing videos for artists, and the second video I did was for a band called Guttermouth, and they, during the production, dared me to put out a seven-inch for them, because they were in-between labels and saw that I could organize a video shoot and felt confident that I could figure out how to release a record.
I went and bought a book called How to Run an Independent Record Label, and I asked some people that I knew in music, from doing music videos, questions about how to put out a seven-inch, and did it as a hobby for a couple of years until deciding to do it full-time in 1995. Which was convenient in the sense that I was also dealing with my eyesight declining from a retinal disease I have called retinitis pigmentosa. So it made sense for me to move from the film world to my other passion, music.
Oh, yeah...I was gonna ask if you still did any of the video stuff, but it doesn't sound like that would be really possible.
It's probably possible, but not, ah... It'd be a unique situation. I'm sure there're other blind filmmakers out there -- I've lost most of my eyesight now -- but it made me realize at some point I wanted to go another direction. And that doesn't mean I won't ever do more film stuff; I'm still involved, in some ways, through our music videos we do here, and I still have a lot of friends in the film industry from the days when I was directing and camera-assisting.
Who all did you do videos for?
The first one was for NOFX, and then I did two for Guttermouth. Did one for a band called Schlong, which is the drummer from Operation Ivy --
Take Action!, Volume 6 record cover

Yeah! I remember that; long time ago...
Yeah... And I did one for Jughead's Revenge, and... If you're old-school punk rock, you'll know a lot of these bands.
Yeah, all the old-school California bands, it sounds like.
And a few others, here and there.
I haven't looked at too many of you guys' earlier releases; I'm assuming you pretty much started out releasing mostly punk bands, then, or...?
Yeah, the first release was the Guttermouth seven-inch, where we came up with the name Hopeless, which was the name of the first song on the seven-inch. The second one was for Schlong -- it was another band I did a video for -- they did a cover of the whole West Side Story soundtrack called Punk Side Story. And the third release was the videos that I had done, along with a few others, on a, well, VHS at the time, called Cinema Beerité.
"Cinema Beerité"? [laughs] I like that.
Yes. Coming from the film world, I was one of the only people who knew what that was actually a parody of. [laughs]
That's kinda scary.
A lot of people were like, "I dunno what you mean by that."
"It's got 'beer' in it, cool!"
I was also wondering about the Sub City label, obviously, because that's got a lot to do with the Take Action! Tour. I was wondering how you got into how you got into doing that, as well?
Hopeless launched Sub City in 1999. We realized, after doing the label for a few years, that we were reaching a lot of people. We had put out a label sampler called Hopelessly Devoted; the Volume 2 of that was our first release that sold over a 100,000 copies, and we realized, "Wow, there's a lot of kids out there listening to stuff that we're putting together -- we should do something positive with this. There's some kind of impact and change we could make through our day-to-day business."
Myself and other people here were doing volunteer work on the side, or after work, or on the weekends, and with the amount that we work there just wasn't time to do both things, so we tried to intertwine those. And we came up with the idea of doing a label that would be based on raising awareness and funds for non-profit organizations, and we came up with this name "Sub City" as a pun, kind of, for subsidizing and the subculture.
Ah...I'd never gotten that before you said it. I remember thinking, "that's an odd name for a record label" when I saw it.
Right. So we came up with that, and that same year, in '99, we decided, "look, let's take this concept to the road and raise some awareness and money through a tour," and that was the launch of the Take Action! Tour.
How did the start of the Sub City imprint go? I mean, financially, at least, because I know it's difficult enough to run an indie label anyway. Did you find you were having to scrimp and save a lot more than before?
It can be challenging, because there isn't a lot of margin in a record label in the first place, as you mentioned. So when you're giving away 5% of the retail list price, regardless of profit, right off the top, you have to budget that in as an expense. Which limits how much money we can spend in other areas.
So yeah, we have to be very careful about how much we spend. But luckily, over the years both Hopeless and Sub City have had releases that have done well, which enable us to afford to make those donations. Half are coming from the band's royalties and their records and half is our matching amount.
I remember talking to the Weakerthans a couple of years ago after they'd put out -- actually, I think they've done all their albums on Sub City -- and they mentioned that they got to pick the charity. Is that how it works for all of your releases?
All the artist releases on Sub City are chosen by the band and approved by us. And the compilations are chosen by the label.
I just thought that was a neat concept, when they mentioned it.
Well, since half the donation's coming from their royalties, it's important that it's something they're passionate about. They're giving up a lot there, so... When we sign bands, we tell them, "You're on Hopeless and Sub City. You make recordings, and you can put 'em out on either label, but just know when you put 'em out on Sub City, it's a big commitment, and you have to be very passionate about the cause that you're connecting to your release, 'cause you're going to be paying half of this donation."
So they really have to be into it themselves, too.
I guess in terms of causes, I know the Take Action! Tour's focused on suicide prevention, is that right?
It has been for the past, ah, five years, but it wasn't in its first year. The Take Action! mission is much broader; the Take Action! mission is actually to create a better world, one voice and one action at a time. Which is just about empowering people to know that their voice matters, no matter what cause they're passionate about. That's our primary goal. And secondarily, we want to set an example of that by saying, "hey, we're going to pick an organization and a cause that we think is important to the fans and to us, and we're going to do something about it."
And in the last five years, the Take! Action Tour has benefited the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, which runs 877-YOUTHLINE, a peer-to-peer crisis line.
I read a little bit about them today... I read somewhere -- it was kind of a dated story, actually -- that the hotline was in trouble, and they were threatening to cut off all federal funding?
