Expanding Pittsburgh’s music scene beyond the city comes with rewards and challenges | Music Issue | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Expanding Pittsburgh’s music scene beyond the city comes with rewards and challenges

click to enlarge Expanding Pittsburgh’s music scene beyond the city comes with rewards and challenges
CP photo: Jared Wickerham

Anytime Thomas Hricik, aka Tenova, tells people he’s from Pittsburgh they usually raise an eyebrow and ask questions. 

“I could be 5,000 miles away, and I still meet the occasional party promoter wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates hat,” says the house/techno DJ who performs internationally and has much to do with the existence of the after-hours bar, Tilden. “[But] what’s great about the town is that it has something of an unknown, niche type of vibe to it. What’s more is that it’s a relatively unexplored territory for many artists as they’ve never been there. Everybody wants to know more. The question is, will the scene answer the call?”

Those in the hip-hop scene, like Ian Benjamin Welch, aka Benji., and soulful singer Clara Kent, are working on doing exactly that by performing outside of the city, most notably in larger cities like New York or Austin, which Kent feels are more receptive to new, out-of-town musicians. 

“[They’re] used to music culture and go out to discover or hear a new band or artist,” says Kent. “When I performed my third show in D.C., I had people anticipating me arriving and purchasing music and really listening to the lyrics.”

To date, Benji. has performed in four new cities this year, with five more cities left to hit before the summer is out. 

“There's just something about these shows where the crowd knows this is their only chance to see you for the foreseeable future,” says Benji. “So they give you their all and then some, because you gave them yours, that in all honesty, Pittsburgh crowds still take it for granted when they're able to see these gems more often than any other city, and usually for free or dirt cheap, in comparison to the quality of the show.”

He cites the ultra-low $10 ticket price for the Mr. Smalls Theatre showcase, Pittsburgh’s Very Own, which had Benji. and three other headliners on one bill. “It could've easily been a $20-25 ticket and made sense.”

For local artists, performances outside of Pittsburgh are vital to their personal career growth. Clinton Clegg, singer and founder of soul-rock band, The Commonheart, explained that, “Every place has a feel, every crowd has a vibe. You can learn a ton from playing in a city you’ve never been to. Meeting and spending time with folks after the show is always the best way to not only build your fan base but also build a network of relationships and friends in different cities across the country.”

It's a way to experience and gain a full spectrum of what their artistry can really do because, as Hricik points out, the music scene in Pittsburgh can be a bubble. 

“Pittsburgh gives you the chance to go way out into left field, to get super weird and dig deep into the crates and not worry about what’s trendy or hot,” he says. “That being said, playing in Pittsburgh is awesome, but so is playing in LA, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Kiev. Where real talent begins to show through is being able to fit your sound into each scene and rock a crowd in any city. That versatility and drive for more is something I’d like to see from more artists in Pittsburgh. How is anybody going to find out how great you think your city is if you never leave to tell them about it? Wanna really show love to the city? Carry the torch.”

Moreover, when Pittsburgh musicians choose to perform out of town, it enhances what other cities think of Pittsburgh as a whole. Recently, on Kent’s nationwide tour with London-based music company Sofar Sounds, she played in New York City. While the show was successful, she says that when the crowd found out she was from Pittsburgh, all they mentioned was food and sports. 

“I intend to change the narrative of this sports town into a conversation about our artists and culture developers here too,” says Kent. “It's happening as we speak, really. It helps that we have some serious variety and talent as well, and all of us are traveling and connecting all over.”

Connor Murray, the founder of the local tape-centered label Crafted Sounds, doesn't think about that much. 

“I think this city is learning to thrive without critical attention,” he says. “I feel like when I am out of town or if a band wants to come to Pittsburgh they say, ‘Oh we didn’t have a great time when we were there last.’ Occasionally, I’ll personally book a band that says something like that and by the end of their show, they’ll make some remark about how things have changed in a positive direction. I do not think people know Pittsburgh for what it is now.”

click to enlarge Expanding Pittsburgh’s music scene beyond the city comes with rewards and challenges
Photo: Justin Boyd
The Commonheart

Murray adds that after the deaths of Mac Miller and Jimmy Wopo, it’s been quiet to some degree. The critical eyes that were looking here have disappeared, and assume that the talent is gone as well. 

“I think this kinda pissed off some of the artists here, and now they are working to establish the next era of Pittsburgh music. Benji., Mars [Jackson], Clara, My Favorite Color, are really pushing for that on the hip hop end. I’d like to think that our label is helping to fuel an indie/alternative resurgence as well. [But] when people want to look at us, they will.”

Benji. believes that Pittsburgh has always been a musical city, but has lacked the wherewithal for long-term sustainability, and it still does to this day. 

Hricik, who runs in an entirely different music scene than Benji., supports this viewpoint.

“Pittsburgh lacks the development that the music scene has in larger cities, particularly with the slow death of the rave scene that’s taken place in the past five years,” he says. “We went from having homegrown events in the electronic sphere run by independent party promoters almost every weekend to only having a few clubs and the occasional rave pushing our sound. That’s something that is hardly ever talked about, and has massively impacted the musical economy in [the city].”

However, Benji. says the scene does, in fact, have a new identity, one he believes existed before the deaths of Miller and Wopo. “If cared for and groomed correctly by the artists, invested and consumed responsibly by those who inhabit it, Pittsburgh can become the new breeding ground for the industry.”