Profile: Where in the World Is Sean Agnew?

Sean Agnew played summer basketball with Kobe Bryant. He ended up on CNN after his trip to North Korea with Dennis Rodman. (Next up: Yemen!) But as his music venues, including Boot & Saddle and Union Transfer, redefine Philly’s music scene, can the indie impresario keep traveling to the beat of his own drum?

Sean Agnew, who grew up in Ardmore, named his influential company after the SEPTA regional rail line. Photography by Gene Smirnov

Sean Agnew, who grew up in Ardmore, named his influential company after the SEPTA regional rail line. Photography by Gene Smirnov

He looked every bit the unassuming tourist, discreetly dressed in a blue oxford and sporting a brimming vacation beard. He was trying to explain to the immigration desk at Beijing Capital International Airport why he had no ticket. So he pulled up on his iPhone a PDF of a passenger list with his name — SEAN AGNEW — atop a manifest for a North Korea-bound plane that would be carrying foreign diplomats, a North Korean government official, a handful of semipro street-ballers and Dennis Rodman. Yes, Sean Agnew was on that flight.

Only a few thousand Americans have entered North Korea since the 1953 armistice, presumably none with more dubious credentials than Agnew. Though he’s the most influential tastemaker within Philly’s independent music scene, Agnew’s passport photo shows him with a shock of mangy hair, gaunt cheeks and a puffy lumberjack beard, as if the shoe-bomber and Cher had a love child. He didn’t fly overseas until he was 30, though he quickly discovered that booking concerts literally has no boundaries — it can be done from anywhere on Earth with available wi-fi. That led him on a series of peculiar globe-trekking adventures: getting mugged in the London riots, visiting Sri Lanka in the wake of its civil war, amassing maybe the best Japanese punk-rock record collection in America. Par for Agnew’s course.

So in early January, Sean Agnew found himself in Beijing en route to his latest offbeat escapade. Despite no visa, no itinerary and a passport that practically screamed No-Fly List, Agnew easily maneuvered through immigration. And just in time. He’d been invited to attend the birthday party of Kim Jong-un.

This trip had begun when Agnew received a mysterious email in his inbox, one that held the promise of a Willy Wonka golden ticket:

This is your chance to be present at an event that will go down in history, a genuine once-in-a-lifetime happening that will leave you the envy of all your well-traveled friends and give you stories to tell future generations, that you were there, and you saw it with your own eyes!

When it arrived, Agnew was in a hut on a Thai beach, enjoying a shoe-less Christmas vacation. He recognized the sender — a travel agency he’d contacted six years earlier, when he’d made plans for a tour of North Korea that never materialized. This new VIP package included a seat at the Dennis Rodman Basketball Invitational, a bizarre olympiad pitting ex-NBA players and street-ballers against the North Korean national squad that would kick off with Rodman singing “Happy Birthday” to Kim Jong-un. Agnew, an NBA fanatic who grew up playing pickup ball in Ardmore with Kobe Bryant, was already in Southeast Asia. Why not extend his vacation four more days?

“That night I go to bed and have a dream. The game happened, and Allen Iverson was in it,” Agnew tells me. “I don’t remember too much, but A.I. was there, and they needed one more player. He asked, ‘Do you want to play?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I want to play!’”

Agnew plunked down 6,000 euros, or roughly $8,300. He landed in Beijing and scrambled to find his traveling companions. That’s when he spied a gang of foreign journalists orbiting around Rodman like puppies surrounding a pit bull. Agnew tweeted an exhaled sigh of relief:

Dennis Rodman is wearing silk pajamas, a grey vest, the dirtiest vans, a neon pink scarf all while drinking a beer at immigration

For the next three and a half days, after he and the rest of Rodman’s entourage entered the world’s most isolated country, Agnew’s phone went straight to voicemail. Friends and family had no idea where he was. When he reemerged, it was in spectacular fashion — on international television. With the players declining interviews, the media descended on the tourists, eyewitnesses to the bubbling international imbroglio over U.S.-North Korea relations. A hammy Agnew jovially broke it all down for CNN, even pantomiming the motion of Rodman smoking a cigar for the cameras. Later, on his way home, he caught his interview on television and saw a man in a blue oxford identified as: “Sean Agnew: Tourist.”

He later spilled more on Instagram about Pyongyang’s unfinished skyline, pizza parlors, subway stations and child performers. (“Ain’t nobody fucking with my clique of North Korean child performers,” he wrote.) And the snapshot of Agnew piss-drunk with washed-up NBA players Doug Christie and Cliff Robinson was priceless: the three of them at the hotel bar, a dozen Bavarian lagers deep, staring into space and wondering how on Earth they’d ended up there together.

