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SXSW inspires South by South City music festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2013 - Music fans are beginning to fill up the hotels in Austin, Texas, for next week's sprawling South by Southwest festival. Here in St. Louis, the first steps are being taken for what backers hope will be an annual series of concerts inspired by SXSW.

The inaugural South by South City festival kicks off Friday for a three-day “weekend of STL bands, beers, print, record stores & radio,” as the event poster proclaims. Eighteen local bands will play over the three nights at Off Broadway in the Marine Villa neighborhood.

The shows are being put together by venue owner Steve Pohlman, a St. Louis native who returned to the city in the '00s after decades, he says, of walking “the earth like Caine in 'Kung Fu'” – if Caine had been moving around the country running big box retail stores including Target and Best Buy.

This region's rich vein of local musicians gave Pohlman the idea for SXSC.

“Local music is an important part of what we do, either as support for touring bands or to headline shows,” Pohlman says of Off Broadway, the venue/bar on Lemp Avenue that he bought almost seven years ago. “And we feel like the local music scene is doing well; there're lots of good, original bands in town, and we can do shows with local bands and sell the place out, which I think stands for something.

“And there's also a number of good local record labels, like Tower Groove and Big Muddy and Loud Label, recording these bands and giving them an avenue to get their music down professionally, and there's a real cooperative atmosphere between these bands and labels.”

Among the performers during the weekend will be Rum Drum Ramblers and Sleepy Kitty on Friday; Super Hero Killer and Hooten Hallers on Saturday; and Jack Grelle, Ransom Note and Bob Reuter's Alley Ghost on Sunday.

“It's not a big money thing, it's a five dollar ticket to get in,” Pohlman says. “It will be a good introductory event for people who aren't familiar with some of the bands here in town, and at the same time sort of a celebration of the things that are happening in the city in terms of local music.”

Pohlman put together a list of sponsors that reflects the breadth and health of local music and complementary businesses – the “beers, print, record stores & radio” of the festival poster.

Vintage Vinyl, Euclid and Apop represent record stores, while Urban Chestnut, 4 Hands and Schlafly represent nearby microbreweries. Longtime concert sponsor KDHX (88.1 FM) is on board, as is the Riverfront Times weekly and Eleven music magazine. Two St. Louis-based online music blogs, Speakers in Code and I Went to a Show, also are sponsors.

“It's a real community thing in the sense that there's not a lot of money changing hands,” Pohlman says. “Everybody who's involved on the sponsorship level is either doing something that they do – providing press or publicity or playing the show or helping promote the show – or they're gonna let the bands have beer while they're playing the show.

“The cash that's changing hands will be when people pay to get in. All of the money will go to the bands, which I think is something that's good. You know, a lot of festivals locally, when local bands play, they may or may not get paid, and so we wanted to make sure that we structured it in such a way that they get a little bit of money at the end of the night.”

Pohlman told the local record labels of his plans for the festival and asked whether any of their bands would be interested in playing. About 80 percent of the bill was filled that way. The rest came through word of mouth in the music community.

“Obviously, there's a ton more local bands in town that aren't taking part, and so I think it gives us encouragement to do it again next year,” Pohlman says, adding that the level of support this year makes him think it would be possible next year to hold the festival at multiple venues, as is done in Austin for SXSW (which brings together music, film and interactive-media fans and players).

“Assuming people actually come to the show, which I think will happen,” he says. “I suspect we'll do pretty well. We'll probably have a full house each night.”

A full house legally at Off Broadway is 289 people, although anyone who has been to such shows as Ha Ha Tonka in November or Camera Obscura in 2009 knows that elbow room on the main floor can be precious.

Pohlman admits he has no musical talent – his wife and two adult sons sing and play instruments. But he is a lifelong music fan who learned to run a nightspot by doing it.

“I was just stupid enough to think, 'Well, how hard can it be?' I like music, and I like hanging out in bars,” he says, laughing.

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