Push come to shove, The Hard Times is easily one of our favorite websites. They’ve been chugging along since December 2014, merrily and unapologetically making fun of everything you hold dear, laughing at the music scene you take oh-so seriously. But it’s a labor of love, and if you love It, it will deliver at least a half dozen stories to crack you up every day. On the occasion of the release of The Hard Times: The First 40 Years, we sat down with founder Matt Saincome for a fun and interesting look into how this revered little website came to be, some of the issues of publishing, as well as some exciting new developments to check out.
If you’ve never visited it, you’re in for a treat. If you have visited it, then we think you’ll thoroughly enjoy this conversation. And please, go check out the book! Though it’s got some of the site’s most beloved articles in it, it’s not a rehash; there’s quite a bit of new material, dating back to the earliest days of punk, and makes for a fun little read.
The Hard Times: The First 40 Years can be purchased here: https://thehardtimes.net/book
I’ve really enjoyed the book. It’s funny. When I got the galley proof of it, I thought to myself, they should just release it like this because it reads like the best issue of Maximum Rocknroll that never existed.
(Laughs) I used to read MRR as a kid. Actually, it was one of the first places I ever got music journalism published because I wrote a tour journal for MRR when my band went on tour.
What was your band?
This particular band was called Zero Progress. It was a hardcore straight edge band. We put out a couple of our own records and we toured the US a couple of times.
When was this?
I would say between 2010 to 2014 would roughly be the time that I was really active in a band. We did okay, but I’d say that it came to an end just as The Hard Times really started to take off.
That’s a little after my time, I must admit, as I’m kind of…old. And it’s funny, because The Hard Times has always been so enjoyable to me because even though I’m in my 40s, so much of what you write about would have been extremelyrelevant to and about the scenes I saw thirty years ago.
The scene never changes, right? (Laughs) I’ve heard that same thing you said from people who were in the original California punk scene of the Seventies. We try to write about the bigger scene, the overarching idea, and some relevant characters that people who are from the music community might know. I think that’s why it relates to people from so many different places and age groups and all sorts of stuff. I think our readership tends to be a little bit older than me. I think that the reason is because you have to have been around for a while to start to see all the quirks and all the characters, and start understanding what parts of the community are silly in order to enjoy the joke. Some people when they’re really young and they’re super into it, they don’t see the humor in it, right? It’s still very real to them. They’re still changing the world or whatever, and they get upset or offended, because it’s talking about them and it’s talking about their friends, and even though they know what’s being said is true, it’s still all they know, and they don’t like it. So, they’re not quite jaded enough to kick back and have some laughs.
It reminds me of something I saw Christopher Guest say about his film A Mighty Wind, where he said you don’t really have to do a lot of extra work to make it funny, because the folk scene is already hilarious enough as it is.
I think punk and hardcore has that characteristic to it as well. You just have to put a little bit of a twist on it, but sometimes this stuff is so naturally funny, all you got to do is point at it.
Was there something in particular that just sort of made you decide you wanted to start the website?
Yeah, I had the notion of this website like a couple of years before we actually started it. I even wrote some of the original articles myself when I was in college. I had a punk zine called Punk, Punk, Punk that I would sell at shows, and it was like a comedy zine. I went to school and I learned some newswriting skills. I became a journalist, and so I thought maybe I could write comedy punk news articles with my newswriting skills. That was the original idea for it.
The reason why I ended up eventually just truly going for it was I became a freelance writer. I was writing for Vice and SF Weekly, and a couple other places, and I was trying to do that full-time because I really wanted to be a writer. But it wasn’t working out; I was not able to pay my bills. I was still thinking about this idea for this website. I was thinking about not being a writer anymore, really, because it was so rough trying to pay my bills with it. People would tell me “Oh, Mike, you’re a great writer.” I would think, who gives a fuck how good I am, if I’m going to starve. Don’t even tell me that. It’s irritating. I don’t want to be a great writer if I can’t make this happen. You know what I mean?
All too well, sadly.
I didn’t have that much money left, but I took almost all of it and I just threw it at this idea of starting this website. I found my co-founder, Bill Conway, and him and I worked on it together for about three months. Then we launched it in December of 2014. It just took off right away. Millions of people were reading it, but it did take me a little time to get the financial aspect of it in order. It’s really hard to monetize an audience properly, even when you can develop one. Takes a little bit of know-how that I had to learn by myself. Eventually we got it all cooking and I could say, “Hey, I did it,” you know? Then, as that is taking off, I actually ended up getting a writing job as the music editor for the SF Weekly. My freelance expedition was a failure, but it forced me to do a couple of things. I ended up not being a failure, so that’s good! (Laughs)
Do you recall if there was one post in particular that either went viral or made you think, wow, we’re really onto something?
Honestly, right off the bat people were just going crazy for it in a way I hadn’t expected it. I was thinking it would take a few months, maybe a few years to really kick off, if it ever got to be more than a little niche thing I was doing to let off steam.
