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The Evolution of Sean Agnew.

September 16, 2013

SeanAgnewSmall03Text by Nikki Volpicelli. Images by Jeff Fusco.

“I’m a baby when it comes to beer,” Sean Agnew says as he orders a pint of pale ale.

Nothing too heavy from the beer sheet at Center City’s Strangelove’s gastropub, which has a list that could wrap around the nearby block of 11th and Walnut. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and basketball shorts and looks more like a gym teacher than a stakeholder in three notable Philly music venues. Still though, he looks more like he could fit that role than the grungy, DIY basement showman that he once was – or still is.

“They had shows up here, actually in this room,” he says about the space that was once Doc Watson’s, where kids were notoriously allowed to drink before they turned 21.

Then he goes on to tell about the mid-show bust.

“One time it got raided,” he says. “They got all these underage kids and locked them in a room and were kind of like, ‘Shh, be quiet.’ The kids were like, ‘Woah, let us the fuck out.’ When the cops came, they heard all of this screaming and they opened the door and it’s like, 20 high school kids running out. That was kind of the end, the tipping point for this place.”

September2013AgnewCoverOnlineYou can’t see any testament that this space was ever a hideaway for that type of rebellious adolescence. Now, it’s a hideaway for businessmen and women looking for a dimly-lit, after-work cocktail hour. But since some of Agnew’s first memories of shows and venues and music in Philly, which began when the 35-year-old Ardmore native was a teenager taking the R5 Regional Rail into the city, the scenery has changed hands hundreds of times over.

Take the late ’90s, when Agnew started booking city shows: “Spaces were used more,” he remembers. “Basically, anywhere that would be willing to have a show, we’d have it. This was before most bands had any booking agents or managers and before email so there was a lot of just phone calls and people like, ‘Hey bands! You’re coming through? OK. Here, I’ll put you up upstairs above a barbershop on this day.'”

Today, he deals in events on a larger scale. He’s co-owner of the 1,200-capacity venue Union Transfer, the waterfront bar Morgan’s Pier and the revamped Boot & Saddle in South Philadelphia, which opened this month. As if that wasn’t enough to fill his day, he still runs R5 Productions, the music-promotion company he started in 1996.

Agnew realized his potential in the DIY scene while attending Drexel University. He started volunteering at WKDU, the school’s student-run radio station where he met the friends who would eventually turn him on to underground shows around the city.

seanAgnewandStacieGeorge.1“So these warehouses were doing shows, and it was really cool to go there and just be like, ‘Holy shit what is this?’” he recalls. “I mean, I’m from Ardmore and I used to hang out in the city a lot but I wasn’t going to punk shows on 39th and Lancaster. So it was really cool and that’s where I met a lot of my friends. Most of my friends today came from that era. The kids that have been working at R5 are basically from that era, whether they’re the bands or they were doing the shows.”

Dan Gross, a former Philadelphia Daily News reporter (who worked at the publication for 14 years), remembers the first piece he wrote for the Daily News. It was about Agnew.

“He ran a venue on Penn’s campus called 4040 [Locust Street],” Gross recalls. “That was actually one of the more interesting things Sean did. He opened this event space in conjunction with Penn in 2000 or so and they had shows there all the time. I don’t think Penn was paying any money towards bands. I think they might’ve just given him free rent because they wanted more events on campus.”

Gross mentions that once 4040 closed down, Agnew moved R5 shows to The Rotunda, a few blocks down the street, which is where he really thrived. Agnew spent years booking, promoting and running shows in others’ spaces, including the First Unitarian Church, Starlight Ballroom and the Ethical Society.

“I think there’s something that’s remarkable in what he’s been able to do,” Gross says. “He was usually booking the shows and mostly staffing them himself until maybe seven or eight years ago. That means for at least 10 years he was at most of the shows he was putting on.”

In addition to managing each show at each venue he was a part of for more than a decade, Gross remembers Agnew going on “marathon sessions” when he’d have a box of demo tapes and spend two straight days doing nothing but listening to them. He made his own show fliers. And he updated the R5 website with band bios, listening samples and new show announcements.

Agnew held a day job as a “computer lab guy” at the University of Pennsylvania during the time when he started building R5, pulling in $10 an hour and working daytime shifts. That way he was able to sustain himself while giving bands all of the profits from R5 shows.

