There are several things to like about Bill Conway.
Of course he’s a great writer and just an incredibly affable human being, (his most notable piece of work being the satirical Punk/Hardcore news source The Hard Times), but after hanging out with him for a bit you realize that Bill is like all the best parts of the punk rock ethos: Strong willed, humble, and fair. When I first contacted him I asked him if he had any The Hard Times stickers available. Not only was he was extremely apologetic when they mentioned they were temporarily out, but he then told me he’d make sure to get me some soon and that I didn’t have to pay for them because “stickers should be free”.
Stickers Should Be Free: You can go suck it “No Free Lunches” cause that’s a state of mind we should all get behind.
Bill and I met at the Helium Comedy Club in the early evening just after he got off work. Bill is one of those guys who loves comedy and is all about pursuing it but he also has a very specific skill set for his day job, which in this case is working with electricians and selling electrical hardware. Seriously. When he sat down he pointed out the outlet behind me and told me the model number and how “the stainless steel framing was a sleek look for higher end kitchens and businesses”. Rest assured though, he’d rather be doing many other things before selling outlets which is sort of where we started.
Danny: So how long have you been working as an "electrics guy".
Bill: Too long, too long. Ehh, probably at different places for about 12 years.
Danny: Wait, what?
Bill: Yeah, when I was 19 I went to a vocational school for being an electrician, did not like it, and then was like, "Oh I'll do this in the mean time", and that turned into 12 years. It was easy because when I moved to San Francisco it was easy to just get "that" job. I mean, it's one of those things where I could have moved up in the job but I didn't want to. Like, this isn't what I want to do!
I actually had a performance review at my job today and since The Hard Times has been doing better my productivity at work has decreased slightly. There's direct correlation since it was first started, and I continue to think things like "I could give two shits about my job!" and stuff like that. But even with all that I had this performance review and my manager essentially gave me a perfect score and in my head I'm like, "I've been trying to suck at this! How much less could I be doing then I'm currently doing!".
It's an easy job, but it's a SHITTY job. It takes up brain power I do not want to dedicate to it. For example, when there's downtime I can do a Hard Times thing at work but if a customer comes in they derail my train of thought. It's a weird thing. I mean, whatever. It pays the bills.
Danny: I felt the same way at my old job. I definitely read maybe 3 Game Of Thrones books when people weren't looking. Or write jokes or something. I do see what you're saying though. You just don't want that stuff to be taking up your time.
For what it's worth I do think I remember you posting the first article for The Hard Times and its rise in popularity has been astronomical. It's impressive to say the very least.
(For the uninitiated Bill is one of the co-producers of The Hard Time which is in his own words "...an Onion ripoff but for punk/hardcore news...". In the past year THT has amassed 60,000 FB likes, and each of their articles gets around 10,000 shares. It's insane. I remember first looking at the numbers and wondering if they were even real)
Bill: Listen, nobody is more surprised than THT crew. It's me and two other dudes who are the core group. Matt, who's the main guy, thought of the idea. He's a straghtedge dude who I met when he was on my Podcast and I thought he was incredibly funny but he wasn't a comedian; he was definitely more of a journalist. And he had this idea for a "Punk Onion" and asked if I wanted in and I just wanted to respond, "This is all I think about!". Yes, of course I want in. So he put a group of people together and I wrote 100 headlines on my way to The Brody Theater one night and then 50 more on the way back and then we sorted them out from there. 10 of them were funny, 90 of them sucked, but hey, it's a numbers game.
I mean, yesterday's article "God Finalizes Lineup For Supergroup"...
(RIP BOWIE AND LEMMY)
...I posted that at 5:30AM when I got up for work and as I checked on my way out it had 600,000 views. I was like, "Holy shit, this is possible?". I wrote that in 10 minutes. I heard David Bowie died, I took a shower, thought of the headline, posted it in our pitch group, wrote it, went to bed. Matt punched it up a bit, the photoshopping was done, and then...
Bill: Yeah. Like, I can't comprehend the number. Our previous best day was 218,000 views which was crazy. We had beaten that by noon of yesterday. And sometimes we'll get views when people see one article on our website and then click on another but this was ALL for that article. That was the one driving traffic.
Danny: Man. So many questions. With that kind of traffic is the website able to sustain itself with hosting costs?
Bill: We were able to not pay anything out of our pockets within 3 months just with native advertising, which are those bullshit ads at the bottom of the site. They're just garbage, but, they paid enough so we didn't have to use our own money. Then as time went on we were able to pay our contributors a small amount of money. We definitely wanted to pay contributors. I have still haven't seen a payday, Matt either. We want to pay everyone else first. The photo guys also get paid, too.
That said, we are starting to get some deals going with "people" for advertising that could actually mean real money. We're very optimistic, but we do temper our expectations. We're not going to start putting a down payment on a yacht.
Danny: Yeah, that doesn't seem very on brand for, y'all.
