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September 12, 2023

History of Philly's Electric Factory to be displayed in upcoming Drexel exhibit

Larry Magid, longtime general manager of the concert venue, talks about how he helped shape live music as we know it today

Music Electric Factory
Electric Factory Drexel Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

The Electric Factory, now Franklin Music Hall, is shown above at 421 N. 7th St. The original concert venue opened at 22nd and Arch streets in 1968. Drexel University's upcoming exhibit, "Electrified: 50 Years of Electric Factory," will tell the story of the pioneering concert promotion company.

Generations of Philadelphia concertgoers can trace some of their formative memories to experiences they had at the Electric Factory. The name is synonymous with the growl of amplifiers, the thrill of the crowd and the evolution of a rock movement that dominated the cultural landscape in the back half of the 1900s.

Most people in Philly probably think of the venue at 421 N. Seventh St. — now called Franklin Music Hall — when they reminisce about the Electric Factory. But the space first opened at 22nd and Arch streets, and the history goes back decades. Electric Factory Concerts, an innovative promotion company formed in the late 1960s, played a key role in creating the model for concert tours and music festivals that we now take for granted.

At Drexel University, an upcoming exhibit will examine 50 years of the Electric Factory and the agency that raised the bar for live music on the East Coast.

"Electrified," running from Sept. 22 through Dec. 30 at the Paul Peck Alumni Center Gallery and Bossone Research Center, will showcase a collection of photos, posters, concert apparel and guitars that were played at EFC's shows in Philadelphia. Among them will be Bruce Springston's iconic Fender Telecaster from the cover of "Born To Run" and Mick Taylor's guitar from the Rolling Stones’ stop at the Spectrum in 1972.

Other sections of the exhibit will focus on the venue's early years, its sound systems, some of its major concerts and an interactive area where people can decorate virtual guitars.

The original Electric Factory & Flea Market opened in February 1968 at the site of a former tire warehouse. General manager Larry Magid, then 26, had been approached by brothers Herb, Jerry and Allen Spivak to lease the building, which the four did together.

Magid, from West Philly, had been working for a talent agency in New York City but was attracted by the Spivak brothers' vision to bring together a disjointed music scene that lacked a consistent hubAt the time, the city's venues were mostly small clubs supported by radio stations.

"There were no promotions of any kind," Magid, now 81, said. "The disc jockeys were the stars and they had dances ... That was it. There were some rock and roll shows here and there, as there were in other cities, but there was no large-scale promotion of any kind. There wasn't a concert business."

In its first three months, the Electric Factory drew sensational acts, like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Cream.

"We had the shiny new toy," Magid said. "It was the right place and the right time."

The venue had a capacity of about 2,500 people. 

"They found this much-needed place in the market where you had this venue which wasn't on the scale of a full-sized stadium venue, but it was still capacious," said Derek Gillman, an art history professor and executive director of Drexel's exhibitions and collections. "It was much bigger than your average jazz club or folk club."

Gillman said the idea for the exhibit surfaced before the pandemic and evolved over several years. The original concept was meant to focus on Electric Factory posters and photographs held in collections owned by the libraries of Drexel and Temple universities. Photos on display in the exhibit include shots from a Grateful Dead concert at the Electric Factory in 1969. 

"People are just standing underneath the band," Gillman said,  "They're is not on a riser that's 10 feet up and with this great gap between the audience that you would have in a modern concert. They're just on a stage and they're with the audience. I think that's a real interesting marriage of significant performers playing to serious crowds, but retaining intimacy."

One of the venue's selling points was low ticket prices, which started at about $3.50. The promotion agency also developed a model of booking three-act shows that could appeal to overlapping fan groups.

"For the longest time we kept our ticket prices lower than anybody else's," Magid said. "That was by design. By dealing with volume, as opposed to raising prices a few bucks, we'd get people going to shows on an ongoing basis."

