As a Jew, I never had much occasion to go to a church. But that changed my freshman year at Penn. My first week of school two crazy kids in my hall dragged me to one, and I was immediately hooked. Soon I found myself in church almost every weekend. And it wasn't even a real church! It was Unitarian. While my classmates were: (a) traveling around like herds of sheep to keg parties; (b) being used by everyone else because they were the only ones with marijuana; or (c) considering the possibility of transferring to Brown, I was in the basement of The First Unitarian Church on 22nd and Chestnut streets, watching live performances by future MTV buzz bands Jimmy Eat World, Saves the Day and At the Drive-In.
Independent venues such as the church provided an alcohol-free environment where kids could socialize and watch bands they liked in an intimate setting. But just as my tastes in music have evolved, so, too, has the structure of local music scene. Over the years, venues have been challenged and even closed by various city officials, University trustees and "concerned" members of the community, but promoters have always been able to find new spaces on short notice.
Everything changed, however, in the summer of 2002 when, in the course of three weeks, two of the city's major independent performance spaces -- The First Unitarian Church and the Rotunda -- were shut down. Indie music promoters, local booking agents and others have alleged that the church and the Rotunda were shut down due to the coercive behavior of Clear Channel Media, a communications conglomerate that has been building its Philadelphia presence for two years. This is the story of the independent music promoters and their continued struggle against the music industry's 800-pound gorilla: Clear Channel Media.
To quote freely from Tony Wilson, the godfather of do-it-yourself independent music promotion (he brought you Joy Division and New Order... oh yeah, and he invented "the rave"): "like Prometheus and the wheel, life is a constant cycle of ups and downs. The best of times lead into the worst of times, and vice versa." The independent music scene in Philadelphia has been around for over 20 years now. Though there has been a dearth of appropriate venues, it has survived through the support of a network of independent concert promoters, eager bands and dedicated fans.
Unlike Los Angeles and New York and other larger cities, Philadelphia has always lacked mid-sized, all-ages concert venues. Rock spaces such as the Trocadero, the Theatre of Living Arts and the Electric Factory only host larger bands, while smaller venues like The Khyber, the North Star Bar and the Pontiac Grille have mostly 21 and over shows. Up-and-coming bands often find space to play only in such makeshift, do-it-yourself performance spaces as the First Unitarian Church, 4040, the Rotunda and, most prominently, Stalag 13.
Sean Agnew is the owner of Philadelphia's largest independent concert promoter, R5 Productions -- he got his start booking shows for Stalag 13 and later went on to found the 4040 club. According to Agnew, promoting underground concerts was once an easygoing, grassroots process. "The indie-punk scene that I identify with most is a scene where bands from around the country trust kids to promote shows without agents or contracts," Agnew says. "Bands would get paid very well and have a great time. The kids came out for everything, even the super-small shows. Kids were stoked to support touring bands by buying shirts and records, offering to feed and house them."
While the independent music scene in Philadelphia has always been on the fringe, its growth has been frustrated further by the interference of major coporations. Agnew exemplifies the community spirit that has allowed the indie-rock scene to survive in the city. Through his involvement in all of Philadelphia's major independent venues, Agnew has been at the front lines of indie-rock's battle to carve out its own niche.
Problems first arose in 1999 when Stalag 13, Philadelphia's seminal DIY venue, was shut down due to a lack of proper zoning permits. Now that Philadelphia's only mid-sized, all-ages concert space was closed, the shows booked for Stalag 13 were moved to the First Unitarian Church. The shows that took place in the church between the summer of 1999 and March of 2000 were well attended, smoothly run and alcohol-free. More importantly, they never attracted complaints from the church administration, the local community or area businesses.
The shows were so successful in fact that Agnew decided to open a permanent, all-ages, mid-sized concert venue. The issue moved onto campus as Penn administrators became involved. Banding together with the University, Agnew began planning the opening of the Stalag 2000 at 40th and Market streets. Everything seemed a "go," until allegations over drug use by concert attendees (which were never proven) led the University trustees to pull out of the project.
After a few additional months of discussion, the topic was still far from dead. A student-led community protest to demand a permanent all-ages venue took place that year. And a show at the church, headlined by The Get Up Kids and At the Drive-In, attracted a crowd of over 2000 people, proving that there was plenty of local interest. The University agreed to let Agnew's R5 Productions open up a permanent venue at 4040 Locust Street, in a building shared with Hillel's Irv's Place.
