I read something today that tells an awful lot about the record industry, and it’s not a pretty picture.
Usually when I write a Wikipedia entry, it’s because something popped up on my watchlist, I read it, and found a reference to something that hadn’t been written yet. Today, a link to Doug Hopkins showed up, so I wrote it. It would be a nice break from writing journalism history, which I’m more qualified to write about, but pop culture is more fun.
Doug Hopkins isn’t a household name, but if you’ve listened to popular music for the past decade, you’ve heard his songs. He was the songwriting talent behind the Gin Blossoms, an alt-rock band from Arizona that rocketed onto the landscape in 1993 and then faded fast.
There isn’t much information out there about Hopkins now, but it’s a typical garage band story: Hopkins founded a band in 1987, the lineup shuffled a bit, they spent a few years writing songs, recorded a one-off album that they sold themselves that contained early versions of what would become all their major hits, then they got discovered, and in 1990 they signed a big-time record deal. They recorded an EP that went nowhere, then recorded a full-length debut, only there was a problem. Hopkins, for whatever reason, couldn’t handle the pressure. He was a self-destructive type anyway, prone to depression and alcoholism and had first attempted suicide way back in 1983. He’d get nervous so he’d drink, then he’d go into the studio and flub up his guitar parts so he’d drink some more to feel better, and then he’d go in the next day and be even worse. Supposedly most of the guitar work on the songs that made the Gin Blossoms famous was actually Jesse Valenzuela, who was normally the rhythm guitarist, and little of Hopkins’ playing actually appeared on the album.
Eventually it got to a point where the band was wondering if they still had a record deal, and Hopkins became the catch. If Hopkins was in the band, they didn’t. If he was out, they did. So in April 1992 they put Hopkins on a plane back to Arizona and had someone back there tell him he was fired. They hired one of their groupies to play lead guitar, paid him half of the salary due to Hopkins ($760 a month–Hopkins got half and his replacement got half), and went on tour to support their album.
A year later, “Hey Jealousy” was being played on every modern rock station in the country, and by summertime, it would be on MTV and on the mainstream rock stations as well. I remember I couldn’t go anywhere in 1993 and not hear that song. Not that I’m complaining.
The deposed Hopkins wrote a few new songs and formed a new band, then another, but he was bitter. His friends were getting famous off his songs and downplaying his role in their creation, while he played small-time bars in and around Phoenix. He wrote a few pop songs for other people to try to make ends meet. But in late 1993, he started to self-destruct. In November, his girlfriend left. One Friday in early December, he went into a detox center for an evaluation, and on his way home, he stopped at a pawn shop and bought a gun. His sister came over that night and found the phone book open to gun shop ads. When she said goodbye to him for the last time, she knew it was the last time.
You probably can guess the rest. One of his new bandmates found him at 1:15 Sunday morning in his apartment.
The guy was obviously self-destructive, and everyone who knew him knew it and tried to get him help, and, having had my own struggles with depression, I know you can’t be helped until you want help. His band members knew it–when you listen to the lyrics, the the Gin Blossoms songs on New Miserable Experience that weren’t written by Hopkins seem like they were written about him–and his family members knew it.
But on top of that, he had to deal with the question of how you pay your bills. At least when I struggled with depression, I didn’t have anyone hounding me for money I didn’t have. I was pulling in a couple thousand a month before taxes–not huge money, but enough to live on. This guy was making $380 a month, plus whatever he could manage to get from songwriting gigs and playing bars.
After his death, Hopkins’ lawyer guessed that his future songwriting royalties would be worth at least $500,000. Not bad for a two-hit wonder, and who knows how much staying power he was anticipating. (The two hits the Gin Blossoms would have after NME weren’t written by Hopkins.)
So Hopkins had a solid financial future ahead of him and anyone could see it. But he died with $498 in his pocket. He had no money in the bank.
There’s a word for that. Exploitation. Hopkins’ depression made for some good songs and some good money, but not for him.
And I’m supposed to run out and buy a bunch of records? When this is how the people who make them get treated? I don’t think so.