By 1970, the Electric Factory's landlord wanted to double the rent. But Magid and Allen Spivak were already bringing music acts to other venues in the region, like the Spectrum, and they had plans to open the Bijou Café, a jazz and comedy club, in the space of the former Showboat, at 1409 Lombard St. Their three-day Atlantic City Pop Festival, which took place just before 1969's Woodstock, featured stars like Joni Mitchell, B.B. King and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

It became clear that the Electric Factory's first brick-and-mortar location was expendable.

"We gave up the club, but we were well on our way doing concerts," Magid said. "Because we had taken a lot of opportunities, we got calls to play Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra after that. Through our efforts, we attracted a lot of interest from other managers and record companies."

Even as older acts found their way to EFC, Magid was spearheading efforts to build relationships with newer rock bands from the U.S. and England. He got involved with Yes, The Kinks, Alice Cooper, The Allman Brothers and The Band, taking them on tours in other cities like Pittsburgh, Washington and Baltimore.

Still, Philadelphia remained EFC's focus. In 1975, the company bought the legendary Tower Theater in Upper Darby.

"We were probably doing 70 shows a year around the city, and no other market did that," Magid said. "Kids from the suburbs played a major role. We had kids come down on the buses and trains. We created a big environment and a net for people to come see. It just kept growing."

He added, "The great thing about Philadelphia is how knowledgeable people are. Not just in music, but you see it in sports and other places. It's a magical city."

In 1985, EFC reached a world stage when the company produced Live Aid at JFK Stadium in South Philly. The Beach Boys, Madonna, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Patti LaBelle and a reunited Led Zeppelin all played the massive benefit, which was simulcast at England's Wembley Stadium and raised more than $120 million for famine relief in Ethiopia.

The key to EFC's success was that they fostered an accessible community for music lovers to see not just their favorite bands, but each other. 

"People would come not even thinking what was playing, just to be part of the environment," Magid said. "We created something by doing weekly series and building our three-act shows. It was a conscious effort to take what we did at the Electric Factory and transpose it into larger venues."

An important piece of making that possible was upgrading the sound systems used for big concerts. 

"The sound systems that bands used in the 1960's were not viable anymore. The Beatles played at Shea Stadium in 1965 and couldn't be heard," Gillman said. "It was really just as the Electric Factory was beginning that sound systems for concerts started evolving into what we have today."

At the Bossone Research Center, which is part of Drexel's College of Engineering, a sound stage has been constructed to replicate the original design at the Electric Factory. It has enormous speakers and a Marshall stack amplifier that will give visitors a sense of what it was like to be in the front row. 

"What we're going to be doing is over the stage, we'll be projecting extracts from Live Aid and they'll be soundtracked with it. We can't turn it up too loud because it is during the semester and people will be working at the college," Gillman said. 

By the early 1990s, EFC had established its presence and expertise in the concert business. A new wave of grunge, metal and and pop-punk bands was surging in popularity. That's when EFC decided to purchase the building at Seventh and Willow streets — the former General Electric Switchgear Plant — and turn it into the new Electric Factory in 1995.

"It worked a lot better than the first Factory," Magid said of the 2,700-capacity venue, whose iconic Ben Franklin sign loomed above on the plant's smokestack.

In 2017, the building was sold for $20.1 million. It was later acquired by Bowery Presents, which continues to operate it as Franklin Music Hall with concerts from artists across multiple genres. Magid, who's a member of the Philadelphia Music Alliance's Walk of Fame, said he felt ready to say goodbye to Electric Factory. 

"It takes a lot of hours, a lot of people, to put on a show. It was a great venue, but the time had come. It just ended and we had to know when to get off the bus," Magid said. "On a broad scale, it wasn't appealing to me anymore. I personally was going to the club less and less."

Magid still works with Bruce Springsteen, putting on his shows from time to time, but now enjoys spending time with his wife. He helped acquire some of the Drexel exhibition's pieces, including Springsteen's guitar, but otherwise was not involved in putting it together. He said he's eager to see how it turns out.

"It's going to be a blast from the past," Magid said.

"Electrified: 50 Years of Electric Factory" will be open Wednesday through Friday from 1-7 p.m. and Saturdays from noon-5 p.m. The Paul Peck Alumni Center Gallery is at the southeast corner of 32nd and Market streets.