Where will City Winery reside in the race for Philadelphia’s adult live music market?

By all accounts, this is the biggest week on Philadelphia’s music calendar since Live Nation introduced The Met into the market last December.

 As University City’s World Café Live celebrates its 15th anniversary with its portion of the annual Philadelphia Music Festival (Sept 25-28), dovetailing into October celebrations with old friends (e.g. Lucinda Williams, Laura Mann) and new (Ars Nova Workshop), the NYC-based City Winery is scheduled to open its Center City outpost at Fashion District Philadelphia with Emmylou Harris on Sept. 27.

Despite World Café Live’s move into more eclectic sounds and radical bookings since its start, both venues are known in the live music marketplace for courting adult acts of the singer-songwriter sort — to say nothing of each live space’s reliance on a food/beverage/restaurant mode — for adult audiences with expendable income.

Along with celebratory special shows and the competitive nature of having another club battling for the best, most diverse gigs, a heightened awareness of World Café Live and City Winery means a re-awakening of the independent booking model, one beyond behemoths such as Live Nation and AEG.

“Competition makes the market better,” said World Café Live honcho Hal Real. “Competition makes us better.”

After all, Goliath isn’t truly mighty unless there’s a David there to battle him.

The difference in the level of independence between World Café Live and City Winery may shift some due to the fact that the latter has seven outposts (soon to become 10, soon to become way more) that emphasize the allure of block booking and residencies across its real estate. A wad of cash and an ease of movement might look more attractive to an artist such as David Crosby or Joan Osborne rather than cherry picked single shows. Yet, both live venue operators stressed the need to stay separate while sticking together in the spirit of independence.

“We certainly knew how powerful Live Nation and AEG were coming into Philly,” said City Winery CEO and founder Michael Dorf. “Why not be the little guys chewing off a big chunk of that pie?”

A different experience

City Winery’s Michael Dorf talks a good game.

Whether he’s on the phone traveling to Philly from his home in Tribeca or leading the charge through a pre-opening hard hat tour of his new 10th and Filbert St. location, Dorf has the gospel of fully functioning urban wineries down cold. He’s even got a soon-to-marketplace new book that he’s written, “Indulge Your Senses: Scaling Intimacy in a Digital World,” that lauds all levels of pleasurable human interaction, including fine wine drinking and good live music.

So is City Winery music first? Food first? Wine first?

“Are we a music company that sells a lot of wine or are we a unique winery that uses music as a marketing tool — it’s a good question,” noted Dorf, whose City Winery uses  approximately 100 tons of grapes per year (about 100,000 bottles of wine) shipped from Napa, California, Oregon and beyond, in each of its venues.

“We are a wine-first focused facility,” he said. “When you go to most restaurants, you’re handed a food menu first, and given a wine list. You’re having steak, let me recommend a Cabernet. Our food offering focuses first on what you’re interested in drinking, then paring THAT, maybe a Savingnon Blanc and a crudo. That makes us a different culinary experience. We are also a very great music venue with a serious wine program, but the wine is still there to complement a show, a live experience. Certainly Live Nation venues sell beverages. We just happen to make it a big focus, experiential.”

The wine experience is mostly that of an adult experience. Face it, most millennials in Philly, with cash to burn or otherwise, drink locally crafted beers or spirits. This brings a more refined brand of singer-songwriter to the stage, more soft-soul and cushy alternative acts that line City Winery stages, such as upcoming acts Josh Ritter and Mountain Goats.

“I hear what you’re saying and the answer is yes, with a big BUT,” said Dorf with a chuckle. “What we’re looking at is the psychographics of our audience vs. the demographics. The demo would say older-skewed audience [given the number of] singer-songwriters [we go after]. That is true. What is more true is that we’re more on the sophisticated, affluent side of things, someone looking for a more cultured evening. A nice wine is a perfect match for the sounds they’re digging. We’re not really looking to program music for a Viagra-taking audience — but we are being smart. We want to sell 300 tickets, the artist wants a full house and to get paid, and we have rent to pay. We’re not looking to scale upwards and build bigger rooms. I just want to build more 300-seaters and 150-seat music rooms around the country. That’s our scale. You have two big gorillas both booking and building big — Live Nation and AEG. Staying in our sweet spot doesn’t force every hand to come at us.”

It does, however, come face to face with West Philadelphia’s World Café Live and its famed (at least at its start) bookings for adult audiences.

Dorf stated that he knows well what Hal Real and WCL have innovated for the Philadelphia market, how it embraced and electrified older alternative audiences and how its connection to WXPN was a unique and cherished combination.


“I happen to think we built a better mousetrap. From the room we present it in, to the ticketing and service. I think it’s a higher, more refined level,” he noted.

Ultimately, Dorf believes that the artists will decide the marketplace they wish to participate in.

“Since we have seven locations, going on 10, going on 12, we are going to flex and leverage that for artists across the board,” he continued. “We don’t force it at all. BUT when an artist has a choice of 10 nights of work at a location he or she likes [as opposed to a] one off, I do think we will get the nod in that case. The greatest compliment I’ll receive is from a Marc Steve Earle or Joan Osborne, who say things like ‘When are you going to open in Denver, or New Orleans, or Toronto. I need a place like this in this city or that.’”

