If you’re not causing trouble as an independent music promoter, chances are you won’t make it. At least, you won’t make it big. Not in Philadelphia. The track record of all-star music promoters suggests so: There was Larry Magid of the Electric Factory—who prevailed over Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo and his continuous attempts to shut down the venue. Then, more recently, Sean Agnew of Union Transfer—who saw orange License & Inspections notices in his sleep. Pissing people off is practically a prerequisite to the trade.
Now, along come two newcomers who share the pedigree and, at the ripe age of 24, already have their eyes set on something bigger, much bigger in Philadelphia’s music scene.
In 2012, Dave Silver was filling his Temple University frat-house basement with crowds (“five bands, college students, free pizza,” he says) and getting shut down by L&I for operating without a business license. Undeterred, he went to the nearest hookah lounge/bar and promised to bring in 80 people if he could throw a show there on a dead-of-night Monday. Sure, why not?, the owner replied. One show led to two, which eventually, led to more venues and the guise of legitimacy. But soon enough, Silver, with his longtime accomplice Will Toms—the two went to Bucks County’s William Tennent High School—formed the Broad Street Music Group, a booking/promotion company specializing in up-and-coming acts. At first, they worked with artists from a wide array of genres, like the hip-hop trio Ground Up and pianist Matt Wade. They’re now focused on soul, R&B and rap.
“The music industry can be a slimy place to be and there are a lot of people that are trying to exploit people for the wrong reasons,” says Silver. Taking a cue from the tech world, REC Philly hopes to be a community resource for the city.
Working behind the scenes is nothing new for the duo. Back in high school, Toms and Silver bonded while running the school’s TV studio and afternoon announcements. They were such ardent techies, the school made them go tech-less for 10 days—an experiment featured in a spot on NBC10. (“At the time, I was sending 17,000 texts a month,” Toms says over the phone.) But musicians they are not. “We always knew that we were going to try to do something together, once we could both identify what our talents were,” adds Silver. Nothing like a frat-house basement to do the trick.
Fast forward 200-plus shows later and the duo is ready for a second act. Something more than just booking $10-a-head concerts at World Cafe Live. “Will and I were meant to do more significant things than just be show promoters,” says Silver. “A lot of these musicians were having issues besides getting booked for low-quality events.” Many of the fresh faces they’ve been working with have no idea how to take their careers to the next level or how to make a sustainable career, in large part because there was no industry to support them being a musician in Philly. “They thought the best thing to do for their career was to leave the city and find a major label.”
Taking a cue from the tech world, Silver and Toms are creating what they believe will be a version of a startup accelerator, but one drumming to a different beat: REC Philly, a “music incubator.” On the career paths of music artists, it lies somewhere between a friend’s jam-band garage and the confines of a major label, helping them get from handing out EPs on the street to becoming a music-festival commodity. Because throwing videos on YouTube and hoping they go viral is not a real strategy for success. “I think one of the biggest things that we’re doing for these artists is helping them understand that they’re a business and not just an art creator,” says Toms.
Inside a former window factory in North Philly, not far from Temple’s campus, REC Philly will soon be outfitted with two recording studios (so that sessions can occur simultaneously); a visual lab for promo photos and videos; a creative-writing space; a kitchenette lounge and office space for other entrepreneurs. (Apropos to their status as new kids on the music-promotion block, the pair spoke to me from their current office at 8th and Callowhill, within earshot of both the Electric Factory and Union Transfer.)
Additionally—and perhaps most importantly to the brand—REC Philly is securing strategic partnerships with local service providers, to offer musicians everything from talent coaches to legal consultations with the law firm Offit Kurman. Put simply, Silver and Toms aspire to be a one-stop shop—rather, a collective—for anything an emerging musician might need. Though the full list of partnerships is still being flushed out, the duo says it will include industry-specific knowledge (think DJs, photographers and public relations managers) and life resources for independent artists, such as health-insurance education and job opportunities. For example, Saxby’s has agreed to be part of REC Philly and give musicians first-look access to certain jobs at their Philly area locations.
Music incubators are underway in Chicago, Austin and elsewhere. But Philly is crying out for one more than those other cities. The rub about this city’s music scene has never been the talent or energy, but the sorely lacking structure to nurse musicians along and keep them from migrating elsewhere.
Musicians will buy a membership for a package of services with the incubator. The most limited membership might cost $40 per month, while premium access might go as high as $375 per month, according to Toms. But making money is beside the point, which is why REC Philly has filed to become a 501c3. “The music industry can be a slimy place to be and there are a lot of people that are trying to exploit people for the wrong reasons,” says Silver. REC Philly, on the other hand, hopes to be a community resource for the city.
The model is new to Philly, but not unique. Music incubators are underway in Chicago, Austin and elsewhere. But Philly is crying out for a music incubator much more than those other cities. For years—perhaps, generations—the rub about this city’s music scene has never been the talent or energy, but the sorely lacking structure to nurse musicians along and keep them from migrating elsewhere. Things have gotten so bad, even City Council is getting involved. A proposal to create the Philadelphia Commission on the Music Industry—a group that will be tasked with evaluating the music scene in the city and developing a strategic plan—cleared a council committee in November.
Need more proof? According to a 2012 study by Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” the Philly area ranked 45th (behind not only Chicago and Austin, but also Pittsburgh, Detroit and Orlando) for the concentration of musicians and music business, among metros with a million-plus people. Philly is often a tour stop, but rarely a home base, for recording artists.
And in the post-Napster era, pumping life back into the business of a city does not start with luring record companies—it’s about retaining a critical mass of musicians first and foremost. “I think we’re past the age of getting big label deals,” says Toms. “I really feel strongly that the model we’re building here is going to be the next norm for the industry.”
Indeed, REC Philly’s collaborative, membership model seems compatible with an industry where power has been decentralized. REC Philly is not a label, so artists are not signing away any contractual rights to their content and Silver and Toms are giving them the space and tools instead. Plus, they still know how to throw a show. Last year, they organized the first-ever Philly-only showcase of talent at the South By Southwest festival in Texas, which included a performance by West Philly native and rising star Chill Moody. They’re going to do it again, but bigger, in 2016.
With renovations wrapping up on the space, the membership model is set to launch in the spring. “The space is only half the battle. Once you get the space, then you can build a community,” says Toms.
Header Photo: Flickr/jeffrey montes