Pittsburgh secretly has one of the best music scenes in the country | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh secretly has one of the best music scenes in the country

click to enlarge Pittsburgh secretly has one of the best music scenes in the country
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen

When you think of thriving music scenes across the country, and what gives them their clout, cities like Nashville, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle, and New York are some of the first that come to mind. Nashville is the country music capital of the world. L.A. was known for hair metal in the ‘80s and rap in the ‘90s, while Seattle pumped out grunge. Austin is the SXSW homeland and a creative breeding ground that can’t quite be pinned down. And New York is … well … New York.

As someone who’s toured all over the country and experienced music scenes of all sizes, there’s one city that surprisingly has them all beat, and that, hands down, is Pittsburgh. At least if you ask me. I’ve been a touring musician my entire adult life, and have gotten to experience how vibrant and distinct each city’s music ecosystem is, so I would know.

I spent a decade in Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, Nashville. I’ve played shows in large music markets like New York City, Austin, and Chicago. So, it makes sense that I had tempered expectations, but was very pleasantly surprised, at what I found when I moved to Pittsburgh and played here regularly with my band, Thieves and Lovers.

The fact that Pittsburgh is widely considered a “secondary market” has always irked me. Sure, it’s one of the smaller major cities, but it’s always on the radar. Besides being a hub of industry for more than 150 years, Pittsburgh’s professional sports teams have won a staggering 16 combined championships. Pittsburghers take pride in all of that, along with their tendency to put fries in unexpected places. The city knows a little something about how to be a fan.

To that end, Pittsburgh has never been shy about supporting the arts either. With a diverse music and arts scene, it’s a place where any musician can find their people, regardless of the type of music they play.

Pittsburgh has a long and storied music legacy, from iconic rock clubs to high-profile bands like Anti-Flag. There’s really never been a shortage of stellar musicians in Pittsburgh, from breakout ‘90s alternative artists like Rusted Root and The Clarks, to punk bands like Code Orange, to metal bands like Icarus Witch, to hip-hop giants like Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. The scene has always proven itself to be inviting, versatile, and vital to the city’s dedicated support for the arts.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh from L.A., I had no idea what to expect. After a decade of pandering pay-to-play tickets and show buy-ons that came at a ridiculous cost, I was looking for something different, and I found it in the Steel City. It offers some of the best venues I’ve ever played; Club Cafe, Smiling Moose, Mr. Smalls Theatre, and Stage AE were all among my favorite spots to perform and watch shows.

click to enlarge Pittsburgh secretly has one of the best music scenes in the country
CP Photos: Jared Wickerham
(left) Michael Glabicki of Rusted Root performs in Portland, Maine on Sat., Dec. 29, 2012.
(center) Wiz Khalifa performs at Key Bank Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa. on Thu., July 27, 2018.
(right) Anti-Flag performs at the Roxian Theatre for ANTIfest on Sat., Nov. 20, 2021.

One of the things the Pittsburgh scene has going for it is how streamlined the booking process is. I worked with a few of them and was always impressed by the efficiency. Every engagement I had with organizations like Opus One, Drusky Entertainment, and Mr. Smalls Presents was professional and courteous. They were responsive and informative, and we never had to wonder the load-in time, set time, or any other pertinent show detail. And every show we played here included a payout, meal tickets, and drink tickets, and sometimes even catering. Believe me, this is a luxury. This is not at all what I was used to coming from the cold, saturated scenes in L.A. and Nashville.

These bookers really understood music, too, because Thieves and Lovers would play a bill with a metal band, folk duo, singer-songwriter, or prog rock band and it just … worked. Every time. The fans didn’t discriminate, and everyone had an amazing night. The sense of artistic community in Pittsburgh is an amazing thing, and it’s something that’s sorely lacking in a lot of other cities. Ideally, a music scene should be supportive, and energetic about fostering the talent within it. Pittsburgh always does that.

To this day, Los Angeles, New York, and Nashville get most of the glory, but it’s places like Pittsburgh that remind me how rewarding being a touring musician can be. The great fans and friends you find, artists you meet, and memories you make are why musicians like me pursue our passion in the first place.

From Carson Street to Lawrenceville, from North Shore to Millvale, Pittsburgh is quietly one of the best music scenes in the country.

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