Philly Music Fest Founder Explains How the Two-Day, All-Local Festival Demonstrates the City 'Jumping Up' a Level
It's hardly been a secret these last few years that Philadelphia has emerged as one of the epicenters of underground rock -- home to a wide variety of local and imported indie and alternative acts who have taken advantage of the city's burgeoning live and studio infrastructure (as well as lower rent and real estate prices) and brought its rock scene out of New York's shadow and into the spotlight.
This Friday and Saturday (Sept. 22-23), at the World Cafe Live venue, the city will host its first two-day festival of all local bands, appropriately called the Philly Music Fest. Though the non-profit fest is relatively lacking in proven A-list names -- the two headliners, Cayetana and Strand of Oaks, are both acclaimed artists with cult followings, but neither have yet notched an LP on the Billboard 200 albums chart -- the depth and variety is highly impressive for an all-Philly roster, anchored in alt-rock but also stretching to hip-hop, R&B, folk and alt-country across its 26 acts.
Greg Seltzer, Philly Music Fest's founder and curator (who will turn 41 on day one of the Fest), is hardly the sort of underground entrepreneur you'd expect to be helming such an endeavor: He's a partner at Philadelphia's Ballard Spahr LLP law firm, known among colleagues as "the bearded deal lawyer that wears jeans and sneakers to work." A Philly native who has remained devoted to the city's music culture and live scene, Seltzer noticed the city's growing musical culture (and national impact) and wanted to help it along -- which he decided he could best do with a non-profit festival that supported local artists, funneling proceeds to venues and local music programs.
"The kernel of my idea was, I want to start at the bottom," he explains. "I want to get more to the kids that are growing up in Philly... If we ingrain in kids that music is really part of the fabric of Philadelphia, maybe they’ll be starting bands. And if they’re not musically inclined, they’ll be going to venues and feeling like it’s a part of their scene, like Nashville and these other cities."
Though his ambitions for the Fest are modest in year one -- essentially, prove the all-local concept is a solid and practical one for Philly, and make sure all the artists get paid -- Seltzer hopes that once established, the fest can add additional venues and nationally recognized acts in years to come. "My goal and vision would be that this thing culminates at the Mann [Center]," he says of his future plans, "with the War on Drugs or whoever is the biggest act we have playing the main stage."
Ahead of the festival this weekend, Billboard talked with Seltzer about his Philly roots, why he thinks the time is right for an all-Philly fest, and the challenges that such a festival faces in its inaugural year.
Why don’t you start by talking about the genesis of the festival -- how the inspiration came about, and the first couple pieces that fell into place for it?
The genesis of the festival was just the lifelong passion for music and wanting to get involved in promoting the local music scene, as simple a kernel as that. If you look back five or six years with the breakout of War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, Kurt Vile, even Clap Your Hands Say Yeah way back before that, and it was kind of like — the question I posed to myself was, “Do we have a music scene in Philly that should or might be garnering national attention?”
And then I just dove in, and what really blew me away was the depth that we have. Yeah, now we have the aforementioned acts, but now we have Strand of Oaks and Waxahatchee and Sheer Mag; we have Japanese Breakfast, and we have these bands that are coming up. But what intrigued me was the depth of the mid-tier and smaller bands that are behind that. So this might be a longwinded answer, but I started thinking to myself, “What is going on here? I’m not seeing other cities in the country becoming music hubs. It’s just the typical Chicago, Nashville, L.A, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle, but why is Philly jumping into the ring?"
Being a lawyer and a business student, I naturally took a little bit of a different approach, and I started looking at residential real estate prices. And I started looking at commercial real estate pricing compared to the rest of the country. And I started looking at the public radio stations that we have: WXPN, Drexel has a station, WRTI at Temple, Penn has a student radio station... and we have an excellent circuit of small independent venues that can put local music acts on Monday through Friday.
And then, really importantly, you have studios popping up. We never really had a local studio culture in Philly. And now you have people actually being able to make records. They don’t have to run up to Brooklyn. They’re making really high-quality records in Philly, and you have labels like Lame-O Records that does the Modern Baseball stuff and the side projects... And that’s because they could afford space now. And you have a local radio station dedicated to championing this local music. So I kind of looked at that and I was like, “Wow, there may be the trappings here of an actual growth in our music scene.” And then what I said to myself was, again, back to the beginning, “How can I help?”
So the mission I had was, let’s put on a music festival, a nonprofit music festival. Let’s generate a bunch of profits and proceeds, and let’s get the money to two places. One is into the musicians’ pockets, because that’s where it needs to go. So we’re paying a really nice wage to everyone playing the festival. And then the second thing is, let’s take the proceeds and funnel that to music education, charitable organizations like LiveConnections, Settlement Music School, even art programs like Mural Arts, and let’s ingrain in middle school kids and high school kids that music is part of the fabric of Philadelphia. Because it once was.
