The Man Behind ‘Philly Jam’

How do you plan a free concert for 600,000-plus people? For the answer Pollstar went to Scott Mirkin, the man behind Philadelphia’s Fourth Of July Jam.

Often referred to simply as the “Philly Jam,” the July 4 concert and fireworks extravaganza wraps up the almost two-week-long “Wawa Welcome America!” series of events counting down to America’s birthday.  This year The Roots top a bill that also includes by Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald and Estelle.

Riding herd on all the planning and preparation that goes into presenting an event that will attract more people than the entire state of Wyoming is Scott Mirkin, a veteran producer of unique live events. Mirkin’s credits include producing the 1997 “President’s Summit for America’s Future,” helming Edward G. Rendell’s two Pennsylvania gubernatorial inaugurations and producing the 2008 World Series champions celebration.

Along with acting as Philadelphia’s unofficial go-to person when it comes to almost impossibly mammoth live events, Mirkin also serves on the boards of numerous civic organizations, including The Greater Philadelphia Chamber Of Commerce and The Committee of Seventy and is Chairman Emeritus of Greater Philadelphia Cares.

But it’s the upcoming “Philly Jam” that’s occupying most of Mirkin’s time these days as he prepares for the largest free concert in America.

Photo: Michael Branscom/ESM Productions

How do you start building a Fourth Of July Jam?

It’s a year-round endeavor. We take a couple of days off after the Fourth then get right back into it. We’re in the same footprint, for the most part all of the time. We can debrief and see what might need to be improved upon from an infrastructure standpoint. How was the customer experience? How do we improve that overall customer experience and sponsor experience?

Actually, the long-range process comes before the talent conversation. This event has been going on for a long time. In the last four years we’ve put some different energies into some different areas, some energy it hadn’t had for a few years, to really make this a music-destination event – what it’s started to become during the last couple of years. We’re at the point where people say, “What’s going on in Philly? Who’s playing the big ‘Philly Jam?’ We always want to be relevant and always want to bring new talent to the mix.

We started working with The Roots in 2009. They were back again last year and right at the end of last year’s show we sat down with The Roots and said, “The Roots are a great Philly brand, this is a wonderful Philadelphia event.” We were working on that for quite some time, where ?uest Love is our musical director and creative partner in this show we’re putting together for this year.

We did make a pretty significant infrastructure change two years ago. It’s a little bit nuts-and-bolts. We actually moved the location of the stage, which, I think, increased the unobstructed sight lines tremendously, which contributed greatly to our increased crowd and what I like to call our crowd retention. Of course, we had the Twitter and texting crowd in 2009 where people came down to the event site and texted, Twittered and Facebooked all their friends about how close they could get to the stage. We made a radical change to move an obstruction.

Back in the day, there would be maybe 2,000 who would be able to see the stage unobstructed. The rest of the crowd – several hundred thousand – would be part of the show and feel the vibe, but they actually couldn’t see the stage unobstructive. We moved the stage 500 feet to the east on the Ben Franklin Parkway and that had a lot to do with the increased crowds.

That comes from sitting down several months out and planning what that means to move a stage and what that does to the crowd overlay. The Ben Franklin Parkway is a major automotive thoroughfare most of the time, so there’s traffic flow and all those things to consider. There’s a lot of infrastructure and logistics design that goes into this event.

Then, of course, the fun part is the creative. What kind of show are we going to have? What’s the set going to look like? We think about the soundtrack to the fireworks. Who’s going to play? Are there any special guests going to come out and play? All those things are lots and lots of fun but they come after we get the nuts and bolts in position.

Photo: Michael Branscom/ESM Productions
(standing) At  “Philly Jam” talking with Green River Ordinance.

From your description, the “Philly Jam” sounds more like a unique, once-a-year event rather than just a big free concert. Is it more like New Year’s Eve at New York’s Time Square?

It is. It’s a daylong event that begins about noon and there are all sorts of activities including music. There are multiple stages. Lots of times the “gated festival’ would call them “side stages.” So we have those other satellite stages that have a variety of things going on starting in the early afternoon. There are up-and-comers, kids’ activities, experiential displays. We have sponsors that bring out pretty interesting things to engage the audience. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had really nice weather over the last couple of years. If you want to come out for 10 hours, there’s enough to do for 10 hours.

It is appropriate to compare it to New York on New Year’s Eve. I always say to people, “Fourth Of July was invented here in Philadelphia. Where else would you celebrate all the things we love about this country on its birthday but where this nation was born?”

It is a big party and things to do for all ages all day long. And there are lots of other events that happen in the city on the Fourth of July. The festival this concert is a part of is “Wawa Welcome America!”— an 11-day festival that runs from the previous weekend where there’s music and fireworks. Then there are a variety of interesting fun events around the city during the week and then we blow it all out on the Fourth with a parade in the historic district, the big Fourth of July Jam and Party On The Parkway. We like to call it a “destination [event].”

Wawa? Is that the chain of gas stations / convenience stores on the East Coast?

Yes. They’re in five states. My brother moved to the West Coast about 10 years ago, and he misses his Wawa. They started out as convenience stores. They’ve been a tremendous supporter. They’re the festival title sponsor and are actively engaged in all the activities. They’ve been a great partner.

Photo: Michael Branscom/ESM Productions
Philadelphia’s “Fourth Of July Jam.”

How do you pay for everything? Do sponsors like Wawa pick up the check? Does the city kick in?

