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Can Theft Kill A Band?

Indie artists are expected to make their money on the road. But what happens when their gear gets stolen?

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"I'm paranoid now," says Haley Fohr, the short-cropped brunette's eyes jetting from one side of the bustling room to the other. The 23-year-old slouches deep into her chair, scanning the downtown Chicago coffee shop on this, the sort of winter afternoon that provides cheeks a natural blush. Fohr, who performs as experimental noise-rocker Circuit Des Yeux, is recalling how her professional life was ripped apart at the seams only a few days earlier.

"It's so hard to be self-sufficient as a musician," she says, "so when something like this happens…" Her voice trails off. Fohr is describing her turn as the latest victim of instrument theft. A week ago she'd been recording in the nearby Logan Square neighborhood and, upon returning to her car parked at a busy intersection, the small-town Indiana girl, having lived in Chicago for only a few months, discovered her custom-built amplifier, a set of microphones, and her guitar case had all been stolen. Fohr estimates her total losses total nearly $2,500. "It's crippling," Fohr admits. "I can't afford to save up. I don't have the time or money to rebuy everything I had." She wonders what will become of her budding musical career. How will she continue gigging without the equipment that helped define her sound?

"I honestly don't know," she admits, dejection overtaking her otherwise gentle face. "I don't have a plan."


Fohr knows she's not alone in her circumstances; she relays stories of several of her musician friends having had their instruments stolen in the not-so-distant past. But having now been victimized herself, she's beginning to grasp the scope of the problem: Instrument theft, Fohr now knows firsthand, is fast becoming a recurring and disastrous trend. Any act, it seems, no matter their size or the precautions taken, is at risk. In the past year alone, artists including Tom Petty, Grimes, Mumford & Sons, Dinosaur Jr., and Thurston Moore — no stranger to instrument theft; famously, on July 4, 1999, Sonic Youth had an arsenal of customized vintage guitars jacked in Orange County — have all had their gear stolen.

Luis Vasquez, who performs as atmospheric indie rocker The Soft Moon, was also victimized this past year. Last spring the Bay Area musician was mugged at gunpoint while walking home in Oakland. Thieves made off with his laptop, which held recordings for his most recent album, Zeros, as well as nearly two years of unreleased demos. "It's not so fun to relive," he says.

"It just sucks," adds garage rocker Mac Demarco, thinking back on his own turn as the victim of laptop theft; the 22-year-old's computer, with in-progress material on it, was stolen in the middle of last year while gigging in Hamburg, Germany. "Most of [the lost material] I've been able to track back down," he explains. "Luckily it was a pretty new computer, so it didn't have too much on it."

This, of course, is not exclusively a contemporary occurrence — in 2005, The Decemberists had their trailer stolen in Portland, as did The Raveonettes in Brooklyn.

Most thefts, however, pale in comparison — at least financially — to that suffered by Portugal the Man. On an August morning in 2011, bassist Zach Carothers, still recovering from a long night of drinking, awoke to his road manager Ian Shaw informing him that the Portland band's van, containing nearly $100,000 of the gear, and which had been left at an attended parking lot only a day earlier following their Lollapalooza performance, was missing. "It was a moment of disbelief," he recalls of staring at the empty space where the band's gear had been stowed hours before. "It was definitely a rough morning."

The slew of instrument thefts, while disheartening on their own, point at a bigger, more pressing issue: In an era where bands are increasingly reliant on live performances to support themselves financially, where does that leave them, then, when their gear is taken?

A 425-foot-long, 20-foot-high mural inspired by Lotería, a Mexican board game not dissimilar from Bingo, casts a sprawling shadow over the massive gravel parking lot of Swap-O-Rama, a mega-flea market that resides a few blocks north of Davis Park on Chicago's South Side. Every Monday the site is barren; most other days, however, it bustles with activity as sellers, swappers, and buyers iron out spur-of-the-moment deals. Just over a year ago, it was here that Portugal the Man's stolen gear changed hands. Thanks to the swift work of the Chicago Police Department, the band was informed a few days after being robbed that much of their gear had found its way into the mitts of South Side mechanic Juan Decampo, a petty thief who confessed to having bought the band's gear at the Swap-O-Rama despite knowing it was stolen. An investigation into the original robbery remains ongoing. And while some of the band's pinched items were recovered at Decampo's apartment — and subsequently returned to the band — several items remain missing.

