On Thursday, Live Nation held a big press event to-do to announce the arrival this fall of The Fillmore. the two-music-venues-in-one $32 million project down the street from Johnny Brenda’s that the Inquirer broke the news about the morning of the event.
It’s an exciting proposition, with one 2500 capacity room with general admission on the floor and seated balcony, plus a more intimate 450 capacity space called The Foundry for starter bands.
That's basically the same room capacity combo as Live Nation has at the Borgata in Atlantic City, with the Event Center and the smaller Music Box (not to mention the new 5000 capacity outdoor Borgata Festival Park, which will be hosting the The Killers, Megan Trainor and Willie Nelson on weekend nights this summer).
But I digress. The difference with the planned 2500 capacity venue at The Fillmore is that it’s following the House of Blues model of well-designed theaters that helped make the HOB chain a formidable competitor before Live Nation bought them out in 2006.
In other words, it’s going to be a nice place with excellent sight lines and very good sound (provided by industry standard bearers Clair Brothers of Lititz, Pa.), giving it a likely leg up in competition with the similarly sized Electric Factory. And converted old industrial building into a live music venue in a thriving entertainment district follows a strategy that’s worked well in places like New Orleans, where the HOB has become an integral part of the music scene.
The big room is also in the same ballpark size as the storied Tower Theater, which has recently been converted to a general admission venue for most shows. But don’t worry too much about The Fillmore running the Tower into the ground, because it is also operated by Live Nation, and LN local boss Geoff Gordon says that “there will continue to be programming there.”
At the Fillmore rollout event, which featured daytime fireworks on a brilliant blue morning as Gordon and Mayor Nutter stood before the former Ajax Metal Company building, the mood was upbeat about the economic impact of the 141,000 foot entertainment complex, which will include an Italian restaurant.
Besides the projected 150 jobs, “it’s another way to get people to the waterfront,” said Luke Butler, chief of staff to the Deputy Mayor for economic development. “You’ve got the Race Street Pier and Spruce Street Harbor Park, and now you’re going to have this.” Fair enough, though actually getting from the Frankford Avenue location to the Delaware River might more easily be done by helicopter or catapult than car or on foot, what with current traffic construction on Columbus Boulevard.
Live Nation chief Gordon played down concern that what’s good for The Fillmore might be bad for other venues. The smaller Foundry is seemingly destined to take business away from similar sized rooms like the World Cafe Live and Ardmore Music Hall.
The larger Fillmore can also be configured to hold 700 to 1000 standing patrons, or 1200 seated. That positions it to do battle with everyplace from the Trocadero and Keswick Theater in Glenside (booked by AEG Live, who also do summer shows at the Mann Center and, like Live Nation, book national arena tours), and indie hotbed Union Transfer (programmed by Philly’s R5 Productions with New York-based Bowery Presents.)
“Touring is bigger than ever,” Gordon said on Thursday, countering the competition-is-bad-for-business argument. The new rooms “will grow the market,” not subdivide it. He hopes that concertgoers with find the space so attractive “people are going to come because it’s a nice venue. People are going to look and see who’s playing, and want to come back. That’s the highest compliment you can get.”
Questions about how the new venue will impact the scene and just what kind of bands will play there will be answered after The Fillmore opens up later this year. No headliners have been announced.
But to all those questions, let me add one more: Does it really have to be called The Fillmore?
The name comes from the original Fillmore - on Fillmore Street in San Francisco - which was home for the 1960s psychedelic scene whose regulars included the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Promotor Bill Graham added a New York branch called the Fillmore East, which existed between 1968 and 1971 and hosted Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and others, in Manhattan’s East Village.
It’s a storied brand, but it belongs to another place, and another time. And it has nothing to do with Philadelphia. (Though there was in fact a Fillmore equivalent in Philadelphia back in the day: It was the original Electric Factory, located at 22nd and Arch, whose 7th and Willow location, opened in the 1990s, is operated by former local Live Nation chief and now competitor Larry Magid.)
Yet Live Nation, the biggest concert promoter in the world and the biggest player in a contested Philadelphia market, seems intent on creating a network of Fillmores. In Miami, the Jackie Gleason Theater is now the Fillmore Miami Beach at Jackie Gleason Theater, and there are Fillmores in Denver and Detroit. Why come up with individualized names germane to each local market, when you can call every place the same thing?
What’s particularly unfortunate about this in Philadelphia’s case is that it was tried once before, and didn’t work. Back in the 00’s, the Theater of Living Arts was rebranded as “The Fillmore at the TLA,” but after a few misguided years, it reverted to the original name, which has its own Philadelphia history as the home of Andre Gregory’s ‘60s experimental theater and later as a repertory cinema and video store chain. As I wrote in 2008, the return to the original was “one small victory for local tradition.”
Calling the spiffy new venue The Fillmore is arguably not as dumb, because it’s not tossing out a treasured local brand. But why not take advantage of the industrial history of the building (and of its now gentrifying Philadelphia neighborhood) and call it the Ajax Metal Company? Or if that sends too headbanging of a message, The Ajax?
No? You say the Philadelphia music market is going to be Fillmored, like it or not. And that I should quit whining and just enjoy what is likely to be a beautiful new venue that will give a boost to a local music scene that in many ways is already healthier than it’s ever been.
Okay, okay. But first let me offer a localizing compromise. I’m not going to claim to be witty enough to have thought of this myself. My Facebook friend, publicist Elise Brown, suggested it after I posted the above picture of the Ajax building with the Fillmore banner draped over it on Thursday morning, and I've seen other Internet wags chime in with it since. Let’s call it the Phillmore.