But within a few months of the opening, University police began to suspiciously eye the anti-Abercrombie "undesirables" who were attending the shows. Things got worse when Irv's Place began to complain about the noise of the concerts on Friday nights. Before a concert on Sept. 15, Agnew and his crew arrived at 4040 to find that Hillel had changed the locks. That night's show by the Mr. T Experience had to be moved to the First Unitarian Church at the last minute. Beginning Feb. 3, 2001, R5 Productions' shows were permanently moved to the Rotunda. In fall of 2001, R5 productions and the University amicably parted ways, so that University student groups would have more rehearsal space in the Rotunda. At this point, Agnew began moving the concerts to other venues, such as La Tazza, the Pontiac Grille and Transit. Additionally, he went back to doing shows at the Unitarian Church. This arrangement continued through the summer of 2002.
Over the past few years, Clear Channel has developed what many music industry experts describe as a monopoly. The company's introduction into the Philadelphia music scene created controversy in an already-tumultuous environment. Clear Channel Media began in 1972 as a $125,000 radio station in San Antonio, Tex. In 1995, the company owned 43 radio stations and 16 television stations in 32 markets.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act loosened the restrictions on the number of stations a company can own. This allowed Clear Channel, through a series of multi-billion-dollar acquisitions including the $4.5 billion dollar purchase of concert promoter SFX, to become the nation's largest broadcaster and concert promoter, controlling 60 percent of rock radio and 70 percent of concert ticket revenues. The corporation's rise to prominence has been met with sharp criticism from countless former and current employees.
Furthermore, the company has a less than shining reputation. Employees in California and Florida are suing the company for withholding severance pay and for instances of unlawful discharge. An on-air personality in Florida has sued both Clear Channel and Randy Michaels, the head of the company's radio division, for gross sexual harassment. She alleges that, among other things, Michaels had tied a "flexible rubber penis" to his neck and accosted various female employees.
Local promoters have claimed that Clear Channel engages in anti-competitive practices to prevent bands from dealing with non-Clear Channel venues. Several executives at Clear Channel refused to comment for this story. Nothing Personal Promotions in Denver has filed an anti-trust suit alleging that "Clear Channel repeatedly has used its size and clout to coerce artists to use Clear Channel to promote their concerts or else risk losing air play and other on-air promotional support."
When Clear Channel bought SFX, it took control of the Electric Factory and the TLA in Philadelphia. In addition to owning all of Philadelphia's major rock radio stations, Clear Channel currently owns or exclusively books for the E-centre, the Keswick Theatre, the Merriam Theatre, the TLA and the Electric Factory and has controlling interests in several other local clubs. Dan Bisogno, a local music manager, says "living in Philadelphia, it is virtually impossible to put on an all-ages show without dealing with Clear Channel." A former Clear Channel employee, who asked not to be named, says that the company uses its dominance in radio and promotion to intimidate bands from playing at other venues, and that the conglomerate's informal policy was to book every band so that no other venue could.
At first, nobody seemed to notice that there was a new boss in town. But slowly, Clear Channel's style of doing business made its presence felt. For one thing, Clear Channel's policy of paying bands more money, meant that ticket prices at Philadelphia's major venues slowly began to rise. Many did not have a problem with this. "I really don't mind paying an extra $3 or $4 for tickets to shows," said Matt O'Dowd, front man for the local band Liam and Me. "The caliber of bands playing Philadelphia now is far higher than it was only a few years ago. If paying the bands more means that I don't have to schlep to New York to see cool bands like Coldplay and Interpol, I'm all for Clear Channel." Many inside the industry, though, began to develop a different impression of the company. The greatest allegation against them so far stems from developments involving one person: Ben Kweller.
Kweller found out firsthand how insurmountable the obstacles set up by Clear Channel could be. Formerly the front man for Radish (a band once hailed as the next Silverchair), Kweller had, only a few months ago, been signed to Dave Matthew's ATO Records, a subsidiary of major label RCA. Though Kweller originally gained fame opening for the Dave Matthews Band, he wanted to reposition himself as an indie-rocker. So, when it came time to book a show in Philadelphia, his agent turned down a lucrative offer from Clear Channel's TLA in favor of playing the First Unitarian Church for R5 Productions. Only days after the TLA learned that Kweller would not be playing their venue, Agnew was greeted at the doors of the Unitarian Church by agents from the License and Inspection Board. The L & I Board claimed that they had received an anonymous complaint that the church was not zoned to host concerts. Though Agnew claimed that he had been putting on shows at the church for eight years without a complaint, the L & I were unmoved. Agnew says that only hours after the church was officially shut down, before the closing became public knowledge, he received a call from Kweller's agent informing him that he had just received a call from the TLA. He claimed that the TLA knew about the closing of the church, and said that since the church was closed, they would have to move the show to the TLA. Kweller's agent asked Agnew if R5 could move the show to another venue, so last-minute arrangements were made to have the show at Penn's Rotunda. The next day, officials at the Rotunda received a visit from the L & I, which claimed that the Rotunda was not zoned to host rock concerts. Once again, only a few hours later, Agnew received a call from Kweller's agent. Once again, the TLA had called the agent only a few hours after the L & I Board's decision, stating that they had heard the Rotunda was shut down, and that the agent had no option but to move the show to the TLA. Agnew moved the show to the Gasoline Warehouse, but the contracts fell through and the show never happened. When contacted, Ben Kweller's agency, Monterey Peninsula Artists, and the L & I Board both refused to comment.
