In December 2015, Will Toms and Dave Silver—at the ripe ages of 24—had already become fixtures in Philly’s music scene, having booked some 200-plus shows of up-and-coming bands at venues around the city through their Broad Street Music Group.
That’s when they decided to get out of the promotion business to launch REC Philly inside a former North Philly window factory. Through this venture, they focus on providing musicians access to recording space, a visual arts lab and a creative writing lab, as well as tools they didn’t even know they needed, like talent coaches and legal services.
The goal was to create a community around a collective of musicians who all wanted the same thing: to grow their business as creatives.
A few months later, when The Citizen checked back in, Toms and Silver were still riding the high from their showcase at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and had launched their first membership-based program for local musicians.
Now, REC Philly is starting the new decade with a new headquarters—at the Fashion District—and have reinvented their membership model. Unlike a traditional record label, artists at REC Philly retain ownership of their art and business while paying a monthly fee based on a carefully tailored suite of products and services. The organization has started accepting applications from local organizations and businesses, as well as artists looking to be a part of the REC Philly community.
We sat down with Will Toms to talk about how the business has changed, alongside the music industry, and what that means for Philly creatives.
Dillon Sweigart: Thank you so much for sitting down and giving us the chance to hear what’s new with you and your partner Dave, who unfortunately couldn’t be here today. You guys started out doing REC Philly booking shows and doing promotional work around Temple, probably what seems like decades ago. But if you had to go back to square one, starting today, what would be your first move?
Will Toms: So, just for context, we come from the production company background. Before REC we actually had our first company called Broad Street Music Group. We were creating shows and creating content for artists around the city. Knowing what we know today, I think we would have understood the importance of galvanizing all the resources and the folks in a centralized location. We spent a lot of time and energy working with various venues around the city which was a great move to build relationships and things like that. But I know that there’s just something that’s so special when you can have all the resources, you know all the programming and all the folks in one spot. I think once you have a spot where you can plant a flag and say, ‘Hey this is where we’re gonna build a community.’ I think there’s just something real special that happens there.
DS: So how has the mission statement for REC Philly changed? You know, what’s new, what are you guys doing differently?
WT: I think the company as a whole has grown and matured so much since then. But essentially, at the heart of it, what REC is is an ecosystem that exists to empower creative entrepreneurs to build sustainable and scalable businesses. And what that looks like is a physical place that we call the REC Room, which we like to think of as a gym membership for creative people. So in this space you come in, 14 private studios, really all about connecting creatives to all the tools and resources that they need to be successful. But also the educational programming to help them actually build these businesses around their art. And then a place for the community to thrive.
And then next to that we also have a full service creative agency where we get to go out and work with brands of all sizes doing event production, content creation, digital storytelling and talent buying. And the beautiful part about that model and having these two entities together is that when we’re going off and winning clients we get to go back into our incubator and pay our creators to do what they love to do.
It’s cool because back in 2014, we were kind of just grinding it out and really building our community from a grassroots way. But now we’ve been able to leverage the power of our community and our model to now have partnerships with some of the bigger players in the entertainment space and beyond including partners like Live Nation who’s a sponsor of our venue space, WXPN, who’s now powering our podcast studio, and many other really awesome names.
And as we’re talking about looking towards the future what’s really exciting is for the first time we are now accepting our first 1,000 members for our new space in Center City. So folks that are listening this can literally go right to recphilly.com and look and see what we’re up to and schedule a walkthrough to come in and tour our space to become one of our first 1,000 members.
DS: A few years ago, your partner Dave told the Citizen that “we didn’t want to have six members before knowing how to have one the right way.” What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from being small that will help you grow 1000 new members at your new location?
WT: What we learned is different members need different things, right? So one of the things that we’ve developed over the course of the last couple of years is perfecting the program. One of the things we’ve added is Starting Point, which is essentially like a new member orientation. That has been so pivotal in the success of our program because it allows our new members to really get a firm understanding of what they’re now a part of and they understand what’s going to happen during their time with us at REC.
