The air was stale and clung to the low ceiling – it was hard to see the band all the way from the back.
The basement held close to 200 people that night.
Philly punk band Mumblr set up its equipment in the basement of the house, or rather, the new music venue, Lavender Town, in North Philadelphia. The March show was a celebration for the group’s newest record, “Full of Snakes.”
Within minutes of the band’s first song, the crowd pummelled into an already busted drum set, guitars, musicians, the walls of exposed pipe and, mostly, each other.
The band didn’t seem to mind – none of the musicians seemed to even notice.
These collisions, part of the blurred line between musician and attendee, are normal for DIY, or “Do-It-Yourself” shows. The venue for Mumblr’s show, Lavender Town, is home to students in the North Philadelphia area. Over time these houses, specifically in the area surrounding Main Campus, have gained popularity.
In North Philadelphia alone, there are a handful of hosts for live music, including The Nest, The Petting Zoo and Mile High House. All of these shows are run and overseen by young adults, usually students in the city.
In April 2014, the Temple News reported that university officials estimated 7,000 to 10,000 students were living off-campus. Michael Morrison, a 2013 graduate and former resident of the popular venue Maggot House in North Philly, said that the recent increased desire to live off-campus has inspired Temple students interested in underground punk culture to create spaces for bands to perform.
With age-restrictive venues, a demand for cheap live music and a surge in DIY musicians, this historic “house show” culture has gained increased popularity among students.
According to an article from BBC News in 2002, the Philadelphia underground DIY music scene is rich with history, dating back to the social movements of the 1960s. This movement is part of the punk subculture, which condemns consumerism and finds ways to produce records or book tours without an emphasis on profit. Today’s punk musicians define DIY differently by utilizing emerging technology to make records, and using social media to promote music.
Pi Lambda Phi fraternity house at the University of Pennsylvania is an example of a venue with a rich history – for example, it’s 37th annual music festival will be held on Saturday.
This niche genre of music is not exclusive to one principle, venue or type of performer. In terms of venues, there is a lack of all-ages spaces in Philadelphia, which takes away a large population of concertgoers: college students who are not of legal drinking age.
Darren Walters, an associate professor of the Music Industry program at Drexel University and co-founder of independent record label Jade Tree, said there are negative aspects to this new trend.
“The fact that technology allows for bands to record an album in their house and then share that online is incredible,” Walters said in an email. “Yet, I caution my students that perhaps playing shows and building an audience prior to doing so is a more prudent way of increasing their value in the marketplace, especially when there are increased options in both this local scene and globally.”
DIY has been hyper-localized in the city – from Michael Jordan (House) in West Philly to The Petting Zoo in North Philly. As more college-age students start hosting, attending and playing house shows, this trend could continue to grow.
A Local Appeal
When Russell Conwell founded Temple, Main Campus stretched from Broad and Berks streets to Broad Street and Montgomery Avenue, university historian James Hilty said.
“It was a place that was convenient [for] mass transportation and initially when it started, it attracted the children of the working families that lived around Temple at that time,” Hilty said.
Over time, Temple transformed to fit its ever-growing population. Temple began constructing more residence halls in the late 1990s to accommodate an increase in prospective students looking to live on campus. This kick-started a shift from a predominantly commuter population to more students looking to be residents.
“The development of a real residential campus is a fairly recent phenomenon,” Hilty said.
Along with Temple, both Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania have become residential campuses with a large DIY culture.
Josh Lieb, a junior music industry major at Drexel, has been heavily involved in the West Philly music scene. Lieb plays in the band Plainview and hosts shows at his basement venue in West Philly, the Mantua Yacht Club.
Lieb said Philly is one of the only scenes that sets a specific admission price, usually $3-$5, depending on the space. Other cities often have a donation jar at the door, Lieb added.
“People aren’t always as charitable as you think they are in the donation jar and I think that sort of screws touring bands,” Lieb said.
Ben Johnson, Marietta bassist, said when he books shows at the Michael Jordan (House) in West Philadelphia, he makes sure there is a touring band on the bill. If not, he said the show should be free.
Mumblr, a DIY group known for its energetic performances, is heavily involved in house show culture. The group will leave for a three-week East Coast tour on April 9, where it will play mostly house shows.
