Lots of cities can claim a formidable punk scene, but for the next four days, Philadelphia will rise above. The seventh annual This Is Hardcore (TIH) festival begins tonight, Aug. 9, drawing thousands of fans from all over the country to thrash along with 50 local and national punk and hardcore bands, including Suicidal Tendencies, H20, Terror, Earth Crisis, Gorilla Biscuits, Cro-Mags and Bane.
In previous years, TIH’s primary venue has been the Starlight Ballroom. But after tonight’s early show at Union Transfer, it relocates to the Electric Factory and stays there until Sunday night’s final stage-dive. The move to a venue that holds nearly 1,000 more bodies isn’t the only significant change; this year TIH has an iPhone app, food trucks (Little Baby’s, Kung Fu Hoagies, Sweetbox and others) and outside sponsorships to help cover the festival’s growing expenses.
As you might imagine, apps and corporate sponsors are normally considered antithetical to hardcore’s anti-consumerist, DIY values. TIH founder Joe McKay, aka Joe Hardcore, is well aware of the thin line between trying to organize the chaos of a large-scale event and selling out. He’s learned to walk this tightrope of principles cautiously, especially this year.
“Is an iPhone app essential to hardcore shows?” asks McKay, 32, while eating a slice at a Center City pizzeria. “No, but This Is Hardcore’s reached the point where we needed it. Now we’re the only hardcore festival with one. We haven’t lost our hardcore values, we’ve just moved to a much bigger room.”
“The second I put TIH on a stage where it doesn’t belong,” he continues, “it’s gonna collapse. We got away with it this year — this is the great hardcore swindle.”
McKay grew up in Frankford, raised by a young, single mother whom he calls “eclectic.” She was one of the first female graffiti writers in Philadelphia, he says, and she used to tag subway cars. She also booked metal shows at nightclubs, where she’d bring her son along to see bands like Nuclear Assault.
“I had a crazy childhood,” recalls McKay, who started going to South Street hardcore shows when he was in middle school. “I was a rowdy kid, but I also loved studying shit like Rome, the city-states and Vikings. But when I discovered hardcore, I’d finally found outcast maniacs just like me; I got lost in that world. We didn’t have much money, we didn’t live in a safe neighborhood, so it was better to spend time at hardcore shows than it was to watch people deal crack and get shot on the corner.”
At 16, McKay started regularly booking shows at halls and churches across the city. While touring with his band, Punishment, and being a roadie for Dysphoria, he connected with hardcore kids from around the country. In Boston, he met members of the gang FSU (Friends Stand United, or Fuck Shit Up), which used to attack white supremacists and drug users at punk shows. McKay, a straight-edge anti-racist devoted to hardcore, had an idea.
“We always had a gang mentality, that’s how we grew up,” he says. “Then one day I had this lofty goal of starting a national gang. I brought the Philly and Jersey people to the Boston chapter of FSU, and that’s exactly what we did.”
In 2008, McKay and other FSU members appeared on an episode of the History Channel’s Ganglands series, but the scene where McKay said he’d left the gang ended up on the cutting-room floor. “There were stabbings, shootings — friends went to jail, and none of the arguments were ever settled,” he says. “We started a fire, it became a blaze; we couldn’t put it out, we got burned.”
“Hardcore’s a different world now,” he says. “The young kids aren’t from where we’re from; they’re from the suburbs. I had to change to embrace the whole culture and stop alienating people. It took me a while to realize this, but that moment of clarity finally came. ‘Gangland Joe’ is a thing of the past.”
With the help of Sean Agnew and R5 Productions, McKay’s since dedicated himself to making TIH the best and biggest hardcore event in the country. (He’s also a devoted father whose 15-year-old daughter had her first stage-dive at a Cro-Mags show.) TIH tickets sold out in less than 36 hours in 2010, and when they increased the capacity last year, advance tickets sold out again.
It became obvious that TIH needed a bigger venue, so when McKay got a meeting with Electric Factory booker Bryan Dilworth, he took it.
“When I walked into the Electric Factory, all I knew is I didn’t want a big stage, a big barrier and big ticket charges,” says McKay. “They gave us all those things, and there’s no pop-punk bullshit on the bill — it’s all fucking hardcore.”
Furthermore, Electric Factory has built a three-foot stage, friendly for stage-diving, in front of the venue’s much taller stage, and lowered their usual TicketMaster markup to match the $6 fee charged by R5’s ticketing company, TicketFly. (So far, four-day passes and single-day tickets for Saturday have sold out.)
The venue problem was solved, but there was one more obstacle. When Riot Fest, the punk-ish festival sponsored by Live Nation and Red Bull, came to Philadelphia last year (it was cancelled this year), McKay felt threatened: “They have the money to shut down TIH forever. So it was time for us to find sponsors, but I didn’t want any cigarette or liquor ads. I don’t want corporate fuckers giving cigarettes to kids at my shows.”
Instead, McKay secured sponsorships from Dr. Martens, IndieMerchStore, Jackprints, Mesa Boogie (the guitar amplifier company is providing all TIH’s amps) and others that meet McKay’s ethical criteria. “I had to accept that TIH is a business that needs support,” he says about the decision. “But I’m still worried about what happens if we get an offer from someone like Vans. Does it become the Vans This Is Hardcore festival?”
“I don’t know,” he continues. “But we’ve become the kind of organization that must constantly ask itself, ‘Can we keep our ethics intact while benefiting from corporate sponsors?’ That’s the line we’re treading right now.”
This Is Hardcore, Thu., Aug. 9, 5 p.m., $18, Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St., 215-232-2100, utphilly.com. Fri., Aug. 10, 5 p.m., $40. Electric Factory, 421 N. Seventh St., 215-627-1332, electricfactory.info. Sat., Aug 11, 12 p.m., sold out, Electric Factory. Sun., Aug. 12, 12 p.m., $35. Electric Factory. More info at thisishardcorefest.com.