Don’t ever tell William Reed and Paul Kimport that their decision to convert a one-time Fishtown taproom into a music venue was responsible for turning the section of Philadelphia into a hot spot for residents new and old. They aren’t into that gentrification thing, and their goal wasn’t to insert something that didn’t fit the area’s vibe.
So, in 2006—nearly 30 years after former boxer Johnny Imbrenda started a shot-and-a-beer joint on North Frankford Avenue—Reed and Kimport debuted Johnny Brenda’s. It was devoted to the burgeoning indie music scene and fit just perfectly with its surroundings.
Not that the neighborhood was exactly perfect itself. There was hardly anything nearby, and anyone brave enough to venture into the area to see a band was at risk. Bands would conclude their sets and head outside to find the windows of their vehicles smashed. And if a group was more suited to, say, the World Café Live in University City, it couldn’t guarantee that its fans would consider making the trek north to catch a set.
“It was so sketchy,” says Chris Mungan, Johnny Brenda’s venue manager, says. “It was not hospitable.”
That has changed, thanks to Stephen Starr’s Frankford Hall, the Garage North bar and The Fillmore, not to mention an influx of young adults who have pushed up rents and made Fishtown one of the coolest addresses in Philadelphia.
And Johnny Brenda’s, now 11 years old, is part of the vanguard of a music scene that has exploded with a collection of places to see shows of every kind and for every budget. Venues like Union Transfer, Kung Fu Necktie, Boot & Saddle and MilkBoy have joined World Café Live, The Fillmore, The Trocadero and Electric Factory—and many more—to give music lovers an endless stream of options and assure that Philadelphia’s cred as one of the country’s top concert cities endures and grows. And thanks to places like the Glenside’s Keswick Theater, Ardmore Music Hall, the Sellersville Theater and the Colonial Theater in Philadelphia, suburbanites have the opportunity to experience some fine live music, too. It’s quite a menu, and its hub is in Philadelphia proper.
“I think the city’s reputation was always there,” Mungan says. “I just think the population shift with younger people moving into the city has a lot to do with more venues. There are a lot more people to come to shows.”
It’s a great deal for the fans, but it has created an increasingly competitive market, as spots vie for acts and try to attract patrons who have more choices than ever before. The bottom line is, well, the bottom line, and it’s not easy to balance the need to provide a unique experience by booking timely acts and offering amenities like specialty food and drink with ticket prices that are commensurate with an audience that has enough options to balk should costs get out of hand.
The good news is that this is a boom time for live music in the city and its surroundings, and there may well be more places yet to debut in coming years. The continuing influx of millenials into Philadelphia has created a much larger market for the concert scene than in previous years. Sure, the middle-aged suburbanites will still flock to Fleetwood Mac, Kenny Chesney and Bruce Springsteen at the big spots in South Philly, but it used to be ridiculous to think 300 people would come out on a Tuesday night to see a punk band in Fishtown. Not so now. Just ask James Herman, owner of nine-year old Kung Fu Necktie on Front Street.
When Herman opened Kung Fu Necktie in 2008, he wanted to serve the punk/indie/metal market that had been largely ignored by other venues and promoters. He laughs now as he calls himself “a visionary” but given the surroundings into which he came, it’s hard not to give him credit for at least some foresight.
“What existed was a drug den,” he says. “The Penalty Box sports bar was a dump. I met with some resistance, because I didn’t go to school in the area, but I knew when to pick my battles. I was bringing an infusion of new talent, and I was initially met with scorn by the existing neighborhood.”
Herman reports that his first six years were stable, but things grew quickly in the next three, after he started handling all of his booking in house. KFN can hold up to 300 now, and Herman reports he is looking to expand so that he can accommodate more national acts. And though his spot doesn’t serve food, he is trying to buy the property next door to rent it out for someone to run a food window, the better to offer patrons more options without having to endure the headaches of running a kitchen. “That is an absolute drag,” he says.
Herman and Kung Fu Necktie’s story is different from that of The Fillmore, which is part of the Live Nation empire and is named for the legendary east and west coast halls once owned and operated by impresario Bill Graham, the man who said of the Grateful Dead, “They’re not the best at what they do; they’re the only ones who do what they do.”
The Fillmore boasts a capacity of about 2,900—standing room only on the main floor—and is able to attract a variety of acts, from Hall and Oates at its October 2015 grand opening gig, to LCD Soundsystem and Umphrey’s McGee. None will sell out the Wells Fargo Center, but they have the kind of cachet that puts them well above the bar bands that play smaller venues. That’s the Fillmore vibe, and since it is a Live Nation property, it has the ability to attract an impressive array of acts. And thanks to the 300-400 person upstairs Foundry space, The Fillmore has an opportunity to cultivate some lesser-known acts, too.
“Obviously, we’re looking for things that sell well to the masses, but we’re also investing in local bands and tribute bands,” says Jason Bray, Market GM for Live Nation.
Bray oversees several Live Nation properties, including the TLA, Tower and Queen Theater in Wilmington. He cites the decision to put The Fillmore in Fishtown as a key to its success. Thanks to the SugarHouse Casino and the restaurants and clubs in the area, there is an entertainment district that serves as a destination for a variety of demographics.
“People can hop into an Uber, start at the casino, eat at a spot on Girard Avenue and see a concert, all within an area that covers less than a mile,” Bray says. “The casino is an anchor.”
While The Fillmore has its Live Nation connection, and AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) helps funnel talent to the Keswick and the Trocadero, World Café Live benefits from a relationship with WXPN-FM and the radio show of the same name that the station distributes to more than 200 outlets nationwide. It’s hard to define the venue’s musical personality, other than to say it has something for just about everyone, as one might expect from a spot that has “World” as the first word of its name. Its downstairs features more prominent names, while the upstairs space allows for more intimate performances by up-and-coming bands. There is no direct connection that allows for booking ease between the radio station and the Café—“but we are friendly and share notes,” WCL founder and owner Hal Real says—but the disparate lineup of acts does replicate the World Café program’s varied approach. “We work to have a diverse group of artists perform,” Real says.
World Café Live also wants to be a destination for people hoping to have a complete night out. Its Upstairs Live combines a restaurant and performance space and enables those seeing more prominent acts downstairs the opportunity to enjoy a meal beforehand. Real reports that when WCL debuted in 2004, it staged shows just on the weekends. Now, it offers entertainment every night, and is “selling more tickets than ever”.
So, things look pretty good right now. Business is booming at venues large and small, and while some fear a tipping point, the continued influx of people to center city, Fishtown, Northern Liberties and other neighborhoods means the number of potential customers is swelling. Bands see that and flock to the area, eager to build a following in the hopes of getting that big break. And there is talk of expansion into underserved musical genres, such as jazz and blues. Presenting live music still requires plenty of hustle, even as the tide rises, but there is reason for optimism.
“Seven days a week, everywhere in the city, in clubs small and big, the city’s thriving much more than it has been,” Bray says. “The growth in the last three years has doubled the opportunities for people to see music. Everybody wants to go out. We’re not New York, and we’re not San Francisco, but there is a specific undertone and soul to the city.”