Pittsburgh record label Steel City Death Club offers alternative to “pay-to-play” model | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh record label Steel City Death Club offers alternative to “pay-to-play” model

click to enlarge People packed together jumping and dancing to a band
Photo: Courtesy of Giovanni Orsini
A Steel City Death Club show

For Giovanni Orsini and J.J. Young, the Pittsburgh music scene is all about creating an inclusive community. That’s why in February 2019, Orsini, a metal guitarist and singer in the bands Giovanni Orsini and the Inebriators, Fortune Teller, and Natural Rat, started the music collective Steel City Death Club with the help of Young and some other friends in the Pittsburgh alt-rock scene.

Death Club began with the intention of being a record label for small local alternative artists, but quickly grew into something more multi-faceted.

The collective hosts live shows, has a studio in the Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh where bands can record and mix, and has a series called Live at SCDC which chronicles live recordings of local and national bands from the studio in a style similar to Seattle radio station KEXP’s popular live sessions.

Steel City Death Club currently represents 15 bands, including Water Trash, BITE, Ugly Blondes, Nate Cross, and Tough Cuffs, in addition to all of the bands with which Orsini is involved.

“I would say [Death Club is] a Pittsburgh local music community group. Basically, just like a very DIY-spirited attempt on trying to create platforms and more ‘industry’ things,” Orsini says. “We wanted to create a very DIY, passionate, for-the-love-of-the-game group of people and artists and, really, just for the crafts that we’re involved in, where we don’t need to pay money to play shows.”

Orsini and Young, who is a drummer in the bands Fortune Teller, Melt, BITE, Nate Cross, and Mind Mother, have been involved in the Pittsburgh music scene since they were both students at Upper St. Clair High School. Orsini, now 24, shares that the “pay-to-play” model he and Young, now 26, were introduced to when they first started performing encouraged them to create their own way of playing shows.

In a pay-to-play gig, bands have to purchase a number of tickets from the promoter, and then sell them in order to play the show. If they don’t sell all of the tickets, that money comes out of their own pockets.

“That’s a commonplace, and I get it, from a business perspective, but we just got tired of it, so we just kind of swore them off and only did DIY shows and it ended up working,” Orsini says.

Orsini and Young discuss “the scene” when they talk about Death Club and the bands in the club. “The scene” refers to the local, do-it-yourself music community — groups of bands who set up shows in Oakland basements, suggesting spectators pay a donation of $5-10 at the door, but no minimum ticket sales are involved. This way, bands get to play without the stress and financial burden of ticket selling, and local music lovers can see stacks of bands play at a low price.

A typical DIY show in the Pittsburgh scene will look like this — college students and young adults, packed tightly in a basement with a makeshift stage, plenty of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and a whole lot of sweat. The exact locations of these venues remain anonymous to the public due to the lease violations and potential noise complaints that come with DIY house shows. However, despite the secrecy, the shows have had staying power in the Pittsburgh scene with new, eccentrically-named house venues popping up every year. Names of past venues include the Bushnel, the Jelly Fox, Cafe Verona, and Ba Sing Se. Most, if not all, of the Steel City Death Club members met through playing and attending shows in this scene.

Death Club hosts plenty of DIY basement shows like this, but also has been able to put on shows at venues like Thunderbird Cafe and Mr. Smalls Theatre without the pay-to-play model. This is made possible through selling tickets directly to fans online through Eventbrite and sponsorships.

Up next for Death Club are new Live at SCDC episodes, new music from multiple bands, and a Music Night on Fri., Oct. 14 featuring Ugly Blondes, Melt, and Water Trash at Bottlerocket Social Hall.

For the Death Club members, having the opportunity to play these shows in a welcoming, but still passionate and dedicated environment is an inspiring and creative opportunity.

“A lot of the people that I know who are in bands, including myself, they went to school for something totally different from playing music, so for a lot of those people, music and playing shows is like their escape,” Young says. “All those [people] have so much passion and professionalism that drives them, with the only incentive being that they want to do it, and I think that in and of itself is a good reason to want to care about the DIY scene and Death Club.”

As Death Club continues to grow and the scene bolsters, Orsini and the rest of the club see a future filled with more thrashing music and an expanding community.

“These kinds of spaces are extremely important because these are spaces that foster creativity and create some of my favorite shows of all time,” Orsini says. “We just want to make it possible to play and to experience this, and it’s so important to all of us.”

Steel City Death Club. steelcitydeathclub.com