That’s a line spoken by Marv, Mickey Rourke’s character from the 2005 film Sin City. I think about that line all the time. It’s a pretty accurate description of journalism in general, though less so in the second part of the quote, “Sometimes I ask pretty hard,” which is a reference to him duking people in their noggins. I ask pretty hard too sometimes, but never that hard.
On the lighter side of the asking-scale is this survey I sent out to more than 10 musicians, producers, promoters and label people about the state of music in Pittsburgh and how they’d like to see it improve.
As someone who writes about music regularly and manages some of CP’s social media, I’ve been enlightened to some of our audience’s opinions on the music section. But for this, I was more interested in a “horse’s mouth” deal.
This is not an exhaustive list. There are people I missed, and some who didn’t get back to me (if I get any late submissions, I will add them). It is not a perfect list. There will surely be musicians and readers disappointed in certain omissions. But the answers from the respondents are not meant to be the end of this discussion; they’re simply the opinions of the people reached in this survey at this moment in time.
Answers were delivered by email, so they’re lightly edited for clarity.
Question 1: How would you describe the state of the music scene in Pittsburgh as of April 2017?
“Exactly as I would [say] at any point of my Pittsburgh lifetime. There truly is and always has been something for everyone. There are ass-kicking representatives from every existing genre, and bands/artists creatively bending genres everywhere. Pittsburghers, if you cannot find what you’re looking for right here, then open your eyes. It’s all here, right under your noses, I promise.” — Mary Bielich, musician, Behind Enemy Lines
“I would describe the music scene in Pittsburgh as up and coming, the stars before us laid down a good blueprint, but everybody has to use their format to make their own way.” — Choo Jackson, artist
“I’m constantly inspired by the ever-growing community of women, femme and queer artists and producers giving birth to such great music here. I’m excited by Pittsburgh’s variety of accessible music programming — a newly formed femme DJ collective (gFx); a recently released collection of electronic instruments available for checkout at the Carnegie Library; a volunteer-run Girls Rock! chapter that has filled to capacity for five consecutive years; a punk and hardcore festival that attracts bands from various continents; and a free monthly modular synthesizer playground every month, just to name a few. I hope this energy keeps building and moving in a positive direction.” — Madeleine Campbell, recording engineer, founder of Accessible Recording
“It’s hard to describe really. I feel like it has its ups and downs, right now probably more on a down. Overall, local and national acts alike, it’s been a little difficult connecting music fans to new developing acts when it comes to live shows. We have a ton of local bands but it doesn’t feel as strong as it was two or three years ago.” — Josh Bakaitus, brand manager at Mr. Smalls
“My immediate reaction when people ask me about Pittsburgh is: talent per capita. There is an abundance of talent here. In a way, too much, because there isn’t an infrastructure to support so many great acts — not enough venues, labels, radio stations, paying audience.” — Dario Miceli, founder of DME, locally-based artist management, consulting and booking firm
“The music scene in Pittsburgh has always been full of potential. There’s always been talent here. While there isn’t a specific sound that people would associate with Pittsburgh, there is definitely potential for artists to tune their craft and develop their sound. It’s definitely a work in progress but I feel we are closer than ever to surpassing the heights reached by previous Pittsburgh success stories.” — Jordan Montgomery, artist
“Excellent. There is a great live music community in the city, and Pittsburgh acts are getting plenty of attention from press outlets inside and outside of the city, for good reasons. The press is doing a great job of representing our wide variety of acts. C’mon, what other city in the U.S. has a major newspaper dedicate a full feature on the front page of their Sunday edition to their city’s hip-hop community?” — Edward Banchs, author of Heavy Metal Africa
“I think the state of the Pittsburgh music scene is pretty good. There are a lot of good people creating good music. As far as the ‘scene’ half of ‘music scene,’ I think there are also good people trying to uplift and build a diverse and inclusive community, but I think that side is where more of the struggle lies. No matter how livable they say Pittsburgh is, I think a lot of musicians are still struggling just to make ends meet, let alone write songs, play shows, and play support[ing] roles in the scene.” — Swampwalk, artist
“I think it’s OK, not great — just OK. For me, most of my music sales come from outside of the city, and I didn’t necessarily design it that way. From an urban perspective, Pittsburgh has played a nice role in the evolution and growth of the genre, but I can’t really think of one person in the urban genre that made a strong name in the city. People tend to have to leave, build their name, and come back.
