After playing my first real show in Philly in 2010, embarrassed from a poor performance that got worse with each song, I decided to take a long hiatus from playing music. I knew that no one in my new home of New York would mourn my band's end, so I let the whole thing go.
On subsequent visits to my hometown, I'd run into people asking me when we would play again, if we had any cassettes to sell, what kind of music I was writing, if I wanted to jam. At the time, I had posted only three songs to Myspace, and didn't promote them anywhere. My response was always dismissive bemusement. “Oh, yeah, that? It's over now. Kaput.” There was a bullying disapproval that came with these conversations, friends who were gently critical of my giving up on something I cared about, and these conversations were the currency of community, of which Philly's is astonishingly strong.
A writer in New York recently attempted to capture that community in a quickly constructed embed roundup. The result was shoddy and disingenuous, making the city out to be some dirt-drowned rube's town with the occasional cubic zirconia shining through. What the writer hadn't considered is that Philly has never needed or wanted outside approval. When no one in New York even knew my band existed, people in Philly who had watched us struggle through a shaky set were asking us to play again, encouraging me not to give up. Those same people came to the shows that I did eventually play, three years later, and enthusiastically bought cassettes that took me that long to put out.
When I conceived of putting together this report, I knew it wouldn't be hard to get friends to contribute. And this, in no way at all, is every single show attendee, band member, writer, or artist. It's a limited cross-section of those involved in a community that isn't just thriving now because of some omnipresent outsider validation—it has been thriving, and in a number of positive ways. Below are voices from Philly speaking on what makes our East Coast city a place of not just brotherly love, but of creative prolificacy, thoughtful allegiance, and stalwart independence.
Melissa Brain of Marge
Editor's note: When I saw Brain's touching comic about her dog, Ozzy, I asked her if she wouldn't mind illustrating what it is she loves about Philly for this report. Here is the (awesome) strip she provided:
Perry Shall of Hound
What do you like about the Philly Scene?
The scene in Philly is great because it's constantly trying to one-up itself. The people running shows here are always looking for new places to book and new bands to check out. We somehow are always getting compared to NY, which doesn't completely make sense to me. In NY, my understanding is that most venues that would book DIY type of shows end up being at bars, with the exception of Death By Audio, which to me is the most punk DIY venue I've witnessed in NY. In Philly we have the advantage/disadvantage of having to book most DIY shows at houses, which sometimes lead to problems with neighbors, police, etc. Because of these obstacles, Philly is in a constant rotation of new houses and new ways to promote and book bands. There is a constant struggle and push to find new places to play and we've had to get more creative than just houses. Whether it's a warehouse, bike shop after hours, a coffee shop, outdoors under a bridge . . . it seems hard to really stop the Philly punk scene from giving up and settling on a bar or club. To me, the struggle of it all is a very classic Philly thing. We'll never be as big, or popular as NY, but we don't need or care to be either and I think that's why our scene is so amazing.
What are some of your favorite Philly bands?
Right now there is a slew of great Philly punk and DIY bands. Lately I've been into Low Charge, Cauldron, The Holidays, Cayetana, Bad Energy, Bad Doctors, Ruby Buff, Martin, MARGE, Heavy Bangs, Bad Canoes, Dark Blue, Pissed Jeans, Purling Hiss, Amanda X, Radiator Hospital, Ghost Light, Evil Sword, Dark Thoughts, Bad Side, Hound, The Ambulars, Congenital Death, Batworm, Plague Dogs, Cassavetes, and probably a bunch of others that I've somehow forgotten about.
What do you like about Philly in general?
I've lived in Philly my whole life and I can't really pick one reason why I love it so much. It feels more real to me than a lot of other places in a way. I come from a working-class family and live a working-class lifestyle that I've always known to be related to Philadelphia. I grew up with pretty much every type of person you could imagine. Every race, ethnicity, and cultural background you could think of. I didn't grow up with any hatred or anger towards people for being different than me. I know not all of Philadelphia is like that but that's what I grew up knowing. Our music scene had always welcomed me with open arms and I've always felt lucky to be a part of it even before I booked shows or played in bands here. Overall it's just what I'm comfortable with because it's given me a reason to be.
