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Live from an empty club, the all-star Philly Music Fest changes things up for 2020

This year's Philly Music Festival will be live-streamed, with bands like Japanese Breakfast and the Districts playing onstage at a Main Line club.

Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast will be one of the headliners of this month's Philly Music Festival, which we be live streamed from Ardmore Music Hall.
Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast will be one of the headliners of this month's Philly Music Festival, which we be live streamed from Ardmore Music Hall.Read moreJackie Lee Young

This year’s Philly Music Festival is going virtual.

Since 2017, the fest founded by Philadelphia lawyer and music scene booster Greg Seltzer has presented local bands in indie venues across the city to raise money for music education.

This 2020 fest retains that concept but will take place in just one venue, without fans, while also aiming to provide financial assistance to local musicians put out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.

The PMF is scheduled for Sept. 24 and 25 at Ardmore Music Hall, with a lineup that includes Japanese Breakfast, the Districts, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arnetta Johnson, Mt. Joy, Langhorne Slim, Arthur Thomas and the Funkitorium, and Zeek Burse.

The performances will be broadcast on WXPN-FM (88.5) and livestreamed free on NPR Music, YouTube, and the festival website at

Each night, two of the bands will play live sets from the stage of the Main Line music club.

On opening night, the headliner is Japanese Breakfast, the Philly band that is the creation of singer-guitarist-author Michelle Zauner. (The Bryn Mawr alum’s memoir, Crying In H Mart, is being published by Knopf next year.)


Also performing live that evening will be the Districts, out of Lititz, Pa. The pandemic has prevented the quartet from touring behind their prophetically titled fourth album You Know I’m Not Going Anywhere, which came out in March.

The other bands on the bill that Thursday night — Camden trumpeter Arnetta Johnson and Philly singer Zeek Burse — will be streaming recorded performances, aired before and between the live sets so the room can be cleared and cleaned in accordance with safety protocols.

On the fest’s second night, Langhorne Slim, a.k.a. Bucks County native Sean Scolnick, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, fronted by Philly songwriter Alec Ounsworth, will be the two bands performing in the flesh in Ardmore.

Montgomery County native indie-pop duo Mt. Joy and West Philly band Arthur Thomas and the Funkitorium will be represented with recorded streams, as will Johnson, a rising jazz star who has played with Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe.

Seltzer, an attorney for Center City firm Ballard Spahr, said last year’s nonprofit PMF — which ran for four nights at World Cafe Live, MilkBoy Philly, and Johnny Brenda’s — raised $40,000 through ticket and merchandise sales for music-education organizations like Girls Rock Philly, Rock to the Future, and Settlement Music School.

Earlier this year, Seltzer launched a micro-grant program that distributed 334 grants of $250 to musicians and venue workers in Philadelphia with money that came from corporate and charitable donors, as well as out of his own pocket.

COVID-19 nearly convinced Seltzer that the PMF would have to take the year off, particularly since he was intent on presenting bands playing live, rather than airing recorded performances, as many virtual festivals have been doing. “To me, livestream means live. I’m a fan of live music. I don’t want to watch a video. I could do that on YouTube.”

Ardmore Music Hall owner Chris Perella convinced Seltzer it could work, since the club is already set up to present high-quality live performances with a state-of-the art tech setup installed by live audio and video music company

The Philly Music Fest shows will be free to stream or listen to, but Seltzer has a goal of raising between $30,000 to $45,000 for music education and $15,000 for micro-grants through sponsorships and a virtual tip jar.

(The tips won’t go to the bands, who will be paid their going rate for their services, but will be donations to the PMF. Musicians can apply for micro-grants on the website.)

WXPN has had a relationship with the PMF since the start of the festival, which used World Cafe Live as its home base its first three years.

“The PMF does a fantastic job of supporting local music and raising money — and awareness — for other nonprofits,” says XPN program director Bruce Warren. “Every year, we’ve increased our involvement with it incrementally. And if you look at the lineup, and the diverse group of artists that WXPN covers locally, there’s a lot of overlap. In fact this year, there’s 100% overlap.”

As the pandemic drags on, Seltzer says, “I think it’s important to keep the Philly music community together and have people gather — even separately — watching and listening to Philly bands. I think it’s important for people to have an experience that provides the connective tissue for the music scene.”

And it’s also important to ensure that a music scene will exist in the future, Seltzer says.

“The real mission is raising money for kids’ music education. Michelle from Japanese Breakfast, Robby Grote from the Districts, Langhorne Slim: They got a music education at a young age. And now, years later, they’re the headliners at a music festival. If we don’t replenish music education and keep it going, we’re not going to have any headliners in 15 years.”