Agnew was the riddle within the riddle of Rodman’s caravan. As soon as he appeared on CNN, Philadelphia had one burning question: What the hell is Sean Agnew doing?

IT’S SUPER BOWL SUNDAY, a month later, and a sign is affixed to the door of Boot & Saddle on Broad Street in South Philly: NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES TO BE SERVED FOR THIS SHOW. In the back of the country-western saloon lies a 150-person concert hall, normally packed with patrons guzzling craft beers and cocktails. Today, though, it’s an all-ages concert — a rarity not just for Boot & Saddle, but for live music in general in this city. It’s a throwback to Sean Agnew’s roots.

Starting in the mid-’90s, Agnew began booking all-ages shows in unlicensed warehouses and subterranean spaces, mostly in West Philly. The embodiment of do-it-yourself music, he handled just about everything — ticketing, security, even the wheeling-in of the PA system. He operated frugally, sometimes poaching goldenrod paper from Kinko’s for flyers, and even borrowed the name for his enterprise: R5 Productions, a nod to the regional rail line that runs from Paoli to Thorndale. At first it was a joke (appropriation of the Main Line!), but R5 Productions wound up sticking around, just like Agnew.

Indeed, soon enough, indie bands were no longer skipping over Philly, and on any given night, local music fans wanted to know where Sean Agnew was — because he undoubtedly was at the must-see concert, often his concert. He imbued R5 with a Zen-like ethos of Find the right venue to fit the show, turning conventional promoters’ logic on its head: Rather than forcing a concert to conform to a particular space, he picked the appropriate space for each concert. It was crowd-pleasing curation that was in part a necessity, because R5 didn’t have a stage of its own. Agnew had to book shows everywhere, from a bungalow in Overbrook to Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown to the Academy of Music. He defined himself as a tastemaker by introducing original artists and breaking down the barrier between performer and audiences, transforming not just who we listen to live, but how and where we experience a concert.

Today, after slowly scaling up over the years from basements and churches to bars, Agnew owns stakes in four major venues around Philadelphia — Boot & Saddle, riverfront Morgan’s Pier, late-night dive Dolphin Tavern and concert hall Union Transfer. At 36, he has a measure of financial security, and the former DIY guy suddenly finds himself with very little hands-on work to do.

Which explains why he doesn’t arrive tonight until a half hour into the first set, taking a stool across from me and ordering a water. He’s just biked over from his bachelor pad in Center City (he split two years ago with his longtime on-and-off girlfriend) and is hung over from beers and karaoke last night. Agnew calls this concert “giving back,” and “goodwill.” For the better part of a decade, all-ages concerts such as this one — selling $12 tickets and no alcohol, making a small profit — were his bread and butter. “Right now, there is a real dearth of places to go see a show if you’re under 21,” he says, perking up. “There needs to be a small, dedicated space for all-ages music.”

You’ll hear Agnew return to this credo again and again. His enthusiasm for all-ages shows seems indicative of his general avoidance of the gravitas of adulthood. In his nonchalant manner, he speaks more vividly about his travels than about his day-to-day job, and often recounts stories of younger iterations of himself. When I asked, almost none of his longtime friends could pinpoint exactly how old Agnew was, and to a person, they told me endless tales of his punk-rock 20s and his unchanging knack for pranks and shenanigans. One of those friends was Dan Gross, the former Daily News gossip columnist, who’s unsurprised to see Agnew’s stock soar. “He was always really good at this shit,” Gross says. “It just took him a long time to get his act together and make it a professional business.”

Agnew became known for booking
diamond-in-the-rough artists — mainly in the genres of ska, electronica and indie rock — that later became household names. Utilizing nontraditional venues like the First Unitarian Church near 22nd and Chestnut, Agnew booked Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons for their first concerts in Philly years before either won Album of the Year at the Grammys.

And now these breakout bands are coming back to play at Union Transfer, his 1,200-
person-capacity concert hall. City Papernamed Agnew the “scene builder of the year” in 2011, following Union Transfer’s opening. He and his partners have created a destination on that derelict strip of Spring Garden, in the ruins of the old Spaghetti Warehouse. Even though Agnew has the smallest financial stake out of the owners, he’s the face of Union Transfer. But his partners — Bowery Presents, an East Coast powerhouse that operates in Boston and New York, and Avram Hornik’s Four Corners Management, which owns a Philly consortium of bars, including the trio of Drinker’s establishments — lend credence to the idea that Agnew, after booking some 4,000 shows, has finally decided to cash in.

