By Margaret Webb Pressler
Sunday, May 27, 2007
There are many people who wish they could make music for a living but instead toil away in garage bands or play side gigs on weekends. That makes the founders of the D.C.-based indie band Thievery Corporation feel especially fortunate.
"We always just kind of laughed, like we could never imagine having a career doing this," says Rob Garza, 37, one-half of the global electronic music duo.
But the two Maryland-raised musicians now run a multimillion-dollar business that includes their own record sales, a successful label for other independent artists and lucrative licensing deals selling music for advertising, television shows and other commercial uses. Next month, Thievery will perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion in their biggest local concert ever.
Rob and his partner, Eric Hilton, 41, came to music differently. Eric was raised in Rockville and says his life was changed when he discovered the alternative-rock radio station WHFS and the world music it played. He built a massive cassette tape collection of little-known music and became "the jukebox of my high school," with people looking to him to turn them on to the latest. He dabbled with a few instruments, as well.
After graduation from the University of Maryland, Eric worked as a bike messenger in Washington by day and a well-known deejay by night, making $200 per gig at Washington clubs in the early 1990s. In 1995, he and a few partners had scraped together the money to open a bar called the 18th Street Lounge in Adams Morgan, where Eric is still a partner. The first week of business, Rob Garza came in to check it out.
Rob had discovered electronic music in high school and had been pressing his own records, largely created on the computer, for a few hundred dollars apiece. He, too, was influenced by sounds from around the world, and when he wasn't working for his father's security company, he was making music. But never a profit.
Over a drink the night they met, Rob and Eric decided to see what music they could create together. They experimented extensively with sounds and influences, combining slowed-down hip-hop beats with experimental electronic music, guest vocals and sounds from Jamaican, Brazilian and Indian styles. In 1997, they put out their first album, "Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi."
"We had this debate whether we should press 500 or 1,000 records," Rob recalls. "We decided to gamble and make 1,000." Two weeks later, they started getting reorders from Europe, thanks in part to the duo's relationships with distributors.
Thievery's sound was called trip-hop and was exploding in popularity in the late '90s, especially overseas. Three more records have followed. The pair has sold more than 1 million units, huge for an independent group.
Thievery's sound has evolved, with Eric and Rob playing more actual instruments and using more guest vocals. Their music has been heard on "The West Wing" and on the soundtrack of the movie "Garden State." They travel worldwide and are producing their fifth album. Eric attributes a good portion of the duo's success to timing, arguing that Thievery offered a new sound right when that kind of music was taking off.
"We still pinch ourselves quite a bit," Eric says. "It's almost like we caught a wave."
Did you also turn an artistic passion into a profitable venture? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.