For 17 years, the museum's 21-and-under battle of the bands has served as a springboard for young Northwest musicians at a pivotal juncture in their lives.

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Two hours before going on stage, Carter Prince is a wreck. The creeping preshow anxiety isn’t new — it kicks in even before his usual gigs playing to “a bunch of drunk people” in University District basements. Tonight, however, there’s more at stake for his band Strawberry Mountain than just soundtracking some underclassmen’s Saturday night.

But once the sprawling psych-rock collective — stripped down to an almost lean six-piece this evening — takes the biggest stage it has ever played at MoPOP’s Sound Off! competition, nerves don’t seem to be a problem. Between their flurry of manic pop melodies and delirious electronic samples, Prince remarks on how weird it is to have so much room on an actual stage — so different from their usual cramped house parties.

“We can’t play bars. We’re used to basements and houses,” the mop-topped 20-year-old says. “We’re squandering it. We should be running around in circles.”

Stage laps or no, their tropical avant-pop tunes impressed the judges of MoPOP staffers, teen members of its Youth Advisory Board and local industry folk enough to advance to the finals Saturday, March 3 in the museum’s Sky Church. Now in its 17th year, the annual 21-and-under battle of the bands has served as a springboard for young Northwest artists like Prince forging their way into the local scene. The competition has given a platform to local luminaries including Sol, Cosmos, Manatee Commune, Dave B and countless others over the years, and Prince — a soon-to-be college dropout ready to chase a career in music — is determined to make the most of it.

“It definitely felt validating,” says Prince days after the semifinals win. “I’ve always felt on the fringes of the Seattle music scene.”

While Strawberry Mountain still has to duke it out with Olympia singer-songwriter Micaiah Sawyer and two other acts on Saturday, that sense of validation is common among past Sound Off! winners. In 2013, gospel-tinged rapper Dave B actually lost in the semifinals before winning the competition as a wild card. Five years (and a lot of grassroots work) later, he spent part of his winter opening for Macklemore in front of thousands of fans. “It helps legitimize you to people,” he says. “People are like ‘Oh, this guy’s not just uploading songs on the internet. … He actually had a platform.’”

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Last year’s winner, and Prince’s former jam buddy, Jason McCue certainly made good on his Sound Off! prize package. After winning slots at Bumbershoot, Timber! and Northwest Folklife festivals (add Upstream to this year’s mix), the singer-songwriter had his impressively woven new concept album, “PANGAEA,” professionally mixed and mastered — not a cheap endeavor, especially for a college student — with the studio time Sound Off! gave him. McCue, who inspired Prince to enter, credits Sound Off! with inching open industry doors for him and making connections with other musicians and local players like KEXP, which is sponsoring his March 9 release show at Washington Hall. Fellow Sound Off! alum Falon Sierra joins him on the bill.

“Sound Off! made me a whole lot of friends,” McCue says. “All of the relationships that Sound Off! allows you to foster, that in itself is worth it to me.”

Days after playing the opening night of this year’s competition, a Sound Off! connection helped Strawberry Mountain land its first show with a touring band Prince admires (psych-pop songsmith Dent May). Win or lose, he’ll check off at least one more bucket list item as all four finalists get to record coveted live performances in KEXP’s studio. “I’ve dreamed of getting a KEXP session my whole life,” Prince says.

As a relative newcomer to Washington, the 21-year-old Sawyer didn’t understand where Sound Off! could take her until she was named one of 12 semifinalists (winnowed down from more than 100 eligible submissions). “I didn’t even know what Bumbershoot was,” the Arizona native admits. “My brothers were like, ‘What?! You could play Bumbershoot?’ I’m like ‘Yeah. That’s cool, right?'”

Should Sawyer emerge from the final four this weekend, it would certainly be a step up from the busking and coffee shop open mics the folk-rock bandleader was relegated to before turning 21. While underage musicians are often left out of Seattle bar gigs, programs like Sound Off!, the Vera Project and STG’s More Music @ the Moore (not to mention the DIY circuit) provide critical artist development opportunities. Robert Rutherford, MoPOP’s public engagement producer, says Sound Off! is part of the “larger cosmology of youth programs” the museum partners in — including Mastering the Hustle workshops and The Residency with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

A Sound Off! win hardly guarantees music industry success (nor does an early exit preclude it). But if nothing else, it’s a nice stepping stone and inspiring experience for young artists at a pivotal juncture in their lives.

“I got offstage and immediately started hugging all my friends and family, who were really proud of me. It was overwhelming,” Sawyer says. “I’ll never forget that feeling.”

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MoPOP’s Sound Off! Finals, 7 p.m. Saturday, March 3; Sky Church at MoPOP, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $5-$14 (mopop.org)