Written by Angel Park
Photos provided by Billy Bevevino
There’s something special about Philadelphia’s music venues. They’re not just places to see local and touring bands -they’re a vital part of the city’s musical fabric. Philly music venues have a unique character from their historic buildings, intimate settings, and passionate audiences. As ardent supporters of all things local music, our staff at That Mag will be shining the spotlight in this series on some local venues that have become staples of Philadelphia’s thriving music community.
If you’re looking for a new venue to check out the next time you’re in Philly, Warehouse on Watts (WOW for short) should be at the top of your list. This DIY spot has been hosting concerts and events since 2018, gaining traction amongst the community for its unique setting and grassroots-centric ethic.
WOW has been a place for music lovers and artists alike to come together since its inception. We asked co-founders Gavin DiRusso and Meg Bassett how their venue reflects that spirit, its history, and what they have planned for the warehouse next.
Initially, when DiRusso purchased the 10,000-square foot property, he had no intentions of building a music venue –at least not at first.
“I just wanted to purchase this property as a real estate investment,” He explained. “It was a garage attached to a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, and I got it for an insanely good deal.”
He continues, “So I was taking my time with it, trying to figure out what to do. I was building out spaces in here to rent out for commercial use for a while.”
As time passed, his thoughts began turning to how he could turn the space into something more.
He continued, “I started rehabbing the event spaces using the funds I made from the commercial tenants. By 2016, it got to a point where I could host some underground parties, BYOs, and 6 AM afters types of things. There was just a market for it at the time.”
Around that time, Meg Bassett, managing partner of WoW and experienced events guru, began helping out on the operations side. Their small parties quickly grew into larger-scale events.
“I came on board and started creating some organization around bookings, creating events, writings, SOPs, writing, run of shows, and just getting more acts through the door,” She said. “It was the two of us running all of it, with freelancers coming in and doing pay-per-play along the way to pitch in.”
As their parties started gaining traction, they got the attention of the PEX community (Philadelphia Experiment). After about a year of working with a founding member of PEX, they decided to make it an actual venue. After building out the bars and kitchen, they acquired a liquor license and got things fully operational in 2018.
Gavin adds, “My inspiration to make it an event space came from the fact that I was hosting and planning similar events before I bought the building. I loved having an event area accessible to everyone, not pigeonholing people into being one genre or having exorbitant rental fees and whatnot.”
Managing the growth of Warehouse on Watts was not without its set of challenges. For DiRusso and Bassett, booking more events required bringing on the right staff, developing impeccable multitasking skills, and finding the best workarounds to make the most of a limited capacity space.
“It was a gamble between getting people who are both passionate and who want to put their time and efforts into a space that isn’t corporate,” Bassett stated on the process of sourcing WoW staff. “Plus, there’s the different grind of finding people who are more dynamic and able to be inventive with their decisions at the drop of a hat because this place is not built to be a 100% traditional venue. It’s reformatted to be one; you need to be able to pivot and think on your feet when planning and executing things.”
As for multitasking, for DiRusso, it’s something that comes with the territory of managing and working within a DIY space.
“We got to wear a lot of different hats. It’s not like you come in and say, “I’m going to do this one job.” You’re going to do at least eight jobs. And you have to know a little bit of everything because, unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to hire one person for each department we need. But I don’t think I would want to work in a position where I’m just doing the same thing every day.”
Dealing with the limited capacity of operating an independent venue was also a process.
“We have solid capacity, but we don’t have the power for those more prominent headliner crowds that bring in lots and lots of money.” Bassett said, “We try to book the up-and-coming or the nostalgic, even Boiler Room set-type events. We’re also trying to branch out in many different ways to activate things offsite.”
They were welcomed and supported by the community and the other venues in the area.
“It is nice to have a community to fall back on. Especially during the pandemic, everyone got together with organizations like
(National Independent Venues Association) and PIVOT, Philadelphia Independent Venues Operating Together,” DiRusso explained. “Everyone in the city is looking out for each other. “We’re all out here to benefit the community and entertain people.”