There is a bigger pay-out and a larger financial stake that an artist can be a part of within the City Winery programming modus operandi.

Christianna LaBuz, the talent buyer at City Winery, used to do likewise at World Café Live. She attended Drexel’s Music Industry program with mentors like Marcy Rauer-Wagman, Biff Kennedy and Jesse Lundy and parlayed that into a gig at Fleming Artists, which she refers to as “a wonderful booking agency in Ann Arbor, Michigan that I had interned with through Drexel’s co-op program.” It represented folks like Utah Phillips, Ani DiFranco and Jeff Daniels.

By the time she reached World Cafe Live and began booking there, LaBuz immersed herself in the world of AAA rock, indie, R&B, soul and jazz. “I’m incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by really smart, creative and supportive colleagues my entire career thus far,” she added.

As for City Winery, LaBuz stated that geographical location of venues “allows us to block book and submit seven offers at once to touring acts in a contiguous fashion. That gives us a leg up on some of the other independent venues in the country in a huge way. It makes the artist agents’ and managers’ lives easier and allows our marketing teams more resources to really knock it out of park. The performers enjoy knowing what to expect when they walk in the door.

Residencies are a great way for us to invite bigger acts who would normally play much larger rooms to come in, relax, lay down some roots and enjoy our amazing city for a few days. The fans are in return willing to pay a higher premium in order to see their favorite artists perform in a much more intimate environment than normal, so the math works out. There’s something about our venues — the wine, perhaps — that inspires artists to try out new things sometimes, let their hair down and get a little weird, so to speak.

Allen Stone’s ‘Karaoke Extravaganza’ coming through here on Halloween is a good example of that.”Dorf continued by doing the math. “An artist who can command $100 a ticket in a 300 [seat] paid room is a great leveler. Let’s say we can get them a $25,000 fee a night. If we’re giving them upwards of 30 nights in our platform, our venues, that’ a $750,000 check. So to your point — that says a lot!”

Along with touting the amenities of his new space — primarily a handsome homemade wine list and the dark intimacy of a 300-person live venue seated space — Dorf is quick, in a measured way, to discuss the timing of coming to Philly.

“It was a combination of things. [Already being] in New York, Washington and Boston meant we could further leverage what we had already on the east coast,” Dorf said. “I think the better question might be why wasn’t this our second or third city?”

Dorf answered his own question by stating that when he chose to initially expand the City Winery concept from its NYC Hudson Street beginnings in 2008, he wanted to extend its footprint further away than an Amtrak ride, and thus opened the second City Winery in Chicago.

Dorf fully understands that in this latest iteration, intertwined with the newly-opened Fashion District Philadelphia, he is, in essence, part of a mall.

“That was a little disconcerting, at first, as we didn’t want to be part of any mall — that’s not who we are,” Dorf said. “But I give the developers credit. They had a particular space that was outward facing on the corner of 10th & Filbert. When you’re on the corner of 10th & Filbert, you don’t feel as if you’re in a fancy shopping district. You’ve got the Greyhound bus station across the street. There’s some real grit.”

Besides, Dorf and his designers made it so that all doors into City Winery are outside the mall and gravitate toward the street.  “Shoppers at H&M will see how cool we are inside, because they’ll be able to view our wine making tanks and barrels. City Winery feels like its own independent business,” he said.

That’s because it is, despite its wealth of venues. Dorf acknowledged PREIT, the overseer of all things Fashion District, for bringing the City Winery brand to the neighborhood for “such a large face changing,” and for its financial support that allowed “an incredible $10 million music bubble” to be built.

“No matter what, we’re still independent, so the ability to leverage our brand and help the mall — who does have deep pockets — to help us is something I’m proud of. We’re rubbing our back and they’re rubbing ours,” he said.

World Café Live’s Hal Real thrives on his venue’s independence. He tried making it into something of a chain with The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware several years back.

“I didn’t like it. It didn’t suit us,” Real recalled. “So we closed that and doubled down on everything World Café Live in Philadelphia was, is and will become.”

Whether as an aesthetic or a business model, Real sounded truly grateful to have been given the opportunities he has had and the successes they have resulted in. It culminated in the good will of audiences who, whether tied to the membership of WXPN-FM or not, adore everything from his Free at Noon showcases (“We give people a reason to play hookie every Friday,” Real said) to the venue’s up-close-and-personal look at big stars and up-and-comers.

“To be able to be independent and bring out Philly-centric programming to develop a strong and loyal fan base has made World Café Live feel like a family — our fans, our team, the musicians we’ve highlighted all in one,” he said.

Along with having the bragging rights to naming major players who hit WCL long before their mainstream appeal (Adele, Brandi Carlile and Kamasi Washington among them), Real is pleased to highlight the events and collaborations that make them unique to the market.

