Spotlight: 'The Hard Times' Founder Matt Saincome on Turning Punk Into Comedy & Developing a New TV Show
"That's kind of how the punk world works: If you talk shit, you get beat up."
Dolphin sex is what led Matt Saincome to launch his satirical punk culture media enterprise The Hard Times -- reporting on it, not engaging in it. In 2013, Saincome was a recent journalism graduate from San Francisco State University working as a freelancer for SF Weekly, when his editor forwarded him a press release about a man who had written an autobiographical novel about an interspecies love affair with a dolphin. He wound up interviewing the man and published an article called, simply, "Meet the Man Who Had Sex with a Dolphin (and Wrote a Book About It)," which went viral thanks to both the outrageous subject matter and Saincome's humorous tone. The story became the Weekly's most-viewed post of the year.
"It was just a smash hit," says Saincome, now 27, explaining that the story made him an in-demand writer, and led to him being named music editor at the paper. But although he was working more, something wasn't sitting well with him.
"I remember being really excited about all that success, because it was like my comedy and my sense of weirdness had gone viral," he says. "But I remember also thinking, well, I got paid 35 bucks to write that piece. Why don't I just be the guy who owns the website?"
Such is the origin story of The Hard Times, which Saincome launched in late 2014. These days, the site reaches millions of readers per month, and Saincome is preparing his first book modeled on the site and also developing a television show, both based around the idea that alt music fans should be made fun of, too.
As Saincome tells it, on his way to creating The Hard Times he was repeatedly told it was a bad idea. As a college student, he had a music zine called Punks, Punks, Punks and toyed with the notion of making a career out of "punk comedy journalism" -- something his friends dismissed by saying The Onion already existed. He started reading the satirical publication and, while he enjoyed it, he also found he didn't relate to its main character, the white, suburban Area Man, who is a frequent subject of articles.
"My whole life was about music and I was young and I was going to DIY basement shows and so their Area Man wasn't me," Saincome says. "So I thought, there's got to be a hole in the media landscape and I could create a publication that could serve the satirical interest of not just people who like punk music, but people who are underground subculture music types, people who are more likely to understand what it's like to be on tour than it is to take your kid to preschool."
When Saincome brought this idea to his friends, he says, they not only told him it wouldn't work but that he was going to get beat up, too. ("That's kind of how the punk world works: If you talk shit, you get beat up," he says.) But he wrote out six stories anyway and held onto them while he continued to pursue journalism, contributing primarily to SF Weekly and Vice with stories about letting someone else run a dating profile on his behalf and a subculture of men who get off on videos of people popping the air pocket on their Air Max sneakers.
But years later, in 2014, during a lull in freelance work, Saincome decided to finally follow through with the idea for The Hard Times. He spent the majority of the $1,000 in his bank account at the time on a logo and website and edited those old stories again with the help of his comedian friend Bill Conway (who now is managing editor). Once they put the pieces online, things took off quickly.
"This was something that was popular inside a very close-knit underground community that I was a part of, so I was able to talk to them and then spread to a wider audience," says Saincome. "It was like, literally, punk kids making jokes to each other and then just got hyper popularized via social media... The crazy thing is that it wasn't a slow burn. We put it out and in a month there was like a million people reading it. So it just spread super quick and it was just an immediate hit and it has kept going in a really great way."
Since, The Hard Times has built a loyal readership with content that goodheartedly skewers alt music fans and millennials more generally with such recent stories as "Kinky Punk Couple Experiments With Poser Play," "Unanswered Text Initiates Unending Cycle of Self-Loathing and Regret" and "10-Year-Old Music Snob Prefers Weird Al’s Non-Parody Works." The site also runs a video game vertical called Hard Drive, sells merchandise that Saincome says about equals ad revenue, hosts comedy tents at music festivals and promotes its own events around the country. A book is now in the works and a TV sitcom is in development with executive director Evan Shapiro (Portlandia, Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Onion News Network) and comedian Kyle Kinane on board to star. The show will satirize a Vice-like workplace with a staff working for The Hard Times, with the website actually publishing stories, videos and other content that plays a role in the series.
As for what comes next, Saincome is optimistic the plans in development will pan out while he continues to grow The Hard Times' different revenue streams with larger audiences and more opportunities. Beyond that, it's not clear what might follow. "I would like to see the first Hard Times book at Urban Outfitters and a show on TV and I think that both those things are possible and doable," he says. "So I would say it is hard to see a higher goal to shoot for than the ones that we're currently shooting for."
I've learned all the easy or obvious ideas have been taken. The opportunities left are the ones you see that the crowd doesn't. Or the ones where everyone believes it is too difficult or low-yield to be worth the effort, but you have an insight or advantage that proves that notion to be wrong. I think to be a successful entrepreneur is in many senses just to be a successful contrarian -- which may explain why I can be so annoying and contrarian in arguments.
It's very important to appreciate and respect those who have helped you out and given you opportunities that can change your life, but it's just as important to understand your role in helping them reach that decision. You need to be constantly strategizing and positioning yourself -- or, in this, case your company -- to achieve the goals you've set. You can't sit around hoping someone is going to offer you some extraordinary opportunity out of thin air. Some people don't raise their hands enough and think the teacher is going to see a twinkle in their eye, tell the rest of the class to quiet down and hand them the white board marker. The world doesn't work like that. That's movie shit.
I shudder when I hear people describe themselves using the term "aspiring." Just be. If you want to be a comedian, start writing comedy. If you want to be a director, direct things, and continue to be better and better at it every day as if your life depended on it. Be better than those around you. Out-work them. Then when that next opportunity comes up you will be the obvious choice. You may or may not receive that opportunity, but if you routinely put yourself in that optimal position, you will find success in the long run.
Dealing with musicians is great as long as you are dealing with the decision maker of a DIY band. Anyone who can organize getting four of their idiot friends to Japan for a tour, or self-release a record and get it distributed, is capable of getting shit done -- usually cheaper than the more "professional" people, too.
It's good to have the trust and support of your troops. No company has ever been built by a single set of hands. I'd like to think I know everything going on at Hard Times and will always be a key player in the big decisions, but perhaps my biggest task is putting the right people in charge of the right projects and giving them the resources, support and space they need to succeed. It's like a baseball team. I don't hit all the home runs, but I set the lineup. So I'm a little bit of a talent scout, but I also make sure our clean up hitter has the best horse steroids the black market has to offer, we've got a guy in center field with binoculars stealing the signs and we've got a whole bunch of clean piss on standby. I think a true leader, whether it is a business leader or any other kind of leader, understands that the victories belong to the troops and the losses are owned by the bosses.
Spotlight is a new Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.