| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter RSS Feed


How to Make It in Philly As a Musician

Who would have figured we'd have the Schuylkill River to thank for depth of musical talent in Philadelphia. The Schuylkill provides millions of gallons of water to the city. And according to Philadelphia music producer and engineer Phil Nicolo, the state of music in Philadelphia is as vibrant as ever thanks to the water. "I don't know; it must be in the water," he says when asked to explain the bevy of musical talent in Philly.

Nicolo should know. He's been making it in Philly as a music industry professional for 35 years. Nicolo, who along with his brother Joe and Chris Schwartz founded Ruffhouse Records in 1989, recently wrapped a year-and-a-half stint as tour manager for Lauryn Hill and says building a career in music these days isn't easy. "But it's never been," he says. "To make it today, in Philadelphia or any place, you have to be a 360 degree person."

A 360 degree person? Yes. You need a niche. It's not good enough to be simply a musician if you want to find success. You have to be your own producer, booking agent, PR and marketing agency, he says. "You need to think beyond just making or performing music. You need to recognize the market and feed it what it likes."

Tangled Up in Knotz
Urban music performer Kuf Knotz sips from an unlabeled bottle of water. He's 10 days into a "cleansing," during which he has been consuming only water enhanced with occasional fruit and vegetable juice. For Kuf it's not just a physical catharsis but a spiritual rebooting.

"It's about balance," he explains. "There's no single path to success. You need a degree of balance in your life in order to see the right way to go in your career."

Kuf has been making it in Philly since about 1995 and knows well the difficulty of making a career in music. During his career Kuf has been in several groups that for a variety of reasons just didn't work out. But he has continued to stay focused and has been willing to "redefine" himself, as he puts it. His efforts have paid off. He is currently a successful solo artist signed with Drexel University's novel Mad Dragon Records, a record company founded at Drexel University in 2004 and run exclusively by students. His album "BoomBox Logic" was released last October to solid reviews.

Once per month, Kuf hosts 'Boom Box Collective' at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. Shows are held on Wednesday and are always all ages. Musicians, visual artists, and craftspeople like jewelers are welcome. "It's for any artist who wishes to share their talents," he says. Kuf does the booking and encourages those interested in coming or participating to email him via his website.

Kuf's Keys to Success
Kuf unabashedly points to spirituality as a key element of his success. Growing up in Bryn Mar, Kuf developed his spiritual qualities from his gospel-singing grandmother. He explains that he has been influenced by the positive message of gospel, and applies the spirit of gospel into his life and music. He prays every day and before every performance. On the occasion when he's strayed from his routine, it has affected his performance, he admits.

"For me, spirituality is important in order to connect with the audience. And when I'm out of the element, it's harder to bring the audience into the music."

While important for any artist interested in making a career in music he says, spiritual sensibility is only one element in a host of good habits needed to have a chance of making it.

"You need a drive and a fire; hard work, dedication and a tremendous amount of self-confidence. And mostly importantly, an openness to redefine yourself," he says. Kuf explains that it's easy to get caught up in having do things a certain way. You need to be willing and able to step outside yourself and willing to change.

"Don't get caught up in what to do next. You'll bump your head a few times, but you'll learn from that. Let it flow. With time and experience you'll get a sense of what's next. But you must be strong and clear on your brand."

Branding is perhaps the hardest thing to develop in any industry. And it's especially challenging for artists who are so intimately connected to their product. So what does Kuf suggest to help develop that all-important branding that leads to success?

Kuf's Tips
- A lot of writing: "Write as much as you can and be willing to be self-critical."
- Play and practice as much as possible: "You have to get it down tight to create a solid product."
- Record your top 4 to 5 songs as a promotional EP: "Make an EP of your best stuff. Get it around to as many people as possible and post it online."
- Do your homework: "Research the kinds of venues at which you'd like to perform with a focus on your branding. Support other artists and get to as many shows as possible."
- Use the Internet and social media as much as possible: "The Internet has become an essential platform to market yourself and support your brand. I recommend Band Camp, Reverb Nation, and Sound Cloud as good places to post your stuff."
- "Drink lots of water," Kuf smiles.