The operative question is how far he’ll push R5. Agnew says no further than Philly (except “maybe a taco stand in Bali”), but it’s the same dilemma faced by every independent promoter at a mid-career crossroads: Can you grow big and still be … authentic?

WHEN IT COMES TO DEALING with that question, Agnew has some impressive company. In the late ’60s, future mogul Larry Magid was still an endearing upstart, the guy who introduced Philadelphians to bands like the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Band. Magid drove a psychedelic ’59 Cadillac and drew the ire of Frank Rizzo, who accused him of corrupting youth by normalizing rock-and-roll. But within a decade, Magid’s Electric Factory Concerts had a hammerlock on the busiest venues in town, in a swift ascent from underdog to target of a federal grand jury for anti-competitiveness.

Then along came Stephen Starr — yes, that Stephen Starr — who in the ’80s began siphoning shows away from Electric Factory and putting on his own concerts at the Spectrum and elsewhere. Starr eventually succumbed to a buyout from Magid and signed a non-compete agreement. After Starr took the money and headed into the kitchen, Magid’s company was eventually absorbed by Clear Channel, the national concert-industry behemoth, in 2000. And surprise, surprise: Clear Channel (since spun off into Live Nation) in turn became Agnew’s nemesis.

If Agnew is the next heir in this lineage of prolific homegrown music promoters,
his path to the title has been less orthodox than his predecessors’. “I do shows and concerts for bands that no one will care about in five years in weird and unusual spaces,” his seriously outdated LinkedIn profile reads.
It’s this unprofessionally professional at-titude that’s let him fly under the radar.

A decade ago, Philadelphia Weekly was calling Agnew “the last indie man standing” in this city; now he’s gallivanting to North Korea, raking in low-six-figures a year. All of which has led to the inevitable criticism that, like Magid before him, Agnew has “sold out” and shed his up-by-the-bootstraps DIY bona fides. Witness this exchange on Twitter two summers ago between the impresario and a disgruntled customer, on the steep vegan tacos at Agnew’s Morgan’s Pier:

Hater: with a menu/price list & u vaguely mock the radical left — are u officially coming out as capitalist?

Agnew: I can’t read these tweets. Too busy counting money and buying property and donating money to Romney

Whereas Magid was open about his desire to make money, profits are more of a plot twist in Agnew’s story. Booking concerts began as a hobby and didn’t become his profession until quite recently. He held down second jobs until he was 30: waiting tables, clerking at a record store on South Street, serving as a research patient at Ivy Labs near Drexel. He once underwent a skin biopsy that netted him $1,000, which paid seven months’ rent.

Agnew initially felt it was unethical to make money on his shows, and when he started out, he gave 100 percent of the profits to the bands. “I never really went into this being like, ‘We’re going to crush everything and have this humongous venue!’” he says. “It all seemed to happen organically.”

Today Agnew sounds like a savvy businessman, concealing his future ambitions while preserving his former personas. He continues to blast Ticketmaster as an “awful company,” and asserts, “I hate Live Nation.” As he sits across from me at Boot & Saddle, I ask him to differentiate R5 from its rivals in the small- and mid-size concert markets. He draws a metaphor with the fast-food industry: Live Nation (which books the TLA) is McDonald’s; AEG (the second-largest promotion company in town, which books the Trocadero) is Burger King. “What’s that make Union Transfer and R5?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe Chipotle?”

Still, in a concert industry flush with bogus service fees and overly muscular security, R5 is hailed for its crowd-friendly mystique. Union Transfer has comparatively casual security at the door, reasonable ticket prices ($20 on average), and concessions ranging from Little Baby’s Ice Cream to Bufad Pizza. The adjustable stage guarantees an intimate experience at every show, no matter how much capacity is filled. But for Agnew to keep calling R5 a DIY promotion company — as its webpage proclaims — is something of a farce. He owns stages that are elaborate and permanent, not jerry-rigged, and they’re equipped with artificial haze and strobe lights when the occasion demands.

You can’t stay the underdog forever, but Agnew still operates by a code that includes refusing to accept corporate sponsorships. He’s been lured with thousands of advertising dollars and turned down offers to simply send out an email blast to R5’s 66,000-strong mailing list. He recalls one of only two exceptions to date: “It was a free event at World Cafe Live,” Agnew says. “I took a check for about $2,000 to send out an email with a link. And within an hour or two after, it was filled up.”

That corporate sponsor? Dos Equis. The brand behind the Most Interesting Man in the World couldn’t get it done without the Most Interesting Man in Philly.