In the aftermath of the Chicago theft, Portugal the Man, Carothers says, often wondered what they could have done differently to prevent its occurrence. It's a question many bands now find themselves contemplating: What can we do to protect ourselves from instrument theft?

"I don't know, dude," admits Kids These Days' bassist Lane Beckstrom, who recalls a recent incident in which a pedal board and laptop were taken out of their van while the band were recording Los Angeles. "We have chains on our trailer. We have all kinds of locks on our trailer. You never leave your shit in the van anymore. Even if you're going into a restaurant for five minutes, you take your backpack out of the van."

"You do whatever you possibly can," adds Carothers, still searching for answers. "You could have an alarm system; you could have the Club; you could have a LoJack. You do all these things." Portugal, prior to being ripped off in Chicago, had even gone to extremes to protect their gear: They'd regularly have band members sleep in shifts in the van. They ultimately stopped this tactic, however, when they realized the inherent danger it posed after they were robbed at gunpoint while on watch one night in Madrid.

Vasquez is now in the business of self-protection, above all else. After being robbed, the musician bought a knife. "It's super illegal and crazy looking," he adds. "Its got a skull crusher on it."

It's the "price per pound" that thieves can fetch for a used instrument, says Rich Holtzman, whose company The Artists Organization, in addition to managing Portugal, oversees the careers of artists such as Soundgarden, Chromeo, Blood Diamonds, and The Joy Formidable. Holtzman also believes the fact that many instruments actually increase in value over time makes them an appealing steal. "The resell market [for instruments] is pretty awesome," he explains. "If you're stealing car stereos, the market for used car stereos isn't all that good. But the market for a used guitar only goes up."

In theory, though, stolen instruments should be difficult to unload. After all, each instrument is marked with a unique serial number that secondhand buyers, such as pawn shops or musical instrument retailers, are legally required to cross-reference with a seller's driver's license. States are ramping up their efforts against the sale of stolen merchandise as well. In Illinois, for example, legislators passed a law that requires the identifying of material of all used instruments, whether bought or sold, to be logged into a central database.

New York and California have similar laws in the books. Prominent musical instrument resellers in both states explain that it's standard protocol to file a police report and run the serial numbers to verify the instrument isn't stolen. And as Dan Deuhorn, the owner of Sherman Oaks' California Vintage Guitars, says, an instrument may even be held up to 30 days for investigation before any money changes hands. "If somebody has an original receipt or it's somebody I know real well and I know the history of the guitar, I don't do that," he says. "But if there's any question at all, we have to run the police report and hold it for 30 days." Deuhorn is abiding by the California law under the Business & Professions Code, which, in their manual for becoming a "secondhand dealer or pawnbroker," states that all secondhand dealers shall retain an item for 30 days, during which time an item must be made available for "inspection by an police officer or employee designated by the chief of police or sheriff."

The Los Angeles Police Department has even gone so far as to have a four-man task force, dubbed the Pawn Section, designated to monitor the activities of secondhand shops. As it states on their website, the unit's mission is "of recovering stolen property and identifying those suspects committing the crimes."

In New York, Article 5 of the New York General Business Laws states that all secondhand dealers and pawnbrokers must keep records of all transactions "in good condition and in an orderly fashion for at least a period of six years" and that such books shall be "open to the inspection of the attorney general, the state comptroller, the mayor or local licensing authority, 
all judges of the criminal courts, the superintendent of police, police inspectors, captains of police and police justices of such cities, or 
any or either of them, or of any person who shall be duly authorized in writing for that purpose by any or either of them, and who shall exhibit such written authority to such collateral loan broker."

Fran Pensa, vice president of Rudy's Music in midtown Manhattan, adds that filing a police report with a description of the guitar, including its serial number, has been standard procedure for many years.

In Illinois, the Illinois Pawnbrokers Regulation Act, which went into effect July 2010, states that "an accurate account and description … of all the goods, articles and other things pawned or pledged … and the name and residence of the person making such pawn or pledge shall be printed, typed, or written in ink in the record book." Pawn shops, in particular, are also required to log "a legible and exact copy" of all transactions to their local police department by noon the day after sale. Yet, it ultimately remains in the discretionary control of a store's employee to follow these laid-out guidelines. An employee at McCabe's Guitar in Santa Monica, California, says because buying used guitars is not a major revenue stream for the store, they don't always hold steadfast to legal procedure. "We used to do that," she says, "but it's such a small fraction of our business that we don't always now. Occasionally I get a driver's license and that sort of thing." When money is on the table, all bets are off.