What I’m seeing though, is a few more shows around town where local artists can get on a stage and perform. I like seeing that. For me, as a producer, there aren’t many options here though. I’d love to work with a singer or two here in the city, but it’s actually easier in my opinion to market your production skills outside of the city. I get a much better response from artists outside of Pittsburgh — and coincidentally, I get much better response from artists outside of the country than I do in the US.” — Claye Greene, producer
Question 2: What is the hardest part of being a musician/working in music in Pittsburgh?
“The hardest part of being a musician for me in Pittsburgh (and in general!) is being wary of accepting shows when it feels like my act was asked to play as a token queer person. While it’s awesome to get asked to play shows, I am skeptical of intention when the rest of the bill is full of straight white men. Ideally, I would like to trust that my music and my musicianship are the sole reasons I get asked to play gigs, but as a queer woman, my experiences being tokenized have led me to navigate carefully and with a certain degree of distrust.
It can and has felt empowering to play shows with folks who are mostly not cis, straight white men. Coming together as a community to boost the voices of those who are so often unheard can feel indescribably magical! At the same time, it’s difficult to find a balance. Playing these shows can feel like we’re preventing diversity from reaching the white, cis male boy band club. It’s not the job of marginalized folks to force diversity on those who refuse, either consciously or unconsciously, to bring it to their shows. But I sometimes worry that creating shows specifically for women, queer, trans, POC folks allows white boy bands to continue to leave marginalized voices out of their shows because we have ‘our own’ showcases. Like I said, it’s a hard balance.” — AllegrA, artist
“I understand why stores assume a locally based record label wouldn’t have a distribution deal, but we do, and in order to stay on our distributor’s good side, I try my best to get stores to call their sales reps for titles and steer them away from offers of consignment deals.” – Jeff Betten, general manager, Misra Records
“Lack of a sizable, ambitious, informed and curious audience that’s willing to pay to experience something new. It’s hard to be different and creative without scaring off people. Also a lack of support. It’s hard to rent a venue, pay everyone that needs to be paid, advertise and incur all the other necessary costs to produce an event when you can only pull 75 people and no one will pay more than $10 for a show.” — Dario Miceli
“The hardest part of being an artist in Pittsburgh is the divide within the culture. There isn’t one specific venue or hub where someone from out of town can go and find new talent in the city. You have people doing their thing in small venues around town, but the lack of cohesion within the artist community is what is holding Pittsburgh back culturally. At some point artists who are looking for something more than local success will have to venture outside of their hometown to other markets to expand their reach.” — Jordan Montgomery
“Finding new places to play and expanding your audience, the internet is great for promoting, but it seems that it mostly reaches the people that you already know, leaving out a lot of music goers that might dig a chance to see something different.” — DK Anderson, artist
“If anything, Pittsburgh musicians are spoiled by the resources that surround them; plenty of venues, music stores and a fairly positive community of musicians that are extremely supportive of each other’s ambitions. Seriously, I have been to plenty of other places, and embedded myself with other ‘local’ scenes, Pittsburghers have nothing to complain about!” —Edward Banchs
Question 3: What’s a concrete change you’d like to see happen in Pittsburgh’s scene in the coming years? (change to entertainment tax, shift in media coverage, etc.)