But on the other side we get to intimately know the member. We get to understand where they’ve been, what they’ve been up to, and we also understand what their vision is and where they’re going. And having that exchange is just so crucial for us to then understand, “Well how do we be valuable? How can what we’re offering here and in our benefits best align to push forward the career of this specific individual creator?”
One of the things we learned early on was because our model is so new and because a lot of our creatives didn’t even understand that our concept and model was a potential solution to their challenge. They come in either A) not understanding everything that they have access to or B) not having a clear and accurate depiction of what’s going to happen. So once we were able to create an environment where folks could come in and we could get to know them and they got to know us in a real way it changed the game for us.
So for us one of the core principles that we’re really looking to embed and further grow within our community is this transformation of a mindset shift from, “I’m just an artist” to “I am inherently a creative entrepreneur.
DS: What are some of those values that you’re helping to instill in your community? What are some of the ones that you found that people are taking the biggest advantage of?
WT: Again, it’s like when you when you come in and you say, “Hey, I now as a member have access to all of these private recording studios.” That’s great. But not as great if you’re going to use the studios but then don’t actually understand the strategies to build your business. You can create the content but the content is only as good as how are we getting it to the audience. What do we know about distribution and what do we know about building revenue streams that are actually going to keep me sustainably living to keep recording and keep growing? So for us one of the core principles that we’re really looking to embed and further grow within our community is this transformation of a mindset shift from, “I’m just an artist” to “I am inherently a creative entrepreneur.”
Because if you’re an artist and you want to do this full time, that’s what it’s about for us. What does it look like to build your brand, understand who you’re trying to be valuable to and build an audience of people who believe what you believe. And then how do we take that a step further to engage them properly and then build the right revenue streams so that way you can do what you’re doing sustainably and scalably through this model that we’ve designed.
DS: You know a big part of having a sustainable and a scalable business is understanding what kind of disruptions are down the road, things like Spotify and the way that they pay the artists whose music they platform. What kind of disruptions since we spoke to you last are the biggest hurdles REC Philly faces to help people succeed in being artists?
WT: There’s been a number of disruptions, especially since 2014. I believe that all those disruptions have actually helped us, not hurt us. So you mentioned Spotify and streaming; that’s matured so much as a landscape since 2014 and even since 2016. So what we’ve noticed is there’s been a clear decentralization of distribution. Just for context: the old model was there’s a couple of labels—it seems like a bunch but they’re really all under the big three labels—and the goal was how do you get “put on” by one of these labels because they had relationships to distribution primarily in the form of radio.
And in 2014 we knew the radio was kind of dwindling, but five years ago ‘til now it’s a whole different ball game. So we watch that disruption of streaming services kind of come into play where now artists finally have the ability to distribute to the major streaming services directly, either right through Spotify itself or using “insert software here” that allows you to get to all of them and, not just in America, but all over the world. So the distribution channels have been decentralized, which is huge for an artist.
We’ve also seen since 2014 the rise of social media, to the point where a young creator can go on there and build an audience and understand the strategies and the algorithms to to do that in a very engaging way and that’s allowed them to build these audiences that are just primed to have that value exchange.
I’d also say resource sharing has shifted and that’s disrupted many other industries like transportation, with Uber, and it’s disrupted the housing industry with AirBnb, or at least the rental space. And now I think that’s gotten to a place where folks started to understand resource sharing in respect to our model and say, “Hey, well, there’s a place I can go and I’m going to get what I need when I need it.” But that level of connectivity that’s been everyday speak is now helping us in our model as well.
DS: So that’s a really interesting kind of framework for the industry itself. Are you seeing a kind of heightening in the way that people see themselves as artists and as business people?
WT: Yeah, I do, and I think the biggest thing is representation is helping. There’s a lot of really successful independent artists that are showing this generation of creators that it’s possible. I think there’s some creators that thought it was a longshot to get that label deal but now that they know they don’t need a label and now that they know they can make 50 to 100 to 150 grand a year just doing what they love by communicating with their audience, it’s opening the gates for people to say, “hey, I can do it.”
