How do you succeed at SXSW?
That’s the question facing acts from much of the Philadelphia music scene — and from around the world — as the industry relocates to Austin, Texas, for its annual week at the annual South by Southwest Music Festival.
Scads of Philly bands will descend on the Lone Star State’s capital city seeking career advancement, in most cases playing multiple gigs in makeshift venues in hopes of connecting with as many fans and music industry movers and shakers as possible.
The list of Philly-area acts headed to SXSW spans genres. Alphabetically, it ranges from Willingboro DJ Anthony Somebody of Quitehype to Vita & the Woolf, the pop project of Philly songwriter Jennifer Pague.
In between, it includes West Philly power trio Ill Fated Natives, Wilmington psych-rocker Grace Vonderkun, North Philly rapper Tierra Whack, Frances Quinlan-fronted indie rock luminaries Hop Along, experimental rock quartet Palm, and Bucks County blueswoman Gina Sicilia.
“It’s like the Olympics for bands,“ says Matt Quinn of Mt. Joy, the Philadelphia-bred band now based in Los Angeles that he leads with his fellow Conestoga High School grad Sam Cooper. They will be playing seven gigs in Austin.
The music portion of SXSW follows the technology and start-up-oriented Interactive Fest, which kicked off Friday. Philadelphia’s presence there is focused on the Amplify Philly House, occupying a two-story bar called Pour Choices strategically located on the Sixth Street strip near the Austin Convention Center.
Amplify Philly is a promotional initiative run by REC Philly, the creative agency and artist incubator headed by cofounder Dave Silver that’s putting on an all-Philly showcase for the fourth year running.
The strategy for promoting all things 215 has evolved as REC Philly has learned the ropes. Last year, Philly start-ups and bands were promoted with booths at the SXSW trade show, a dinner with Mayor Kenney, and a music showcase, all at separate locales.
This year, everything is under one roof. On Sunday and Monday, panel discussions like “Don’t Call Me Phillicon Valley: Positioning the Start-Up Community in your City” will happen during the day. There will be performances by DJ Jazzy Jeff, who spins at a dance party, and Low Cut Connie and Son Little, who will top an all-Philadelphia showcase.
To ensure Amplify Philly is a success, Silver, 26, has some business to take care of. “Everything needs to run smoothly,” he says. “We’re representing Philadelphia and we don’t want to look like amateurs.”
With so much going on — scores of panels happening simultaneously, thousands of bands hawking their wares — attracting bodies can be a challenge. The house, which will run on a $150,000 budget funded by various sponsors, including the City of Philadelphia, hopes to lure people with an open bar, Tony Luke’s cheesesteaks, and La Colombe coffee. And, of course, TVs with the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory on a never-ending loop.
West Philly hip-hop soul band Hardwork Movement — who are playing the all-Philadelphia showcase — will be newbies in Austin.
The nine members — “It’s a real Earth, Wind & Fire situation,” says Jeremy Keys, one of four emcees and the lead singer — are playing two more showcases in addition to Amplify Philly.
Hardwork released their For the People EP in September. They’re venturing to Austin without a record label or booking agent, “but I don’t know that we’re going down there with any direct intention to get any one of those things,” says Keys, who works as a social media consultant by day.
“For us, it’s just about connecting with people in a variety of ways. Spreading awareness of Hardwork, but more so Philly. As a group, we really take pride in the city,” says Keys, who turns 29 on Sunday. “There’s such a groundswell of activity here, across the arts.” The band plays Ardmore Music Hall on March 30.
South Philly rock band Queen of Jeans played only the Philly showcase at SXSW last year. They’re promoting Dig Yourself, the band’s debut album on the California label Topshelf, due March 30. The next night, they’ll play a hometown record release show at Underground Arts.
Miriam Devora, 28, is the band’s principal songwriter. She coined the term “Crock-Pot pop” to describe QoJ’s stylistically varied sound, which combines ’60s girl group harmonies with indie influences. “This year, we’re going to have a lot more time to do a little more networking and see a lot more shows.”
“I really think the whole idea of South By is to come together with like-minded people that love music, that live for music. It’s something that makes them happy, that moves them. That’s the kind of networking I’m looking forward to,” she says.
The stakes at SXSW are high for Mt. Joy, who named their band for the pseudo-mountain that rises along a wooded trail in Valley Forge National Historical Park.
The Philly-area friends who played music together in high school went to separate colleges, and Cooper, 29, graduated from Temple University Law School before moving to Los Angeles in 2015, where Quinn was working as an artist manager and going to law school at night.
Both buddies had pretty much given up the dream of making it as performers but were angling to work in the entertainment business. When they started playing together again in L.A., though, something clicked.
In California, “we were both at points in our lives where it was really uncomfortable,” Quinn says from L.A. That sense of uncertainty courses through the band’s buoyant, energetic self-titled album, which came out this month. “I wasn’t doing anything I wanted to be doing, and I think that translated on the record. That’s a story line a lot of people can identify with. There are a lot of people in their 20s trying to figure out what the heck they’re going to do with their lives.”
Mt. Joy, who play the Foundry in Fishtown on May 19, are a Spotify success story. “Astrovan,” an immediately catchy song, was the band’s first submission to the streaming service in October 2016. The data-driven Spotify’s algorithm loved it: So far, it’s been streamed more than 5 million times. They’re featured on sanctioned playlists with names like Happy Folk and Indie Rock Road Trip.
Fresh off a tour opening for the Head & the Heart in 3,000-seat venues, Mt. Joy played SXSW last year and met reps from Nashville label Dualtone, whose roster includes the Lumineers. They signed with the label a few months later.
This year, Mt. Joy are in contention to be declared one of the winners of SXSW. Among their prominent gigs scheduled are the high-profile NPR Music Public Radio showcase at Stubb’s BBQ on Wednesday, which is co-presented by Philly’s WXPN-FM (88.5).
“Seriously, I think this time people are going to show up to see us play and judge whether we’re worthy of the South By anointment. We need to be comfortable where we’re at and hope the monitors don’t explode and that people dig it. Hopefully, we’ll win the Olympics.”
The Olympics analogy, Quinn says, is apt, not only because of the intense competition, but because “it tests every aspect of what it is to be a band. Mostly your patience …. Meanwhile, all these industry people are there with a stopwatch. And Taco Bell is seeing if you’re worth using in a commercial.”