Let me start by saying it’s a sponsor-driven event. The sponsors make it financially possible. We’re also in all the business lines. When you go to a concert or festival there’s water being sold, food being sold, all of those things. We’re actively in all of those businesses. That’s what essentially enables us to do this.

The other thing is it’s seen by the folks who are participating from the talent standpoint, it’s a special opportunity for them to be part of something so long. The model is so different. Everyone knows it’s not based on ticket sales. It’s based on providing a free event for the public. Folks don’t have to buy a ticket, but they certainly buy food and water. They come and contribute to the local economy.

We’re also pretty lean-and-mean. We’re all in this for the love, not necessarily for a financial [gain], like a concert-promoting model. The city is very involved in this. “Welcome America’ was created by the city almost 20 years ago by then-mayor [Edward G.] Rendell. We are governed by a not-for-profit in which the mayor is the chairman of the board. And he’s a music lover. That’s what’s a lot of fun about having him around. When we were talking to him [current Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter] about the concepts of what we were putting together for this year’s show, the artists we were talking to and The Roots being the band, he was excited about it and loves the music aspect.

The Roots are from Philadelphia. Do you always try to book hometown acts?

Not all the time. I think we saw there was a natural fit. When The Roots were involved in 2009, they played the front end of the show and then Sheryl Crow played the second end. You’ll notice I won’t even say “opened for” and “headlined” because I think it’s different. Sheryl was great and loved watching The Roots. We got such positive reaction to The Roots. Obviously they have a strong fan base here, but they’re just a really well-loved band. So when we brought them back last year, we paired them off with a pretty eclectic group of performers including Goo Goo Dolls, which are from Buffalo.

Photo: Michael Branscom/ESM Productions
Rockin’ last year’s “Philly Jam.”

We don’t always look for Philadelphia [bands], but when you have a great group like The Roots that can really hold their own as well as play with some of these acts, a lot of these folks coming to play are doing it because they want to play with The Roots. And we think that’s awesome.

Do acts seek you out? Do performers hear about the “Philly Jam” and approach you about playing the event?

We get a little of both. There’s this aerial shot taken after we moved the stage. It’s taken from a mile away and you see the stage during the fireworks at the end of the night. When we started sending out that picture and began talking to a variety of folks within the [music] community about what this is, that’s when folks started reaching out to us. There’s always been a desire in varying degrees of artists in their careers. Newer artists, they’re labels often come after a slot and want to be a part of this thing. There are a variety of reaches from the music community to come and be part of this. We’re not the Grammys yet, but we are an attractive event to play. It’s different. Even if they’re working on their own tour during the summer playing a variety of venues – sheds, arenas, festivals – nothing compares to playing in front of more than half a million people.

It’s billed as the largest free concert of the year and in 2010 you had more than 600,000 attendees.

We’ve actually had estimates that have been higher than that. I feel that [600,000] is a safe number, lower than some of our studies have shown. You take the square footage of the area people are filling and divide it by any number of factors. And when you use the most conservative factor it’s still way higher than that. But we’re comfortable with that number. We know it’s a mile of people. We are fairly certain, based on what we take a look at, who else is doing free concerts, our crowd is the largest there is.

How many people does it put on a “Philly Jam?”

There are hundreds of people. Security is in the hundreds but I’d have to say it’s always been a very peaceful, trouble-free environment. We have private security in the 150-200 range. Any time there’s an event of that size happening in a major metropolitan city, police, public safety and traffic control will mobilize. And those numbers are certainly in the hundreds if not more. They’re always one for not wanting to say their numbers exactly because of security.

It’s very much a produced show, so there’s a production crew including stagehands and techs, about 75 folks. A fun number is there’s something like 7,000 pieces of bike rack. Most of the people who are out there, there’s a lot of great space to bring their own chairs or spread out a blanket. We do some level of reserved, giveaway and sponsored seating. That’s about 3,000 seats.

Photo: Michael Branscom/ESM Productions
“The Roots are a great Philly brand, this is a wonderful Philadelphia event”- Scott Mirkin.

What’s the best way for people to get there?

Philadelphia has a wonderful public transportation system. We have meetings with THE Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). We have meetings with all these folks and they bulk up their system. There are a limited number of parking garages and facilities around the city that actually do discounted pricing, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 spots or so.

But the great thing about Philadelphia – if you fly in, take the train or live in the region – is that it’s about two hours at most from something like 40 percent of the population of the United States. You can get to the airport, jump on a train and get right here. Public transport – Amtrak, rail, flights, driving to some park-n-rides – is a great way to get here. We have a great residential community right here in downtown Philadelphia. There’s 100,000 people living here and a lot of those folks just walk to the site.

What’s more satisfying for you: To see the event come together after a year’s worth of planning, or to see the audience reaction?

The reaction of the audience. One of the things that drives me in this job is I love to serve the audience. I love seeing people come and have a good time. I love being in entertainment. Folks have things they have to do every single day that may not be the easiest thing. For everyone, this is the great equalizer. Whatever your troubles are, whatever your situation, you can take a couple of hours and enjoy it. I love to see the smiles. I go on stage a little before we go live and look out. It still brings a tear to my eye to see people enjoying themselves at something I had a part in creating. The audience enjoyment and participation is what it’s all about for me.

Photo: Michael Branscom/ESM productions
“We always want to be relevant and always want to bring new talent to the mix.”

In addition to The Roots, this year’s “Philly Jam” will include performances by Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael McDonald, Estelle, Sara Bareilles, DJ Jazzy Jeff plus other artists to be announced. For more information on “Wawa Welcome America!” and “Philly Jam,” click here for the official website.