Local music promoters get their own digs.
It’s 6 p.m. on Friday, two hours before a show at the First Unitarian Church in Rittenhouse Square, and Sean Agnew arrives to help set up the PA system. Soon, the headlining folk rock band, the Felice Brothers, will take the stage in front of a fervent crowd of tweens, teens and adults, all of whom have paid no more than $12 admission. After stopping in the church’s reception room to drop off a bag of blue wristbands, Agnew proceeds down a short flight of stairs into the dimly lit wood–walled basement, where he has been renting out the space for over a decade to host concerts under the aegis of his live entertainment agency, R5 Productions.
The basement is vacant now, save for a sound board in the back, a scattering of plastic trash cans, a stack of folding tables and a group of three bearded men assembled along the edge of the stage, picking at plastic containers of Thai food. These are the employees of R5 Productions, and despite having all just come from their respective full–time day jobs, they are intent on having a routine night at work.
After high–fiving each member and cracking jokes with a couple, Agnew and his team are energized and ready to get to work. Though there is no designated dress code for the R5 team, one can’t help but notice a degree of uniformity in their appearance. Flannel shirts, black zip–up hoodies, washed–out black Levis and black–on–black Vans Classics all seem to be standard attire.
Agnew instructs Joe Ferree, a shaggy redheaded 25–year–old and five–year employee of R5, to go and grab food for the bands. Ferree runs out to a nearby Qdoba, and by 7 p.m. he takes his place by the door. One by one, he checks off the attendees. He seems exhausted — he just finished a full day of work at the nearby FedEx Print & Shipping Center — but the anticipation of tonight’s performance and the contagious enthusiasm emanating from the crowd fuels him though his share of the setup.
Jeff Garber, an R5 employee of seven years, just finished a day of work at a local CPA’s office, and on the night prior, had single–handedly run a small concert in the sanctuary of First Unitarian Church. “I got three hours of sleep last night,” says Garber, “so just tell me what you need for this article, cause I’m not sure I’ll be awake much longer.” After helping Agnew and Ferree connect the last few monitors to the PA system, Garber lies down on one of the folding tables and goes on to take a nap, requesting that someone wake him up in a half–hour to continue with the setup.
A cool and collected Agnew, with shaggy hair and a thick, bushy beard, is making his way across the carpeted steps of the altar in the Sanctuary. The pews are empty, save for a few cases of Yuengling Lager stacked in the last row, and a mound of coats piled next to it. Agnew has just finished converting the back half of the sanctuary into a green room for tonight’s show by propping up several folding tables for food and filling two steel beverage tubs with ice and beer. After walking over to the sanctuary entrance to welcome the bands, Agnew retrieves an iPhone from his sweatshirt pocket and sends out one last tweet to remind R5’s 7,000–plus followers about tonight’s concerts.
Agnew, 33, organizes shows for a living. He finds both talented and desirable bands and throws concerts in nearby churches, bars and basements for nominal fees instead of throwing them in big–name clubs, which cost thousands of dollars to rent. With a backing from the R5 employees, most of whom have been close friends of Agnew’s for over 10 years and aid in the talent–buying process, he is able to book a range of acts, from mainstream bands like Bright Eyes to more obscure bands like local indie rock trio Jukebox The Ghost.
Like most employees of R5 Productions, Agnew started organizing shows when he was still in high school, close to 18 years of age. Growing up in the Philly suburb of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, Agnew grew tired with his lack of concert options and frustrated with having to drive to other cities in order to see quality bands play.
He attributes his past distance from Philadelphia’s live music scene to his affinity for rap and hip–hop during a time when punk and indie rock music dominated the local music scene. “There weren’t many opportunities to see the musicians I wanted to see live,” says Agnew. Even when Big Daddy Kane, one of Agnew’s favorite rappers, came to Philadelphia on tour, Agnew was unable to gain access to the 21–and–over venue.
