Keeping Bands in Business: Lyle Hysen of Bank Robber Music

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Lyle Hysen at Bank Robber's office (Photo: Jane Bruce)

Lyle Hysen’s been around the block in downtown New York City. And now, at the helm of Bank Robber Music (one of the biggest licensing companies around), in some ways he couldn’t be farther from his days in the early 80’s hardcore scene. In a previous life, Hysen was a drummer for the Misguided and Das Damen, the latter of which was on the legendary punk label, SST Records. He also captained a record label called Damaged Goods as well as a zine by the same name.

Connecting musicians with ad agencies, Hollywood, and TV producers seems a little removed from that world. But when we spoke with Hysen yesterday, we realized maybe he hasn’t changed so much after all–  his love for the Clash reigns on, and he’s still all about keeping the tour van scootin’.

You’ve been in the music game for a long time, so you’ve probably seen it change quite a bit– but how has the music licensing specifically changed?

Well I haven’t been doing licensing since the ’80s, but I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. 15 years? 20 years? 15 years? I dunno. Back when I started, I was running Matador’s publishing company, Doormat, and they didn’t have anyone handling their licensing. At that time not a lot of independent bands were doing licensing. But I was trying to get more opportunities for the bands I was working with, and I was very interested in all the requests that were coming in for artists on Matador such as Liz Phair. So I started following up with these TV people and film people.

There was a general consensus, which was not untrue, that a lot of bands weren’t agreeable to licensing. It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t something they wanted to be a part of. So my main thing was trying to find bands that were agreeable to such things. Even on Matador there were a few. They might not have been the biggest, but some of the bands were into it. And I started working with a publicist to be more aggressive about seeing who was interested in these bands. Back then and up until very recently it was still just a bonus, it was something that if it would happen, it would happen. It wasn’t anything you could count on.

But over the years, as the revenue streams have sunk for the labels, it’s meant that labels have become less dependable than licensing, which meant that  now everyone wanted to do licensing. So even those bands that didn’t want to do it before were like ‘Wait, we’ll do this now.’ So everyone’s chips got on the table. Almost every band. There are still a few bands that don’t wanna do that stuff– which is cool.

So that’s been the change — it’s become the thing instead of just something.

(Photo: Jane Bruce)

And being able to download music on the Internet has exacerbated this even further, right?

Yeah those bands aren’t making anymore, right? The only way bands are really making money now is through touring and licensing. There are a couple things out there it seems, but it seems those are the main drivers for bands. And if they want to keep going they’ve got to keep on the road and get licenses. But you can never really count on a license– that’s what I tell people all the time. You never know when it’s going to happen, so if you’re basing your year on getting licenses last year, it doesn’t work that way. Because last year’s song was new, and this year there’s a song that everyone likes better, or last year they liked songs that sounded like this. So things change and you can never count on licensing, which is a goofy way to base a company.

How do you make it work then, if you can’t promise clients too much?

I never guarantee any number to the labels. I promise the labels we will try, and that their records will be heard. Any pitching guy who guarantees is a liar. Because you never know. Even if you’re working “Revolution” by the Beatles, you can’t guarantee that’s going to get licensed next year.

(Photo: Jane Bruce)

Are bands generally pretty controlling about where there music goes– like they say they don’t want it used for Monsanto or something, but like anything else is fine?

Absolutely. There are some bands that say, “We don’t wanna do McDonald’s,” or “We don’t want to do Hitler, no commercials with Hitler.” Most bands are pretty much open to anything, but even if we get a pitch from Hitler, we’ll tell the bands like, “Hitler wants to use your song, are you OK with that?” It’s not up to us, not that I would approve of Hitler-use, but I’m saying ultimately the decision is the bands’. A lot of bands say they don’t want to do any gas companies, so we’ll be conscious of that.

You used to be on SST Records, right?

Correct.

So I’ve read things that Thurston Moore and J. Mascis have said, about SST being pretty bad at paying artists. Does that have something to do with you getting involved in licensing?

Well, when I was on SST my band had a license in a Ted Hope film, and I remember at that time going, “Whoa, did I just get paid and didn’t even have to move my drum kit?” That was exciting to me. Not that I don’t love playing the drums, but it was more money than I’d made doing any of the gigs we played at the time. So that was the beginning when my interest was sparked in how I could get involved more with this kind of thing.

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 You were a drummer from Das Damen and The Misguided, so you must have seen some really awesome stuff in the early 80s?

I saw some really amazing bands, and I’m going to give away my age but I did see The Clash, and I saw a lot of amazing punk bands and then I segued into seeing a lot of the great Hardcore bands. I saw Minor Threat, Faith, and Void and the Circle Jerks– all that kind of stuff. I was really lucky to be around for a really great era of music. It makes it hard to go schlep out to see some bands now, but I’m still in it.

And you did the whole tour thing too?

Yeah I got in the van and did several States tours, a few European tours, and yeah I did the thing. It’s amazing because and I’ll see the bands now and they go, ‘I don’t like to tour,’ or they’ve made so much money off of licensing they don’t need to tour. But I always feel that the bands have to get in the van. They have to play in front of nobody several times over. That’s how you get the message out. But some bands don’t feel that way, and I feel that you have to be a good live band first — it’s not the third thing to do.

Beer on tap at the office-- we approve. (Photo: Jane Bruce)

Were you always kind of business-minded when it came to music? Or was that something you grew into?

I’ve tried to bow out of being that guy, because I haven’t been a manager for a while. And even when I’m playing now I try to be in the back seat. But I don’t know, it seems that stuff always falls in my lap. I always move all the projects ahead, which was good practice for when I started Bank Robber. It was like, ok this is kind of like five guys in a van and we’ve got to keep moving this forward. It all came around, and a lot of people I met while touring they eventually became clients of mine. It was like, well I knew you back then and this is what people are doing now?

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Where did the name Bank Robber come from?

A: Oh, [Bank Robber is a song by] The Clash — they were a huge influence on me then and are still a huge influence on me as an adult. So when it came to start the company I was trying to think of something with a financial twist to it, to I decided I wanted to have the worst name for when you deposit money into the bank. And I did that, I succeeded, because for many years I’ve been bringing the checks to the bank, and they go, “You’re the bank robber?” Eventually I started using automated tellers because it wasn’t funny anymore.

(Photo: Jane Bruce)

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