Philly is a tense place. It's violent and evolving. It's brutally honest and diverse. There's racial and economic tension and there always has been. I can't think of anyone that feels completely at ease there. I live in Berlin now and the difference is astounding. It's been strange to go from a place where everyone is on edge to a place where almost no one is.
Great music arrives out of societal tension. Every major genre from the last century grew out of a tense place—blues, rock and roll, jazz, hip hop, punk, etc. Guess what the 70s in London and NY were? Tense as fuck. Philly is like that now, but it's also been like that forever. The last time rock blew up in NY was after 9/11. That's not a coincidence. The current scenes in Philly reflect the tension that's actually there and people's reaction to it. You either try to escape it or you use it as fuel.
Cat Park of Amanda X
Philadelphia speaks to the starving artist in the same ways that the South does, it says “I'm relatively cheap to live in and I'm close to a ton of cultural hubs.” With a low rent I am able to work a part-time job as well as write music, play shows, create artwork, and basically do whatever I want.
Philadelphia is tiny, everybody making music lives within a 5 mile radius of each other. There are like three areas of the city where musicians and punks live. There's no avoiding anybody. You know how everybody works. You know their strengths and their weaknesses. You probably know if they'll be particularly awesome in the band you're about to make. Philadelphia produces a tight-knit scene. This city just lends itself to music-making because everything is easy. Own a van. Park it anywhere. Practice in your basement. Record your album down the street.
Barrett Lindgren of Ghost Light
Photo by Tim Tracy
I moved to Philadelphia in 2008 under what now strike me as less than purposeful circumstances. I had a few friends here, the music scene was okay, and it was cheap. I started playing in bands, moved into a show house, and started working shitty jobs. The whole thing was similar to what I imagined my life would be like in my late teens/early twenties. At that time (around 2008-2011), the city's music scene looked very fractured to me. There were bands that I liked, but none of us knew each other. It never had the romantic “we're all in this together” feeling that I fantasized about as a kid obsessing over the indie rock and punk scenes I was too young to have participated in. I deeply wanted to feel that way.
It was around this time that I started realizing what the missing piece was. I was not trying. I didn't see the kinds of shows I wanted to see happening, but I wasn't setting them up. I didn't feel supported by a strong scene, but I wasn't providing that support for anyone else. Apparently, a lot of my peers were coming to the same conclusions. After moving in and out of a few different show houses, I settled into the house where I live now. I started setting up shows there, and eventually started working with my friends to set up shows at a few different DIY spaces in Philly. Before very long, I discovered that there were a lot of other people who wanted the same things that I did. There were people making the music that I wanted to hear, labels putting out the records I wanted to buy, promoters booking the bands I wanted to see, organizers writing the zines I wanted to read. All of these people wanted to help and be helped. Ever since then, I have been up to my ears in it. This city is boiling over with passionate, awe-inspiring people who are all working to create something not just for themselves, but for each other. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a part of it.
Bands that I love: Swearin', Gunk, Radiator Hospital, Hound, Batty, Drums Like Machine Guns, Bad Energy, Heavy Medical, Low Charge, Dry Feet, Bleeding Rainbow, Amanda X, Great Thunder, Swarm, Bad Side, The Holidays, Wet Food, The Ambulars, Little Big League, Cayetana, Hermit Thrushes, Kate Ferencz, Snow Caps, Fuck SS, The Stasi, Marge, Heavy Bangs, HIRS, Nona, Martin, Dingus, Crybaby, Two Suns, Bad Canoes, Dick Neff, Cassavetes. Need to stop now or I will go on for way too long.
Sarah Everton of Bleeding Rainbow
Photo by G.W. Miller III
Philly is everybody in our band's chosen city. (Al is from South Jersey so he comes the closest to being a native.) When people ask Rob and I why we moved here from Virginia, it's easy to explain. D.C. is a clusterfuck (no offense), Baltimore is too much like Richmond (no offense x2), Brooklyn is expensive and overrated (sorry not sorry) and Philly has a good music scene and has cheap rent – BOOM. We knew nobody when we first moved here, and now have best friends who we know through our jobs and through playing music. We're pretty introverted and live in the northeast where we practice in our basement and watch Netflix, but we live in walking distance to several excellent venues (including Johnny Brenda's and Kung Fu Necktie). West Philly's got the house show scene on lock which I am very jealous of, but we love going to/playing shows at Golden Tea House as an example of one tight spot. Tons of positive, inclusive events and benefits are organized like the Galantines Day Covers Show (which I am missing this time b/c of tour next week. BUMMER) and First Time's The Charm which gave women, people of color and transgendered people a supportive and really fun place to play music in new bands for the first time. There's a constant stream of good music and solid bands coming out of here, and a few we really like are Spacin', Hermit Thrushes, Amanda X, Little Big League, Swearin', Ghost Light, Creepoid, Hound, Everything The Talented Dawn Riddle Ever Does, and more who I am leaving off not as a dick move but because I can't think of them all. New York is rad, don't get me wrong, but we own our house and I don't think that ever would have happened if we moved to Brooklyn.