“Ideally, I would love to eradicate shows that are ‘pay-to-play.’ Pay-to-play is when promoters offer bands a certain percentage or dollar amount per ticket they sell for their show. What I really dislike about these types of shows is that they clearly prioritize the financial aspects of shows over the love of the music. Promoters that use the pay-to-play model profit off of the hard work of talented musicians and they often have only the best interest of the business in mind. I love to play gigs because they’re great media through which I can share my feelings using more than words. Pay-to-play shows obscure this goal in a lot of ways.” — AllegrA
“I want to see a venue in Oakland. When I say, ‘want,’ I mean there NEEDS to be a venue in Oakland. That’s where the kids are! That’s where the majority of the target consumer is. There are existing venues with production, promotion, booking, etc., operations in existence already. It’s not a matter if we can do it, but more so when. I would also like to see some DIY-focused artists expand their reach to actual venues around the greater Pittsburgh area. You can always book a show in your buddy’s house, but why not share that talent more publicly, and get paid because you deserve it.” — Connor Murray, founder of Crafted Sounds label
“The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership keeps funding all these studies in regards to live music that never lead anywhere, but the one thing they’ve yet to try is listening to Justin Strong’s idea of seeding a handful of 200-300 capacity venues along Fifth Avenue. They’re going to waste $5 million if it’s spent on just another marketing campaign under the guise of some New York Times articles; they might as well give that $5 million to some entrepreneurs and create some real jobs in the process.” — Jeff Betten
“I would like there to be more media coverage on up-and-coming artists, like how New York City would cover their artist in Time magazine, or like a bigger venue circuit. More support from the fans in the city, I feel like they are afraid to grasp onto their fav artists, like Wiz or Mac, instead of having to go out of the city to get known, let the city make them known from the start.” — Choo Jackson
“Personally I’d love to see more enthusiasm from the local music scene from both concert-goers and musicians. Bands should be challenging themselves and their potential fans more by always creating new and unique art, in an effort to engage fans.” — Josh Bakaitus
“A change I would love to see in the Pittsburgh music scene is more of an investment in harvesting talent in the city. In cities with more of a market for music, artists can get more paying gigs and collaborate with artists of all disciplines. I also think we need to get rid of this pay-to-play monopoly that local promoters have over the scene here. Pittsburgh needs to show more appreciation for its local talent but they before big stars.” — Jordan Montgomery
“This is a question I’m going to leave alone for one reason: I feel that this city is at all-time high in its music scene. I cut my teeth in the late ’90s here and found that musicians were surrounded by cynicism and full-fledged negativity. I don’t see that anymore. Great question though, but right now, we are where we should be.” — Edward Banchs
“I don’t know, I wish capitalism would be dismantled? Is that specific enough? I guess if I had to give a slightly more specific answer, I’d say I’d like to see more transparency from bigger venues/production companies about their business models and pay structures.” — Swampwalk
“To the ‘music lovers’ in our community: Realize that some of the most thriving, supportive ‘scenes’ and greatest artists AREN’T covered by the conventional Pittsburgh staple sources. Know that some of the best bands/artists that you will see are playing the $5 and $8 shows at the smaller venues, in basements and community spaces. Refrain from judging the worth of artists by their ticket prices. Move beyond the archaic, inaccurate assumption that ‘local bands’ aren’t internationally admired and recognized. Know and respect that the bands/artists right up the street from you are making waves all over the world, touring internationally and releasing music left and right, and are NOT necessarily the ones you may find featured in the entertainment section of your paper or flying across your social-media newsfeed. Check out what you have going on right in your neighborhood, in your city. You’re gonna love it!” — Mary Bielich
“I’d like more all-ages venues and earlier shows that are conducive the parents and youth. I’d like to see local artists who are supporting touring acts on their Pittsburgh stops get paid more. Too many of my friends have been paid $50 or less to open for an act that got a guaranteed $1000 or more. ‘Exposure’ doesn’t pay the rent and keep food on the table.” — Madeleine Campbell
Question 4: What song/artist/album in Pittsburgh is currently flying under the radar right now?