"BULLSHIT!" cries a booking agent who works for of Philadelphia's major rock venues and who wishes to remain anonymous. "Clear Channel benefits greatly from Sean Agnew being in town. It's ridiculous to think that they would try to shut him down." The anonymous agent additionally argued that "Clear Channel is a major conglomerate with access to thousands of artists. They wouldn't put that much effort into destroying a small-time promoter over one Ben Kweller show... I mean, who the fuck is Ben Kweller anyways?"
Other local promoters have different opinions. "Clear Channel pulling something like this wouldn't surprise me in the least," said former Electric Factory concert promoter Jesse Lundy, who is now a concert promoter at The Point in Bryn Mawr. His sentiment is echoed by many local promoters, scenesters and bands, all of whom refused to speak on the record. One local booking agent wished to remain unnamed, saying, "If Clear Channel found out I said anything negative about them, even if it was only vocally, they would destroy my business."
Darren Walters, co-owner of Jade Tree Records, commented on the fear that local promoters have expressed, stating that he "understands the position that they're in. But these people are willing to stand up against the war in Iraq... Hell, they're even willing to stand up against the president of their country. But they're afraid to say anything against a single corporation -- albeit a monopoly with duplicitous business practices -- but simply a company nonetheless." As a statement against Clear Channel's presence, and as an act of solidarity to their long standing relationship with Sean Agnew, Jade Tree Records decided to move its annual College Music Journal showcase from Irving Plaza, a Clear Channel venue, to The Warsaw, an independent venue.
But why would Clear Channel be so concerned with gaining a monopoly over small bands that, in relation to the bands they normally deal with, have little to no following? The explanation is rather simple.
Bands don't just start out famous. Beck was banging on his guitar in coffee shops for five years before "Loser" hit big; Wilco was a hokey alternative country act until they released the multi-platinum Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; and Sonic Youth... well... they never really got famous. The point is that there are two ways a band can become big.
(1) A 21-year-old UC-Santa Barbara dropout working as an A&R exec at Elektra records decides that your band is the next System Of A Down. He tells his bosses that the band he found is the next System Of A Down and that they will sell a lot of records... just like System Of A Down. And so, the band gets signed; the record company pays a consulting firm -- most likely owned by Clear Channel (it's a major part of their business) -- $1,000,000 to get on a playlist that recommends the band to MTV and to Clear Channel-owned radio stations. The band is shoved down the throat of every kid in America until they realize that they never really liked System Of A Down, let alone an inferior-sounding System Of A Down rip-off, and the cycle continues.
(2) A band plays lots of shows, perfecting their sound and honing their talent. They eventually build up a grassroots fan base through touring, and they are slowly promoted to better performance slots at better venues. Clear Channel's belief is that if they have working relationships with every small band that shows promise, they will have instant access to that band when it gets big. From there, Clear Channel can sign exclusive management and performance agreements with the band so that they can only perform at Clear Channel venues and be played on Clear Channel radio stations.
"The problem is that when you corporatize something like indie-rock, you limit the artistic expression available," said Mike Guggino, front man of Philadelphia buzz band This Radiant Boy. "Philadelphia needs venues like 4040 in order to push the bounds of artistic expression."
A few weeks after the Kweller fiasco, Agnew had a run-in with one of his old friends from the L & I Board at a local bar. Approaching the agent, Agnew asked, "So, are you going to kick me out of here, too?" The L & I employee ominously retorted, "Don't worry, we're finished with you."
Since then, Agnew has been able to obtain proper permits and officially reopen the First Unitarian Church for a new concert season. He is also looking at several Center City locations for the possibility of a new, permanent, all-ages concert venue. But as history has shown, the independent music scene in Philadelphia has been, is now and will be in a state of flux. Hopefully, with the dedication of local promoters, bands, and most importantly, the fans, Philadelphia's independent music scene will continue to survive.