Sean Agnew is a music geek.
The 36-year-old owner of multiple concert ventures, including promoting agency R5 Productions, hotspot venue Union Transfer and the recently-reopened Boot & Saddle gushes when talking about his favorite performers, pausing three or four times mid-sentence to reconsider his answer. He eventually settles on a tie: The Evens, one of punk legend Ian MacKaye’s lesser-known bands, and the post-rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor—bands that only a music geek would know. For someone who’s been promoting shows for some 17 years, his words still flow fast and fervent when the conversation turns to music. It’s a good thing he still cares so deeply, too. It must make his seemingly gargantuan workload at least a little bit easier to handle.
For years, Agnew had his hand in virtually every underground venue in the city, so it didn’t take long for the rest of the local entertainment industry to began to take notice of his small but active company. In 2008, Avram Hornik, owner of Four Corners Management, which owns nighttime spots like Drinkers Pub/Tavern and Morgan’s Pier, approached Agnew about expanding his business.
“Four Corners reached out to me and were like, ‘Hey, we noticed that you’re doing shows at all these ballrooms, churches, art spaces, etc. Would you ever be interested in doing it in your own space, if we partnered up?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’” recalls Agnew. “For a few years, we actually were looking at a bunch of different buildings together. We looked at like 30-plus buildings, and nothing was ever really right. We didn’t rush into it; we took our time.” After finding a venue in the then-abandoned Spaghetti Warehouse and bringing in another partner, New York City promoter The Bowery Presents, the 1,000 person-capacity Union Transfer was born.
Buoyed by UT’s latest success, his latest venture, the renewed and refurbished Boot & Saddle, is a much more intimate venue. Replete with a 60-seat, craft beer-filled, folk-art-adorned bar area, Boot & Saddle, which had remained vacant since it closed shop in 1995, brings the feel of the Old West to the not-so-old hipsters of Philadelphia. Murals of cowboys adorn the pub-style walls, a lasso hangs above the bar top, and Waylon Jennings drawls slowly out of the speakers. The concert hall itself, which is separated from the bar area by two huge swinging doors, fits 175 people.
The decision to open Boot & Saddle, like most of Agnew’s business ventures, was an informal one. “Everything was going well at Union Transfer, so we were like, ‘Hey, let’s open up a smaller room.’ It was that kind of discussion,” he says.
“Up until a few months ago, R5 was just me, and now I have a friend helping, so, we’re about one-and-a-half,” Agnew tells PW with a laugh. Considering the range of bands that R5 books for other venues—the calendar shows everyone from indie rock behemoths Neutral Milk Hotel to the lesser-known locals Work Drugs—it’s amazing that Agnew ever had any time to focus on his own venues, although he admits he’ll be scaling back R5 a bit for 2014.
Agnew got his start in the industry in 1996 when he moved from Ardmore to Philadelphia to attend Drexel, where he began working for the college radio station, WKDU. “That’s where I met a bunch of other kids who then started getting me into more current punk bands at that time, the mid-90’s. And then I started to going to different punk shows and getting involved in the scene that way,” says Agnew, who had been listening mainly to the classics of punk and hip-hop, like Black Flag and Public Enemy, prior to that.
There was no grand plan to build up R5 Productions, he says; he was just looking for a way to get involved in the music scene. “The first year we did shows, I maybe did seven shows. The next year, 14 shows. The next year, 20. It kind of just took a very organic route, where it was small baby steps. And then eventually, I started doing more and more bands. It was the mid-90’s, so there weren’t really websites or email lists, so it was just pretty simple: Make a flyer, tell your friends, and get word out that way.”
Of course, Agnew has his share of criticism, much of which centers on R5’s current dominance over the local indie music scene. “Some people think that we’re a big entity or we’re not super punk. Some people kind of give us shit for that,” he admits. “But the overwhelming majority has been super positive.”
Even if there are some critics, he’s still got a pretty star-powered support system.
“We’ve played several shows where Sean has been the promoter. He’s got a very personal touch, so I got to know him. It’s kind of a certain camaraderie. I mean, he knows that I’m from Philly, and we all try to help each other out as much as you can,” says Philly native Alec Ounsworth, frontman of indie darlings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who played the Union Transfer’s inaugural show in 2011. Ounsworth, like so many of his musical peers, has full confidence that Boot & Saddle—like any project Agnew undertakes—will come out successful. History suggests as much.
“If it’s anybody that’s going to try to put this kind of thing together, I would trust that R5 can pull it off,” adds Ounsworth. “They’re good.”
That praise must mean a lot to Agnew. Because despite his high-profile partnerships and the ultra-cool bars, he’s still just a guy living out a music geek’s dream.
PW's Music Issue 2014