William Toms has made it his mission to change the narrative of his hometown of Philadelphia and is quickly helping the city regain its artistic purpose as a hub for musical talent. In his pursuit to accomplish this goal, Toms teamed up with fellow Philly native (and former high school chemistry partner), Dave Silver, to launch REC Philly –– a creative agency that provides local artists and entrepreneurs the proper tools, extensive network, and industry education they need to succeed in growing their brand and business.
While the initial idea for REC Philly spawned from throwing small open-mic nights in the basement of Dave’s fraternity house at Temple University, it has quickly grown into one of the most innovative and recognized startups in the city. Now, with a user-base spanning over 200 creatives and a new 10,000 sq. ft. studio opening in 2019, REC Philly is well on its way to driving music scene back into the heart of Philly with plans to take this resource for independent artists to other cities around the country.
Recently Vydia had the opportunity to get inside the mind of this industry disruptor to learn more about Philadelphia’s rich music community, his goals for the organization and what we can expect next for REC Philly. Here’s what William Toms had to say:
You co-founded REC Philly with one of your best friends from high school, Dave Silver. After 10 years of friendship, what was the inspiration behind REC Philly?
The inspiration really came from Dave and I who always had a ton of musician friends but consistently found ourselves playing this pseudo-management role to the artists we really cared about. Eventually, we got to a space where we realized how difficult it was for them to secure opening act spots or to get the time of day from an accomplished entertainment lawyer. We realized that eventually something had to give. A little later in our career, after we had thrown hundreds of shows we noticed a similar narrative start to form, one where all of our favorite acts kept leaving to go to bigger cities like New York or L.A.
I’m someone who studied communications and economics. I’ve always been in the middle of loving art and economic systems. I loved studying how economic systems work, and the idea of spending your money in an ecosystem where it can redevelop itself. I realized that people like us from the entertainment industry, from the inner city, from minorities–– never really mastered the idea of group economics. I saw what the idea of resource-sharing was doing to other communities and I wanted to bring it to the people I care most about, the creatives. I wanted to help them take a step back and understand the strategies and opportunities it takes to build a sustainable business first, and from there, scalable ones.
That’s really where the idea for REC Philly came from and after that, we just wanted to build something and iterate it to make it better every day. I think because of our background of throwing many local events early on (between 2012-2014 we threw over 350 events) we had a very respected reputation among musicians and venues because we always did right by the people we worked with. We had the early support we needed and just rode that the whole way.
Before the inception of REC Philly, you and Dave built your reputations throwing ticketed open-mic events in the basement of Dave’s fraternity house. That venture grew into Broad Street Music Group where you booked local venues for independent artists in the area. What was the biggest challenge you faced taking that project from a basement at Temple University to a viable business?
I think one of the biggest things I’ve had to overcome throughout this process was when I had the vision to build REC Philly, it was at the time when the concept of resource-sharing was a new and very exclusive to the tech community. When I tried to come in and explain my idea to other respected individuals in the creative world, they didn’t understand it. A lot of artists didn’t understand it because they’ve never seen resource-sharing before. It took a lot of patience in the beginning to explain it, but I wanted to take it a step further so when people still didn’t understand it, I was just going to keep doing it until some of our successes had people turning their heads and saying “Oh wait, may there is something to this”. Even though those were the same people before who thought this was a tried idea that’s been done before, I wanted to prove that this idea is a right now thing. Technology has never been where it is today and the philosophy is just coming to fruition today.
I think there is such a thing as being too ahead of the time because timing is the most important aspect of any business. For us, it was really being comfortable with our vision to really move forward in two to three years where everyone we talked to didn’t understand it quite yet. When we started hitting every goal, people were taking notice and saying “wow there must really be something going on with this team and what they are doing”. Fortunately, REC Philly was able to withstand the test of time.
What is your greatest goal with REC Philly and what do you need to see to feel it’s been achieved?
My one major goal with REC Philly is to change the way creators think. I want to transform the way they think of themselves, as an artist, to inherently understand the fact that they are not just artists, but also entrepreneurs. I want to help people understand that if they really want to be a full-time artist, then they also need to be an entrepreneur and there are certain strategies they must understand. I look at REC Philly as that vehicle to push that shift in thinking and behavior.
For me, what do I need to see to feel like we’re accomplishing that goal? It goes back to the part I’m most excited about, working with members and artists to get them to a point where they have the confidence, resources, and strategies in place where they can quit the jobs that they hate so they can spend more time doing what they are passionate about. I just want to see more examples of individuals who find that little piece of freedom and wake up every day to enjoy what they’re doing. I personally wake up excited, every day, because I’m not trading my time for money in this soul-sucking environment that doesn’t build me as a leader. I want to help people get to the level of economic stability with their talent, and also take it a step further by getting rid of the idea of a starving artist.
What specific qualities do you look for in a “free thinker”?
The qualities we look for in a free thinker really come down to the idea of “what does it take to be an entrepreneur”. I love the artists that come in and are self-motivated and self-starters; that’s the first thing I look for. I can’t help someone build their business if they expect me to put in more work then themselves. We want the type of artists that can be honest with themselves and understand what they can and cannot do. We love individuals who are not afraid to ask for help, because with creatives ego can be a big issue. I never fault people for it because I understand we need our egos to survive in this type of environment. However, once it’s time to actually thrive, you need to shut those behaviors off and be vulnerable with yourself in order to be successful. It’s simple things like that where I ask the basic questions such as “are you a good person?”, “Is the content you’re creating going to positively impact the world?”, “Are you a self-starter that can be held responsible or accountable for your actions?”, and “Are you willing to invest in yourself and the community around you?”.