I also want to believe that artists are getting smarter. No longer do they just want to be the artist. They say, “Hey, I am an entrepreneur.” And that’s also coupled with this whole “future of work” movement that I think we’re also very well positioned in. Where I think a lot of folks our age, whether you’re millennials or the generation after, some of us don’t want to sacrifice and spend all of our lives in the corporate jobs doing the thing that they don’t really enjoy to impress people they don’t like. So that’s opening the opportunity for folks to say, “Hey I can go my own way whether I’m a 1099 freelancer or I’m actually going to go for entrepreneur and build a company and then go that route.” And it’s also true to this whole DIY and almost like punk counterculture that music and art have always kind of been at the forefront of.
DS: So in your position I’m sure there’s no room for partiality, but who are some of your favorite personal artists that either you work with here, or that you hope to you know see walk through the door at REC Philly? .
WT: I mean you could be partial, man. Everyone’s got their favorites. There’s a few members that I really appreciate and I think they’re going to have incredible careers. The first that comes to mind is a rock band called the Ill Fated Natives from right here in Philly. They’re a three piece black rock band and they just shred. Every time I see them live I just walk out of there feeling like I can do anything. And I think that’s just so important. The representation they bring being a young rock band of color is awesome and they’re just some of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met. And then there’s Rachel Andie who’s a singer-songwriter who just released an incredible album, and Max Swan.
But then on the back end, I’m really proud of a lot of folks in our network like Ben Thomas, who is a producer and engineer. Actually he’s a Temple graduate from here in Philly, and through the course of being in our program for the last two and a half/three years I’ve watched him get placements in really major television shows like Insecure. He recorded the intro theme for that show with Issa Rae, Bryson Tiller and Jasmine Sullivan.
And then even some videographers who have gone on to work with folks like Tory Lanez, who fortunately came through our studio that we’re sitting in right now in North Philadelphia. One time we were able to connect the dots and connect him to Guru, the videographer, and then went on to do a world tour with him and changed his life forever.
So that’s kind of a testament of what happens when folks are connected in a meaningful way. When that opportunity comes, it gets to be democratized in a really special way that I think is now only possible through the model that we’ve created.
For a young creative person in Philadelphia to have access to these resources, to go on and build a business around what they love, I think that’s really special.
DS: So what’s next for REC Philly?
WT: Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. There’s a lot coming down the pipeline for REC. So understanding that our first story with you guys in 2015, we were just getting started really. And in 2016 the model was growing. But now it’s really matured. We’ve built a community of over 800 creators based in our North Philadelphia location and we just raised our first round after being bootstrap for four and a half years. Raised about $3.2 million to build a 10,000 square foot facility in the heart of Philadelphia at 9th and Market within the Fashion District development, so we’re really excited about that. 14 private studios, from recording studios, to photo video studios, to podcast studios, a 250 person event space in partnership with Live Nation, a state of the art facility.
And we’re super proud of that because of not only what that means for the company but really about what that means for our city. For a young creative person in Philadelphia to have access to these resources, to go on and build a business around what they love, I think that’s really special. So that’s what’s next in the immediate future for REC. Our grand opening was last December. But then it doesn’t stop there either. We want to perfect this model here in Philly.
But after that we want to get loud and proud about the model we’ve created. And in the future we expect to go to other cities and build a REC D.C. Go to REC Austin or a REC Toronto or REC Atlanta. So we want to really perfect that model and understand that we’re not just solving a Philadelphia problem. It’s how do we take our mission to other cities around the country and eventually the world to build this network of independent creators who can be able to communicate with each other, and have the confidence to go out on tour and touch the people that they’ve been able to build an audience of online. But now have the confidence to say, “Hey I can go to these other cities knowing that resources are there waiting for me, like minded people are there waiting for me and I can do the thing.” And again, in a sustainable way. So: more tools available to our community, more educational programming to really equip our entrepreneurs to be successful, and, if nothing else, a place for the community to grow together.Header photo courtesy REC Philly