The guys quickly built a solid reputation by presenting exceptional national touring bands that would’ve otherwise been venue-less, like Houston’s Indian Jewelry and Brooklyn’s the Men, who’ve since become NPR-worthy. At the same time, they featured local bands like Watery Love, Purling Hiss—they even hosted a fundraiser for now-defunct punks Gods & Queens, who’d flipped their van in the Czech Republic during a European tour.
In September, just as Troxell and Shumaker were getting their feet under them, something important happened in the city’s concert landscape: Union Transfer opened on Spring Garden Street. Philly’s long-running DIY concert promoter R5 began focusing its energy on presenting bigger shows at the new venue—and this opened up a space for a smaller presenter to jump in and bring lesser-known bands to the city. Phonographic Arts filled that gap.
“Contrary to popular belief,” says R5 boss Sean Agnew, “we want other people to be doing shows, and it’s great to have like-minded guys like Phonographic Arts doing it. I’m a big fan of theirs—they’re continuing Philly’s long, well-established DIY scene. Most of the employees and staff of R5 and Phonographic Arts are from ‘back in the day’ and that gives us a unique perspective when it comes to booking shows.”
Shumaker compares their relationship with R5 to baseball’s farm system—Phonographic Arts presents talented but unknown bands at their smaller venues so that eventually those same bands can move on to play bigger R5 shows. The two presenters are also working together to promote a few events, including an all-ages concert at the Level Room with Memphis hardcore band Tragedy next month.
“We love that we can help out these smaller bands that bigger clubs have to pass on,” Troxell says. “Philly’s one of these cities that’s hard to crack—bands playing here for the first time probably won’t have any luck, so we help them. And we love booking local bands.”
“In New York and other cities, people really care about national, touring bands coming to town,” says Shumaker. “But in Philly, it’s all about the local bands. That’s what Philly wants, so that’s what we do.”
All through last fall, Phonographic Arts presented close to 30 shows monthly at the Little Bar—but after a murky disagreement with management in mid-December, they were forced to choose between canceling the 20-plus concerts already scheduled or quickly finding a new home. “I started walking the city and looking for bars that were up for rent,” says Pat. “I collected phone numbers and started calling landlords, and I eventually found the right phone number and the right landlord. I showed them our calendar, our stats and our crew, and the owner said, ‘I’m an idiot if I don’t do this.’”
And so, without having to cancel a single show, Phonographic Arts moved its staff and calendar into the Level Room. Formerly a hip-hop club, the three-floor, 600-person-capacity building sits on an otherwise quiet section of Market Street half a block east of the Salvation Army Thrift Store.
The Level Room isn’t Troxell’s and Shumaker’s only venue—since January, they’ve also been hosting shows at Silk City and Emoda Gallery, the South Philly artspace where bands like Creepoid and locals Far-Out Fangtooth practice—but it’s quickly become their home away from home. And not just theirs.
On a recent Saturday, Phonographic Arts has two concerts sharing a single night at the Level Room: four rock bands downstairs, four metal bands upstairs. As Shumaker finalizes the set times, Troxell, who’s working the downstairs soundboard, sets up the mics. With both floors in full swing, it’s a pretty good test run for the upcoming Liberty Fest.
Most of Phonographic Arts’ small crew—bouncers, bartenders, sound techs—are Philly locals who were employed at venues in Austin until Troxell and Shumaker offered them jobs back home. Like Stony, their right-hand man, who lived with Troxell at Fort Liberty and is now back home, handling the evening’s operational logistics with a calm hand. “We’ve done 15 bands in one show back in Texas, so it’s not a new thing,” he shrugs. “It’s like second nature to us.”
After everything’s set up, Shumaker books two May shows on his iPhone while Troxell briefs the staff on their plans to build a festival stage at Emoda Gallery. While most of Liberty Fest’s lineup will unfold here at the Level Room, Emoda will host a Saturday afternoon concert featuring nine hardcore bands, including Chicago’s Raw Nerve and Philly’s Backslider. There’s definitely an aggressive aesthetic edge running across the bands playing the fest; Phonographic Arts sees this as giving Philadelphia what it needs.
“Each show’s based around something we know kids in Philadelphia want,” Troxell says. “It’s not a punk fest or a hardcore fest or just psych-rock bands. The bands represent our friends’ record collections—it’s everything they’d want to see live.
“We’re not some huge corporate entity booking Popped! or Riot Fest,” he adds, wanting to distinguish these bands from those that played two mainstream festivals Philly hosted last summer. “Instead, we’re parading this hard lineup in front of the rest of the world and saying, ‘Hey, yo, check out our city. This is what we have going on. It’s Liberty Fest, motherfucker!’”
One of several bands that does stand apart from the decidedly heavy lineup is Philadelphia’s True Gold, a shoegazy quartet that makes melodic, dreamy pop music. They open Sunday’s show, which concludes with sets by local psych-veterans Bardo Pond and rockers Purling Hiss.
Philly performers appreciate the opportunity Liberty Fest—and Phonographic Arts in general—represents. “Options for local bands to play were limited before they came along,” True Gold’s Michael Kappeler says. “R5’s great, but they mostly do touring bands. The chances we’d get an R5 show are slim, so Cliff and Pat have definitely filled a niche in Philly that desperately needed filling.”
There are drawbacks to being a small but ambitious outfit. Phonographic Arts’ record label has gathered dust since 2010; they say getting it rolling again will be a top priority after Liberty Fest. Their first project will be to release True Gold’s debut album, and they’re planning a series of cassette and vinyl releases, some of which are live recordings from past Phonographic Arts gigs.
There’s also talk of expanding booking activity to Houston and Atlantic City. Plans are already under way for a June show in A.C. that will coincide with Metallica’s Orion Festival and provide an underground alternative to Orion’s mainstream lineup. “Maybe if we have a really rad show, [Metallica’s drummer] Lars Ulrich will come bitch at us,” Troxell jokes.
Given all they’ve done so far, it’s no surprise to learn the guys would love to open their own venue one day—but they realize this goal remains in the distant future. “We can become an even greater force, but first we hope to open up a legit office space,” says Troxell. On the other hand: “We also don’t have a problem with remaining underground.” ■
For Liberty Fest’s full concert schedule and to purchase tickets, visit phonographicartssouthphilly.tumblr.com.
Time for a big Bang breakthrough?