Despite their challenges, witnessing WOW evolve over the years provided DiRusso and Bassett with countless unforgettable moments.
“Yves Tumor was here for a show last year, and that was incredible,” Bassett recalled, “With Yves, it’s a mixed bag of genres, and there were so many kinds of people here, just all reveling in it together, that was amazing to watch.”
She added, “Another close second was this whole activation set up with the tequila brand Teremana, which does much of our event sponsoring. We worked with them on a few Latin night-themed parties. It was fun to see cause we’d never done those events before, and it was cool to see it bring in a different crowd than what we’ve catered to. We had these salsa dancers dancing up on little pedestals and stuff –it was great!”
For DiRusso, his unforgettable moment involved a very fancy (and flooded) New Year’s party during the earliest days of the venue:
“I bought the building in October/November, and my buddies and I had to throw a New Year’s Eve party cause we wanted to do something with it to celebrate. And this was before I knew anything about the building. So I opened the doors for the first time; there was dust everywhere, holes in the ceiling, the room, no heat, and half the toilets didn’t work. My friends and I spent the whole week cleaning up the upstairs, adding propane heaters, rearranging, and making the space semi-functional and excellent.”
He continued, “Then halfway through the actual party, around 11 PM, the building sprinkler popped open because one of the propane heaters was close to it. I didn’t know the sprinkler system was active, so it popped and started blowing out black water all over the ground. I had no idea where the shutoff valve was, and it was just running and flooding the dance floor. So I figured out that we had a basement. So I ran down there, was wearing my tux, and jumped in this hole. I was turning valves and called upstairs, “Is it off yet? Is it off yet?” And we finally shut it off.”
He laughed, “Then we had to deal with all the water on the floor. I had all these empty boxes from Amazon from past event supplies orders, so we got them out, created a little water dam, and had everyone push all the water to one corner. Anything we could find that could sop water up, we had it on the dance floor. By that time, it was 11:45, right before the ball dropped. After that happened, people just like, “F—it. Let’s Party.” That was probably one of the most memorable events because of the shenanigans. It was an excellent Christening of the space.”
With their sights set high for the future of their venue, DiRusso and Bassett are looking forward to all the things to come in the next few months.
“First, we’re creating our little series of events called Warehouse on Watts presents with in-house booking for artists and vendors.” DiRusso revealed, “My goal is to make each event we do a little bit different than the last and create more activation and make it where, if you come to a Warehouse on Watts Presents event, it’s going to be something truly unique. So keep an eye out for those details once we get our ducks in a row.”
In addition, they are also setting things in place to offer more food options at their events.
“We’re working on getting a kitchen where people can order a carte and stuff like that,” Bassett explained. “We even had someone come in recently with talks about utilizing it consistently as a common commissary kitchen as we advance in the next few weeks. If that happens, it’ll run through the late night too. So if people are leaving or they place their order by 1:45 or so when they’re closing their tab, they can order it and pick it up on the way out.”
“There’s also something we’re calling the ‘WOW Wagon,'” DiRusso chimed in, “It’s our little project for Nomadic Craft Cocktails & Off Site Bar Services that will essentially be utilized for mobile bar sales. . Stay tuned for that too.”
Lastly, the duo is busy planning the details for WOW’s annual block party in September.
“Last year was rough because post-COVID, it rained the whole time, but we made it work,” Meg said, “This year, we’re planning on being able to do popup bars with our partners.” She added, “We’re also trying to utilize WoW differently at upcoming festivals. For example, we’re activating all the bars at Making Time at Fort Mifflin this year, so that should be fun!”
Warehouse on Watts has come a long way since it opened its doors as a venue in the Philadelphia community. This space is quickly becoming known for its eclectic and electric atmosphere, offering high-quality DIY events and programming.
If you’re looking for something unique to do in Philly, be sure to check out all of the upcoming events at Warehouse on Watts here: wowphilly.com