AGNEW MEETS ME at Suburban Station one chilly Saturday for a day trip back to his hometown of Ardmore, on the train formerly known as the R5. Today he’s wearing jeans and an olive winter jacket, but 10 years ago, his wardrobe would have undoubtedly included some combination of camo shorts, a custom-made ARDMORE hoodie and a mesh trucker cap reading DORM SLUT. “It was my uniform for like two years,” he says.

Underneath Agnew’s hoodie, there was always more middle-class grit than suburban gentility. That becomes clear when we hop into a Ford Focus Zipcar in Bryn Mawr, Agnew riding shotgun, and he directs me to maneuver into the Merion Cricket Club, the first stop along a sightseeing tour of his childhood. “I just got nervous, like I was going to work again,” he says as we pull into the parking lot behind the tony country club. Agnew was a silver-plated server here for three years, right across from Jeffrey Lurie’s former
multimillion-dollar mansion. Agnew’s grandfather was a longtime groundskeeper who maintained the Wimbledon-style tennis courts.

It was his grandparents, who lived next door to Agnew and his parents (both health-care professionals), who wanted him to attend Archbishop Carroll rather than public school. “I was so anti-religious,” he laughs. He became a quintessential loner in Catholic school. Most classmates rebelled by flocking to keggers in Overbrook; Agnew listened to hard-core punk like Minor Threat and abstained from drugs and booze. Outside of school, he was a regular gym rat at the Ardmore Avenue Community Center, known colloquially as “The Shack.” For two summers he played league basketball with Kobe Bryant. “I remember he would roll up in an Isuzu jeep, and he’d be like, ‘Man, I gotta go practice with the Sixers today,’” Agnew says. “So a lot of time in our summer-league games, he’d leave in the first quarter or second quarter and go to NBA practices.”

Our tour concludes at 313 Locust Avenue. It’s a small lot occupied by an oak tree and a two-story property with a cinder block wedged against the front door. As we stand on the front lawn of Agnew’s childhood home, he recalls his neighbor’s miraculous rosebushes and games of two-hand-touch football, and points to a bird feeder that has remained unchanged. The house has been deserted since Hurricane Sandy, foreclosed on and bank-owned now. Before I know it, Agnew is ambling through a foot of snow toward the rear, where he finds the one-car garage and pokes his head through a busted nine-panel window. “Yo, check this out,” he says, motioning me to look inside. There it is, plainly scrawled out in charcoal across the wall of the garage: SEAN AGNEW.

He enrolled at Drexel in 1995 and became a DJ at WKDU 91.7. Older station members introduced him to West Philly’s vibrant punk-rock locus, a group of warehouses named Kill Time, Fake House and Stalag 13. He commuted on the R5 until a sudden derailment: He was banned from WKDU for stealing a record from its library. (He says he owned an identical record, and that he accidentally brought home WKDU’s copy.) After two trimesters, he dropped out for good.

Shortly before that, he launched R5, at a moment both opportune and ominous in the concert industry. It was a perverse era in which to be a ticket-buyer: Between 1996 and 2003, the average price for a live-
concert ticket shot up by 80 percent. The result was a tsunami of DIY music, which is why Agnew sees himself as a product of luck and zeitgeist — right place, right time and all that. “Around the early 2000s, indie rock starts becoming really popular,” he says. “The website Pitchfork starts getting really popular and big. I just happened to be doing shows around this time. All of a sudden, half-popular bands are playing at the First Unitarian Church or the warehouses, and that’s not happening everywhere in the country. It was only happening in Philadelphia.”

After he ditched his information systems studies, Agnew moved into a group house a few doors down from Stalag and spent several years promoting shows there. By the early 2000s, he had inherited the mantle of punk-rock promoters like Robby Redcheeks, Tony “Pointless” Croasdale and the Cabbage Collective, all of whom were booking shows at the Calvary Church in West Philly and in spaces they could rent on the cheap.

“What the Cabbage Collective did, along with other groups of the late ’80s and well into the ’90s, was take the underground music away from clubs, bars … and into tiny, nontraditional venues like churches,” says Joseph Gervasi, who was one of its founders. Gervasi now operates a self-described “DIY” horror-movie business called Exhumed Films and has chronicled the local punk scene in an oral history project called “Loud! Fast! Philly!” One theme that emerges from the recordings, which include an interview with Agnew, is the inherent cyclicity of the underground music scene. Each generation has organizers who age out. Agnew has remained a constant far longer than most.

“The coolest thing about R5 is that there’s a dozen spaces they’ll do stuff in, whether that’s 20 people or 200 people,” Dan Yemin tells me. Yemin spent parts of three decades touring in hard-core punk bands, including the popular Philly-based Kid Dynamite. He credits Agnew with the popularization and continuation of the First Unitarian Church. “All of these other places that were legendary or successful have been paved over, turned to rubble, or converted into student housing,” he says. “But not the basement of the Unitarian Church.”