Agnew’s passion for the underground music scene was ironically sparked when he took up employment at a local Ardmore country club the summer before entering Drexel University. By befriending two older co–workers who had been active in Philadelphia’s hardcore punk scene since the early 80s, he got his first glimpse of the punk rock world. “They gave me a ton of old records to listen to,” says Agnew, citing the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag as a couple of his favorites at the time. “And then they would give me videocassettes of a warehouse show they played with their band in 1986.” Agnew, who had been unaware that such shows existed in Philadelphia, was eager to embrace the underground music culture that had eluded him until then.
During his freshman year at Drexel, Agnew spent a majority of his time in the offices of WKDU, Drexel’s award–winning non–commercial radio station. “At the time, most of the students I worked with at the station were pretty active in producing their own live shows, and a lot of them were playing in bands,” he recalls. “I kind of started tagging along to their shows, and just from that I was exposed to so much different music and I learned about all these obscure up–and–coming punk bands.”
It wasn’t long before Agnew attended his first true punk concert, a warehouse show at the Milk Bar in North Philadelphia featuring the Philly–based act This Sucks, and a Minnesota band known as Thirteenth. “I don’t think it was exactly legal,” admits Agnew, “but it was a really great show.” Agnew found himself drawn to the intimacy of the DIY setting — never before had he witnessed a band performing at ground level, without any sort of barrier between itself and the audience. Captivated by the scene, Agnew began going to more shows, and eventually began helping out the promoters. “I started working the door at some of the concerts,” he says. “I learned a lot just by hanging around and watching these promoters as they ran their shows.”
The DIY ethic prominent in his mind, Agnew began reaching out to touring bands, hoping to connect some of his favorite acts with the all–age audience of Philadelphia. “One of the first smaller shows I booked was at the Community Education Center on 34th and Lancaster,” says Agnew. As a joke, he created a flyer for the show with the R5 train schedule — an homage to the SEPTA regional rail line he and his friends used to take into Philadelphia from Ardmore — and wrote “R5 Productions Presents” at the top. “People seemed to think it was funny,” Agnew recalls, laughing at the haphazard manner in which the company’s name came to be. “The name just kind of stuck and eventually I said, ‘Okay — I guess it’ll be called R5 Productions.’” It wasn’t much longer before he dropped out of Drexel and began focusing nearly all his time on his quickly growing business.
Now in his 15th year as a full–time promoter, Agnew is credited with the production of over 3,000 punk and indie–rock concerts and continues to enhance the vibrancy of Philadelphia’s live music scene. Most recently, Agnew partnered with the influential New York–based promoters, Bowery Presents, and Four Corner Management (the folks behind Drinkers, Noche, Lucy’s and a few other bars around Philadelphia) to open Union Transfer, a new music venue located just steps from Center City at 10th and Spring Garden.
Originally a train depot station by the same name, Union Transfer is an electrifying space with sweeping arches, stained glass, old chandeliers and a rustic, brass tacks appeal. The venue holds 600 people standing, but has a movable stage that can be pushed back to accommodate as many as 1,000. This new R5 hub will also see an upgrade from its counterparts — air conditioning — as well as a brand new sound system and on–site parking for up to 200 cars and 150 bicycles.
The product of 18 months of meticulous planning and immense reconstruction, Union Transfer was developed to meet Philadelphia’s need for a mid–sized live music venue. Venues like the Theater of Living Arts and the Trocadero, which offer 1,000 and 1,200 capacities respectively, are often too spacious for hosting many east coast touring artists, while other Philadelphia venues like the First Unitarian Church are unable to accommodate more than a couple hundred concert–goers. Agnew, along with Johnny Beach of Bowery Presents, will be responsible for booking the venue’s talent, which includes an already–stellar musical lineup for the next few weeks. “We’re trying to create an experience that’s equally rewarding for the whole audience,” says Jim Glancy of Bowery Presents.
