"In my mid-20s, I thought it was fucking ridiculous, standing next to a 14-year-old," says Scotty Sandwich, the owner of the digital record label Death to False Hope Records, already a few whiskeys into his afternoon at Motorco Music Hall. "Now, as I'm getting older, and especially with my label, I'm seeing how important those kids are to the scene. Not seeing them at shows is kind of a bummer."
Sandwich's own involvement in the punk world started when he was a teenager. It affected the course and outlook of his life, evidenced by the ink all over his body. "Pilgrim," his right wrist reads, in honor of the second album by Durham band Red Collar; on his left wrist he sports the initials of his label. "All of my tattoos are actually band logos," says Sandwich, rolling up his sleeves. There's At the Drive-In and The Descendants, too. His face lights up with a mixture of wonder and pride.
The Chicago native moved to Durham two years ago. He'd spent the better part of the decade working as a tour manager for several bands. He was tired of sleeping on couches. But his idea of settling down, if that is what he's done, involved starting a nontraditional, online-only label that has already made respectable inroads in the punk world. He runs the label with the help of a South Carolina college student who manages the website and plays in one of his bands, Stage Fright Therapy.
"What we did is not special or even important. We're just two dudes who bought a website and were like, 'Fuck it. Let's give away music for free,'" he says. "That doesn't mean people are going to go out and find it."
People are finding Death to False Hope, though: The label's flagship band, Cincinnati's Mixtapes, shared end-of-the-year lists in the punk press with big-time acts like The Gaslight Anthem and Leatherface. Sandwich says another band has made $20,000 in donations from 18,000 of these free downloads. Sandwich seems led by the liberation of music, really. He gives away music—in two years, more than 200,000 songs from about 70 bands. What's more, he wants area kids to have more chances to go to all-ages shows, to give their lives to rock 'n' roll like he did. This weekend, his first-ever music festival will feature 49 bands—including heavy-weights Less Than Jake and one of only four local shows this year by Durham favorites Red Collar—for $25. It's all-ages, of course,
Though he runs a digital label, Sandwich, 29, fixates on physical products. He's currently obsessed with collecting beer koozies, for instance. More to the point, he also believes the physicality of seeing concerts is essential, especially at a young age. He doesn't see that in the Triangle.
"I think [an all-ages scene] is an important way for a teenager to actually fall in love with music," he says. He describes his own teen years, riding the train into Chicago to see shows five nights each week. From across the bar, Chris Tamplin, one of Motorco's four owners, mentions a skate park not far from the venue where a diverse crowd of kids hits the ramps daily. Skate and music culture are historically intertwined, so it might make sense for a local room to get teens and teen bands out of house shows and into venues, something to bridge that gap.
"Once you get into venues, the music starts to get a little bit more legitimacy," says Sandwich. There are all-ages gigs at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre and The Brewery, Sandwich says, but they're often stylistically cloistered or crowded by everything but kids. "Even at all-ages shows, I don't see all ages there," he says, noting The Brewery as the sole exception. "I go to all-ages shows all over. I go to Local 506 shows that are all-ages. Even there it's UNC students, 19- or 20-year-olds." Sandwich wants to get bands in front of younger kids before their tastes in music have crystallized at college.
And so, just as he did with the little digital label that's become a big punk success, he thinks grand: "The one thing I want to start doing next summer is start doing all-age hardcore and punk rock shows and get the skate shop involved and get them to sponsor it," he says. Sandwich speaks rapidly, occasionally tripping on his tongue, but there's not much filler. Listening to him can be a little like reading three magazines at once. "And let [Motorco] do like CBGB used to do. Sundays, no booze; we're just going to have a show."
From behind the bar, Tamplin firmly interrupts Sandwich's excited wanderlust with an amused grin. "We're having booze," he says.
"Well, have it for the parents who drive the kids there," Sandwich concedes. "Have it completely designed for high school students to come in and see live music."
Alcohol is actually the challenge that prevents local venues from hosting all-ages shows. Oft-cited North Carolina state laws keep many clubs from opening their doors to those under 21, or even under 18. Those laws, however, may be exaggerated or misunderstood.
"When I bought the club," remembers Local 506 owner Glenn Boothe, "I was told we needed to be 18-plus if we were to sell liquor. At the time, both the Chapel Hill Police Department and the North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement Division requested that I be 21-plus. They both admitted legally I could be 18-plus."
Boothe went with the younger age limit. But after several years behind the bar, he wondered why other clubs with the same liquor license could throw all-ages shows. He soon found out that he never needed an age limit. Even now, though, the 506 crowd still tends to be over 21.
This bothers Sandwich. He knows that not only the next set of music lovers but also the next batch of musicians are currently in their teens.
"Where's this next generation of music coming from?" he leads rhetorically. "It's going to be coming from these kids. We're in our 30s or getting close to our 30s and we're all going to keep making new bands, but do they want to see that?"