SeanAgnewSmall06“At that time, I wasn’t taking money from the shows,” he admits. “I thought it was immoral. All the money was going to the bands and everyone who worked the show. It would be on a volunteer basis and be mostly my friends. We somehow decided it was OK to take money to buy ourselves dinner at the end of the night, like, go to some really cheap diner or Mad Mex or [get] something to eat. I was living in a house that I didn’t have to pay rent at, so I didn’t have a ton of economic responsibilities.”

He says his second apartment, which was also in West Philly, cost $135 per month.

“It didn’t take much to pay the rent,” he remembers. “It was just like, ‘Oh I can work two days [per week] and my rent’s paid.’”

He was working on a degree in Information Sciences while living there. He might’ve finished two trimesters before he dropped out but he knew enough about computer sciences (at a time when most people didn’t) that he was confident he could easily find a job in the field, degree or not.

“When I was booking shows [in the late ’90s] it was just as a hobby,” Agnew says. “I never had a goal to start a business or do this forever. It was just temporary. It was fun and cool and I’d do it because I loved it. But I was just going to stick with computers and get a job with computers. The way that R5 grew – the first year I did six shows then the next year was 12 shows and the next 30 and that was around the time that I started getting shows at the [First Unitarian] Church – it was real organic. By then it kind of started to be an almost part-time job. I didn’t have to make any dramatic leap of faith.”

Even though he never figured the booking thing to be permanent, he still allowed it to consume him, taking up all of his time.

“It was the one thing that was totally distracting,” he says. “Basically, when all that was going on, I didn’t give a fuck about school. I would miss this or that class and be like, ‘Oh wait, I can go with this band to New York? I’m just going to miss two days of school.’ That coupled with the radio station [WDKU], where I was just constantly introduced to new music and new people coming through.”

Eric Bresler, owner of PhilaMOCA, says that the early R5 ska shows at the Church played a huge role in his interest in professionally run DIY spaces, and the organization still inspires him.

“Some people grow an aversion towards anything that becomes bigger and more popular as if evolution devalues things,” Bresler says. “Evolution is natural and a great thing in good hands. I think stagnation is a terrible thing. When something evolves to a certain point and just stops, that’s what leads to disinterest and the dissolution of things like scenes. R5 continue to outdo themselves.”

Take last summer, when a Facebook event about a free Spacin’ show at Morgan’s Pier turned into a personal jab at Agnew, R5, the show, hot dogs, Diplo and anything else that some individual with a computer and a grudge could blame for being “bourgeois.”

SAgnewTwitterThing is, when people say Agnew is materialistic, capitalistic, misrepresenting the local music scene or whatever, they’re forgetting about the decade he spent without his own space, salary, employees, partners, clout. His is a career that took nearly two decades to cultivate. They’re forgetting the natural process of evolution.

And sure, if you only consider where he’s at now in his career, you might never believe he’s been ardent about the DIY/punk aesthetic all of his adult life. Again, he looks more like a gym teacher than a grungy basement showman. It’s when you see him in action that it becomes difficult to imagine there was ever a time when he didn’t know how to work a PA system or deal with band managers and booking agents, or Internet trolls.

“Fuck those kids and fuck those bands,” says Gross of people who take issue with Agnew’s current standing. “If they really want a show that badly, they can do what Sean did and what thousands of bands did. Let them rent a fire hall or let them rent a basement and let them flier, or whatever the Internet version of flyering is now, and see how hard that is. Then they will see.”

Agnew didn’t cultivate an almost 20-year career in the music industry by booking $5 basement shows alone. He also never went back to school. He evolved, slow-burning his way from there to here through a wholehearted DIY approach and he’s built an impressively developed empire.

“Now I can pretend to be like, ‘Yes. This was the plan,’” he says. “I knew this was all going to work out. But I didn’t and my parents freaked out. I was so scared to tell them I didn’t want to do this college thing anymore. Looking back, I didn’t even know you could do this as a career. I was just like, ‘Hey this is way more fun than school,’ and my parents were basically like, ‘You’re acting like a brat. Just go to school and deal with it.’ But I didn’t.”

 

4 Comments
  1. September 16, 2013 12:41 pm

    Yet another case study in don’t go to college, it is a massive scam. Good reporting.

  2. September 16, 2013 10:08 pm

    “You can’t see any testament that this space was ever a hideaway for that type of rebellious adolescence.” It’s the old Doc Watson’s. The mere sight of the place should conjure images of nothing but underage drinking. Sean’s still the same turd smuggler he’s always been; I’m sure he can handle some twitter critics. Hardmore forevermore.

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