Modeling themselves after underground legends such as Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre fame, the four girls decided in 2013 to launch their own band–at just 11 years old. The group began playing shows across New York City, from local talent pageants to staple venues including Madison Square Garden, where they opened for a WNBA game, and Summerstage in Central Park. In the meantime, they caught the attention of media outlets like the New York Times and New York Magazine.
What they didn’t realize was that they had unwittingly launched a business–and one with punishingly slim profit margins.
“You would think that we make a lot of money,” says Dea Brogaard-Thompson, 16, the group’s lead guitarist, her face partially hidden by a sheet of thick, blonde hair. “But whatever profit we make goes into paying things back.” Expenses include producing music videos, renting practice space, and manufacturing merchandise.
Lena Faske, also 16, the band’s elegantly fierce drummer, puts it more bluntly: “We didn’t realize that we wouldn’t just get handed cash, and do whatever we wanted.”
Over the past five years, Harsh Crowd has blossomed into a major player in the New York City punk rock scene. After releasing their first EP, “Don’t Ask Me,” in September 2015, they gained recognition from the media and their peers alike. The girls have opened for indie rockers such as Mirah, Army Ray, and Sharon Van Etten, generating around $2,500 in ticket sales and an additional $2,000 worth of merchandise. Now, they’re preparing to sign with an independent record label, which could help them to open up ancillary revenue streams, such as getting their music placed in commercials or TV shows.
Lately, however, Harsh Crowd has been forced to reckon with some of the more bitter realities of running a growing business: Co-founders don’t always agree on how to proceed. Revenue from ticket sales and merchandise does not equal profit. In order to make money, you have to spend it. And with fame comes the responsibility of representing your demographic, whether you intended to or not.
For instance, Harsh Crowd doesn’t identify as “feminist,” per se, even though most fans assume that’s the case. And notably, the members all say they’ve each experienced some degree of sexism. “People have said to us, oh you’re good for your age, AND you’re girls too?” says Rihana Abdulrashid-Davis, 15.
But the way the group sees it, they simply have attitude about current events, which come out in the lyrics. Their music deals with themes including the pressure of classical beauty standards–a sample lyric is “You said I dress up like a doll, but I’m no supermodel!”–and income inequality (“Rise up, the 99%, get next month’s rent!”) Their most recent release, “Clowns,” is a loose critique of President Donald Trump and the 2016 election cycle.
Lead singer Willow Bennison, 15, says the band doesn’t want to be labeled or tethered to any one opinion. Lena, ever the pragmatist, adds that they could be cutting themselves off from future business opportunities, should they decide they want to play to more conservative crowds. “When you target a specific audience, you’re targeting opportunities,” she says. If you’re too narrow, adds Dea, “it pigeonholes us.”
But trying to decide what exactly it is they want to be as a band–or as people, really–has led to arguments. For one solemn hour in 2016, Harsh Crowd broke up, citing the frustration that came with not being able to write new songs. It doesn’t help that some of the band members are averse to playing to their own peers, whereas others are more of the “everything’s-an-opportunity” mentality. They quickly came up with a solution to working through their problems: Calling regular “band meetings” every time there’s a new opportunity, such as deciding whether or not to be interviewed by Inc. magazine.
They also make a point of limiting the time they spend together outside of rehearsal, in part to avoid friction. That’s not especially difficult, given that that four–who met a rock camp in 2011–live relatively far from one another and attend different high schools. While Dea and Lena live in Brooklyn and Manhattan, respectively, Willow and Rihana commute from upstate. (The four rehearse on Saturday afternoons in Brooklyn, although occasionally one of the members will need to Skype or FaceTime in.) In the early days, hanging out could lead to “silly fights,” says Lena. By focusing more on the music, she adds, their friendships have only strengthened.
Harsh Crowd performs at Irving Plaza in New York City.
CREDIT: Edwina Hay/Courtesy Harsh Crowd
This year, in particular, has been a turning point for the group. Lena explains that they have begun contacting record labels, to see what they would need to do in order to be signed. Some labels would pay the artists up to $50,000, the group explains, with the contingency that the bulk of it be spent on recording, publicity and promotion.
But in the meantime, not everyone agrees that signing with a massive distributor is the right way to go. Lena and Dea, to be sure, are high school seniors set on going to college. And while three plan to pursue music careers, Rihana wants to study medicine.
They all agree, however, that the experience of launching and maintaining Harsh Crowd has taught them that entrepreneurship is an option for anyone.
“I’ve learned from this that I don’t need to have a boss,” says Dea. “That’s really valuable to me.” She brushes back a strand of hair, her punk demeanor momentarily disappearing as she giggles at a text. She is, after all, a teenager–albeit one that sounds like a typical entrepreneur. “It’s nice knowing that you can do it for yourself.”