Kyle Gilbride of Swearin'
DISCLAIMER: I am now a former Philly resident, current frequent visitor. One of the most unique aspects of the DIY community in Philly is how tight knit it is, despite its size. In most big towns the scene becomes split into various smaller scenes, accommodating different tastes, lifestyles, etc. Though there is certainly a lot of crossover in bands and friendships in these places, Philly DIY seems to reconcile its subdivisions uniquely. Smaller scenes can often share the benefit of a united community of punk or radical-minded people because, no matter how different they are, they still have a lot in common. Philadelphia is a city with a scene that feels small but isn't; it's on the same page.
Jarrett Dougherty of Screaming Females
I moved from New Brunswick, NJ to Philadelphia, PA about four years ago. The most important thing that I have learned via the punk rock scene since that move has to do with the intersections of punk rock, politics, long standing communities, etc. West Philadelphia has the ethics and energies of DIY punk rock invested into institutions and political projects beyond just shows. Places like the worker-owned food co-op Mariposa and anarchist/activist spaces such as A-Space and LAVA are proof of the lineage and links between radical communities of the past, the established communities living in these areas, and the punk rock scene. LAVA runs shows but has also hosted the offices of ACT UP for many years. Mariposa comes out of the Quaker community but recently opened its doors to non-owners in hopes of engaging the wider community while providing a much needed opportunity to be able to buy fresh produce. A number of people I have met through punk rock work with a coalition of diverse groups under the banner Decarcerate PA to bring attention to the disgusting Big Business deals between government and corporations that make money keeping a large percentage of black and brown people locked up. Philadelphia has a long troubled history of divided communities so I really appreciate many punks' attempts to be of the community instead of just some noisy wasters at the end of the street. Also West Philly punks have a lock on the caffeine service industry.
Photo by Kate Harrold
What do you like about living and playing music in Philly?
Christopher Ward: I love the people. I mean, this city is known for having an attitude, and it does, however, that's just one side of the picture. The other side is a tight-knit community of people who are insanely supportive. I believe this city has so much to offer and if you can just move past the surface layer—it is one of the more rewarding towns to live and play in.
Andrew Thiboldeaux: I like that Philly has grit . . . something I admire in people and crave in music. When I'm away from home I find myself missing that role of this town in my life.
What other bands or musicians do you like and support from the city?
Ward: Here is a very small portion of the amazing bands in Philly that I love: Man Man, The Solar Motel Band (Chris Forsyth), Lushlife, The War on Drugs, Worshyper, Busses, Arc in Round, and Norwegian Arms.
Thiboldeaux: That's so tough because there's so much going on, but to add to Chris's list I'd say Moon Bounce is standing out to me right now.
What makes Philly special to you?
Ward: The people, soft pretzels and bike lanes.
Thiboldeaux: I grew up here and family is from here, so this place is in my dreams and bones.
Mark Schoneveld, Founder of Yvynyl
You can easily take a day trip to come down here [from New York] in less than a couple hours for a couple dollars on a cheap bus. If you did, not only would you find amazing music on every corner, you'd find extremely generous people who will put you up for free for the night, feed you and show you where the hottest underground hotspots are.
As for the music . . . I would love to do a contest. Which city has more rad indie venues and events per capita? I'd put money on the Philly scene, day in and day out.
Maria T of No Other
Photo by Scott Troyan
Philadelphia has a lot of different scenes—there isn't really one music scene but rather a collection of microscenes—and some overlap in interesting, meaningful ways. That gives people the space and freedom to do what they want, at a fraction of the cost but with the same access to social networks and resources one might have in larger cities, should anyone desire to seek them out. Combined with a population that is community-driven and hard-working, it has managed to keep this going over the course of multiple decades.