Perhaps most importantly, Union Transfer fills R5’s voided niche for an established all–ages venue. Though the R5 team is responsible for providing the Philadelphia community with hundreds of under–21 shows over the past decade, legal obstacles have restricted their ability to create a fixed all–ages space. In Pennsylvania, it is against the law for a music venue to be open to patrons of all ages while serving alcohol in the venue, unless there is a sectioned off area with its own entrance and exit for people to consume alcoholic beverages. While those sections exist in the balconies of larger clubs like the Theater of Living Arts and the Electric Factory, smaller clubs like Johnny Brendas and Kung Fu Necktie lack the necessary space to accommodate the two separate age groups.
Rather than risk the reduced profits of an all–ages show, smaller promoters cater almost exclusively to older music fans. Union Transfer, with its spacious, dual–level layout, is the first R5 venue capable of catering to both the over– and under–21 crowds of Philadelphia. “Ultimately, we’re trying to create an experience that’s equally rewarding for everyone in the audience,” says Jim Glancy, a partner in Bowery Presents.
In addition to booking Union Transfer, Agnew plans to continue hosting shows at the First Unitarian Church, and to a slightly lesser extent, at Johnny Brenda’s, the Starlight Ballroom, the Trocodero, the Barbary and Kungfu Necktie.
“I think now more than ever there’s an opportunity for someone, who, if he or she is pretty smart and knows what they’re doing and is passionate about music and their scene,” says Dean Budnick, author of Ticketmasters and editor at Relix Magazine, “that, at least on a local level, they can take on the larger promoters.” With the DIY ethic there’s no need for fancy advertisements, complicated strobe light patterns or an extensive array of bar concoctions and concessions, and Budnick believes that this will allow independent promoters to maintain inexpensive ticket prices in the future. “By keeping the price of admission low, independent promoters are conditioning show–goers to expect a little bit more in terms of value,” says Budnick. He adds that low ticket prices also make it possible for fans to have a constant presence in the scene.
“I think the fact that people have found an alternative in order to nurture music and help sustain and support the people that are making music is in and of itself the most important aspect of the whole scene,” he says, additionally pointing out that the intimate setting of alternative venues allows for musicians to make more personal connections with their audiences through the music. “Ultimately that’s what music is — it’s a form of expression that you can share with an audience,” says Budnick. “It’s about self–expression, and you need opportunity or a space where that can be nurtured, and I think with this type of scene that’s what is fundamentally offered — that’s the kicker, that’s the excitement.” It’s the thrill of having a band you love perform in your living room, basement or backyard. It’s less about the business and more about the atmosphere. “It will always be a crucial part of the industry,” Budnick says. “It’s how bands get their teeth.”
As a result of his efforts to create new opportunities for live music exhibition, Agnew has come to be considered either infamous, a local legend or something of a mystery among Philadelphia’s various music communities. An acceptable celebrity of the unacceptable, Agnew continues to provide the Philadelphia area with cheap, friendly shows and works to produce concerts for an all–age crowd that, until recently, had few opportunities to see independent live music in Philadelphia.
Walking through Union Transfer on opening day, nothing looks quite finished. A large black sign that reads “Union Transfer” in bold white letters lies in five separate panels across the lobby floor, adjacent to an unkempt pile of 4×4 wooden planks and a wood–carved statue of Jack Daniels. With only a few hours left until the inaugural concert, which will feature a sold–out performance by Brooklyn–based indie rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, workers scramble to clean the place up and take care of last–minute preparations (installing Nintendo Wii’s in the artist dressing rooms and mounting the bike racks outside are among the bevy of tasks on their to–do list).
In the main concert hall, a rack of lights above the stage emit a blue haze throughout the room. To the back, a group of Union Transfer partners, including Agnew and Glancy, huddle around the mixing booth as the sound engineer pumps the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song “Maniac” through the venue’s ultra–high–end sound system. Though there is still much left to accomplish before tonight’s opening, the group seems particularly at ease.