“You should check out Jack Swing! Isaiah Ross is one of the most incredible musicians I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and jamming with. Don’t sleep on this guy! He’s going places.” — AllegrA
“Jack Stauber put out Pop Food independently last month, and it has got to be one of the best albums to come out of Pittsburgh this year. I hope people start booking him because his live stuff is wild. Check out his Bandcamp, his YouTube … what a guy … so happy I have had the opportunity to get to know and work with him in recent months.” — Connor Murray
“Kiss the Ground by Kayla Schureman is an incredible album, and I won’t be surprised if it’s the last one she releases as a Pittsburgher before Nashville takes notice. Replacement Therapy by Lawn Care is a really great record too — I don’t know if they’ve set a release date for it yet, but keep an eye out for that as well. Let Us Sleep Together by Wwoman, everything that Golden Magnet Collective does, and of course, all the new Wild Kindness acts ought to be checked out. Last but not least, Good Days Never Last Forever by Mars Jackson rocks!” —Jeff Betten
“I always feel like Punchline is under-rated in this city. They’ve accomplished so much, have a large but niche following which is good. But are often looked over as a serious band here, I think.” — Josh Bakaitus
“Anything from C. Scott. He’s so talented and such a smart artist. He’s got the special skill of transcending generations which is one of the hardest barriers to overcome. Also 0h85. He’s the best footwork producer I’ve ever heard (and equally good as a DJ), but there isn’t much of a footwork community in the city. But I believe uptempo genres are about to hit a surge. There’s a lot of it coming from Chicago and Baltimore, and I think we’re going to see it get popular across the country soon.” — Dario Miceli
“There’s always been great talent in Pittsburgh. Some of my favorite local acts are my 1Hood family (Livefromthecity, Idasa Tariq, Jacquae Mae, ELBA, among others) and other acts such as Linwood, Courtesy, Tairey, and many others.” — Jordan Montgomery
“Randall Troy Sieman is one of the greatest blues guitarists around.” — DK Anderson
“As a proud metalhead, Pittsburgh is soaring right now with the success of Code Orange. They are earning everything that they have worked for. As for who is next? I feel an artist like Solarburn could be next; excellent instrumental trio. Amazing live band too! Also, Horehound, Greywalker are two excellent local metal acts that have also caught my attention. But seriously, Solarburn is excellent.
And there is this excellent power rock trio called The Shift. Though the band is based out of NYC, their vocalist is local and keeps himself rooted here in the ’Burgh (a friend of mine just had the vocalist as an Uber driver!). They recently had the opportunity of performing in Peru where they had the [top] single in the nation’s rock charts!” —Edward Banchs
“I don’t know that she’s necessarily flying under the radar, but Jacquea Mae’s EP The Makings of Me is so damn good and soulful and Pittsburgh. I’ve plugged it before, and I’m plugging it again, because if you haven’t checked it out ya should.” — Swampwalk
“The BEST songs/artists/albums in Pittsburgh ALWAYS fly under the radar, and always WILL! On my mind today are NIGHT VAPOR, MONOLITH WIELDER, NO TIME, CANT, BLOATED SLUTS, SILENCE, MOLASSES BARGE, HOREHOUND, LADY BEAST, CUMPLETE BASTURDS, HOMISIDES, TAPHOS NOMOS … Um, can I please have a few more pages to finish the list?” — Mary Bielich
“Jenn Gooch is one of the best musicians I know. She fiddles, sings, plays keys, guitar and dances — often juggling many of these at once. When I watch her perform, I’m reminded of the godmothers of rock ’n’ roll, gospel, folk and blues music. Her style is still raw and uniquely her own.
I’m currently really into Junk Food’s newest album Cheap Music. DJ Thermos’ beats are always lush and beautiful. He blends old and new sounds in such a seamless way.” — Madeleine Campbell
“A couple weeks ago I saw a singer named Antoinette perform at Jergels — she was great!” — Claye Greene
“Everybody’s [work]. I feel like everybody could have more listens or views, everybody could help each other out but that’s not the case. The whole city of artists, need it from the community.” — Choo Jackson
Thanks to AllegrA, Dario Miceli, Choo Jackson, DK Anderson, Josh Bakaitus, Mary Bielich, Claye Greene, Madeleine Campbell, Jeff Betten, Jordan Montgomery, Connor Murray and Edward Banchs for contributing.