Dubliner in Philadelphia: The DJ who fills the airwaves with new Irish acts
‘I used to joke that I was the only Irish person in Philly I knew that didn’t own a pub. It’s only a slight exaggeration’
DJ and festival booker Seán Timmons loves his diverse audience in in Philadelphia
Working Abroad Q&A: Each week Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person with an interesting job overseas. This week, Seán Timmons, who is originally from Deansgrange, Co Dublin but now lives in Philadelphia where he is a festival booker and DJ.
When did you leave Ireland and why?
I left in the mid 1980s. Lots of people were leaving for reasons related to economics, but for me it was more a sense of adventure. There was a big world out there and I had to see for myself. First, I went to London. and then ended up in the US in Philadelphia.
What is it like living in Philadelphia?
Philly is a great place to live. It has a thriving music scene with many musicians moving here as it’s still relatively affordable. It’s located close to other large population centres so performers can tour large parts of the north east and mid-Atlantic states and still be in their own beds the same night.
Philly has that “big city / small town” feel where you keep running into the same people. It has a walkable downtown, with a good number of residential neighbourhoods right in the city. So, with people actually living here it doesn’t close down at night like some other places. There are a lot of parks and green spaces and a lot of dogs. Philly people love their dogs!
What do you do there?
I am the senior talent buyer for Mole Street Artists, a boutique entertainment agency that books performers for corporate clients and private events throughout the US and overseas. The agency is just five years old and was founded by two people who wanted to bring more authentic music to the private event world. The three of us came together through a shared passion for music. I supported and consulted one of the guys in his early forays as a performing and recording artist, and met his future business partner when I invited a dozen or so Philadelphia music lovers to join me at a Philadelphia performance by the Irish band The Frames, a band most of them were unaware of.
Anyone can plug in and play, but a tasteful curation of music adds value to the experience
Collectively, we understand the power of music to elevate the experience of everyone in a room. It doesn’t have to be front and centre, it can be in the background. Anyone can plug in and play, but a tasteful curation of music adds value to the experience.
What is a senior talent buyer?
I work with a roster of musicians and DJs, and partner them with clients who are looking to include music in their events. These events could range from a product launch, a convention, an awards gala to an employee incentive programme at some exotic or iconic locale. Sometimes people come to us with a clear sense of what they want and others are seeking direction. Other times people have a theme and we get to have fun with that. From the performer’s angle these are paying gigs that help with their living expenses and support their work as creators of original artistic content.
You spent 30 years as artistic director of Appel Farm Arts and Music Center. What did you do?
Probably the most significant thing I did during my time at the non-profit arts centre was to create the Appel Farm Arts and Music Festival, a one-day event which attracted upwards of 10,000 attendees to a tiny rural town in southern New Jersey. It featured world-class acts such as Josh Ritter, Gogol Bordello, The Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Suzanne Vega, Joan Armatrading, Jackson Browne, David Gray, Rufus Wainwright and many more. For various reasons, the festival was discontinued some years ago, but we went out on top. Since then, other music festivals with far greater financial resources have emerged and we couldn’t even begin to compete to attract the acts needed to sustain the artistic vibrancy and musical discovery for which we’d become known. It’s the natural cycle of things and as one door closes another opportunity arises.
These days you book the annual Molestice street festival in Philadelphia. What is it and who comes?
Molestice is an annual block party and music festival that takes place on the 100 blocks of North Mole Street in Philadelphia on the Saturday closest to the summer solstice. There is a history of a street party organised by the residents going back more than 35 years. Five years ago, Mole Street Artists, the agency which was founded and originally headquartered on the block, adopted Molestice and upgraded it. We brought in a professional stage, sound and lighting, food trucks, a beer vendor and activities for all ages. We curated the music to showcase national or regionally prominent artists, mostly from Philadelphia or with a local connection. We maintained the community element of Molestice by partnering with sponsors to underwrite the costs of producing the event, thereby ensuring that the public could attend free of charge. The audience consists of a mix of Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers from throughout Philadelphia (and the surrounding region) and reflects the diversity of the local population.
Tell us about your radio show...
I produce a weekly show on WPPM 106.5FM public access radio in Philadelphia. The show is called CRAIC Radio and my co-host is fellow Dubliner Fergus Carey. Each week we include a feature called “New Music from Ireland” in which we showcase two songs by Irish artists that we feel deserve to be heard. This is not Irish music necessarily, but music created by Irish people.
It could be someone well established in Ireland, but not so well known here or it could be someone who has just released their first recording. This has included artists such as The Coronas, Loah, Tanjier, Hudson Taylor, Thanks Brother, SOAK, Mick Flannery, The Fontaines, Kormac, All Tvvins, Evvol, Saint Sister, Haiku, Wyvern Lingo, Morrissey and Marshall, Karms, Riptide Movement, Jealous of the Birds, Oddsocks, Arborist, Orchid Collective, Dylan E Crampton and many others.
Two songs per week is 100 songs per year and I wondered if we were going to have difficulty keeping a high standard from among the relatively small population of the country. It’s never been an issue. There is so much amazing music coming out of Ireland.
There are a lot of parks and green spaces and a lot of dogs! Philly people love their dogs!
Also in our Music Makers interviews each week we have a studio guest. It is usually a solo performer or a band that is actively recording and performing their original music. We dig into their story and discuss and play their music. The Philadelphia music scene is extremely vibrant and diverse right now as more and more musicians are attracted to the city as a place to live and to develop their creativity. It’s exciting to discover new music and artists and then to be able to share that with audiences. All of our shows are archived on Mixcloud.
What are your favourite Irish acts at the moment?
That’s one of those questions you hate to answer because you know you’re going to leave someone out! I would have to say that I’ve recently been impressed by artists such as Emma Langford, Owen Denvir, Slow Moving Clouds and A Lazarus Soul.
You manage a band. Who? Tell us about them and your role
I co-manage the band The End of America with my business partner Terry Tompkins. The band takes its name from a line in the Jack Kerouac novel On the Road. The three members of the band met on the road while touring as solo artists and began adding vocal harmonies to each other’s songs. It didn’t take long for them to recognise the power of their three-part vocal harmonies and folk-rock melodies and the natural step was to form a band. Part of our strategy was to have the band release a new song (with a video) each month, while working with an agent to build the band’s live touring presence. It’s a long-term process , but I’m excited by the new music they’re creating and it’s a pleasure to help grow a band I truly believe in.
Are there any other Irish people in your work/social circles?
There is a pretty large and long-established Irish community here. Although I don’t often have time to participate in things that are specifically Irish, I do know a lot of Irish people here. As you know, the Irish are everywhere, and Philly is no different. I used to joke that I was the only Irish person in Philly I knew that didn’t own a pub. It’s only a slight exaggeration.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
Family, of course. There are a lot of significant family occasions over the years that I’ve missed out on by being so far away. I usually get back for a visit about once a year and these days it’s much easier to be in touch through Skype and WhatsApp.
There’s definitely a slower pace in Ireland and people tend to have a more balanced lifestyle. Ireland has changed so much in recent years that the differences between Ireland and the US are far fewer.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.