Why Philadelphia music venue World Cafe Live is becoming a nonprofit

Dan DeLuca for The Philadelphia Inquirer // February 12, 2020

Changes are afoot at World Cafe Live, the Philadelphia venue that has been bringing bands to University City for 15 years.

The two-tiered music club, founded by Hal Real in 2004, is becoming a nonprofit enterprise. On Wednesday, Real said the venue is now owned by Live Connections, a nonprofit music education organization he cofounded in 2008 when the recession led to budget cuts at Philadelphia public schools.The combined entity will be known as World Cafe Live, according to Real, who said that the Walnut Street club’s busy schedule will be unaffected.

Between its 650-capacity downstairs room, recently redubbed the Music Hall at World Cafe Live, and the more intimate, 250-capacity upstairs space now called the Lounge at World Cafe Live, the venue hosted 400 ticketed shows and 200 free ones in 2019, he said.

The change to nonprofit status is being made, Real said, not only to further the enterprise’s charitable work, but also to help it survive as an independent venue in Philadelphia’s fiercely competitive concert market, where the great majority of spaces are either owned or primarily booked by dominant promoters Live Nation and AEG Live.

WCL’s freebies include open mic nights and the Free at Noon shows presented on Fridays by WXPN-FM (88.5), the University of Pennsylvania adult-alternative station with which the World Cafe Live shares a building. Nathaniel Rateliff plays this Friday. (The building at 3025 Walnut St. is owned by Penn. The WCL leases space from the university, and licenses from XPN the name World Cafe, the station’s signature syndicated radio show.)

Through Live Connections, Real said, 5,000 schoolchildren were brought to WCL in groups of 100 at a time for workshops and programs during 2019.

WCL has been “carrying itself” as a for-profit venture, Real said, but for the Live Connections education programs, “we pay for the bus, we pay the musicians, we pay for the entire experience.”

Going forward, “we’d like to double or triple that,” he said. “And doing that kind of work requires you to be subsidized.” Nonprofit status will allow WCL to do that with funding from foundations and other sources. (Tickets are not tax-deductible, but donations above and beyond the ticket price are.)

Along with venues such as Johnny Brenda’s in Fishtown and Ardmore Music Hall, World Cafe Live is a go-it-alone venture in the city’s crowded music-business landscape. Since last fall, it has had yet another competitor in the Fashion District’s City Winery, similarly configured with a larger downstairs room and a more intimate space upstairs.

Real said that City Winery’s entry into the Philadelphia market — the company has venues up and down the East Coast and in Nashville and Chicago — wasn’t a factor in the WCL changes, which have “been in the works for two years.”

WCL hosted country star Tanya Tucker last week, and will promote African singer Angélique Kidjo at the Annenberg Center in West Philly on Feb. 20. It faces competitive challenges going up against companies like AEG Live, which through its partner Bowery Presents books Union Transfer and the Franklin Music Hall, and Live Nation, which books Theatre of Living Arts, Fillmore Philadelphia, Met Philadelphia, and others. “We don’t have the economies of scale that even the City Winery has.”

For the average concertgoer, Real said, WCL’s nonprofit status won’t change “their experience… . We’ll still book those shows, hopefully they’ll still enjoy a good cold beer.

“What will change is that they’ll know that every dollar they’re spending will be reinvested in the programming. Also, it will be going into the facilities, so we can maintain this on a quality level and don’t have to be compromised because we’re trying to compete with a Live Nation or AEG venue when they’ve got such deep pockets.”

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