An artist community builds local cultural and financial wealth
Story captured by Megan McFadden
Situated in a former window factory, REC Philly’s impact ripples far beyond their refabbed studio space at Ninth & Dauphin in North Philadelphia. The 4-year old for-profit enterprise - part creative incubator and part creative agency - works alongside a growing, extended community of 600+ local creatives (not to mention the likes of La Colombe Coffee extraordinaire Todd Carmichael and Philly Mayor Jim Kenney) to amplify everything from local talent, critical social issues, and their beloved city.
“We’re building an incredible narrative” says Will Toms, REC Philly’s co-founder. REC’s creative reputation and business case (a growing member base, client roster, and revenue) would excite local creatives and investors alike, but Toms and his co-founder, Dave Silver, share a story that often takes a back seat to sold-out concerts or quarterly earnings: a story of cultural wealth and community revitalization.
“I think of every inner city neighborhood’s culture as that neighborhood’s potential GDP,” says Toms. At-large, Philadelphia boasts 11 years of consecutive population incline, a strong “eds and meds” economy, and a rising startup sector; yet, equitable well-being for all Philadelphians remains a feat to be achieved. 25% live below the poverty line in neighborhoods that have been systemically disinvested for decades due to redlining and other discriminatory practices. But Toms and Silver understand the power of culture. And in underserved neighborhoods, where many of REC’s artists reside, they see culture as the fulcrum upon which new narratives can be written.
Consequently, REC Philly is investing in artists, culture shapers, who they believe can catalyze the rebuilding of neighborhoods from the inside out. “When Philadelphia is on the rise in all industries….” says Silver, “the artists should rise up too.” As artists connect their talent to resources, they open new windows for themselves, their communities, and the entire city of Philadelphia.
Read on about how REC Philly is not just incubating artists, but modeling a new paradigm for equitable urban revitalization in a CultureBank Q&A with Co-Founders, Will Toms and Dave Silver.
In what community do you primarily do your work?
Dave: We serve the artists. We’ve been building our community, a membership group of 250 individuals, at Ninth & Dauphin in North Philadelphia for the past four years. Our membership is 45% musicians - recording artists, singer-songwriters, bands, spoken word artists. The other half consist of visual artists, photographers, videographers, graphic designers, fashion designers, models, lifestyle entrepreneurs. While there’s another art scene that’s thriving in Philadelphia - the opera, orchestra, ballet, and such - we more or less represent the underground, underserved arts community.
Tell me about your business model.
Dave: 70% of our business model is based on membership for our creative incubator, and 30% is based on our creative agency. For as low as $30/month (a monthly price that’s less than 1 hour at a standard recording studio), artists have access to studio space, programming, and our local community. On the creative agency side, we connect artists with companies that need creative solutions and want to support artists, but just don’t know how. They don’t know how to find artists, communicate with artists, and don’t really know what’s fair for artists. They call us and we take care of it. For example, Todd Carmichael at La Colombe wanted to align his craft of coffee to discussing change in the community, so we created the Hope & Fury concert series. Organizations like La Colombe and Comcast have resources to go to a New York agency, but it wouldn’t connect. With REC, things connect at a local Philly level and that’s beautiful. While we’ll still continue the creative agency, we are looking to focus more on our membership product in the future. We’re at at a half million in annual revenue now, but aim to be a multi-million dollar company in revenue in a few years.
What is the impact of your work on your community? Today? Over a long period of time?
Will: I believe the model we're building is gonna help rebuild inner cities from the inside out. Gentrification is happening way too fast for folks to keep up. But the truth is, the people being pushed out by gentrification are creating valuable culture, especially now that hip-hop is the number one music genre in the country. Communities are inherently creating value every time they create culture, but they aren't learning how to capture and monetize that value.
I see every inner city neighborhood’s culture as their potential GDP. REC Philly helps them succeed in capturing the value of that GDP. We’ll enable the artist that creates the next viable dance or new slang term to protect the idea or learn e-commerce strategies before someone like Urban Outfitters can steal it and do it first. It’s a paradigm shift where the creators are actually being rewarded, appreciated, and celebrated. This is a shift in a billion dollar creative industry. Of the billions made in the music industry, a recent study said that artists keep just 12%. How can we build a model that’s more equitable for the people actually driving the economy?
It first starts with REC Philly perfecting our model in Philadelphia, but is even more exciting when we look to build a REC D.C., Boston or Detroit. When we have a national or international community of creative entrepreneurs, we can create a like-minded network which I liken to the Chitlin’ Circuit - a strip of East Coast venues that would accept African American talent during the time of Jim Crow. Though we’ve come far from that time, an ideological battle still exists - what businesses actually want to see the young creative person of color win? Which ones don't? In my eyes, building a REC network will help us identify safe spaces and resources to leverage, without having to rely on the institutions that don’t share our values.
Dave: Artists staying in Philadelphia. If one person stays in Philadelphia because of access to resources, another will. Next thing you know there's 50 artists that don’t leave for New York, Los Angeles or Nashville. And when there’s a large collective of people spending their dollars here, the city will see that and say “We need to support the artists, pass better laws, let them play longer, park in front of venues.” We want to keep our great artists in Philly and support their career growth. If artists leave, it’s not only bad for our city’s current creative economy, but we’ll feel the effects in the future too. If youth aren’t inspired to take up art, they might be 30 at their nine to five and think, "Wow, I'm a really good painter, why didn't I do this when I was 19?” Maybe they didn't have the network, the resources, the inspiration. We want to inspire the next generation. We want to create a place where not all your problems will be solved, but there will be a bunch of solutions and a system to plug into.
Other than traditional assets (real estate or money) what are the most valuable assets you experience in this community?
Dave: The humans. We talk about “community” and I’ve probably heard that word one hundred times already today. But if we really dissect what community means, it's a collective of people that share core values. There is a really strong ethos within each individual member that makes up REC’s community, a very talented and intellectual group that act as creative sparks for each other. That ethos stretches beyond our members to the people that come to our experiences, workshops, and concerts. It’s also about our partners - print shops, design shops, recording studios - who share our vision of building a stronger creative community for everybody. It’s the community support mechanisms and humans that keep me going.
Will: When I think about our community’s assets, I think about narrative. Let’s take my story for example. I was the first male in my family to attend college and become an entrepreneur. Not only am I able to build something I can pass down to my family, but I've seen the impact on other individuals who now understand the power of entrepreneurship. People have been programmed to believe they have a certain place in society. But that changes when we can amplify a new narrative and build capacity for people to contribute in new ways. Sometimes it starts with morale or a tangible idea like home ownership. How does home ownership translate into thinking about community? When people have a tangible asset, they clean up the block in a different way, they build a relationships with their neighborhood a different way. People are able to feel the contribution to their community, respect, and reciprocated energy. The assets then are these stories and case studies that we’re able to tell.
What gets you going each day and inspires your current work?
Dave: There is a starving artist mentality that we are looking to crush. People want to come and stay in Philadelphia to be a part of this culture, this authentic community creation. The community, the talent, the willingness to work together, and share resources is special. These artists are entrepreneurs that can invest in themselves if given the right access to resources. We are happy to be a hub for that.
Will: I'm most passionate about the experiences we're able to give people that start to shift perspectives. By giving people new experiences to shift their perspective, we can shift our current paradigm.