At the time I was writing these cover stories for SF Weekly and it would take me a month to do the reporting, take me hours and hours of writing late at night to write these 4,000-word cover stories. I’m just not a very quick writer. I tried to make my stuff stand out, too. I did a lot of reporting, not just a narrative that you can just like let it flow out. So, it was kind of thick, dense reporting and writing, to get these big, meaningful stories published. But after all that effort, no one would read them! I would look at the analytics and it’s like, “Oh, great, five thousand people read this,” or whatever.
With Hard Times, even for our pieces that weren’t hits, twenty thousand people would read it. It amazed me; the jokes and stories that were hits they would 300 words that I would write in an hour, something fun to release some pressure or to get warmed up for a session of more serious writing. The sort of thing you write and kind of forget about. Then you’d check the analytics and come back thinking, “Wow, half a million people just read that!” It was really apparent, really early—in retrospect much earlier than anyone could have anticipated.
As far as going viral…In January 2015, someone in the band in Deafheaven tweeted about how The Hard Times wasn’t funny or something like that. So, the next day we put out an article that just says “Deafheaven Bassist Falls Asleep Onstage.” We had this perfect photo of the guy who looked like he was falling asleep. That one just went crazy viral. I think that might have been one of our first, “Oh, shit, this might be…people are really going to like this thing” moments. When we first launched the website, every single day that I logged into Facebook, the very first thing that it would show me was 10 of my friends had shared a Hard Times article. I had toured, the country a couple times and made friends all throughout the country sleeping at their houses and playing with their bands, and they were sharing them. But this article, this was something much bigger.
I think that that was part of the early distribution was just that I knew a kid who was in the hardcore scene who would share the articles. An then he knew a kid in New York in the hardcore scene who would share the articles, and he had a buddy in Europe, and it spread organically. It was kind of like a Johnny Appleseed story, where it’s like my friends from all over the country, even if I only had a few, they would share it and just by the nature of social media, eventually everyone involved in punk and hardcore would see it.
So, it was really a truly grassroots experience.
Totally grassroots. Zero marketing budget, almost zero budget, if anything. We started the website with $800 bucks and no marketing, no promotion, no big names attached, no already-built social media audience. It grew because some punk kids liked it. That was it.
I think I first heard of it right around the time it started, and I remember it seemed to grow rather quickly from there, and I think I fell in love with it instantly.
Oh, thanks! I used to be an online poker player, one of the big things I learned from that was you should always study results and try to figure out how to continually improve. You have to ask yourself some tough questions: What did the audience react to? What did they like? What did they dislike? You have to take the lumps as they come. For instance, if we put out something that really doesn’t work, we have to take that as a lesson and learn from it. That’s kind of been ingrained in our company now. That’s how our people think. They study our mistakes and they learn from them. So, I think that’s how we were able to adapt a bit. I still want to adapt more. I want to develop new editorial products and such. We’ve had some success with that. We started a gaming and computer culture website, Hard Drive, that’s also becoming very, very popular. Almost half of our readership now is from that section of our website.
Well, obviously speaking, when you’re dealing with comedy and you’re dealing with satire, not everybody finds it funny. Have you had any legal issues or any particular arguments or fights with any particular subjects that you can talk about?
We published this article, “NOFX’s “Linoleum” wins Floor Trends Magazine Song of the Year for 25 Years Running.” Pretty harmless article, I thought. But Floor Trends Magazine apparently did not think so. They sent us a very strongly worded legal letter threatening all sorts of legal action if we didn’t take it down immediately. I just sent them back three words: “Go fuck yourself.” (Laughs) Then they blocked us on Twitter and they were freaking out, but we didn’t take those articles down. It’s not really in our personality. First of all, when I went to journalism school, I had to take a media law and ethics class, and then beyond that, I have an awesome lawyer who specializes in copyright and fair use and satire and all sorts of stuff. I know where the legal lines are, and I know that we’re not crossing them, so I feel very safe in telling them to fuck off.
But, also, I’m a punk kid who started his own publication and I don’t really care. I didn’t do that so that I could play it safe. You know what I mean? I didn’t create the site so I could have people telling me what to do or what I can or can’t publish. My personality is such that once you go after me, I most definitely will not take that article down now, especially because you came out at me like that. Even if you got a judge to tell me I had to take it down, I would move the whole website offshore and I would refuse. You know what I mean? Like, I’m just … It’s not in my personality. I enjoy … That’s the part of a punk kid, right? It’s just like kind of a big “fuck you” to everyone, like I’m going to do whatever I want.
