- On the air: Sara Pecora hosts the Local Show at WPTS 92.1 FM
Every year, plenty of local musicians surmise that their paths to fame lie squarely down the middle of the road. If only we could sound identical to what's popular now, goes the logic, there's no reason we can't be just as successful.
In recent years, however, our cultural exports have come from Pittsburgh's fringes. We haven't had a Christina Aguilera in quite a while -- we've had Girl Talk instead. (Our Music Guide features a look at some of what sets the local scene apart: a heads-up on shows coming to town in the next few months; a tour of local record bins with noted DJ BusCrates; a look at how artist Jeff Schreckengost assembles his one-of-a-kind guitars; a quick scan of what some local figures have on their MP3 players, and a look at how one local bar is handling the perils of paying for music rights.)
The path from the local underground to a more widespread audience is different for every musician, but it always starts somewhere -- a university campus, perhaps a DIY venue or simply the streets.
One emerging tastemaker is 20-year-old Sara Pecora, a University of Pittsburgh sophomore who runs the weekly Local Show on campus station WPTS 92.1 FM. Her show, broadcast Wednesday nights from 7 to 9 p.m., offers a mix of carefully reviewed and screened local music, both brand-new and from the recent past. She also interviews local bands on-air, like Boca Chica, Good Night, States and most recently, Colonizing the Cosmos.
Pecora, who commutes from Mars, Pa., first got involved with WPTS through a student activities fair.
"When I realized no one was running local music at WPTS, I immediately picked it up," she says. Since then, she's also landed an internship at independent radio station WYEP 91.3 FM, where she says working with women DJs like Cindy Howes and Rosemary Welsh has inspired her to pursue a radio career after college.
Not bad for someone who, just four years ago, had never even been to a local-music performance. After happening to catch garage-rockers The Resistors, Pecora started attending local shows wherever an under-21 could -- cafés, Borders bookstores, even a railway-history museum -- and usually on her own. "It was pretty much just my thing," she says.
But no matter where she goes, "it's a lot of older people," she says -- mid-20s and up. "College kids don't really know the local scene." For people who come to Pittsburgh just for college, the local scene can seem irrelevant -- something of interest only to townies.
When she goes to see bigger national acts perform, Pecora says, she talks to others in the line: "If a local is opening, they won't know" who they are -- or why they should care. And they're missing out, Pecora says, on groups that they can see repeatedly, developing relationships with the music and the people, instead of seeing them infrequently and from afar.
"The people are so nice," she says of the local scene. "College kids should realize these people are approachable."
If Pecora sees a disconnect between college students and local music, "the best solution to that is networking" by the bands themselves, says musician Maxwell Bulger, 25, of The Otis Wolves. But it also depends on where you look. The indie-pop acts that Pecora favors, like Meeting of Important People, are often found in bars, which exclude many college kids. The local DIY scene, says Bulger, is perhaps more accessible to the Oakland masses.
Case in point: The un-venue Bulger helps book, known as 222 Ormsby, recently celebrated its second anniversary. A flyer for an upcoming show advises, "Get here on the 54C." The Mount Oliver residence, which includes a section that was previously a grocery store, hosts donation-based underground shows and can accommodate about 250 people, "but we usually stop around 100 or 150," he says.
A native of Crafton, Bulger has been active with other house venues in the past, but he and 222 Ormsby co-founder Karim Akacem "really have a unique setup." If you live in one of the six bedrooms upstairs, you help out with the shows in some way. The residents also handle promotion, whether the bands are local or from as far away as London or New Zealand.
"We knew we wanted to change the music scene" in Pittsburgh, Bulger says -- and in more than one way. The first step, he says, was to provide another opportunity to see and play music outside the main hubs in the East End and South Side. The second was more of an aesthetic goal: pushing underground rock and punk "party music," as opposed to the hardcore and metal he saw as predominant around town.
The Ormsby venture has succeeded, he says, mainly through word-of-mouth and through a growing network of friends.
"We're real proud to be a community" rather than a business, Bulger says. That means also throwing dance parties and hosting friends' birthday parties. "The whole music industry has really changed to be more do-it-yourself," he adds. "You don't have to be a venue to be a venue."
Word-of-mouth and doing it yourself are things Boaz knows plenty about. The emcee started getting involved with the local hip-hop scene in the late '90s, and his crew Tha Govament began building a street-level buzz around 2003. Since then, along with Wiz Khalifa and fellow Govament member S. Money, Boaz has become one of the more prominent figures on the scene, with the confident, measured flow of one who's seen it all before.
Business-wise, Boaz says, "We've been getting access to the tools we've needed" -- local labels have been stepping up their game, with better publicity efforts. Such developments will continue to energize the local scene, he hopes: In Pittsburgh, "hip hop hasn't really had an opportunity to explode yet."
Last year was a busy one for Boaz -- his epic studio album The Audio Biography landed him in some big hip-hop mags -- and 2010 holds plenty of promise. His new mixtape Selling a Dream came out March 11, and he's already planning "at least two more mixtapes and an official album" by the end of the year.
"You don't work, you don't eat, but when you're doing what you like to do it's actually easy," says Boaz. "It's been a tough road, but things are beginning to pay off for us."
When he's not in the studio or performing, you might catch the Lawrenceville resident checking out a hip-hop show at the Shadow Lounge or the Strip District's clubs.
"The music scene's actually growing in Pittsburgh: There's always something going on out there," he says, reeling off a Who's Who of area emcees and producers that includes everyone from Kev tha Hustla to hip-hop live band Formula412 to producers like Juliano and E. Dan. (Just don't ask him for an opinion on, say, local rock. In Pittsburgh, "I just haven't heard much good stuff other than rap," he says.)
From his vantage point, Boaz would like to see more live performance in town, and "more support from locals for locals." And, as you might expect, he'd like to see "harder work out of everybody who wants to be an artist coming out of Pittsburgh.
"The town just needs exposure, that's all," Boaz says. "We need to come together and do what we can for the music scene."