I'm not sure how it could possibly get better in terms of both established and underground local infrastructure. We have rock clubs that serve locally made ice cream. There's plenty of established DIY spaces where you can do film screenings, live music, comedy, and theatre (maybe all of these things at once). Even the basement shows take place in pretty nice basements. Going back even 10-12 years ago, this wasn't the case. Most rock clubs—and I know, I booked one of them—used to be total shitholes, and they weren't even open to people under the age of 21.
Making sure Philadelphia stays open to a variety of people and offering ways of encouraging/supporting them has always been the challenge in this city. I think there has been a lot of good organizing around this issue and as long as that remains a central focus, this city will continue to be a place for talent to thrive.
Dan Svizeny of Cough Cool
Photo by Dayna Evans
Things Dan Likes About Living In Philly:
- Living in a city where there are actual people from that city
- Not being on the list of the world's worst rat cities
- Nothing (the band)
- Alex G
- Pill Friends
- The Interest Group
- Kurt Vile
John Vettese of XPN/The Key
This weekend I caught a relatively new country-folk trio with incredible vocal harmonies called Dirty Dollhouse; they played Saturday afternoon at East Coast Recording, a studio in the burbs, for a small but totally enthused crowd. Saturday night I took in a sold out show by Restorations—one of the bands namechecked in that VICE piece I believe—at new South Philly venue Boot and Saddle, and followed it up today by seeing new-classical ensemble Relâche playing a live score to a Buster Keaton film in a gallery at Penn Museum. Friday night I was also at a punk show (The Weaks playing in a West Philly living room) but had solid options from the local hip hop and indie rock communities as well (Chill Moody and Norwegian Arms, respectively).
The awesome thing is that this weekend was not an anomaly. There is pretty much always this kind of variety of great Philly artists playing in all sorts of venues, big and small, traditional and offbeat.
There's also a nice overlapping between Philly's various creative communities. I just a few hours ago found out that this guy Perry Shall, who books shows and plays in a thrash band called Hound, has an exhibit of his visual art opening next weekend; likewise, local designer Dewey Saunders also records hip-hop as Dewey Decibel. I know filmmakers who are ambient musicians (Michael James Murray of Out of Town Films) and singer-songwriters who are also photographers (Kwesi K). Surely every creative scene experiences this to some degree, but it feels especially fluid here. Hell, tonight there's a comedy pop band called Wilbur playing at World Cafe Live, next door to the radio station I work for; they play music venues as well as comedy clubs and have a following in both worlds, and while they admittedly aren't entirely my thing, I think it's awesome that a band like that exists.
Philly is a city that has a lot of talent, a lot of options, but doesn't feel over-saturated. If an artist is good and works hard, they probably won't go undiscovered or what have you. The scene is supportive—we totally rally around our success stories like Kurt Vile, War on Drugs and more recently The Districts—but we're at the same time very self-critical and analytical (all qualities that were reflected in the local response to the VICE piece). Those things kind of work in tandem. It's like we want to see our musicians and creative folks succeed but we also want them to be the best they possibly can be.
Other great stuff about Philly: the craft beer and restaurant scene is thriving (shoutouts, Earth Bread & Brewery and Memphis Taproom). Park space like Schuylkill Banks and Forbidden Drive is wonderful for long distance running and biking and generally attempting to offset all the aforementioned craft beer and foodieness. You can get by in Philly without owning a car, even though that often means bonding with fellow Philadelphians about the comedy of errors that our public transportation system can be. I don't care much about sports, but our baseball mascot, the Phillie Phanatic, is pretty dang hysterical and appeared on stage last time Dr. Dog played a hometown show. Our museums are plentiful and accessible, and our Mural Arts Program has art in all sorts of non-museum locales. I could go on and on.
Cynthia Schemmer of Radiator Hospital
Everyone in Philadelphia (or at least folks in the scene that I'm a part of) is really supportive of each other and their music. People are generally psyched about new bands and new people. The scene is very positive and encouraging. When I lived in New York, for whatever personal reasons, I felt self-concious about doing anything creative and so I wasn't really playing music. New York had run it's course for me and was really draining me both emotionally and creatively. The city itself felt too competitive and the people too judgemental. Here in Philly there isn't that harsh aggression.