What will REC Philly’s ‘Tech Tour’ consist of?
To provide context around this thing about REC Philly is that we are a two-sided business. One side is the creative incubator, a subject we’ve already talked about a lot. The other side of our business, what makes it really special, is the fact that it’s a full-service creative agency. We get to run an agency that helps businesses of all sizes solve their problems through experiential marketing and content creation. We leverage the talent of our members to push all of these solutions forward. This covers a range of clients from large businesses like Comcast to small startups.
This project we are doing for ‘Tech Tours’ is especially dope because we get to turn four startup offices into full-scale venues and book some of our members to get the opportunity to play and provide an incredible experience. We are partnered with Lyft on that as well. So folks can attend each concert and receive a complimentary Lyft ride to take them to the next venue. We will literally provide a tour around the city of local musicians playing incredible music at these incredible tech offices that traditionally don’t get this type of experience.
Congratulations on winning The Philadelphia Inquirer’s third annual ‘Stellar Startups!’ What was that experience like and how has it further motivated you to grow the organization?
Winning the ‘Stellar Startups’ award from The Inquirer was a big honor for us because we are at this place in our company where we built it completely in the creative space. People knew us as the creative guys, but as we slowly started to venture into the tech community, people only saw us as “the cool music guys”. To be in this tech startup competition and have them recognize us as a group of individuals who are building a scalable model that is respected for what it is at its heart, really meant a lot to us. It feels like we just entered this new arena and have quickly gained some traction. I honestly felt awesome. The Inquirer and Daily News have always been big supporters of us, so to come full circle from the very first article they wrote about us where we first started Broad Street Music Group to now winning awards as a tech company was a major pivot from the original business we founded.
This award motivates me because one thing I like to share with other entrepreneurs is that building a business is really a grind. Not only that but a rollercoaster of a grind. It is not a smooth sailing process. If I’m being honest, as an entrepreneur there are a lot of moments of self-doubt where you can get bogged down with the stress and pressure. However, winning awards like “Steller Startups”, makes you realize that you’re on the right path and doing incredible things. To be recognized on such a high level, (you know I put this in the same category as when we got recognized by Forbes) this award is just a little bit of wind in the sails to realize we are so close to accomplishing our goals, but we need to keep pushing forward.
What do you think is the biggest mistake an independent artist can make?
I think the biggest mistake an independent artist can make is allowing themselves to believe that all they need to do is create music. I’ve met so many hip-hop artists who come in and I ask “what is your vision for yourself?” And their typical response is “I just want to rap. I just want to make music.” I understand this idea, but if you really want to be successful, you need to take yourself more seriously and put that responsibility on yourself to at least understand the basic level of how this business works like how to create quality content and how to record yourself. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, you are the only one responsible for not getting yourself to that next level.
Even if you are really good at rapping and you have the money to hire people to do the business side for you, how will you know if they are doing it well if you don’t understand the nuances and the basics of the industry? I always encourage artists right away to notice the red flags I normally hear. The first is “I just want to rap” which is such a terrible mentality. The second thing that’s a really telling sign of a non-mature creative is when I asked them who their target audience is and they respond, everyone. This answer shows that they really don’t understand how the business works. The second you try to go for everybody, no one is going to enjoy it. I think the biggest thing is that if you are an artist you are also the CEO of your brand. You need to understand how this all works.
What sets artists from Philadelphia apart from creators in other cities or other countries?
This is a city where music and art is in its DNA. People often label Philly as a tough city, which it is, but I also think it’s a beautiful thing. If you’re an artist that is stamped from Philadelphia, I believe you can make it anywhere else in the world. We love you when you’re great but will also be passionately upset when you’re not. This local pride breeds a certain kind of creator who’s not just going to grab the mic if they’re not going to bring it. I really appreciate that because it really just makes us the best at what we do. I think that creators that can really thrive in this type of environment, can thrive anywhere because there’s only more of that when you move up the ladder. You need to continue to really level up your game and I think that Philadelphia brings that attitude out of its creatives. It sets the bar high for them to live up to it.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
“Be You”. It’s cliche and I learned it at a young age, but I didn’t really understand it until I was older. I think the way Dr. Seuss puts it “Be you because those that matter, don’t mind, And those who mind don’t matter.” That’s something I personally had to live through because as a kid from Philly that grew up in the suburbs I’ve experienced a lot of where I was the only person that looked like me in the spaces that I existed in.
As a young person, I think it’s really easy to want to dim your light a little bit to make other people comfortable. When I was in the more traditional creative agency space and corporate world, I still excelled in those places, but I wasn’t really happy because I wasn’t being me. I wasn’t outgoing where I could jump up on my desk and dance like I wanted or talk the way I wanted to. I couldn’t express myself the way I wanted to. The best advice for a young person is that there’s nobody out there that can be a better you. If you try to live someone else’s life you’ll never be happy and you’ll never win.
What are your thoughts about what Vydia offers to independent artists?
There are two levels to my answer. As far as the utility of the tool, it’s dope. It’s a needed service for artists to understand how to get their content out there, do it right and ensure its protected and monetized. What I think is really special, is that it offers artists something that’s akin to what we’ve always aspired to offer artists which is to bring them a step closer to freedom. A step closer to owning their business, monetizing their assets, and putting themselves in a position to win. Anyone that serves creators or artists and gives them the tools or services to allow them to be independent and stay independent, they are okay with me.
Learn more about how you can get involved with William Toms and REC Philly’s mission by heading over to their website. Stay up-to-date with our weekly blogs for more insightful from our Vydia Disruptors.