Johnny Crowder balances running a tech start up that offers mental health support and life on the road as frontman of a heavy metal band
Johnny Crowder has a day job. At least that’s what some people will say. Others will say that Johnny Crowder has a night job.
The difference between the two really boils down to perspective and under what conditions you get to know Crowder.
First, there’s Johnny Crowder the 28-year-old tech entrepreneur, CEO and founder of Tampa-based Cope Notes, a text service that offers daily mental health support digitally to nearly 20,000 subscribers in 94 countries.
Then there’s Johnny Crowder the lead singer of the heavy metal band Prison, bounding onto stages across the country, shirtless and covered in tattoos, screaming the lyrics to songs like “The Knife and the Dying Dream” and “Still Alive” to fans in mosh pits.
The truth about the day/night job divide is that Crowder sees both Cope Notes and his career as a musician as part of a single mission. Make no mistake, neither is a hobby or a side gig. Cope Notes is a growing company contracted with subscribers and localities to offer services and Prison is a hard core band with a hard core following.
Crowder says that over the past three years he’s learned to balance the company and his work as a musician. Because so much of touring is spent on the road in a van, he uses that time for work on Cope Notes, switching to rock star mode at night.
But over that period of time he’s come to see them “less and less as distinct sections or categories of my life.”
“I started doing mental health advocacy while touring, and the whole reason Cope Notes exists is because I had conversations with fans at shows about what they were facing and wanted to build something to meet those needs,” he says.
“Then when Cope Notes started growing, most of our first users were dudes with face tattoos riding Harleys and stuff. It was like really tough guys. And slowly, those two parts of my life have convened, and now I’m at the point that I think there is nothing more punk than serving a bunch of people in need and infiltrating the quote system with something that’s actually going to make a difference.”
Talking to Crowder about music and Cope Notes, one gets the sense that his life as a performer and his life running the company were always intertwined and that it was inevitable that his experiences growing up would have driven him to the point where he is now.
See, for Crowder the need to help people dealing with difficult mental health issues comes from living through them himself.
"I could pick up a guitar and I could play a melody that described how I felt even if I didn’t know what words to use." Johnny Crowder, founder and CEO of Cope Notes, lead vocalist for Prison
Growing up outside of Oldsmar, he dealt with what he calls an alphabet soup of mental health issues that ranged from severe depression and bipolar disorder to debilitating anxiety and schizophrenia. Those issues sent him in for clinical treatments and left him unable to function.
“There were years of my life when I felt I wasn’t living in the same reality as the people around me. I couldn’t communicate with people. I couldn’t make eye contact. Sometimes I couldn’t talk,” Crowder says. “You don’t stay in treatment for 10 years for fun. You stay in treatment for 10 years because you need it.”
As a kid he attended Lowry Elementary, Farnell Middle and Hillsborough High schools. He then went on to the University of Central Florida to study psychology.
Crowder says that today no one is more surprised that he helps people for a living than he is.
He remembers being 15 years old and taking college level psychology courses in high school with an eye on becoming a clinician one day. Meanwhile, he wasn’t taking his medications, he was self-harming and he was dealing with an eating disorder. Then when he was in college, he is studying psychology while “super depressed,” staying up all night and hallucinating.
But even then, Crowder says, there was a part of him that knew even if he couldn’t get himself better, he could find a way to help others.
The one thing he had during those darkest days was music, which “was there when I had nothing.”
“There are so many times, especially when I was younger, when I would feel that I can’t describe how I would feel in words. I couldn’t even tell somebody. But I could pick up a guitar and I could play a melody that described how I felt even if I didn’t know what words to use,” he says.
“So, it’s always been a really healthy, creative outlet that has allowed me to express what I’m feeling in a way that normal conversation can’t.”
The impetus for Cope Notes harkens back to those days when Crowder was struggling most with his mental health issues.
He says that over the years he learned that people dealing with serious mental health problems need to start with education — books, podcasts, Ted Talks — to better deal with the issues they were facing.
They also needed open conversations. The biggest difficulty, he says, is that so many people are ill-equipped to make progress because in-depth mental health conversations are uncommon.
What he’s dedicated himself to is health education and public advocacy “because if people knew enough to make improvements, then they would be healthy.”