Five Times a Lady
One might begin to believe that Nicolo's water quip has some legitimacy, as Lady's Kate Foust sits after a recent performance at the North Star Bar with a green water bottle. "I'm a singer. I have to stay hydrated," she says. "I have a bottle that I take with me everywhere."
Foust, a 2011 graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia, is the lead singer and main songwriter. She is among five recent performing arts grads that comprise Lady -- Jim Scanlan, bass; Ryan Belski, guitar; Liz Zook, violin and vocals; and JP Dudas, drums. Lady's sound is sophisticated -- almost avant-garde -- but with a uniquely American edginess. Sorta Julie London meets Blondie.

Foust grew up in Lancaster County but now calls Philadelphia home. She and Lady are doing their thing to make it in Philly. Last year, Lady signed with the Philly-based Ropeadope Records and are currently working on an album that will be released later this year.
Foust was first introduced to music by her drummer father and recalls Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" as the seminal track that fueled her passion to write and perform music.

"I grew up around music, but it was Robert Plant's voice that really attracted me. Even as a child, I knew I had to pursue music."
Foust started writing songs when she was about the age of seven or eight. She says she had no choice but to focus on making it in music and knew she was on the right track when her musically-discerning father began complementing her work. As a songwriter and performer, Foust says she channels her inner child as an important influencing element to her and Lady's success. To Foust, childhood itself is a metaphor for the creative process.

"I recall the sheer joy of the creative process as kids do. It was a place of incandescent happiness. And it's feeling that inspires me when I write and perform."

But all the inspiration notwithstanding, Kate says without the support of friends and family it would be hard for any musician to make it. She points to a combination of sheer talent and camaraderie among other Philly performers as something that differentiates Philadelphia from other music scenes.

"From my experience Philadelphia just has better musicianship," she explains. "The Philly music scene is great. We all know and support each other. Philly has a lot of different styles; and even though we're all very different, we get along and support each other."

Like Kuf, the more esoteric qualities of success are important factors to Foust and Lady. But what's Foust's take on the more gritty aspects of forging a path to success? For her, it's all about avoiding the ostentation of the norm in lieu of an authentic and sincere performance on stage.

Foust's Keys to Success
"To me, the indy scene tends to be trendy -- too hip and not enough substance. It's the live show, the performance that's most important. It's where it's at, especially in the age of the Internet," she says. Although Kate admits that having an Internet presence is more important than ever, too many groups rely on their seemingly manufactured Internet personas and social media to kick-start their careers.

"You need to draw the audience in. They need to be there with you," she explains. "Online presence is important, but avoid the formula. You need to develop yourself more naturally. That's why my goal is to draw attention on stage. Give them something they can't say no to."

Foust's Tips
- Get tight and practice: "You've got to be dedicated to practice. Take the time you need to get it tight."
- Market yourself: "Get out there. Play wherever they'll have you and give the audience something special."
- Network: "Connect and network with as many like-minded bands and artists as possible."
- Build a fan base: "Play with bands that have a natural draw and connect with them. Offer to open up and bring a crowd. You'll find that the response will be reciprocal."

Kuf and Foust's Top Recommended Clubs for Bands and Audiences:
World Cafe Live, Johnny Brenda's, The Fire, The Blockly.

Back in his Conshohocken studio, Nicolo tries to reduce the Philly scene into a definable musical singularity. Borrowing a theory passed to him from Philly legend John Oates, he says that Philadelphia is the most northern US city where the colonial past met the southern black experience. And that amalgamation of style and sensibility is what makes Philly music and its scene unique.
But then again, maybe it's just in the water.

MARK I. McNUTT is a longtime area musician, filmmaker and journalist. Send feedback here.


Kate Foust with the band Lady

Kuf Knotz

Phil Nicolo at Studio 4


The board at Studio 4

All photographs by JEFF FUSCO

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts