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Hard Rock Records: An Open Checkbook for Emerging Bands

Restaurant and concert company starts a label

George Rose/Getty Images
August 9, 2012 3:00 PM ET

When you think of the Hard Rock name, what jumps to mind? Walls covered in Elvis' jumpsuits, good burgers and the cafés abundant T-shirts from around the globe. Since its launch as a London burger joint in 1971 – frequented by the likes of Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, according to the back-of-the-menu legend – the rock-themed restaurant chain has grown to 140 cafés and 18 hotels/casinos in 54 countries. Now Hard Rock is adding its first record label to the mix, Hard Rock Records.

It's a seemingly obvious move for the corporation, hard to believe it hasn't been done in the past, especially with such distinct music outlets – the Hard Rock Live venues, the annual Hard Rock Calling festival in London and the global battle-of-the-bands competition, Hard Rock Rising.

The brainchild of CMO John Galloway and A&R co-heads Blake Smith and James Buell, Hard Rock Records is only in its first year and thus far has just one act signed to its roster – the Gulfport, Mississippi roots-rock act Rosco Bandana. More interesting than its late entrance into the record label game is that Hard Rock Records is marking itself as an "altruistic" label, or a non-profit, so to speak.

"We had discussed different variations of a label a few years ago," Buell explains to Rolling Stone. "Everything was netting back to how were we going to make money. After we did our research, it just never seemed like a good idea."

Last year during Lollapalooza, where Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel is the annual ground zero for the fest's biggest after-parties, Galloway approached the two and told them to move forward with the label. "He said, 'No, that's the thing, that's the catch – we're NOT going to make any money," explains Buell.

"It's kind of like music philanthropy," adds Smith. "We want to find bands that need a leg up. We take them for a year, make a record with them, give them video money, give them a van, get a booking agent to help them get on the road, and hopefully find them another label that is going to house and better build them for the long-term. We do all this with them, and they keep every penny of everything and they walk after 12 months."

What's the catch?

"The first thing out of every band's mouth that we approach is 'What's the catch?'" says Smith. "Everybody just looks at us like we are out of our minds. People just can't believe it."

The company calls it "an equity play."

"More or less, it's a marketing budgeted expense that gives us the freedom to not worry about if a band sells 100,000 copies or 100 copies, " says Buell. "The success for us is taking a band that doesn't have the means to tour but really wants to pursue their dream of getting on the road. We're hoping that it's a long-term marketing thing, so that when they are out on tour and any bands they are playing with, hopefully they are talking positively about Hard Rock."

Hard Rock Records hopes to sign four acts a year: the winner of Hard Rock Rising plus three others. Buell, whose current favorite bands include Mumford & Sons and Frightened Rabbit, and Smith, the self-described "electro-indie rock guy," encourages bands to send their demos to the label's Orlando address: 6100 Old Park Lane, Orlando, FL 32835.

What not to do: "Someone found my home address," says Smith, "which was a little scary. I got a big package sent to my house that looked like one of those cartoon bombs – a black round ball with a fuse sticking out of it meant to signify an explosion of music."

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