“I don’t think that we’re just another tour stop. Free at Noon and Non Comm, [a gathering of major musical artists and indie/college stations], wouldn’t have happened if we were,” he said.  “That we could have weekly free events with the world’s most dynamic artists or pair them, en masse, with great local acts … we can do that because artists and audiences feel close to us.”

Part of that stems from WCL’s spirit of independence, with Real including Johnny Brenda’s, Milk Boy and  “arguably City Winery as they’re not owned by AEG or Live Nation but there’s more than one, and a single booker calls the shots for all the venues.”

The other huge aspect of World Café Live’s impact on Philadelphia audiences is how that independence allows them — and recently acquired booker Jeff Meyers, late of Boot & Saddle — to approach the market beyond its original starting point (“and reputation for,” Real noted) the singer-songwriter elite.

 “I don’t want to come across as If I’m taking a shot at City Winery, but we have moved on from our original model 15 years ago,” Real said. “What Dorf is doing there reminds me of what we did when we opened rather than what we do today. All seated shows where the focus is eating and drinking. We hardly ever do all seated shows anymore. People mostly eat upstairs, then come downstairs for the show. We [will host] some of the same artists that City Winery will book, sure. Much of that is stored in the misconception that we still only book the XPN singer-songwriter crew  — which we do — and then we don’t…but we’re all over the place. Our programming has grown so diverse — classical, jazz, metal, free Fridays and our Havana night with a chance to hear and dance to Cuban music? C’mon.”

Did Real think about how City Winery could affect World Café Live? He thinks about how any live venue might affect his model.

“Look, when we started, everyone was fearful that there couldn’t be a Tin Angel AND a World Café Live and OK, Tin Angel did close eventually. There’s always competition. The idea is to reinvent yourself, and keep re-inventing yourself — maybe that means partnerships the likes of which we have with the Philadelphia Music Festival people this weekend, or Ars Nova Workshop for War on Drugs’ Charlie Hall’s Miles Davis ‘In a Silent Way’ tribute event on Oct. 10. [The point is] we’re just not the same venue that we started out as 15 years ago,” he said.

Joke with Real that one of the reasons he brought Jeff Meyers in from Boot & Saddle was to counter-book WCL with a punk rock edge due to the incoming City Winery, and the CEO says “nah.” Real wanted someone who lived in and worked in Philly, “had his boots on the ground,” as opposed to past bookers at World Café Live who had lived in other areas.

“We tried it, and it didn’t work for us,” Real said. “Other venues might be able to have booking people who don’t live in the area they’re booking. We can’t. We won’t. Being Philly through-and-through is what makes us special, and makes what we do in line with being an extended family — from Philly. For Philly. Besides, when I first met Jeff, he wanted reassurances that we weren’t selling out to Live Nation or AEG. He wanted to know that we were going to stay independent.”

For his part, Meyers was looking to expand his booking palate from the size of Boot & Saddle into broader forms, as well as remain untethered to a corporate structure.

That meant — and means — booking everything from WCL traditionalists such as Lucinda Williams and Sonny Landreth to acts that might once have looked like Boot & Saddle’s usual, like Sheer Mag and Skeletor’s comic karaoke nights. It meant gathering the disparate tribes from distant neighborhoods that make up WCL’s portion of the Philadelphia Music Festival.

“Philly has become very segmented with everyone in their own little music scene and neighborhood,” Meyers said. “This festival brings together people who normally wouldn’t play together and very possibly don’t know each other.”

Meyers said that he had also been putting more effort in getting bands who might normally play a Johnny Brenda’s, a Union Transfer or a Boot & Saddle.

“Acts that maybe have outgrown those rooms, as well as artists with new albums and new ideas,” he said. “That’s how you get new audiences, show them something that is happening here that may not have been happening before. No matter what, World Café Live is not the same venue we were when it opened in 2004.”

Reaching back to his ideal of independence, Real says he will be able to do more things going forward along the not-for-profit lines of his LiveConnections showcase of young audiences and artists interacting, one of two goals for him at the beginning of the new year.

“We do have some big ideas for the next stages of the non-profit model, like doubling, even tripling down on the students and the amount of underserved audiences Live Connections serves,” he said. “Even something as pie-in-the-sky as gathering together a coalition of independent venues in the country as they have in the UK to allow us more power within the community, as well as legislatively. This isn’t about taking on Live Nation or AEG or even City Winery’s block booking. This is the only business where independents don’t work together, and help each other — maybe because they work so hard, and they don’t have time. But if an independent venue spends $100,000 a year on insurance, they’ll get decent premiums. If 10 independent venues got together and spend a million dollars on insurance, they could leverage a better policy and better premiums. World Café Live wants to be at the forefront of independence in every way we can, musical or otherwise.”

City Winery Philadelphia | 990 Filbert St. citywinery.com/philadelphia/


  • A.D. Amarosi's Headshot

    A.D. Amorosi is an award-winning journalist who, along with working for the Philadelphia Weekly, writes regularly for Variety, Jazz Times, Flood and Wax Poetics, and hosts and co-produces his own SoundCloud-charting radio show, Theater in the Round for Pacifica National Public Radio station WPPM 106.5 FM and WPPM.org.

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