Agnew broke up fights, quieted cops. He once stopped a firearm from getting drawn. When he discovered a girl passed out after a show, “I drove her to the hospital. And I don’t drive. I didn’t want some girl to get alcohol poisoning and close down the Church.”

Not getting shuttered used to be a constant battle. On a summer evening in 2002, L&I officers pulled up to the Church with a notice for Agnew to cease operations, right before the headlining band reached the stage. A second series of complaints was raised about R5’s ticket office, operating from a record store on South Street. It, too, was shut down. (Suspicions persist to this day that Clear Channel, now Live Nation, was behind those complaints, although no record exists with L&I.)

This is the point at which most underdogs call it a good game and reevaluate life. Not Agnew, who had the stubbornness and grit to get the Church up and running again within months. The closure of the Church attracted coverage by everyone from MTV to Howard Stern, and the 15 minutes of fame were priceless for the 24-year-old fledgling promoter. In the December 2003 issue of Harper’s, Agnew appeared as the protagonist of a story that painted him as the Robin Hood of a concert industry run amok. Now, on the brink of middle age, such publicity shadows him, has made him, perhaps unfairly, fodder for those people who think he’s gone corporate. “I know I’m not the punk-est dude for owning a nice venue,” he tells me. “And I don’t mean to sound cocky, but for 15 years I was booking shows in basements and warehouses and art galleries. And that’s still what I’m most interested in.”

NEITHER LARRY MAGID NOR most of R5’s competition would comment for this story. Which made me wonder if that’s because they genuinely don’t take Agnew seriously as a peer, or because he’s maturing into the most prominent promoter in town. Stacie George, who until last year was the senior talent buyer for Live Nation in Philadelphia, downplayed R5 as a direct competitor and would only say, “Sean rode that indie-rock wave, that’s what he did. But there are so many bands today that there is enough business to go around.”

Colleagues see Agnew in another light. “He had to become really smart and develop an amazing sense of the market at a young age,” says Avram Hornik, who has been Agnew’s business partner since they opened Union Transfer in 2011. “He’s like a giraffe growing a long neck. He became what was necessary to succeed in his market.”

Gervasi, writing in an email, praised Agnew’s dexterity of genres, adding, too, that Agnew “is a goofball. … [H]e’s always engaged with life in a playful and silly manner.”

A Google search substantiates this point:

There was the 2003 Inquirer article reporting that Agnew was considering a run for City Council. Ed Rendell’s office called him up, and Agnew immediately said no thanks to help with his campaign, because it was imaginary.

Then there was the infamous report about Agnew getting busted outside a rave for carrying 400 pills of a new prescription drug called “Kalpax.” A subsequent post claimed that Agnew was fulfilling his 50 hours of community service by booking shows at a senior center — this time spelling the drug “Cowpax.” A practical joke by Agnew and a friend.

In 2006 came the “Sean Spotter” blog, which provided updates on Agnew’s life, like a “Where’s Waldo?” of Philly hipsterdom. Many assumed Agnew was at it again, but it turned out this was the work of a legitimate cyberstalker. “The only reason I stopped was that Sean became aware of it, so I felt he was perverting the innocence and purity of the experience,” says Ryan Creed, the Agnew obsessor, who now is a senior editor at NBC News in Los Angeles. Why stalk Agnew back then? “There’s something irresistible about a man who is handsome and kind of a douche.”

Over a dozen interactions with Agnew, I came to realize that being a rock promoter is nothing like being a rock star. The oddities that make Agnew so interesting — his travel, his geeky love of the NBA — are also what keep him sane. “It’s a lot of the same day-in, day-out,” he says. “My traveling is somewhat of a reaction to that. I still love music, still love going to shows, but I can book shows while going to a crazy temple or riding a motorbike through the countryside.”

Agnew and his partners have begun discussing a larger venue than Union Transfer. But he’s more interested in talking about his vacation bucket list, showing me pictures on his phone of Socotra, a small Yemeni island that’s next in his sights: “It looks like Mars! It really looks like nowhere else on Earth.”

The Rodman adventure is just the latest chapter in Agnew’s ephemeral life. When he got home, there were calls from the New Yorker, USA Today and others waiting. Agnew grew tired of calling them all back. Turns out the Most Interesting Man in Philly has a rather mundane ego. He lives for the experience, not the publicity or the payoff. Getting called a “tourist”? He loved that. But, of course, there is a caveat. “Yeah,” he says, “I had no idea I was talking to CNN.”

Originally published as “Where in the World Is Sean Agnew?” in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.