Their primary line prior to this year was 1-800-SUICIDE. That was how they originally started, the president, Reese Butler, he lost his wife to suicide, and out of that tragedy he started 1-800-SUICIDE. Now that he's started other lines, like 877-YOUTHLINE, that original 800-SUICIDE line was taken over by the federal government, who now deals with those calls. I don't know if they're all routed to the same places that when it was under Kristin Brooks Hope Center or they routed them differently, but they're in charge of that line, where Kristin Brooks Hope Center continues to run their other lines.
So, are they focusing on the youth that are endangered, as well?
Well, the Kristin Brooks Hope Center is, and part of why they are is because over these last five years they've realized that -- through being a part of Take Action! -- that there's a lot of young people out there that're in a crisis. They don't feel necessarily suicidal, and they don't feel like talking to an adult about their issues. And they actually started this line from the feedback we got from Take Action!.
I was wondering if you had any kind of knowledge of what kind of impact the tour had had, if you'd been able to see a huge increase in people calling in to the hotline.
Yeah, I recently got a grid from Kristin Brooks Hope Center, and since February 1st, when the tour started, the line has had an increase of 300%.
Wow. That's pretty good.
It makes sense. I mean, I remember as a teenager there were definitely low points, for sure. It seemed like for everybody around me, as well.
I haven't met a young person yet that hasn't gone through a crisis where they needed someone to talk to.
Speaking a little bit more about the tour, how do you pick who gets to be on the tour, year after year?
It's a challenging process. There's two criteria we basically look at, the first being that we look for artists who want to entertwine their art and their music with something positive and with making a change in the world. We don't have a problem with bands that just want to rock out, but that's not what this tour is all about.
That's a different tour.
Right. That's the first step, and the second is that they're a band who has fans, so that there's someone to deliver the message to.
Do you actually go out and find the bands, or do they usually come to you?
It's been getting easier over the years, as far as the bands knowing about Take Action! and what it's about, and once the booking agent sends out a submission, for people to submit to the tour, a lot of people already know what it's about. It's more rare now that we would have to go seek somebody out who's never heard of the tour before.
Do you have any favorites out of this year's crew? I dunno, I don't want to start any fights or anything...
Right. It's like being a father -- you can't pick a favorite. They're just different. We love all the bands for being out there and working hard and delivering the message and, uh, doing what they do. 'Cause it's not easy to drive 5-10 hours every day and be "on" every night.
So, how did you settle on the one non-profit to support with Take Action? Not that it's not a worthwhile cause, of course, but there are a lot of worthwhile causes.
When we did Take Action the first year, we had several national organizations and several local organizations in each city, and the feedback we got from people who attended the shows was that the message wasn't clear. There were just too many different things being talked about, and too many pamphlets and things. So we decided to just ask what people were interested in, and what was impacting their lives. And overwhelmingly, it dealt with different crises that, in their worst state, lead to suicide, whether it be problems at school or problems at home, depression, getting bullied, domestic violence -- y'know, all that kind of stuff, which in its worst stage, someone could think of ending their life rather than overcoming that obstacle.
It's also the third-leading cause of death amongst 12-24-year-olds. Approximately 13 12-24-year-olds die every day in the U.S. from suicide.
That's pretty scary. It's a higher number than I would've expected, actually.
When you hear the whole number, it doesn't sound like a lot -- it's 5000 a year -- but when you break it down into days, it's 13 a day. That is pretty scary.
Pretty chilling.
And for me, it affects me even more knowing it's a young person and remembering what I was going through then, knowing that if you just... It's hard to have the foresight to know that the problem you're dealing with isn't going to be a problem for you down the line.
Right. And in high school, to think, "oh, God, you know, this isn't the worst problem in the world..."
Adults who commit suicide, there're lots of different reasons, and many of them are preventable. But to me it's not as severe of an issue in that they more know what they're doing and have been through enough of live to make that type of decision. Unless they're dealing with like a mental health issue for some reason that's impairing their reasoning.
How is the whole Take Action movement been going since you started it? Has it surprised you all about how well it's done?
Ah...well, we try to be optimistic but at the same time realistic. It's challenging; it takes up a lot of our company time, and we don't directly profit from it. But it's well worth it when we get the letters and go out to the shows and hear the kids and know that it's making a difference. It's well worth it, as long as we can continue to afford to do it. We hope that our partners who allow us to be able to do this by helping underwrite it -- y'know, our sponsors, like our title sponsor, Hot Topic, and Red Bull and Etnies and other people who make it possible to do it, as well as the bands continuing to want to do it instead of those tours that just say, "Help us sell more records!" Then it's great. But it's definitely a challenge every year.
Do you see yourselves doing this for years and years to come?
We hope so. We're always trying to improve it; we make a list every year at the end of the tour of all the things that we can improve on and prioritize that list and at least pick the top 3-5, to make sure we work on those for the next year. And it's been getting better and better. I think that this year's by far going to be our biggest as far as money raised, as far as attendance, and I think as just the overall impact and outreach.
I missed the show, unfortunately, when it came to town, but I really liked the compilation this year. I'd heard one in the past, and some of the songs I liked and some I didn't, but I thought this year's was really a good one.
We were really happy with how it came out, especially the packaging, with three discs this year and the Digipak.
Yeah, the DVD was nice... It's kind of sad; I was joking that it was more videos than I'd seen in about a year, so...
Yeah, I know, because on TV it's hard to find videos, now.
Do you get to go out on tour with the show when they're traveling around?
I could -- I went out to DC for the launch, including the press conference we did on Capitol Hill, and I went to Anaheim and L.A. Some of the other staff goes out to other shows; Ian, here, in Marketing is going out to the New York show. But I'm my mid-30s, now. For each show I go to, I need two days to recover. END