Drummer Scott Stitzer of the band said the DIY scene exists because of Philadelphia’s treatment toward artists in larger, for-profit venues.
“[You’re] charging $10 to go to a whatever bar venue, where you’re also going to charge those people $3 to $4 [for alcohol] and not pay any bands,” bassist Sean Reilly said.
The lack of all-ages venues in Philadelphia is a major contributor to the increase in DIY spaces.
“That’s the card the DIY scene has right now that trumps anything anyone with money can have,” said Ian Amidon, Mumblr guitarist. “Can you have an all-ages show? If you can’t, we have 500 people that can go to our show that cannot go to your show.”
Whether it’s through musical collaborations or running benefit shows like the Mile High House often does, musicians seem to openly work together to foster the local culture of shows.
“Your friendships are really what makes a difference in the scene,” said Abi Reimold, a Temple alumna who’s performed both in a band and as a solo artist in the area.
Josh Lesser, a sophomore media studies and production major, who books shows and lives at The Petting Zoo. Lesser sings and plays guitar in an indie rock band, Horsecops. He said there is a “Philly sound” that frequents the DIY scene.
“I feel like all of these bands feed off each other and [it] builds into one big thing instead of a bunch of bands separately making music,” Lesser said. “I guess that’s what a scene is, a bunch of bands working off each other.”
A Changing Scene
The legacy of venues like the recently-closed Golden Tea House and the 2013 defunct Maggot House have inspired newer DIY spaces to fill the void left by students who moved out of the area after graduating.
Brian Walker, who performs under the moniker A Day Without Love, created the Philadelphia DIY Collaborative Facebook page a year-and-a-half ago in order to bring local musicians and artists together.
“If I could create this collaborative forum site, more musicians could be aware of who they are, where they are and help network with each other,” Walker said. “Business owners could even help each other out.”
Golden Tea House was a popular space in the West Philly community for three consecutive years. The venue was revered for its professionalism, location and ability to draw national touring acts.
The venue, which shut its doors in February, was a non-traditional DIY venue. Bands that played on its bill performed in the living room while fans packed and pushed into the kitchen.
Michael Morrison of Maggot House quickly noticed the amount of growth in off-campus housing and construction in the neighborhood when he moved into an on-campus dorm in 2009.
Morrison said that when Temple was still mostly a commuter-based university in the 1990s, West Philly was the clear spot for attending punk shows. Temple’s transition to a place where students move off-campus early in their college careers has led to an increase in house venues and bands looking for places to perform.
“There was a respect to it,” Stitzer said. “It was in a perfect place. It was just close enough to the college that no one felt scared and just far enough away that no one gave a f— what they were doing there. That’s the perfect house show.”
In 2012, Reimold was a regular at acoustic shows at Maggot House. When the venue shut down in Spring 2013, she and her then-boyfriend who lived at the Maggot House, began booking shows at the Church of the Advocate.
“They were still DIY shows, but we really learned the lesson of why punk shows happen in the home,” Reimold said. “It’s because we had to try get people to come to the show, then we had to pay the venue $70 to have somebody representing them to babysit us there and then you can’t pay the bands.”
Lavender Town has the potential to be an influential spot for shows like Golden Tea House was in West Philly, Reimold said.
When Danny D’Vertola, a resident of Lavender Town, was looking for a place to live in Philadelphia, he said a house with a spacious basement was one of his biggest priorities. D’Vertola knew he wanted to throw house shows when he moved in and needed the necessary architecture to match his vision.
D’Vertola, a senior history major, and his roommate, Drexel senior material sciences and engineering major Kevin McLaughlin, were inspired to start their own house venue by Yarga’s Basement – a DIY venue at University of Pennsylvania’s Pi Lambda Phi fraternity.
“Danny [D’Vertola] is not only our closest friend, but he is one of the people who is going to end up being a major player in proliferating the scene because he’s picking up where Golden Tea House left off,” said Nick Morrison, guitarist and vocalist for Mumblr.
Tim Mulhern and Emily Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Editor’s note: Abi Reimold previously served as an editor at The Temple News. She played no role in the editing process of this article.