Bill: We're HUGE into yachts.
Danny: "I want to make something very clear. We're BIG yacht boys"
Bill: The WHOLE purpose of this website was to finance yachts. That's it.
Danny: I guess the thing that makes this so interesting to me and something that hovered in the back of my head was this thought I had where I kept thinking to myself, "You know, I do not know why I didn't see this coming.". You're 31 and I'm 28 so we're about the same age and when you think about the Hardcore scene it really did touch everyone in our generation. Even if only tangentially.
I'm bending genres way outta proportion here but whether it's My Chemical Romance or Bad Brains it sorta hit all of us in some way.
Bill: Everyone has been to a show at a VFW, one of your friends played in a shitty punk band, we all sort of know what it is.
I was actually talking to the other guys about this because there are people that like the site and people that hate it and we were wondering if we would've been the guys that hated the site. It's very much a "I wish I woulda thought of that!", idea. Even if it's something people don't normally talk about, people do relate to it.
Danny: What's interesting to me is how some of the articles that are written can be a little more general but a lot of them are very much tailored to super referential things. It doesn't seem like you're watering it down.
Bill: We've had some very specific articles lately. One of them was, "Malaysian Guy On Instagram, Wants Defunct Band To Play Here". Essentially, there's a large amount of straightedge/hardcore bands that break up, but on Instagram they get propositioned by people from Malaysia because Malaysia is a Muslim country. They don't drink, they don't smoke; they're essentially straightedge.
Danny: That is so goofy. And they like the music?
Bill: They go nuts for it! They love it when you sing about not drinking. That's it.
(I feel as though it's been mentioned a lot already but just to make it official straightedge culture is essentially a culture that embraces abstinence from drugs and drug like things. Minor Threat coined it in the 80's and various versions of it have evolved since then.)
Danny: You'll have to excuse me because I'm essentially going to announce some of my favorite articles, but some of my favorites were "Band Goes Back To Van For Fourth Time This Evening", as well as "Record Store Not Accepting Any More Bad Brains". They're so great because all you have to be is somewhat connected to music and you'll enjoy them.
Bill: It's weird because you can never pinpoint which ones will do well. Sometimes you'll think you have a real killer and it sort of falls flat, and then the ones that feel half assed go insane. I still can't figure out the pattern and honestly it just feels like a numbers game. You just gotta stay consistent. You build your audience. We just haven't missed a day and now we're starting to do it 7 days a week because before it was just Monday through Friday. We just want to keep getting new people without burning people out which is a very real thing.
Danny: Without having to share any secrets has anyone from one of the big satirical news sites hit you up? Like the AV Club or The Onion? Have they been like, "Hey! This is really cool!".
Bill: There have been some interesting shares. One guy shared it whose occupation on FB was listed as "The Onion" and he said, "I am so glad one of the many Onion ripoffs out there is actually funny and is based on punk and hardcore", and I was so flattered!
Danny: You can see how it's just a little pointed but at the same time very appreciative.
Bill: Yeah, and we totally acknowledge that we're an Onion ripoff. Are you familiar with Jake Fogelnest?
Danny: For sure.
(Jake Fogelnest is a long time comic and a writer on Netflix's "Wet Hot American Summer")
Bill: He messaged us on FB and just said, "I don't know who you guys are, but I love this.". I didn't know what to say. I've been a fan of him for a while. Occasionally we'll look at the Twitter followers and see who's verified and we've had Kurt Braunholer, Jonah Ray, and people like that follow us. People who are legit comedians and they don't have to click follow on shit that they don't want to see. They're not dudes with 30,000 followers who follow 60,000 people. They've got 30,000 followers and follow 200 people. It's a very curated feed and we appreciate it. Seeing it validates it in a very cool way.
Danny: You mentioned earlier that despite the success of the website you still think about this stuff all the time. It sounds like a "lifestyle" for lack of a better word.
Bill: I was thinking about it recently. When I was in 7th grade I bought a "Warzone" CD because my cousin was big into them and I remember thinking, "This isn't that great.", and then I listened to them again and realized it was the best thing ever. I got into hardcore, punk, and skateboarding as well.
Also, when you get into skateboarding you can go one of two different ways. You can either go Hiphop or Punk and there's almost no crossover and I went punk. Just going to shows all the time. I'm from Massachusetts and from the time I could see shows I was seeing the best ones because I grew up in the golden age of the Boston hardcore scene. People still talk about the bands from that era. They're the best ever. And of course there's lots of garbage friend shows that you go to at the VFW that your friend's band headlines when they shouldn't be headlining.
But that's been since I was 12 to now and I guess it just becomes a part of who you are. It's weird. In theory, I think hardcore has an ethos it likes to portray where if a person who was into it came into town and they needed a place to crash you just point to your couch and say, "Yeah, right here. This is your couch.". It's very much the idea that if I went to a different city I'd almost expect someone to say something like, "Of course I've got a fucking floor for ya! You gotta Minor Threat tattoo? Sleep right here!".
Danny: Is it the energy behind the music that's so compelling to you? The same way early punk was so vastly different than what was being put out at the time?
Bill: In a way it definitely is? So, I'm straightedge so I don't drink or smoke or do anything like that and even if there were no word for it, I'd still be it. I don't love the label so much, but I don't want to drink/smoke and straightedge fits that. With that said, when you type in "straightedge" on a computer when you're 12 or 13 on Napster and you want to listen to every song that's ever mentioned the word straightedge they're basically all hardcore bands. Then all you want to listen to is Slapshot and Minor Threat. Basically all these bands that talk about this specific one thing. And once you go to the shows you realize that this is something different. You're afraid of it, but at the same time there's 70 people there and you guys are the only people experiencing this right now.
It's like a great comedy show where you walk out and you realize it was a completely unique experience.
Danny: It can be very real and ephemeral: Fleeting.
Bill: I think that's a big part of it, and then you meet your like minded friends and it becomes insular. You know, some people get out of it when they go to college, and some people never grow up. I don't really go to shows much anymore because my back hurts all the time, plus I don't need to get punched by a 16 year old.
Danny: I mean, that's going to hurt really bad. Plus, when you punch them back they're not going to feel anything because they're 16.
Bill: And if a fight happens and I end up getting beat up by a 16 year old that's just embarrassing.
Danny: That's no fun!
I feel like I can relate somewhat to the straightedge experience because people are constantly coming up to me saying, "You don't drink, right?", and I definitely do, just not that much. Maybe once a month.
Bill: You have a healthy relationship with it!
Danny: Yeah whenever I drink I usually get very tired and then go to bed.
Bill: What a blast!
Danny: I can imagine going to a hardcore show can be insane just because not only do you have very powerful music happening around you but everyone listening to it is laser focused on what's happening and 100% there.
Bill: There are dudes that love to get drunk, go to straightedge shows, and then sing every lyric. And that's fine but what's the joke? You had a good time! Do you not relate to the lyrics? Because I certainly don't relate to any metal lyrics but I can still think it's cool. I just don't image I'm on a mountain top by the hammer of Odin.
That time I was referring to earlier in Massachusetts where the scene was huge, there was a point where lots of people stopped being straightedge and then got way into stoner rock bands. It's like once your not straightedge anymore you're in a stoner rock band.
Danny: A real Tame Impala situation.
Bill: Everything slows down. Lotta drum fills.
Danny: One other point I wanted to make a point of mentioning is this thing my friend Sam Tallent outta Denver, CO keeps mentioning...
Bill: Oh yeah Sam is actually writing an article for THT.
Danny: ...oh that's great! Sam Tallent. Fantastic individual.
(Please look up Sam by the way. He's the comedy road warrior)
Sam always talks about how comedy is sort of like the 5th wave of punk rock. Which is funny in that it's not punk music, but this is what that ethos has turned into. What with communities helping each other and just being "chill".
Bill: It has the same ethics in theory. There's a lot of direct correlations with the DIY thing and there's also lots of shit talking but ultimately it's still "us against them".
Like, if somebody I don't personally like gets heckled I'm still on their side. I mean, if they're being homophobic, misogynist, racist; that's another story. If a comedians is just having a bad set though and they're on the right side of history and someones being a dick you tell em you yell, "Hey! Dick! Shut up! Fuck you, this is fucking tough.". You find your people within the smaller scene, you find a small space, and then sometimes that business figures out that maybe it's not the best thing for comedians to be there.
Danny: (laughs) Portland Comedy is tangentially connected to at least 5 bars closing. We either directly impact them or our presence was there in the dying throws.
Bill: We're not punching the ceiling tiles out or tipping over the sound stuff, but a terrible open mic night can run away business.
Danny: It's tragic, but I still find it hilarious. It's the slow creep of a family members health deteriorating. Like, "Oh shit my dad totally has Alzheimers!".
So for you guys in the interim I guess it's just keep plugging away, making good work.
Bill: Consistency is the key. And you really never know which article is going to hit and which one's going to flail. Just keep putting it out and having faith in it.
With the way we work it if 2 out of the 3 guys like it we keep it and we'll give it a try. The only thing we've really noticed is whenever we directly say somebody has died the article never does well. If it's about a dead punk or a dead person nobody clicks those ones. Also, ones that make fun of Nazis don't do well. Nobody shares them because nobody wants to share a white power news story in their feed. Even if the headline is funny you're still putting something that says "white power" in your news feed. We're trying to keep it positive ultimately.
Danny: Well I'm always excited to see a new share and I'm excited about your future. Thanks so much!
Bill's got a great new show called "All Comics Are Bastards" that's happening on a monthly basis at the KickStand Comedy Space. The first one was great and you should definitely check out future ones as well. And of course check out The Hard Times. It's great, and will make you feel like a youth again.