A Closer Look at Philly’s Music Venues: Ways Smaller Venues Stay Afloat

Featured Image of the Fillmore by Stephanie Defeo

The previous month has been devastating for the music scene with not one, but two venues closing their doors. Following over thirty years of operation, North Star Bar announced its sudden closure for renovations, after which it will expand its menu but no longer host concerts. Known for hosting up-and-coming performers, one of its most noted performances came from the rock group The White Stripes in 2001. JC Dobbs arrived on South Street in the mid-70’s, being changed into the Pontiac Bar and Grill from 1996 to 2010 before it was reverted to The Legendary Dobbs under new management. Their events lineup ranged from local musical acts to weekly karaoke nights, jam sessions, and open mics, as well as occasional all-ages afternoon shows. Like North Star, Dobbs boasted its own list of top-notch performers to have graced its stage, including The Roots and Nirvana. Both venues announced their closure within days of each other and under similar circumstances: an announcement seemingly out of the blue without a clear reason for the decision, leaving fans and musicians alike in shock. What is interesting to note, however, is that what set these two venues apart from most of their counterparts may have been the reason for their demise.

Hall and Oats

Photo of Hall and Oates at the Fillmore by Stephanie DeFeo

On the first of October, Hall and Oates played The Fillmore’s first show. The House of Blues, under Live Nation, acquired a share of the new $32 million entertainment complex in Fishtown to add two venues to the city’s rich collection. The Fillmore holds 2,500 for a general admission show and hosts more mainstream acts with VIP experience packages. To cater to the smaller club scene, Live Nation also built the more personal, 450 person venue The Foundry next door to foster a more personal concert experience. The show promotions and, following its 2012 merger with Ticketmaster, the ticketing site giant has sufficient funds to keep Philly’s two latest venues alive, as well its other two holdings the TLA and Tower Theater. Live Nation additionally sells tickets for many of Philadelphia’s other large venues including the Electric Factory (although owned by competitor AEG Live) and Festival Pier. Both large-scale names have been able to bring exceptional names to Philly, such as Miley Cyrus at the Electric Factory, Disturbed at the TLA, and Bryan Adams at The Fillmore, onto one mainstream purchasing platform. However, in fostering its own holdings, these names may unintentionally make it difficult for venues outside of its reach to gain comparable attention.

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Photo of Brandon Can’t Dance at First Unitarian Church by Amanda Silberling

On the flipside, R5 Productions as well as Deathwaltz Media Group and other booking companies around the city help Philly’s smaller venues hold their ground. For example, R5 Productions advertises its weekly picks to help lesser-known bands, and small to medium-sized venues gain publicity. It promotes shows from Johnny Brenda’s, First Unitarian Church, and PhilaMOCA, among others. R5 also works with Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle with each venue’s full lineup on its site.

World Cafe Live, likewise, receives promotional support from WXPN, which is owned and operated by the University of Pennsylvania. The  UPenn affiliation allows for promotion with Penn’s Social Planning and Events Committee (SPEC) hosting university concerts, such as Skylar Grey, within its walls and its location making its open mic nights and other events highly accessible to University City musicians and enthusiasts alike. World Cafe Live has two stages to allow for larger shows as well as more personal experiences, and offers occasional dinner shows as well as a standard dining experience.

World Cafe is not the only smaller music venue in the city that doubles as a restaurant and this strategy may help to generate revenue outside of ticket sales. The restaurant Serrano opened in Old City in 1985, and, in 1992, added a new name and function as the Tin Angel, boasting a second floor acoustic cafe in addition to its main floor restaurant. The small, acoustic setting offers a relaxed, cozy atmosphere for patrons and performers alike, as well as allows for the restaurant below to operate without disturbance. Johnny Brenda’s is also a restaurant-venue hybrid, hosting a full menu as well as brunch on the weekends. It is transformed into a venue at night and has hosted noteworthy acts including The Ting Tings, Girl Talk, MGMT, and Vampire Weekend. While The Legendary Dobbs likewise offered food, their menu was notably smaller and simpler than those of Tin Angel and Johnny Brenda’s.

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Photo of Cory Wade at Tin Angel by Amanda Silberling

Coupled with North Star Bar’s move to expand its menu, this may imply that Philly’s strong restaurant scene can provide a more stable source of revenue to a venue, allowing those with unique menus to gain larger recognition as well as provide sufficient funds to host live music. This may be key to a smaller venue’s success, especially when competing against those which are heavily promoted and under well-funded, corporate management. However, show promotions agencies may help venues that do not wish to follow this model sustain their live music through the attention it draws to their shows.

Although the fate of the beloved North Star Bar and Dobbs are heart-wrenching, understanding Philly’s many types of venues as well as how independent names stay afloat can keep those remaining, and our thriving local music scene, alive. Will the answer fall on more food-and-drink options at venues or more mergers? Only time will tell.

What Philly venues deserve more recognition? Let us know in the comments below!

2 Comments

  1. Kathia Woods

    November 16, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    You missed the Cleef Club, Bourbon & Branch, and Voltage. Also Aig took over Electric Factory, Trocadero and Underground Arts

  2. Lauren Silvestri

    November 17, 2015 at 11:42 am

    This is such a fabulous, in-depth article! It’s so important that we support our independent venues and booking companies. We need local control to keep Philly’s culture authentic and original!

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