CAPE MAY - For the music-minded vacationer, Cape May's historic halls and watering holes are turning up the heat early.

The occasion is the fifth annual Singer-Songwriter of Cape May gathering, which began Friday and runs through Saturday night. In the half-decade since the event began, this Shore town has become a springtime pilgrimage spot for independent performers from as close as Atlantic City and as far away as Australia.

"It is something I make a point to schedule on my tour every year," Avi Wisnia, a Philadelphia jazz-pop songwriter, said in an e-mail from the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, this month.

SS Cape May, as it is known, encompasses performances in 19 venues, speeches, workshops, and music-business panels on topics ranging from Kickstarter to copyright.

For visiting musicians, it's a chance to gain valuable pointers, network with fellow songwriters, and make industry contacts. For anyone else, it's a seaside festival with more than 150 performers.

"Some of the bars get really packed â ¦ they're not used to it this early in the season," said SS Cape May's director, John Harris, who also promotes the annual Millennium Music Conference in Harrisburg.

The fifth Cape May conference will include performances at the historic Congress Hall hotel by the two keynote speakers - Todd Sheaffer of the progressive-bluegrass band Railroad Earth and Christine Martucci of Asbury Park, N.J., a country, soul, and rock-and-roll singer-songwriter.

For the rest of the weekend, scores of nonticketed performances will light up places like Ugly Mug and the Boiler Room at Congress Hall. A host of Philly-area natives and cross-country visitors will join the fray.

Wisnia, 29, who grew up in Yardley, has attended SS Cape May annually since the first conference.

"That was very eye-opening for me and certainly was my first taste of how the music industry works," the touring songwriter said. Each year, he said, feels like the event is a musical reunion.

Pete Mroz, 36, has made the trip from Nashville for two conferences.

"There's a real warm sense of community in Cape May â ¦ it's very noncompetitive," he said. "It's all about the music, and all the locals open up their world."

The town's Victorian ambience adds to the attraction, Mroz said. Congress Hall and its Boiler Room are favorite spots.

"Congress Hall is just this beautiful, big, elaborate, plantation-looking hotel," he said. "And you go down to their basement, and it looks nothing like" the rest of it. "It feels like you're in a club."

This year, the Tennessee singer-songwriter will speak at a panel on Kickstarter, the online fund-raising platform, drawing from his own success story: In 80 days, Mroz generated $22,000 to record his album We'll Rise Above.

Will McCranie, 27, a performer from Georgia now based in New York City, said the conference is a good place to make musician friends and trade on-the-road "war stories."

For songwriter Kelly Carvin, 24, of Trenton, SS Cape May holds out hope for independent songwriters.

"Musicians play and most of them give up. It's cool to see the people that actually stick around," she said.

That sense of unity and convergence is the heartbeat of the event for full-time musicians, who, Mroz said, must become "self-promoting machines" to make it in the industry. It's not easy to build an audience fan-by-fan, and SS Cape May gives artists the opportunity to band together.

Contact Matt Huston at 215-854-5289 or