The man Philadelphia Weekly called the city's 'last indie man standing,' Sean Agnew and R5 Productions have been at the forefront of the City of Brotherly Love's adamant opposition to Clear Channel's complete takeover of the city for a number of years now. Remaining staunchly independent in spite of the conglomerate's attempt to usurp his venues, Sean and R5 have slowly but surely become not only the longest running and most influential DIY concert promotion agencies in all of Philadelphia, but also a symbol for not giving in to big business and staying true to one's ethics. Throughout all the media hoopla surrounding Philadelphia's concert promotion industry (you can read an in-depth article here), R5 shows are consistently well-promoted and the First Unitarian Church, R5's principal venue, is one if not the only place a Philly kid can still see an all-ages show. I got a chance to talk to Sean via e-mail about R5's history and where he's headed in the future.
ScenePointBlank: How did you get involved in promoting shows?
Sean Agnew: I started helping out at other DIY shows that my friends were doing. Started adding bands to shows here and there, learning how to do sound etc. I never set out to be a show promoter. It was a very slow and gradual climb to be able to do this full time. As I learned more and more ... I started doing my own shows for bands that I wanted to see, who were skipping Philadelphia.
SPB: How did R5 Productions come about?
SA: Again I never started out thinking that I would do it more then a handful of times. Just a show here or there ... nothing too serious. But once I started doing my own shows ... bands would pass on my contact to other bands who passed it on to other bands. After a few years I started booking show on a somewhat frequent basis, and I guess started having a somewhat more serious attitude about it. The name 'R5 Productions' came from the local train I took as a kid to High School, The City and all over the place (the train is the R5).
SPB: A church basement seems like kind of an odd place to host shows from of the biggest names in underground music. How did you work out the arrangement with the First Unitarian Church?
SA: The church was actually hosting shows before I started booking events there. I was actually going to shows that my friend Bull booked. After awhile, he decided he didn't want to do it anymore and I sort of started booking more and more shows there, picking up the slack. The church has always been really supportive of the idea to provide a safe, drug and alcohol free social option for young people.
SPB: Has there ever been any conflict between your shows and the Church or the city?
SA: The city shut down the church in 2002, it's a real long story, but the short version is as follows: The city raided a show, found nothing illegal or against building codes or regulations. They cited the church for a very shaky and questionable 'zoning' law that basically said that the church was not allowed to host events for the general public (obviously that goes against everything a church is supposed to be). After two months the city overturned the ruling and allowed us to go back to doing shows there. Since than we have yet to have any problems from the city.
SPB: Have you always been based out of Philly?
SA: Yep ... for the entire duration.
SPB: Is R5 Productions a full-time operation now?
SA: It is for me. I still do not have any fulltime staff people, but that might be changing soon. We have a part-time day of show staff that work that day that there is a show. I still handle the majority of all the office and promotions work.
SPB: Who's the most memorable live act you've ever booked?
SA: That's hard with over 2000 bands. Real hard. Some standouts include: At The Drive In (one show in particular at the church ... it was insane how good they were ... they literally sold a CD to almost every single person in the room). Godspeed You Black Emperor in 2002 (amazing sound and accompanying video show). This punk band DSB from Japan who were so crazy and weird and way over the top with everything they did. They had a real interesting perspective of what being punk meant ... they would smash, break, jump and hit everything in site. Very awesome and fun(ny)
SPB: What makes Philly's arts scene special to you?
SA: The involvement of young people. Space 1026 a collective of young Philly artists continues to win award after award for their work. It's very hands on ... do it yourself ... not waiting to catch a big break. Just people doing what they love to do without worrying about how popular it will be or how much money they will make...
SPB: What are some Philly bands you think are doing something unique and vital these days?
SA: My friends, R.A.M.B.O. They self booked a tour in Australia and South East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore etc). It's mind boggling to me - the whole process - to just pick up the phone or write an e-mail and place trust in strangers you have never met, half way around the world. When local bands bitch and complain about how hard it is to tour or get shows - I love to tell them what RAMBO did. It puts things in an amazing perspective.
SPB: How do you feel about all this Clear Channel business?
SA: I feel that they are one of the scariest entities out there right now not just in music - but their philosophies on taking over public space for advertising and how they interlace various political views (usually conservative) into their programming. They have such an assuming, cocky attitude towards their policies and actions. I think most people realize the dangers in a mega conglomerate having diversified media interests.
SPB: How do you feel about being 'Philly's last indie man standing', as one paper put it?
SA: There are other ones, but I guess I have received a great deal of publicity for one reason or another. I'm very proud of the fact that R5 is still an independent company. I don't see that changing in the future ... I love having the ability to do whatever we want (in terms of the direction the business is headed) without having to answer to any superiors, investors etc. Permanently aligning myself with any other larger company could easily turn something I love into a dreaded JOB.
SPB: Favorite bands?
SA: Hmm of all time I would have to say ... Shotmaker, Telefon Tel Aviv, Fugazi, Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest.
SPB: What have you been listening to lately?
SA: Right now I am really into Tim Hecker, Ulrich Schanuss, William Basinki, (three droney / ambient musicans & composers) Coco Rosie, Bloc Party and The Promise Ring
SPB: What do you do outside of concert promotion?
SA: Hah ... not too much. I try and play as much basketball as possible, I tour with my friends bands (I was out for 3 months this year) and work at a record store part-time. I usually go out every night and try to get in little trouble as possible.
SPB: What's next on the agenda?
SA: To slow things down with R5, take on less shows and spend more time on them (vs. taking on too much and flying by the seat of my pants), to go to Europe with my friends (Rambo) and somehow fulfill my dream of owning a burrito stand.
Interview conducted by Jonathan.