Sometimes people will be like, “Wow, this article went too far. This isn’t funny, I’m offended!” Like, “We should contact the owners of this website and complain.” I get some emails like that. I just laugh my ass off. I’m like, you have no idea who’s running this thing, like I give two fucks that you hated the joke or that you thought it was whatever. It’s not like some big corporation where I have to worry about what I say, or think to myself, “My God, people aren’t going to buy our things,” or something. (Mock fear) “Oh….I’m worried about the backlash.” A website literally run by punk and hardcore kids. Everyone who owns part of the site, they’re all editors and they work for us, we’re all just punk kids. There are no corporate apologies or anything like that coming out of Hard Times.
I have a lot of fun with that stuff. The legal threats are always a good time. I always laugh, especially because I’ve been on the other end of them, too, in other business stuff and it’s so clear when the strategy is, “Let’s just send him a letter and see if we can get him to capitulate a little bit, and if not, we’ll just not do anything.” It’s interesting how often people use that strategy of just trying to intimidate you; there are no actual legal proceedings. It’s just intimidation tactics. Once you say, “Hey, I’m not intimidated by this,” they literally don’t know what to do. It’s like, “Oh, all right. Well, I guess that’s over then.”
I understand you’re actually in the process of sort of expanding into a more broad music coverage that’s not necessarily focused on the satire and humor aspects of things?
Yes. We’ve tried to launch a couple of different ventures. Hard Times, obviously that one took off. Then we thought it might be fun to do the same thing, but focusing on MMA and pro-wrestling satire. That one flopped. We did a conspiracy theory website. That one flopped, too. We got rid of both of those. Then, we did gaming satire and that one blossomed, so we still have that one. When all the writers are together, sometimes we have these ideas that are kind of funny in nature, but not quite satire. Or, maybe they’ve got an idea of reaching out to an interesting person we want to talk to. We have a lot of musicians who we really admire who like our website, and we want to interview them, and we didn’t really have a space for it.
We recently partnered up with Pure Noise Records, a great independent record company and together, and both of us have started a new project called Hard Noise. That’s a space where Hard Times writers and other writers–our friends or colleagues and just writers who we want to have involved—get the chance just to write about non-satirical music stuff. Then, we publish it on Hard Noise but we pump it up through Hard Times social media channels. We still give … It’s like a relatively big audience there because these things get pushed out through Hard Times. It’s been going really well. We’ve had some really interesting front articles and it also is a good way for us to continue to use our name to promote the music we love, and then cross-promote back to Hard Times.
What we’re really excited about now is Outvoice, the invoicing system that we built that pays writers faster than anyone else. We wanted a way to include more than music writers in that, and so Hard Noise is a good way to let some people just try out Outvoice, which is an invoicing solution that we built.
Here’s a story pitch for you: “Sell-out punk website pays its journalists on time.”
(Laughs) Yeah. Punk ethics require that you’re supposed to be ripped off and paying people on time is not punk. Yeah. You know, it’s interesting to think about, and I’m sure you have a lot of experience with this, but I was a freelance writer, and then I was an editor, and then I was a publisher. There is just chronic mishandling of the way that freelancers are paid at every step of the process, and there’s so much time wasted, energy wasted, money wasted. It’s a fucking nightmare. It makes you wonder why you bother. I got to a point a couple times where I was like, I’m not going to invoice for this. The amount of paperwork and nonsense that I have to do for $50 bucks is like … I can’t handle it.
A lot of freelancers think it’s just a case of a publisher being stingy or greedy—myself included. When I became a publisher, I started to realize that that wasn’t always the case at all. Sure, you are going to have some people who don’t mind screwing over their writers, or like to play down how much they’re reallymaking whilst pushing a narrative of being a poor little DIY operation with no steady income.
When I became a publisher, I decided I was going to see how I could fix this. I discovered that there actually are no invoicing solutions built for the publishing world. They’re all built for lawn mowers and house painters. These systems can be kind of bent to work for the publishing world, but they have a weird fee structures that make them completely untenable for publishers, stuff like where you have a fee of $10 a month per contributor, whether or not they’re active or not. You’re like, all right, well that just immediately tanks the notion that any publisher could use it because publishers have a thousand contributors who are active and inactive at random times. You could go broke having to maintain these monthly fees for someone who isn’t a full-time writer and only contributes once a year or so.
It’s inside of WordPress. You just literally click the freelancer’s name and type in a number that you agreed to pay them for the article. Then, instead of a publish button, you have a publish and pay button, and then our system takes care of literally everything else; at tax season, does all the accounting, keeps a perfect record of everything. It also handles the payments no matter where they live, even if they live in some other part of the world. Outvoice is a really exciting tool, and I’m really proud of it. It’s something that I always wanted to exist. The publishers who been using it have really been happy about it.
It’s interesting; you visit Hard Times and we knock a lot of the DIY culture because so much of it is funny and laughable, but at the same time, it’s that same ethos that drives us to create and hopefully to make the world a little bit better, whether through laughter or technological innovation. I’ve had a lot of fun getting to this point—and won’t be stopping any time soon!