What do you like about playing music and listening to music in Philly?
DIY PHL, a show and event listing calendar put together by some good friends, just started a PA share where folks can pay $10 a year to have access to a PA that was purchased from the proceeds of First Time's the Charm. This is so neat to me because it gives everyone in the scene the opportunity to put on their own shows. These are the kinds of things I love about this place; there's a lot of people wanting to have a good time and do the things we love together.
What do you like about just living in Philly? What are some of your favorite things to do in the city?
I've actually only been living in Philly for a little under two years, so I still feel relatively new. After living in New York for 28 years, I've found that in Philly I can work a part-time job that I care about and also have the time and space (both physically and mentally) to work on my writing and music. I currently live in West Philly and I can't really see myself living anywhere else in this city. There are other cool areas, but here I can live in a big old Victorian house with good friends where we play music in the basement, host out-of-town bands, and hang out on the porch in the summer.
One of my favorite things about Philly is how close to some really beautiful nature we are. You can ride your bike from Center City to the Wissahickon Creek or the John Heinz Wildlife Preserve in 20 minutes and you'd never even know you were still in Philadelphia. As a bird watcher and overall nature geek, that is something I really love having within biking distance.
What bands/venues do you highly recommend?
Most of the shows I go to are house shows. Golden Tea House is definetely my favorite house venue in Philadelphia. I think it's so cool that the folks who live there are willing to open up their home to a bunch of punks who are going to throw their empties at Jeff Bolt and spray champagne all over the kitchen. Any non-DIY venue isn't going to put up with that. It feels way more intimate; I'm not wasting my money at a bar and I know it's going directly to the bands.
A few bands that I highly recommend and can't get enough of:
Cayetana are three of the nicest and talented ladies playing really catchy tunes. The vocals floor me; Augusta's voice is empowered and flawless. It's rare that everytime I see a band a play I'm continuously more impressed with how talented they are each time. Needless to say, I'm terribly anxious for a full album.
The Ambulars are so much more than a non-descript “dumb” few sentences. They are some of my favorite people in Philadelphia putting out really catchy pop songs. I've found myself on more than one occassion blasting their album “Asleep at the Wheel” in my car, windows down, while driving through West Philly. One day somebody is going to catch me doing this and I will feel zero shame about it. (Mikey Cantor is one of my favorite song writers out there, and his solo music is also defintely worth checking out.)
Marge is a new band that formed for First Time's the Charm and I am so psyched that are continuing to play. Their lyrics and vocal harmonies are sweet and their guitar leads are killer. They only have a demo online right now, but those two songs are pretty telling of the amazing things these ladies will do.
Dark Thoughts are a new band that haven't released any demos yet and have only played two shows, but are absolutely a band to be anticipated.
Batty are no longer playing, but they are so worth mentioning. Fast, sometimes dark, three-piece fronted by guitarist Tiff Cheng. I'm really psyched to see what she does next.
Sam Cook-Parrott of Radiator Hospital
I moved to Philly about a year and a half ago from Grand Rapids, MI. The music scene in Philly to me feels like a larger scale version of music scenes across the country. It has the energy and excitement of a smaller city that is still hungry and excited to have a punk scene, but coupled with this tremendous history. The cost of living is low for a major East Coast city, so it's a really great place to be based out of if you are touring a lot. There are a lot of spaces to play and a lot of people who are really excited and actively involved. Usually in big cities, the music scene is much more divided and thus can't sustain a lot of the really positive things that are happening in Philly.
A handful of Philly bands that are doing awesome things currently: Ambulars, Marge, Ted Nguyent, The Weaks, Heavy Bangs, Bad Energy, Low Charge, Nona, The Holidays, Bad Side, Ghost Light, Cayetana, Thin Lips, and Hound. As far as places to play, one of the best things Philly has going for it is a lot of houses that do shows. Two of our absolute favorite places to play are Golden Tea House and Great Indoors.
Other than hanging out with friends and stuff, I really like just sort of wandering around different parts of Philly. I like to take the train to Olde City and go to a movie and walk around by the river. There are a lot of great bike trails and parks to get lost in.
Grace Ambrose of Heavy Bangs
I'm psyched on projects like SWARM, a dance, music, and performance collective that plays everywhere from DIY spaces to contemporary art institutions. They might not look or sound like your conception of a “punk band” but their process and politics are punker than almost everyone else in this city. Watching them is always a transformative experience.
