Hot Topic just got a little hotter.
The retail chain, which since 1988 has sold music-inspired clothing, accessories and gifts, now holds in-store acoustic concerts. Late last year, the store's nationwide locations began hosting free shows to spotlight unsigned musicians. A handful of local bands — including rock groups Tailgunner Joe, Select Start and the Woodwork — have taken advantage of the gratis exposure.
Hot Topic offers the concerts, known internally as local statics, to help distinguish itself from the growing number of retailers that sell music-related apparel.
"We were the company that started carrying rock tees, and then everyone else joined the bandwagon, like JCPenney and Wal-Mart," said Tampa Bay district manager Kelli Artley, who organizes the events. "We said, 'Where is our niche in the music business, because everybody is carrying these rock tees?' "
Their niche, it turns out, is to feature local artists for 30 minutes on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. Store managers push back the display fixtures and position the bands so passers-by can see them from the shop window. It's an unwritten rule that all sales stop during the half-hour sets, because customers are intimidated to shop in the crowded, noisy space.
"Other mall merchants complain because of the noise level, but other than that everyone is really receptive," Artley said. To appease mall neighbors, most Hot Topics insist that musicians perform unplugged. The exception is the Shops at Wiregrass, whose store features full-electric shows Thursdays through the end of May. On March 26, every Hot Topic in the country booked an in-store concerts, and the chain plans to offer three more companywide show dates this year.
At first Artley had to seek out the artists, and most listeners were shoppers who happened to wander in to the store. But now that bands are getting the word out, the talent comes to her, and the audiences stop by specifically for the show.
All genres are welcome; Artley has booked everything from metal to hip-hop, which is all the more welcome since Hot Topic recently began carrying urban gear like Lil Wayne T-shirts and Kanye West-inspired aviator sunglasses.
Neither Hot Topic nor the bands get paid, but the musicians are encouraged to sell and sign CDs and other merchandise after the performance. The bands keep all proceeds. Bands also are required to create a flier about the show, post the concert information on their MySpace page two weeks before the gig and send an e-mail blast a week before. They must be unsigned.
But even with its emphasis on up-and-comers, Hot Topic remains committed to the mainstream scene.
"We still focus on the big money-maker bands. We still carry Led Zeppelin T-shirts and Rolling Stone, but we want to be known for new music," Artley said. "How cool is it to be able to go through the mall on a Tuesday night and hear live music?"
Times staff writer Julie Garisto contributed to this report