Didn't like City Council's venue bill? Here's how the Philly music scene can prevent another one like it (we hope) - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Bill 160016 | Photo by John Vettese for WXPN

Earlier this winter, a problematic legislation proposed in Philadelphia City Council was withdrawn after an outcry from the community it affected – the Philly music scene.

The complicated bill to amend City assembly permits would have required music venues to collect names and addresses from its performers. This idea of an Orwellian “venue registry” went viral – artists and promoters took it to task for, among other issues, being crafted without a real-world, working understanding of how the concert business operates. Around the same time as City Councilman Mark Squilla saw the public reaction and withdrew the bill, Councilman David Oh announced plans for a “task force” of musically-involved Philadelphians that would serve as a sounding board for future policy ideas that could affect the music community. (CORRECTION: Oh first introduced the bill creating the music industry commission in 2015.)

To put it more bluntly, this could be a group of tapped-in people on the proverbial ground who could prevent misguided ideas like this before they even get to Council chambers. They could also offer constructive ideas for positive policy to bolster the scene.

The next step in that came this week when Oh announced, via the email list of his PHL Live event, that applications opened Monday for the new Philadelphia Music Industry Commission. Interested parties can fill out a form on Oh’s site by March 31st, with a nominating committee vetting the applicants. From the announcement:

The Philadelphia Music Industry Commission is a Council advisory body composed of 15 members that will evaluate the current state of the Music Industry in Philadelphia and develop a strategic plan to re-establish Philadelphia as the Music Industry City.

This is, in my estimation, a positive next step following the debacle this winter. As I said at the time, the best thing to come out of the bill was the conversation. People who are passionately engaged in the Philly music community were pissed off, they felt unjustly attacked, and they were not quiet about it – they made their voices heard, and those voices had an effect. It was a beautiful thing to see. To reiterate: “the conversation shouldn’t cease now that we’re not pissed off anymore. It should continue.”

Obviously, that is easier said than done. As it stands, there are numerous hoops and hurdles that venue owners already need to navigate in order for live music to happen in Philadelphia on a nightly basis: permits, fees, licenses and more. And while City Hall in recent years has tried to stake their piece of Philly’s growing national reputation as a music hotbed, it has not always been the friendliest to live music at the upstart level. Look back across recent history and you’ll see a pattern of crackdowns on independent promoters, from Pi Lam’s annual Human BBQ to the L&I show shutdowns R5 Productions faced in the early aughties.

The independent music community, to borrow a phrase from rapper Sage Francis, has developed a healthy distrust of our elected officials. And to think about engaging with those officials now? Aggressively chasing them away when they feel threatened is one thing; wanting to sit down and work with them is something else entirely.

As R5 founder Sean Agnew stated in a comment here on The Key:

In all due respect, Council should not be involved in Arts & Culture and it scares the hell out of me that David Oh is now somehow in charge of championing the “music industry” and now creating a TASK FORCE for it. Something that he clearly doesn’t know much about. A group of entrepreneurs have created a number of successful and nurturing venues in the challenging environment that is the arts in Philadelphia. We didn’t need city council’s help before and we certainly do not need it now.

Agnew makes a totally valid point. You can’t expect to spend years butting heads with a constituency and then all of a sudden want to play nice when they become successful. Trust like that needs to be earned, and City Council has it work cut out earning it – especially in the aftermath Bill 160016.

Still, I’d like to hope there’s a middle ground between total standoffishness and holding hands singing “Kumbaya.” More to the point: if Council is planning on having policy discussions and making decisions that could affect the music community, people actively involved in that community on the ground should also be involved in the process.

Likewise, Council and the nominating committee should be dutiful in seeking out a variety of perspectives for this 15-member commission. Don’t simply stack it with “yes people” who will think every proposal about music is super duper and won’t look at the issues critically. Differing viewpoints are important; disagreement is healthy; dialogue is vital.

Everybody in this conversation wants the same thing – from the Councilpeople waving the Philly music scene banner to the hard-working promoter packing their calendar with shows to this blogger reporting on the scene. We all want the music community in Philadelphia to continue to grow and thrive. It’s just a question how to work together to get there.

“The original bill was initially concerning special assembly licensing and the venues it affected. Conversely it would also effect artists performing at the venues but make no mistake, it was all about what the venues would have to do,” says Agnew via e-mail. “So if commissions and nominating committees are going to be created to further assist or help with legislature that affect our venues, I think it’s very important to have those folks involved.

 “I would love for Philly musicians and industry professionals get together,” continues Agnew. “Ultimately a group that comes together on their own accord would be much more effective and represent the true interests of entrepreneurs and artists in our weird and wonderful Philadelphia music scene. A group that comes together organically could have real influence, rather than one put together via a one page application submitted to The City.”

More on the nominating committee below, via Oh’s email.

A Nominating Committee has been formed to review the applications and nominate members to the Commission. The Nominating Committee members are: Stephanie Seiple (Co-Founder Tri State Indie), Chill Moody (Recording Artist), Mark Schultz (Executive Director of Philadelphia Grammy Chapter), Jeri Lynne Johnson (Founder Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra), David Allen Ph.D (Professor: Saint Joseph’s University), David Ivory (Grammy Nominated Engineer), Bernard Resnick (Entertainment Lawyer), Maureen Malloy (Jazz Program Director for 90.1 FM WRTI), Loraine Ballard Morrill (Dir. News & Community Affairs: I Heart Media), David Silver (REC Philly), Carvin Haggins (Grammy Award Winning Producer), Tony Kauffman (Co-Founder KBM Productions), David Ludwig (Dean of Curtis Institute of Music), Haley Velletri (Programming Coordinator of Philadelphia Folk Song Society), Eric Sabo (Professor: Art Institute of Philadelphia, University of Arts), Sonya McDuffie (Co-Founder Black Maverick Ent.), Jodie Riccelli (Co-Founder Exponent Ent.), Jimmy DaSaint (DaSaint Entertainment), Lovett Hines (Jazz Ensemble Director: The Philadelphia Clef Club), Razz (Music Director:  92.5 XTU), Joseph Conyers (Principal Bassist: Philadelphia Orchestra), and Dyana Williams (President: Philadelphia Grammy Chapter).

DISCLOSURE: Nominating committee member Stephanie Seiple is the spouse of WXPN Digital Content Manager Rich McKie; author John Vettese has acted as host for two PHL Live events, one in 2014 and one in 2015.

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