“But,” he continues, “they would know enough to make those improvements if the culture was comfortable enough to talk about it. So, if these two things are solved, people will be so much more equipped to live healthier lives.”
Cope Notes can play a role in that.
The service is not designed for a specific diagnoses or background. Rather, what the service does is use “cognitive restructuring and neuroplasticity techniques to help people form new neural pathways associated with positive thoughts.”
In layman’s terms, Cope Notes is based on peer support. The idea is that when people feel comfortable speaking to others or hearing from others who have gone through the same things they have, they’re less likely to feel like an outcast because there is some level of understanding.
What Cope Notes does is send text messages vetted by an oversight panel to subscribers. Rather than send one mass text to all subscribers each day, messages are sent out at random intervals and aren’t duplicated.
The company has a bank of messages so each subscriber can get an individualized message each day.
These messages can range from tips on how to improve your life to positive reinforcements. It’s all aimed at helping people change how they think.
The idea, according to the company’s website, is that “our brain is constantly rewiring itself based on what we see, read, hear and imagine. The more often we think a thought, the easier it is to think, the more likely we are to think it again, and so on. For better or worse, this is how habits are formed.”
Subscribers who need to speak with a crisis councilor can reply to the message with the word “help” and Cope Notes will connect them with help.
Over the years, Crowder has learned that peer support was one of the keys to treating mental health.
What he wanted to do, and what led to the creation of Cope Notes, was to combine the value of peer support with addressing the excuses people give for not engaging with it.
A text message showing up on your phone is one way to do that.
Crowder won’t disclose Cope Notes’ revenue but said the plan is for it to grow tenfold each of the next two years.
Cope Notes comes as there is an explosion in the number of phone apps that are offering mental health.
According to a January report from the American Psychological Association, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 apps on the market now offering self-help for people dealing with mental health issues.
While there were some initial fears that people would forgo treatment because of the apps, research is showing that is not the case. In fact, apps can help people in therapy by enhancing treatment, the report found.
Crowder says he considered starting Cope Notes as an app but found some users, especially veterans and people who lacked technology, would have a tough time finding it. Plus, there was a concern that the people who need it most would not go digging through their phones to find it.
He compared a person dealing with depression being told the solution is an app that needs to be downloaded and accessed daily to a person with a broken ankle being told the doctor to heal it is waiting at the top of Mount Everest.
As the company continues to grow, it has been offering services to local governments, non-profits and businesses.
One nonprofit Cope Notes is working with is One Community Now in Pasco County.
One Community was looking to connect with people in the county dealing with loneliness, isolation and substance abuse during the pandemic.
The problem was that building its own system was expensive and time-consuming. Working with Cope Notes, they were able to build a peer-to-peer program and help get people registered.
Patti Templeton, executive director of One Community says the process was simple, calling it turnkey.
“All we had to do was tell people about it.”
But getting businesses and nonprofits to sign up isn’t always easy when your front man is, well, a front man.
Crowder says it was tough when he first started and that he lost deals because of his looks.
One company he won’t identify was on the verge of signing a deal when the CEO killed it. He said in a meeting that he would “never trust my money with somebody who looks like that.”
That doesn’t discourage Crowder, though. He says for every one person who’s like the CEO, there are 99 more who are happy to see the human side of mental health care.
And that’s good, he says, because mental health conversations have become too clinical when it should be more of a lifestyle and culture conversation.
That’s what’s most important to Crowder: The conversation, reaching people, helping people.
And, despite, or maybe because of, the issues he’s dealt with in his life reaching people in need is what Crowder does best.
“When people say it’s so weird that you’re in mental health and metal, I’m like: ‘No it’s not.’ When I look out at a metal audience, there’s people that’ve got face piercings and tattoos, and dyed black hair and they’re wearing a shirt that says, ‘Dying Fetus’ on it,” he says.
“We are not here because our parents are happily married, and we have all the money we will ever need, and we love what we do for work, and we have really healthy interpersonal relationships. We’re here because somewhere along the way something went wrong. And that’s what unites people in heavy metal music, because somehow, something wasn’t perfect, and this was the coping mechanism we chose.”