After more than a decade, Jesse Flati can still remember his first time at the Mr. Roboto Project, a 15-year-old, do-it-yourself music venue now located in Bloomfield.
“It was like a Lite FM tribute night, so a bunch of bands got together and played like Air Supply songs and shit like that,” says Flati, a new addition to Roboto’s board of directors. “I remember at first thinking that it was kind of this space that maybe I didn’t belong at, but then realizing that everyone’s really in this for the same thing.”
Stories about your first time at Roboto are common among Pittsburgh music aficionados, especially those on Roboto’s board.
“My first experience at Roboto was when I went to see an Anti-Flag show. They were what first introduced me to punk music and the idea of political punk,” says Harrison Thurman, another board member. “It was really cool because there were a lot of young people. A really high-energy show — a sweaty 16-year-old punk show — was my first.”
But in recent months, it was looking like future generations weren’t going to have their first Roboto experience. Financial difficulties and declining attendance were jeopardizing the venue’s future.
In April, City Paper reported on stories from sexual-assault victims who said they no longer felt safe at the space. While none of the alleged sexual assaults occurred at Roboto, victims said they worried about seeing their abusers there, and chose to avoid the venue. And the allegations have damaged Roboto’s reputation.
“There’s definitely been a decrease in popularity,” says Flati. “Roboto’s name has definitely been dragged through the mud because of the sexual-assault allegations. People stay away because of those things. It’s maybe not as safe a space as they thought it was going to be.”
But an almost entirely new board of directors, elected in October, is hoping to change Roboto’s image and breathe new life into a venue that has long been a cornerstone of Pittsburgh’s punk-music scene.
“It seems that in general there’s just been some mismanagement in terms of where money has gone and decisions that have kept people away from Roboto that have in turn led to decreased revenue,” says Jeff Betten, Roboto’s new treasurer. “The main thing we’re going to have to do is just turn the page on the last chapter.
“Basically we’re rebranding the Roboto Project, bringing in different acts — not necessarily just punk music — and just being a home to everyone.”
Even before the six new board members were brought in, the low-budget venue had launched a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to address some of its financial shortcomings. As of Nov. 6, with eight days left in the campaign, donors had pledged $5,238, surpassing the $5,000 goal.
“There was definitely a sense on the old board that we should seriously think about closing down. It was very grim and a lot of stress,” says Thurman. “We decided to do the Kickstarter to make sure Roboto can stay open for a couple years. It puts us in a great economic position, and that means we can make Roboto as safe as we want it to be.”
In an effort to further support Roboto’s future, while addressing the concerns of its members, the board is thinking about doing more educational programming at the space. This could include more workshops with Pittsburgh Action Against Rape — which hosted a four-part series at the space after sexual-assault allegations were raised last spring — and workshops on hip-hop music and race relations.
And after the lease on the space is up, Roboto’s board might consider a change in scenery as well. Members believe construction on Penn Avenue, where Roboto is located, has led to lower attendance at shows, and they are considering moving to a new location.
“I think the Roboto name has a lot of things attached to it … good and bad,” says Thurman. “The location itself is ideal in some ways and not ideal in other ways, so I think we should seriously look at changing locations if we can find a space that people are more excited to come to.”
In the meantime, the board says it is working to rebuild Roboto’s reputation in other ways, like being more transparent about how revenue from shows is spent. And in the face of competition from a number of music venues in people’s homes, they say Roboto needs to do a better job of getting the word out about what it has to offer.
“I think we just need to get back to the basics,” says Betten. “It was always a great all-ages space, and we just need to let people know we’re out there. We have to do a better job of outreach, in my opinion.”