Is this something that you have experience with doing? Have you put together festivals or big-scale events like this before, that you can kind of look to for an example of how to do something like this?
I have not produced a festival or curated a festival before. But I do some legal work in the music industry. I [have] represented Jay Sweet of the Newport Folk Festival for nine years now, and his work. He books Pilgrimage, which is next weekend in Nashville. So I do Jay Sweet’s legal work, and a consequence of that is I’ve been around Newport Folk for nine years. I’ve been backstage for nine years, and more importantly, I’ve interacted with Jay in his planning. And he is as good, in my opinion -- and I go to a lot of festivals -- he is as good of an executive producer as we have in this country right now... So to be honest with you, I’ve learned a lot from watching him.
To your knowledge, has anyone attempted something like this before in Philadelphia? Is there a precedent you can look toward and see what they did well and what could’ve worked better?
A couple people -- I met with Dan Deluca from the Philadelphia Inquirer and some other folks around town, and they said, “Yeah, there was something in the ‘90s..." But it was not a nonprofit, and they were not paying the musicians very well. It was not focused on Philly music. The attempt was a mini South by Southwest in Philly, that had some music conferences... But I think it lasted like three years and it didn’t really work.
But [as far as I know], this is the first attempt at a full-scale, only-Philly music, the largest scale of one city’s bands coming together. And you can fact-check this much better than I could, but I’ve been told by a few folks that they think it’s one of the largest gatherings of one city’s bands over a weekend. There’s not many music festivals that have 26 bands over two days, that only focus on one city’s music.
Why do you think that is?
Well, there’s only, I would say, half a dozen music scenes in the country that have the depth to put that on. We have a couple bands that are on their first EP, that are really not generally touring yet, but everyone on our slate has experience touring nationally, either as an opener or as a headliner. So these bands are legit bands. This isn’t just like putting a bunch of bar bands together. Could you do this in Chicago? Absolutely. Seattle? Yeah. Portland, Oregon? Probably, I don’t know if you’d get that deep. New York, clearly. Nashville is a yes. Austin is a yes. But the point is that Philly is now jumping up, in my opinion.
It’s one of the majors.
Yeah, and you know as well as I do that it wasn’t before, and something’s brewing. And there’s been some people writing some articles about it, like, “What’s going on?” And my thesis is, as I said in the outset, a bunch of these factors coming together, and it’s resulting in a little scene brewing.... A lot of the scenes that we’re talking about have a sound, and the interesting thing about Philly is it hasn’t really locked in on “What’s the Philly sound?” It’s still pretty diverse. Son Little is R&B. We have rap and hip-hop, Lil Uzi Vert. Soul, we have that. We have really strong indie rock. We have really, really strong female-fronted indie rock in Philly. Is that our sound? I have no idea, but it’s interesting to kind of monitor it and see what kind of a Philly sound from this era is gonna be.
You said most of the artists on the lineup come from your personal taste. Are you pretty plugged into the live scene and the indie rock scene in the city?
Yeah. I’m not gonna say I’m as plugged in as anyone, but I’m going to shows, I’m plugged in. But I did gravitate away from my tastes a bit, and the goal of the lineup curation was to have it mirror or have it be a microcosm of the Philly scene.
And the list is incredible, of the bands that we have coming up in Philly. And like I said, I’m sure there are other cities that have several hundred bands. But someone said to me, “What about next year? Are you thinking about next year?” Because this person knows me well and knows that I’m already planning next year. And they said, “You think any of these bands from 2017 will play 2018?” And the look on my face apparently was like, “No! Of course not! Why would any of these…?” And they were like, “Well you gotta get 25 new bands.” I’m like, “I could plan this thing for five years and not have one repeat.”
You said the hope is that if this year goes well, you can kind of bump up the headliners. A lot of the bands this year might be locally well known, but they’re not quite national names for the most part. Is the hope that next year, you can get kind of a War on Drugs or Modern Baseball-type band, on that level of national renown?
Yeah, absolutely. We didn’t have a negative response from a single act. Girlpool wanted to play. Sheer Mag is on the West Coast. Waxahatchee and the Districts would’ve played; they’re in Europe. Everyone was kind of a “yes,” and it wasn’t a money thing. It was more of a scheduling thing. So yeah, we’re gonna have those folks, in terms of like Kurt Vile, War on Drugs, Dr. Dog, Hop Along -- we’re gonna have those, but we need to prove the concept in year one. Because when you go out to these bands and you pitch them this concept, I don’t blame them. They’re initially skeptical.
But these people are on the road, probably getting screwed in every city that they go to. They’re getting screwed by labels, they’re getting screwed by big touring companies. So we’ve got to prove to them this year that we’re legit, that we executed on this festival. Every single artist got paid; we already have the cash in hand to pay the artists on Friday and Saturday... And once we prove it to them this year, then yeah, next year when we go back out to Kurt Vile, he’ll be like, “Yeah man, I heard that was a great time. I’ll definitely do that.” So I think we’ll step up in year two.