Replacing equipment presents a challenge for victimized bands, especially when losing customized gear. Such was the case with Portugal, who lost an outdated "crappy Yamaha keyboard" that soundtracked some of the band's earliest albums and is now nearly impossible to replace.

And as an employee at Chicago Music Exchange, one of the Midwest's prominent secondhand retailers, says, it's the most generic instruments that are most often brought in for resale — and then subsequently bought. He adds that this is due in large part to customized gear leading retailers to ask more specific questions, the answers to which thieves rarely know. Fohr says this likely explains why thieves left her guitar, which she's used since eighth grade, and instead stole its case. "They probably left it behind because it's so recognizable," she hypothesizes, citing custom work, dings, and scratches that would make it easy to spot. "They probably couldn't sell it."

Electronic artists, who primarily rely on equipment such as laptops, do have it a bit easier in comparison — that is, if they back up their material. "You have the thumb drive with everything on it," says Holtzman, explaining how most EDM acts operate. "So if your computer shits the bed or gets stolen, you walk into the Mac store, buy a new computer, plug in your thumb drive, and you're off and running."

The situation, though, is not entirely dire. Bands can protect themselves, at least financially, against such losses by insuring their instruments and gear. It's what Portugal does, something that helped alleviate the band's losses last year. But the hefty price of insurance — a policy taken out on an instrument can often run up to or exceed roughly 10% of the cost of an item — makes it a tough sell for bands operating on a smaller scale. Fohr says she had never even considered this option. "It's all stuff I can't afford," she says. "I'm at the bottom of this financial system. But obviously I'm considering it now." Adds DeMarco, "I've never thought about it. I guess once [something] gets stolen, you rethink that." Breaking the bank on potentially losing gear is a dilemma Danielle Reed knows well.

The Texas-based country singer and her band had long toured sans insurance, without incident. That is, until this past June, when the Fort Worth, Texas–based outfit was the victim of a major theft: A trailer containing nearly $30,000 worth of their gear — including five guitars, four amplifiers, a pedal board, and a Yamaha Custom Oak Drum set with $10,000 in hardware — was stolen outside a New Braunfels, Texas, motel. For smaller-market bands like Reed's, this sort of incident can spell devastation. "It was financially crippling," Reed says, adding that it messed with her band psychologically in the aftermath. "When you take away your tools to do your job, and you don't have the means to go out and buy $30,000 worth of [new] equipment, it's nearly impossible to continue."

"I had a major meltdown," adds Reed's manager and band member, Clark Kaupke, who lost $15,000 worth of gear in the robbery, including his prized Telecaster. "I don't care if you're the biggest artist in the world — if you lose something that important to you, it's gonna hurt." Brad Miller, a jam-band guitarist from Chicago-area band Zmick, has also seen instrument theft derail small musical acts. "It ends bands," he says matter-of-factly. "For a lot of people, their gear is what makes their sound. You're basically stealing someone's voice." Adds Fohr, "Years of working towards a sound…just gone."

If there's any silver lining to be found among this otherwise disconcerting trend, it's that bands say such a desperate situation has allowed their friends and peers' goodwill to become readily apparent. "A lot of times it takes something really terrible to realize how much love you get," Carothers explains. In Reed's case, friends chipped in from all over the country, sending the band enough new gear to remain on the road, even brightening Kaupke's spirits so much so as to help him adopt a more optimistic outlook on the seemingly depressing situation: "You can take our equipment," he says, before pausing emphatically, "but you can't take our music."

And through the advent of the internet, there are examples — while rare — of bands recovering their gear through the detective work of fans and do-gooders. In Portugal's case, persistent scoping of eBay led them to uncovering one of their lost guitars, which they recovered this past August. Even more amazingly, Sonic Youth recovered two of their long-missing axes, in consecutive weeks, this past October. (A fan in Belgium discovered one of the guitars on eBay; the other was recognized when a pawn shop put it up for sale on a popular online guitar forum. "It's kind of wild," Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo said when it happened. "After all this time, things are still surfacing thanks to the diligence of fans.") Still, Carothers' bass, an '81 Fender Precision Special — the one he'd used for nearly 1,500 shows and that his mother had bought him at age 10 — remains missing.

"I'm like a hawk on the internet for that thing," he says of his long-lost sidekick. "I know I'm gonna find it someday. I'd spend anything I had and more to get it back. It gave me purpose in life."