+HIRS+: fierce queer grindcore. It's one of those bands where the deep emotional connection between members becomes incredibly obvious when they play. Jenna and Scott have a long friendship and together are an unstoppable force amongst the chaos of their samples and wall of amps. Full force, all the time.
I'm so excited to see that so many bands that formed for First Time's the Charm are still playing shows. FTTC was a mini-fest which featured bands all playing their first shows and foregrounded the contributions of normally marginalized voices: all bands had to include female-identified, queer, or trans* folks or people of color, as well as someone who was playing in a band for the very first time. Bands that are playing around town that formed as a result of the fest include Marge, See-Through Girls, Mermaid Parade, Teenage Bigfoot, Dinner Break, and my band Heavy Bangs, among others! Hopefully we'll do another edition of the fest next year. It was organized by the DIYPHL collective (which I am a member of) and raised funds to purchase a PA for community use. We're setting up a member-based PA share (membership open to all for the low price of $10/year!)—get in touch at email@example.com! We already have lots of shows lined up that are going to use the PA—if you've ever wanted to have a show at your house but didn't have access to equipment, that's changing right now!
I love spaces like LAVA Space—a West Philly center for radical media and organizing that hosts shows, reminding us that DIY is, at its core, still a political choice with powerful potential.
What do I love about Philadelphia in general? I can be anywhere I want to be in a twenty five minute bike ride. Rent is still cheap. There are lots of basements to make loud noise in. I love the fact that so many of the historical markers that are up around this city reveal the ugly parts of our history, the parts that many places would write out of the narrative. I can't walk down the street in almost any neighborhood without seeing someone who I know—to be fair, this is something that I hate and love equally. There is a true sense of community here, one that is hard to explain to people who aren't inside of it.
Evan D of Pocket
Photo by Mike McGowan
People in Philadelphia are currently fighting for their rights to receive a quality education, as a corrupt school district and bigoted governor make that goal impossible to attain, because the state is too busy planning the building of its $400-million-dollar prison to contain these so-called “mouth breathers.” It's all part of the plan. The actual Philadelphians i know and have met are some of the best people I've come across during the almost 24 years I have called this city home. Most of the people affected by the education problem here are people who live at or below the poverty line, and are most likely not white. The students I worked with in North Philadelphia may not have achieved the best grades, but when I immersed myself in their community, I learned that a lot of them look after each other and understand community much better than any family could in a nice, suburban town.
Emmet Brault, recent transplant
I like that the minute I walk out of my apartment I'm not bombarded with advertisement and underwriting. I that “Do-it-yourself” and “punk” can actually exist in this city because venture capitalists and advertising firms don't have a stranglehold on real estate in this city. I like that our DIY venues don't get co-opted to push narratives. I like that people actually turn up to shows because they want to support the bands and enjoy the music rather than be seen.
Mostly, though, I like how insular yet diverse the local music scene here is, just like the cultural landscape of the city itself.
Recently, I've been intrigued by Vague Faction/Vague Audio Tapes, a Philadelphia based collective of artists who release techno/ambient/noise/drone recordings and put on music and multimedia events in the city. They recently released a collaborative LP with Detroit's Crisis Urbana label, titled Sonic Syria. It's $5 and the proceeds will go towards benefiting those displaced by the conflict in Syria.
Jason Henn of Honey Radar
I don't know if I'm qualified to defend Philadelphia–I grew up in Indiana–but I've been able to develop a peaceful routine for myself in West Philly. Even though I'm kind of a hermit, I feel naturally welcomed by other musicians when I do get out. I'm at least not aware of a pecking order, and it sort of reminds me socially of the Midwest. I've probably seen more house shows here than anywhere else I've lived.
Purling Hiss is the best band in town, and just this morning I'm listening to Black Brick, Shape Breaker, Snow Caps, and Telulah Bangs. Oh, and for the record, the worst sports fan behavior I've ever seen was with Billy Stines at a Cubs-White Sox interleague game in 2002. That made the Linc look like a tea party.
Arc in Round
Drums Like Machine Guns
Little Big League
Pattern Is Movement
The Interest Group
The Solar Motel Band
The War on Drugs