Miflyn Gaines has spent the last 4½ years marching down corridors, posting fliers for soon-arriving parties.
But now he's stopped. Several weeks ago, he caught wind that soon there would be a crackdown on illegal fliers posted to utility poles, public trees, streetlights, traffic signage and historical markers.
"For the last month, we haven't put anything for upcoming events," Gaines said, referring to the businesses that usually hire him.
As one of more than two dozen goals outlined last summer as part of its zero waste initiative, the city is "refocusing" on illegal signs, which includes bandit signs — posters that market deals for burner cells, used cars and cash for houses — but also concert and party ads. After city law was amended in late 2014 to increase the fines, businesses promoting a show or DJ night would now face a $300 fine for the first sign, and penalties would escalate to $2,000 a sign with the second offense.
Promoters have expressed concern that heavy enforcement could mean fewer concertgoers, which would lead to a decrease in overall events. Gaines called it "terrifying."
With the current fees, a bar, DJ or marketing firm could receive five-figure bills in the mail after one promotional run. Street teams might be paid a percentage of an event's profits, or a buck a sign. Gaines explained, "For 20, 30, 40 posters — smaller events don't make anywhere near that."
Last year, there were 55 tickets issued in Philadelphia for illegal signs — both bandit signs and concert filers — for a total of $4,410 in fines. So far, only 22 of the tickets have been paid. In 2013, during another crackdown on the signs, city agencies issued 579 tickets.
City officials will host a public meeting 5 p.m. Monday at Front Street Cafe to discuss their campaign. Nic Esposito, the city zero waste and litter director, didn't offer a timeline for when heightened enforcement would begin, but noted that efforts are dependent on funding.
In the meantime, Esposito maintains that the current campaign is for the public good.
"We're not doing this just to be punitive. We want to have a cleaner city," he said. "We want arts; we want thriving business. What we don't want is them contributing to this litter problem that's really hard for communities."
The signs are rarely taken down, so they turn to tatters, which becomes litter. Esposito noted that fliers don't have to disappear from the landscape — putting up posters on private property, with the proprietor's consent, remains legal. He's considered the implications of heavier enforcement, but essentially, with the booming popularity of events advertising through social media, he doesn't see pole restrictions as a tremendous loss.
"It's not like we're leaving people out in the cold without options to promote their shows. I think this is one of the lesser options, actually," said Esposito. "We just wanted to bring this up, and start this conversation in case there's people who don't know about this law."
Many promoters discovered the city's plans through 24HrPHL, a local group dedicated to gathering and sharing information on the local nightlife scene. Michael Fichman, a city planner, DJ and founder of 24HrPHL, isn't sure whether the city's cultural communities will suffer. But getting the word out on the initiative is key, he said, especially because street promotions happen in myriad of ways. Sometimes, it's a freelancer such as Gaines, who gets a gig from local businesses and then hits the streets. But it's also a choice tactic for record labels, Fichman pointed out, who might hire a marketing agency, which then dispatches an intern-manned street team, with the hosting venue unaware.
"There's an enormous universe of people out there who populate events in this manner," said Fichman, noting that Philadelphia is unique in that fliers are still a dominant method of advertising.
Gaines, who will be attending Monday's meeting, explained the popularity of poles and sign posts: When people walk down the street, they are more likely to look up and notice ads on a corner pole than to stop and check out shop windows for the latest concert. Plus, many business owners, in his experience, aren't fans of posters on a storefront's facade.
"We're kind of a dying breed," said Gaines. "Without people doing this, I don't know what the future for events in the city is."
Online promotions would obviously flourish, he said, but he wonders about the grassroots pull. If there's nothing at the sidewalk level, will parties and concerts be able to build hyperlocal, community-based audiences as easily?
Lester Spence, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins, aligns the flier removal push with broken windows policies, which prioritize a heavy hand for lesser crimes as a means to discourage more serious offenses. In a case like this, fliers would be prioritized to discourage more serious littering issues such as illegal dumping. Critics have questioned the success of broken windows policies and argue that they perpetuate racial biases through uneven enforcement. Spence also said that the initiative raises questions about the use of public space.
"Why shouldn't citizens be able to use public space to advertise their events?" he asked. Spence pointed to musicians with Philly roots who've already made it big. "It would be interesting to think if they would be where they are if this policy were in place when they blew up."
Kelli Walsh is a commercial corridor coordinator for the New Kensington CDC, which covers part of Girard Avenue that has Johnny Brenda's and is near Kung Fu Necktie, the Fillmore and Punch Line. She said illegal concert fliers aren't a focus of their cleanup efforts, though they have heard complaints about them from residents. Bill Arrowood, assistant director of the South Street and Headhouse District, contracts two corridor cleanup crews to pull down the signs or sweep them up. He encourages those putting up posters to do it legally.
"It's not hard — it's extra work. And it makes for a cleaner city," said Arrowood. He'd like to see more poster boards for promoters to use. "There's an advantage to having a designated space that could eliminate some of the randomness to that."