- Michael Persico
When Bowery Presents announced that it would be expanding its booking range to a brand new venue in Center City, Philadelphia, it seemed like the news could be viewed one of two ways: Like a foreign imperialist power coming to dominate a formerly autonomous local market (see the British Empire’s Open Door Policy with China), or simply the beginning of a beautiful friendship. That’s because, for the past decade or so, Sean Agnew of R5 Productions has been Philadelphia’s primary indie-rock booker, the shiniest jewel in the city’s alternative music crown, running the most major acts out of a venue called the First Unitarian Church. For Agnew, who grew up in the Philly ‘burbs, the idea has always been to nurture the smaller, underground scene with a “by the kids, for the kids” kind of attitude—meaning no expensive water bottles, no gruff, scary bouncer-types, (so, erm, not like most bigger-deal New York shows). But now Agnew is teaming up with Bowery Presents to run his own venue, a 600 person capacity operation called Union Transfer. The venue opens its doors in September with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah as inaugural headliners. The L chatted with Agnew over e-mail about how R5 will maintain its independence while working with Bowery Presents, Pennsylvania’s “weirdo Quaker liquor laws” and whether we will ever be able to figuratively pat Philadelphia on the head and call it our sixth borough without getting slapped. (The answer, in simple terms, is HELL no.)
The L: How and when did you first get involved with the Philly music scene?
Sean Agnew: I was a member of WKDU Drexel’s college radio station. There I met a bunch of kids who were setting up and doing their own punk shows in weird/crazy spaces. It was my first experience with going to legit DIY shows and I instantly wanted to be a part of that community after the very first night. So I started helping out here and there and learning how to run/work a show and started doing my own around 1996. I never intended for this to be a job. It was more of a hobby that I enjoyed. But after each year things slowly grew and got bigger and better…15 years later I now have my own venue!
The L: Can you explain to our Brooklyn readers what the R5 is and what it means?
Sean Agnew: The R5 was the local train that I used to take to Philly growing up. So when I was in the 7th grade I started taking the R5 train down to buy bootleg hip hop cassettes in the gallery mall. I then took the same train to high school and even the first two years of college. It became the link for me to get access to a bunch of music that I didn’t have access to in Ardmore [Ed. a Philadelphia suburb].
The L: How did you get involved with Bowery Presents?
Sean Agnew: I have been a long fan of Bowery’s work and model (staying independent and being able to compete with the “bigger” promoters á la AEG and Live Nation) and we would check in with each other from time to time. Both FCM (Four Corners Management) and myself approached Bowery to see if they would want to be involved with the new space, they said yes…and the rest was history!
The L: People have been calling Philly the sixth borough for years now (much to the chagrin of some Philly locals who don’t want to be anybody’s borough). So how would you characterize the Philly music scene? What makes it unique?
Sean Agnew: Oh man, that 6th borough is the dumbest thing ever! I don’t think there is a particular “sound” that Philly is known for, well at least in 2011. But I think Philadelphia as a music scene is growing and getting better. The bands coming out of the city now are about 600x better than the ones 11 years ago. There continues to be new venues, parties and people involved. It’s really starting to grow and we are excited that Union Transfer can be a part of that growth.
The L: How are you going to work with Bowery Presents? What are your specific responsibilities, and theirs? And how much of R5 is going to remain autonomous?
Sean Agnew: Yep, R5 will be a separate entity. We will still do shows at Johnny Brendas, Kungfu Necktie, The Church, etc. I am now an employee and owner of Union Transfer. I am the main “talent buyer” for the space. They also will be filling the calendar at Union Transfer as well. So we are working as a team to get the best shows in the space!
The L: How do you think long-time R5 aficionados will feel about Bowery Presents coming to their city?
Sean Agnew: Hopefully excited. They are a totally fun and independent company that are the most relaxed and easy going music people I have ever met. Tickets will still be cheap, we’ll always have the same familiar staff faces, no fees at the box office, etc. etc. Now with Bowery involved hopefully we can bring even more band and artists to the city.
I don’t think smaller clubs will care. It’s a pretty big space at 600 capacity (with the ability to goto 1,000). I don’t think there will be any competition with the smaller clubs (and R5 again will still continue to book at a lot of them). There probably will be a new group of people coming out to the shows and that may have avoided standing in a hot sweaty church basement to see the bands they like. Pros: All of our shows at the new space will be all ages. If you are 21+ you can go to the bar to drink, something that is difficult/rare to do in Philly because of our weirdo Quaker liquor laws.
The L: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will be the first to play at Union Transfer, correct? What’s your ultimate fantasy lineup for the new space?
Sean Agnew: Fugazi. That’s it. Just one Fugazi show. Please?