Interview: Eric Tobin, VP of A&R and Business Development of Hopeless Records

Interview by Yising Kao

Eric is featured in our Music Industry issue!:

Photo by Megan Thompson

Eric is Hopeless Records’ Executive Vice President of Business Development and A&R. He has had years of experience with artist career development, creating unique marketing plans and ideas, international business, sales, tour managing, and more. Hopeless Records was founded by Louis Posen, with their roster including bands such as With Confidence, Stand Atlantic, Super Whatevr, and Taking Back Sunday. Recently, the label has released a Songs That Saved My Life album, a charity compilation for mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

What inspired you to get into the entrepreneur side of the music industry?

I’m from a small town, so I’ve heard about the music business, but I didn’t think of it as a thing you could work in. I had been playing music since I was a kid, like the trumpet and piano, and I sang, and I went to college. I applied at one place and they had a music program there and I knew they had scholarships, so I got some for performance, and they had a Music Industry and Business Management program, so I decided to study that. I think that helped in that space. I really wanted to work in studios and wanted to be an engineer, but that position was not one that was very exciting. I met a guy named Dave Shapiro and he was in a band and booked bands and I helped out. He said, “You should go on tour with me” and I said, “Yeah, I don’t like this town and I'm not going anywhere,” so I sold all my stuff and when on tour. He was like, “You can be the tour manager” and I really didn’t know what that meant, but I just went out on the road and started asking questions and wanted to make sure that I could do the job so that I could stay on the road and never have to come home, and that morphed into doing merchandise, guitar teching, driving, towning, and anything and everything to stay on the road for almost five years. I came to California because my brother was looking to move and Dave was out here and wanted me to move out, so I got a job in music.

That’s awesome! So, you started out as an artist and tried different jobs in the industry, and discovered what you were passionate about?

I’ll tell you the truth, I was mostly passionate about getting out of my hometown and going out to see the world. I grew up around these really interesting and amazing people who I'm still friends with, all these travelers and in the 90s, there wasn’t the internet, so people would tell stories about the places they’ve been and the stuff they’ve done. It sounded so fantastic and I read so many National Geographic books when I was a kid and enjoyed that idea so it felt like I could have that too. I really wanted to travel and had a goal to see as much of the world as I could, and the touring thing really met that goal. By the time I was 25, I’d seen a fair amount of the world and I kind of felt like, “Wow, what could be next? I don’t know if I want to quit doing this. This is what I love the most” but this opportunity came to me and I took it; it kind of happened accidentally. Dave said he couldn’t take it, so he introduced Louis to me, and I applied for the job. It just felt like an adventure and in a lot of ways, I could still travel and see the bands and all my friends. It didn’t feel like I was going to be working in music, it just felt like I was going to continue seeing the world and get to know lots of interesting people, which is more of my goal. I just love my artists, my work, my co-workers, and my boss.

Hopeless not only promotes music, but also values that are important to them and their bands such as raising mental health awareness. What inspired this path and philanthropy?

That’s a good question for Louis, but I’ll give you my idea of it. Louis was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which caused him to lose his eyesight. Part of that was influential to him, but what he really recognized and what we all recognized as a team was that when artists speak, people listen. Especially in this rock community, artists deliver a message that they're not in this for just a song, they're in this because the band has an idea and a whole world around them. for those moments where we’re missing something in our life, those artists offer those words to sort of console us, so people believe in that idea. Every band we sign here I believe has a message to deliver and there are fans who take that message and live with it and it inspires them to continue forward. And out of that idea, we felt that if someone can deliver that message, why can’t we connect something good to that? Maybe the fans don’t necessarily care about that in the sense that they’re going to run down to volunteer, but if everyone’s going to listen to these bands, then why not connect them to charities or nonprofits? All the fan has to do is listen. If they're at a show, then they're a part of it, like the money from the ticket, or from the music; money is being sent to that charity. They don’t have to go out and volunteer, they can just do what they love and listen, and be in love with the band. If 1% of the people get the message, great; the rest are already donating. That idea came from how we make a difference in the community, so let’s add even more to that and share the philanthropy.

How do you brainstorm ways for bands to release content to constantly keep their fans’ attention while also gaining new fans?

Each artist is going to have a different idea of what's the best route and they know their fans. Artists’ input is really important to us, so it’s not a cookie-cutter thing. We’ll discuss where they're at in their career and what songs they have. Of those songs, which do we think are the strongest that are going to connect with your fans? We’ll shoot a visual that can be from a lyric video to a music video to something else. We’ll ask, “Will you be touring during the time we put this out? No? Then let’s find you a tour and see if we can make this happen.” Once that tour’s in place, we’re going to drop this music 3 or 4 weeks before that tour and the video will come out on top of that, and we’ll push for promotion and during tour, we’ll drop another song to keep that attention. If people are engaged, we want to continue to keep them engaged the moment their attention is connected to that thing. So, we look for those opportunities to either create them or double-down on them, or work on already existing situations. There’s no like, “Every band gets 3 videos and 3 months of preorder.” Every single artist is a little different and it spans from who we think the fan is, what we think the best timing is, what we think the best songs are, who we think are the right partners to work with, and then we get it right every time. We’re really trying to create that exciting moment where fans don’t go, “Oh that’s good,” they go, “This is my favorite thing,” and someone else goes, “That’s not my favorite thing,” and the whole conversation begins that creates this bubble around it. And from there, we can double-down on that bubble. We do all the normal things-pay for videos, pay for songs to record them, pay for photographers, work on social media and promo, but those are tools to work on a creative timeline.

What are some important factors that you take into consideration before signing a band?

The biggest one for us, since we’re a niche sort of label and we deal with a certain style of rock, is fit. Does it fit with our community and our core strengths that we build on in this community? Also, if they have a message. What is the thing you're trying to deliver? Do you believe it? do you at the very least, have a strong feeling of urgency to deliver that message? What does that message mean in the lyrics and the photos and the art and the way you're thinking about the creative side? We like to see the person who’s singing have that thing; the band and idea has to be that thing. It’s nice when someone’s a sort of spokesperson on a larger level. Some of the smaller stuff is, are they able to finance themselves? It’s not always needed, but its nice when its there and its important that a band is art, but its also a business. When they have that idea where they know timelines, saving money, and working regular jobs are important, it helps me know that they're in it for the long run and they're motivated and stable.

What advice do you want to give to people who aspire to work in A&R?

Like music and have an opinion about it. What are your favorite and least favorite things and why? Why do you think that’s successful and why not? Be willing to ask people for advice like, “I really like this. Why do you think that’s working?” They’ll have an opinion and you can agree with it or say, “Maybe that’s not an opinion I would take.” When artists come to town, go and see them play. Have an idea if its good or bad. Meet them after and talk to them, and have a context like, “Hey I’m currently an intern” or “I’m currently going to school here. I'm interested in what you're going to do.” Start to build that relationship; some will want to have that, and some won’t, but that practice is valuable of constantly having a conversation. Knowing that you're not going to be right, but at least you can share your ideas and your feedback and listen to the other ideas, and you can grow off of that. For me, I have many jobs and A&R is one of them, but once the band is here, I'm working on helping them go on tour and write good music and just be good to themselves and grow, and have better live shows, integrating with our marketing department and doing business development. I have a hybrid job, but getting to that place and getting to know the right people and being trusted takes time and patience, and you have to build a good reputation.