Most of the musicians I know found their incomes slashed, if not eliminated, when the pandemic hit home in 2020. Some were able to cobble together some semblance of a normal career by hosting concerts live on Facebook, but others found themselves in desperate straits.
That was the case for the seven professional musicians who now make up the raucous, joy-filled band called Snacktime Philly. Sousaphone player and Philadelphia public school teacher Sam Gellerstein, who hails from Florida, launched the band—at the time not realizing it might become a going concern—when a friend and co-owner of Mission Taqueria Daniel McLaughlin asked him if he could put together an ensemble to perform at a Friendsgiving. The band later played for an event at Juana Tamale in South Philadelphia. All of this took place pre-Covid.
And then the pandemic hit. Necessity being the mother of invention, Snacktime’s members took to busking in Rittenhouse Square. They weren’t what you would call an instantaneous hit, but in a short time, people came to look forward to hearing Snacktime bring its distinctive combination of R&B, jazz, popular tunes to the park. And soon, Snacktime became a fixture.
As the pandemic eased, Snacktime started playing for indoor and outdoor events—including center court at a Sixers game, and the Philadelphia Flower Show this year and last year. The band is about to release an album, on vinyl and streaming.
Next Wednesday, they’ll bring the party to the Pastorius Park Concert Series.
Trombonist Michael Spearman recently took time for an interview with Chestnut Hill Insider. Here’s what he had to say.
Jeff: Were you in on the ground floor of Snacktime Philly?
Michael: Sam got the band together before the pandemic, and I wasn’t on that gig. And later, he and a couple of other people started busking, in Fishtown, I think. Four or five months after the pandemic started, with no one working, they decided to do another one (open-air concert). He asked me to do it. There were five of us then. The first place we went to was Rittenhouse Square, and people loved it. We saw how much people enjoyed us and how much they loved us. People were just enamored of hearing live music again because they hadn’t heard it in a long time. So, we decided to keep doing it.
Jeff: Were you able to make money early on? Or were you just playing for the joy of it?
Michael: At first, we just put some tip buckets out, and we were making maybe $50 apiece, which is pretty good for busking. And we did it because we didn’t have anything else to do. We’re musicians, and we needed to play, and none of us had any income. But then as we kept going, people got used to seeing us there, and we started attracting more and more people. Then we started making more—like, $100 apiece, maybe $200 apiece. If there was a special event or holiday where everyone was outside, maybe even $250 or $300 apiece. So, we would go there (Rittenhouse Square) sometimes three times a week.
Jeff: At what point did you all discover that Snacktime had become a “thing?”
Michael: Before it became a thing, there was a conscious effort to make it a thing. It was a month or two in, and people were telling us how much they enjoyed it. And we saw what we were doing because we’re all professional musicians. We’d been gigging before this. We all had experience on live stages, in different venues and event spaces. The reactions we were getting were consistently something that I’ve seen only occasionally, or maybe only every other time when I was performing with different bands. The amount of attention and love we were getting told me early on that, oh, this is a good investment. The potential of this band, it’s rare. So that’s when we started investing. We invested in a sign. We started an Instagram. We started growing our set list and getting more tunes in. Snacktime really became a thing after just a few days on Instagram, and we’d already hit 200 followers (now close to 15,000), and it just kept growing.
Jeff: What did you play in the early days, and how has it evolved?
Michael: We had all played weddings, so we used to do R&B and pop, mostly, like a lot of Stevie Wonder, some Rick James, a lot of Michael Jackson, and Prince. And then, some Justin Bieber or some Drake, Natasha Bedingfield. How has it evolved? Right now, we’ve gotten a lot more style in our tunes, and the set list keeps growing.
Jeff: What kinds of performances is the band doing now? Are you still doing the Rittenhouse Square gig?
Michael: I don’t think we’ll ever stop doing Rittenhouse. That’s where everything started. Right now, we’re doing a lot of private events, a lot more corporate. We started by busking in restaurants, but as we progressed, we kept getting requests for higher-paying gigs. And we’re still doing restaurants. We’re doing festivals. Last year, we did the Firefly Festival.
Jeff: What are your influences at this point?
Michael: Even if just one of our members likes a certain type of music, like ‘80s, black music or R&B, we just research them. Even then, we’ll go into Bon Jovi, Snarky Puppy, some New Orleans brass bands, Philadelphia soul. We study all of that. Prince is probably the biggest influence on the band. Everyone loves Prince.
Jeff: What does playing in Snacktime do for you?
Michael: Oh, man, it gives me elation. We’re playing with great musicians when we’re not playing with Snacktime, but there’s something about Snacktime where someone gives a look or moves a hand, and everyone knows exactly where we’re going. We know exactly where we’re ending. Someone can play a little line, maybe just a quick two-second thing, and we know what song we’re going to play, just based on that. Honestly, it’s the band I’ve always dreamed of playing with. It feels amazing.
The concert starts at 7:30 p.m. in the park, a couple of blocks west of Germantown Avenue, at Millman Street. It’s free.