The music scene as you know it is gone, and it is not coming back.
That might be a harsh way to open a column, but it is time that Pittsburgh as a region accepts their past failure and makes a last-ditch effort to salvage some sort of music scene. It’s not too late!
I’ve written about the declining music scene in Western Pa for years, often met by incredulous musicians willing to fall on their swords to defend the good name of “local music.” Believe me, I take absolutely no satisfaction in being right – I wish I didn’t see this coming years ago, but it got to the point where I had to delete a few things that I wrote because the flak from “the scene” was starting to adversely affect my career.
My friend Scott Mervis wrote a great column in the Post-Gazette about the decline of live music around town. Recently, both the James Street Tavern and Bloomfield Bridge Tavern closed, eliminating two rooms that booked consistent live music.
Here’s the hot take: They deserve to close.
Now understand that I play music for a living. To me, music is first and foremost, a business. It’s a business to the venues that book me because they know that I will play popular songs that caters to their demographic to drive bar sales and make them more money. I’m not there to perform good music – I am there to sell booze. I am there to help their business make money. That is how MY business makes money. Sure, you can look down on me for covering Chainsmokers and Justin Timberlake, but that’s what people like now. We can debate the musical merits of modern pop/rock some other time – This is about making money with music in Pittsburgh.
Artistically, it is disappointing that Pittsburgh can’t support a more diverse and culturally eclectic music scene. There is a plethora of VERY talented musicians who write and perform great songs across multiple genres. The problem is that good music doesn’t pay the electric bill.
Do you know what the least popular form of music in America is? Jazz. You know what is a close second? Blues. If that’s the case, why, as a business owner would you provide a product that most people do not care for? Would you open a restaurant and only serve kale-based food? Of course not! Why? Most people don’t like kale. Most people don’t like jazz.
I’ve been lucky enough to make a living playing music outside of Pittsburgh for several years now. Selfishly, I would love to work closer to home. Scott mentioned the regenerative nature of the music scene locally but the problem isn’t new venues popping up – It is the scene believing that it can (and should) function like it did when Nick’s Fat City would be packed for The Clarks back in the 90’s.
It’s time to evolve, Pittsburgh. Local bands don’t need to play in dive bars for 20 people to get their music out. The model for original artists has changed with the demise of the record company and the rise of do-it-yourself options to release high-quality music. So why split a show with 3 other bands for a 30 minute set bugging your family and friends to buy tickets so you can get paid in stale beer? Is that what we are mourning? Is that a scene worth saving?
Where can you listen to live music in the South Side? One, maybe two venues? Are those venues booking the bands and playing the music that the 50 other bars on East Carson have? If the answer is no, then those bands better be amazing, because the Southside is a high-traffic area with a large portion of 21-34 year olds hopping from bar to bar. Are they stopping in your bar? What about the North Shore? One, maybe two venues? If there is a Pirate or Steeler game, would people walking by like the band that you book?
Listen, this is not to say that there can’t be successful niche bars around the city. The Rex provides great music in the Southside. If you don’t mind smelling like cigarettes for a week, the R Bar in Dormont is a good spot for 30 people to listen to solid blues. Also, this isn’t to shit on Jazz and Blues – I sure as hell don’t play it, and I don’t write songs. BUT – If someone was going to pay me to play Jazz, or Blues, or my own songs, I would. However, that’s not my job. I play music for a living. I can paint if I need an artistic hobby.
To bar owners thinking of bringing in live music: Here is an easy test. If you have 250 people in your bar (because it’s YOUR bar and YOU have people that want to go there) and you book a band – Will your people like that band? Will people stay? Will the band play music that people know? That people like? Will that band drive bar sales and make you more money? Call it the Yinzer test. If the Steelers just won a game and thousands of people want to party – Can your entertainment make you money? Can they drive your business?
Because it’s not personal, it’s just business.