Pittsburgh music industry booms despite obstacles
Okay, Beyonce won't starve because of online music piracy, and Jay-Z won't be sporting wooden "bling" next year at the Grammys because you burned his CD instead of buying it.
But the entire promotions/A&R/management apparatus of the music business has been bleeding for several years, and the vast "middle class" of non-megastar artists gets sliced thinner every year. Plus, a whole generation of consumers just assumes music should be free -- online.
But for Pittsburgh, the music industry's woes aren't much more than thunder in the distance.
"It's our most successful year to date," said Pittsburgh promoter Brendan Pester, who books shows at Mr. Small's Theatre. "It seems like the slump that happened in 2005 didn't happen in 2006. I don't know (why). One theory that I've tossed around -- a lot of our shows target a younger audience. Kids aren't spending as much money on CD's, so they have more income to go see concerts."
Online networking, particularly MySpace, can push a band quite far without much help from the music industry. The album format (on CD) may be slowly dying out in favor of the iPod-friendly single, but it's never been easier to find new music online.
"I think a few years ago when things were on the downslide ... there were a lot of choices of where to spend your entertainment dollars," said veteran music promoter Jon Rinaldo, who works primarily with Club Cafe on the South Side.
"Then, factoring in the war that was going on, the Clear Channel situation (the promotions giant mostly stopped booking local club shows) and insane ticket prices, it was really affecting people's pocketbooks. That seems to have changed. A lot, actually."
Rinaldo is starting to book larger national shows at Diesel, a new South Side nightclub.
"We just sold out (Chris) Daughtry in four minutes," Rinaldo said. "The other shows at Diesel are selling really well. The Club Cafe shows are doing extremely well, we have some interesting artists coming in. I'm pretty optimistic."
It helps that the major venues in Pittsburgh are of very high quality, like Mr. Small's (650 capacity), Club Cafe (150 capacity), the Rex Theatre (550 capacity), and the Shadow Lounge. And Pittsburgh's rock bars -- especially the 31st Street Pub, the Smiling Moose, Gooski's and the new Brillobox in Bloomfield, are all solid incubators for growing local talent.
The impending smoking ban is causing some worries.
"The big core of our customers, without a doubt, are smokers," said Eric Stern, co-owner of the Brillobox. "I would absolutely embrace it -- but the way it's written now (the law), I'm afraid I can't risk it at the moment."
Art galleries played a vital role in the local music ecosystem in 2006. Garfield Artworks and the Andy Warhol Museum, in particular, have very energetic music programmers. This gives serious, non-commercial musicians a place to perform where they don't have to compete with booze, and strengthens the ties between Pittsburgh's music and arts communities.
Gullifty's has become the city's premier jazz club, mostly by default. But the restaurant's runaway success with the music could spawn imitators.
For the big, big concerts, the Mellon Arena soldiers on, and the Post-Gazette Pavilion hosts all the usual dinosaurs in the summer. The smaller, outdoor Chevrolet Amphitheatre has moved from Station Square to The Waterfront in Homestead -- oddly, an even more congested, less-accessible location.
The year 2006 was very good for local music, and there's no reason why it shouldn't continue. If there's another Christina Aguilera hiding in the suburban wilds of Wexford, nobody's seen her yet -- but many artists are making exciting music, some of which is reverberating beyond Western Pennsylvania.
Bands like Shade, the Boogie Hustlers, the Dirty Faces, Punchline, Grand Buffet and The Yards have built up regional or even national followings by touring relentlessly outside the city.
Jazz trumpeter Sean Jones commutes to New York City to perform with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
The Povertyneck Hillbillies seem forever poised to break out on the national country music scene. Anti-Flag put out a record on RCA, without watering down their ferocious protest punk. And finally, Pittsburgh rap has a contender in Wiz Khalifa.
But perhaps the Pittsburgh artist most emblematic of the music world, circa 2007, is Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk. His album "Night Ripper" was an international underground smash -- splicing together hundreds of samples from pop, rock and hip-hop into wild, hyper-caffeinated new club anthems -- without seeking legal consent from the sources. Though it practically begs for litigation, he stands behind the "Fair Use" argument, which supports artists' rights to sample when creating new works.