It’s the first day of the recent record-breaking heat wave, and a group of half-naked, sweaty bodies are gathered inside the massive, yet inconspicuous, 12,000-square-foot warehouse at 725 N. Fourth Street for a night of music—part of the Turnpike Collective, a music conglomerate bridging the gap between Philly and New York with its blend of blues, folk, jazz and rock.
Despite having few walls or windows, the vibe inside is cozy. An eclectic mix of artsy folk roam the building comfortably, barely reacting to the thick, hot air being circulated by a few sketchy box fans. Some plop down on the large Oriental rug in front of the makeshift stage, while others squat on mismatched vintage chairs scattered around the room. A few brave souls even dance as an add-insult-to-injury photo of a Brazilian beach projects onto the screen behind the bands.
The concert is a benefit to raise money for local filmmaker and Philadelphia Independent Film Fest co-producer Stephen Tucker’s upcoming trip to Brazil to shoot Chega De Saudade , a documentary exploring Bossa Nova, one of the country’s most important music/cultural movements. Tucker, a 27-year-old Bucks County native, quit his “really cool” job at the The New York Times as the master sound engineer to focus on his film career. “I made the choice three years ago to not get a job with a steady paycheck,” he says. “That was a really hard leap, but now that I’ve done it, I’m really excited.”
Luckily for him, Media Bureau—a hub of innovation and artistry quietly flourishing in this massive Northern Liberties warehouse—is one very big support system.
Though Media Bureau, which produces and markets films and music videos, hosts performances both online and in-studio, and showcases, sells/auctions local and international artwork, has gotten attention over the years for a few of its many arts projects such as the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival, the political site PA2012.com and the epic Fringe Festival performances it hosts every year, much of its work goes under the radar.
“We like to think that the people we’re working with nobody knows,” says Media Bureau co-founder Benjamin Barnett.
The Media Bureau’s four-story building houses five recording studios/retail spaces, an HD screening room, art gallery, Internet cafe, a few offices and a “dungeon.”
Most days, the ground floor is used as a performance/storage space. When it’s rented out, it becomes whatever the artist wants it to be. One time, the space was turned into the set of a Haitian voodoo town for a film.
The second floor is completely wide open. The screening room—a mismatched collection of couches and a projector screen—is in the center. It’s surrounded by a cool, junkyard-esque Internet cafe/bar and two large, nearly empty spaces where performances are held. When the Sankahya Yoga School or Philadelphia Acting Studio has a class in session, the area is simply cordoned off with a large black curtain.
And the dungeon? It looks “pretty fucked up [down there],” Barnett warns. “It’s a pretty crazy spot … tons of IVs and spiderwebs” were created when the group was shooting a hellfire scene. “We built a throne … we managed to get 15 people down there gyrating.”
Launched in 1997 by Barnett, a Philly native, and his American University college buddies, Alan Rosenblatt and Richard Weissman, Media Bureau was originally conceived as a way “to take music, film and politics and create a channel,” says 44-year-old Barnett. “We proposed to produce, write and direct original content for the web.”
Within the first year in business, the partnership paid off. The trio teamed up with WKDU to host one of the longest electronic-music marathons, or as Barnett calls it, “four days straight of DJs just kickin’ it in our studio.”
Their weekly jam sessions usually featured a lineup of undiscovered local musicians. “It’s kind of like an exclusive club of musicians that roll in,” adds Keith Cohen, the operations manager. “They just love jamming.” Several that have come through Media Bureau’s garage door over the years have gone on to find international success, like Jill Scott, Arrested Development, the Dead Kennedys and Galactic. “We were always looking for music that was on the edge that was really, really good,” recalls Rosenblatt. “Had we gotten wrapped up in the more mainstream label thing, that would have really undermined our ability to do that.”
The company also streamed the Mayor’s Interactive Forum, the first political webcast in the city’s history.
In 2000, they were hired by Mayor Street’s administration to document his first four years in office by filming videos of meetings and press events and posting them on phila.gov for public view.
That same year, they covered the presidential conventions, reaching more than 200,000 users.
By 2001, the group was producing 12 original webisodes, which included “New Media Hour,” a weekly roundtable in which Barnett discussed new media trends with CEOs and developers, and a fantasy football radio show. Rosenblatt estimates that by then, Media Bureau had accumulated about 1,500 hours’ worth of archived video that had been streamed online—about 70 percent of which was music-related. The other 30 percent was groundbreaking local entertainment and politics.
“We were a part of the original wave in the late ’90s of ‘webcasters’ that saw no difference between network television and the future of broadband,” Barnett says.
They also took to heart the fact that they were in Philly, a great political news town that also happened to be a little behind the times.
PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide