Historic Oakland: Live music scene fades with advent of Internet

By Brian Dollard

For the latter part of the last century, Oakland’s nighttime city soundtrack featured… This is the second of two parts. See Part I.

For the latter part of the last century, Oakland’s nighttime city soundtrack featured distorted guitar riffs and walking bass lines mixed with the chatter of crowds. The Decade, Electric Banana and Graffiti were local jukeboxes of musical creativity and barstool entertainment. But by the end of the century, neighborhood residents needed to accept a new musical style — silence.

Each club had a unique reason for closing, but the owners’ personal connections to the booking and operation of the venues eventually strained both the Decade’s Dominic DiSilvio and the Electric Banana’s Johnny Zarra.

DiSilvio closed the Decade in 1995 with a final show by local rocker Joe Grushecky.

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“It was a very sad time. It was bittersweet. The main reason [for closing the Decade], I was getting a little older. I had the place for 22 years. The music was getting louder; which it really wasn’t, I was just getting older,” DiSilvio said.

He offered the club’s ownership to his children who declined interest — a decision DiSilvio did not hold against them.

“None of my kids really wanted to go into the business. It’s a very bad business for livers and marriages, so I wasn’t too disappointed that they didn’t want to go into it. It was one hell of a ride,” he said.

After the Decade closed, the building remained a live-music venue but rapidly changed names and management. Russ Schneider, currently a guitarist with the East End All-Stars, recalled performing there over the course of two years and experiencing four different names for the location.

“We played there as it changed hands three different times. It went from the Decade, to Ribbitz, to Tobacco Roadhouse, to the Next Decade — all in like ’96,” he said.

A campus bar, Garage Door Saloon, currently occupies the property once home to the club. A plaque on the Sennott Street-facing wall of the building commemorates the Decade as “Almost a Landmark.”

The Electric Banana closed in 2000 after Johnny and Judy Zarra lost interest in hosting live music and saw a chance to take advantage of the opening of a Residence Inn across the street by converting their club into a fine Italian restaurant.

“The way it happened was it didn’t matter what night of the week it was and who was playing. It just didn’t matter. The reason we got out of it was when they built the hotel. And I was in the nightclub business for 30 years. There’s nobody out there who can say they were in the nightclub business for 30 years,” Zarra said.

The couple currently runs their restaurant, Zarra’s, where the Electric Banana once featured punk shows.

Graffiti also closed in 2000  after a new owner bought the building and decided to conver it into a parking garage for the Auto Palace Porsche car dealership. It went from music to motors.

Changing Tempo

Exhaustion and buyouts certainly provided the death blow to the three clubs. But during the 10-year span following the Decade’s closing, many less storied venues also folded in Oakland and Pittsburgh.

Beehive and Club Laga, located on Forbes Avenue, closed in 2002 and 2004. Metropol and Rosebud in the Strip District also closed in the same two years.

Zarra noted the dire condition of Pittsburgh’s rock-club scene.

“The music scene was dying. There was no more scene. The only true rock ‘n’ roll joint in the city left is the 31st Street Pub. Nobody’s going to these shows. I don’t know where they’re going,” he said.

Changing conditions in the music industry and Pittsburgh were factors in the demise of the many of the city’s clubs during those 10 years.

DiSilvio credits decreased focus by national bands on attaining success by traveling across the country as reason for the present sparsity of smaller clubs.

“At that time, groups were traveling more and they needed places like mine. Now they make it big in a studio with CDs and then, boom, they are at the arenas. The smaller places got caught in the middle,” he said.

As the owner of Elko Concerts, Mike Elko worked in concert promotion since 1986 with many Oakland venues including Graffiti, Club Laga and the Beehive. Elko noted a generational change in the longevity of popular attention spans toward bands as a reason for a diminished club scene.

“If you look at the club scene, in the old days, the act used to grow with every single album. You’d start out at clubs, then you’d go to the arenas. Now what has happened is every band is like a one-hit wonder. The kids move on to another act,” he said.

In the 10 years following the Decade’s closing, the Internet exploded as the premier method of media. Elko cited the prevalence of the Internet as a large distraction for people away from live music.

“It’s all around the country — the same thing has been happening. Look at social media: Everybody can just sit on the computer instead of going out and seeing a concert. If you look at when it started happening, that’s when the computer craze started. That’s when we started getting all the YouTube videos and things like that,” he said.

These new innovations changed the way fans experience music by allowing young national acts to reach a global audience by simply uploading a file, the MP3 replacing the tour bus. According to Elko, eventually the younger fans picked cyberspace over club stages.

“Well, the younger generation, they don’t go out and see live events like the older generation. You have all these older acts that are still the best drawing out there. For the older music, people still go out. They pay the hard ticket to see the show,” he said.

Schneider found the rise of social media an added burden for musicians placed by club owners.

“[Bands] have to spread all the word on Facebook and among their friends, because the venues aren’t promoting the music. They are relying on the bands because they don’t want to work,” he said.

The radio was a huge factor in promoting local artists and creating a “Pittsburgh sound” during the strength of the music scene. Grushecky noted the importance of these stations for the musicians.

“That was the Pittsburgh sound in those days. The music scene that the older guys came out of was this real hardcore rhythm and blues and raw rock ‘n’ roll. Because that’s what they played on the radio here. Every town had their own little radio station. That was the Pittsburgh sound, it wasn’t a Top 40 sound,” he said.

Following Congress’ passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, regulations on radio-station purchasing were eased. Clear Channel Broadcasting devoured the radio industry, buying up  more than 850 radio stations in 150 different cities. The company presently owns six radio stations in Pittsburgh.

According to a 2007 FCC radio industry report, from March of 1996 to 2007 the number of commercial radio stations in the United States increased 6.8 percent, despite a 39 percent decrease in the number of radio owners.

Grushecky credited this media consolidation with a less diverse selection of music from radio stations and a reason for change in Pittsburgh.

“The whole music industry started losing steam. The playlist on radio became so much more generic,” he said.

Pittsburgh Problems

Elko outlined the more tangible feasibility issues for the clubs in Oakland. Sparse parking availability hinders the likelihood of any music venue thriving in the neighborhood.

“Oakland has a huge parking problem — there is nowhere to park. Who wants to worry about parking seven or eight blocks away, plus worrying about whether your car is going to get hit or vandalized? Even when we had Club Laga and the Beehive, there was always the parking issue with the city and the University of Pittsburgh,” he said.

The difficulty of securing parking for artists’ tour buses drove up the booking cost for the Oakland venues.

“If you do get parking permits, you have to pay $15 per meter per day to the city of Pittsburgh. Well, if you get a couple buses and a truck, you end up paying $200 a show just in parking to the city. Then you have to raise ticket prices and you make it unaffordable for a lot of people,” Elko said.

The redevelopment in Oakland with the growth of Pitt was an issue for the Forbes Avenue venues, according to Elko.

“Then when Pitt started buying stuff, everybody tried to get extreme amounts for rent. Well, you could only pay so much for rent to be able to stay in business, everybody knows that,” he said.

Similarly to most of the issues that plagued the city at the time, deindustrialization played a part in the dissolving of the music scene. Grushecky connected the two events through the loss of a fanbase and shared culture.

“Pittsburgh changed and, once there was the death of the steel mills, we lost a lot of population: People who were coming to see us play had to move. Hard times hit Pittsburgh pretty significantly back in the mid-’80s,” he said.

According the U.S. Census, the city of Pittsburgh’s population declined 41 percent from 1970 to 2010. The loss of jobs scattered Pittsburghers across the country and separated them from these venues.

The migration from Pittsburgh during the era changed the complexion of the city. And according to Grushecky, by the time Pittsburgh started to recover, people spent money on new entertainment besides live bands.

“Then, when it came out on the other end, the whole culture changed. We had MTV, cable television and video games — everything that keeps people from going out and seeing music now,” he said.

Elko also sees the population decline and aging as reasons why Pittsburgh lost so many clubs during that time period.

“First off, there were too many clubs for our population and our demographic in Pittsburgh, even still today,” he said.

The two factors also contribute to the lack of younger national bands touring small venues in the city.

“The amount of acts touring the club scene is diminished. If you look at Pittsburgh and Cleveland, they used to be big touring draws. Now they are towards the bottom because we are an older demographic, so we don’t get a lot of the younger demographic’s music,” he said.

Grushecky noted a change in the importance of music in the city as the social scene shifted outside of Oakland over time.

“[Oakland] was the place to be, what South Side is now, on a smaller scale. Oakland was the place where any nightlife at all existed in Pittsburgh. Everybody was really into the music, and it wasn’t a fringe thing like it is now. The whole city was revolving around the music for a while, a big social thing,” he said.

Schneider added that some club owners put original material as a secondary concern behind crowd-drawing power.

“A lot of times, bars will put in cover bands because they know it will draw a lot of people, but it doesn’t really add to the artistic integrity of the city. It’s nothing new, nothing really worth getting up and going places,” he said.

He listed the lack of media support for local music in Pittsburgh as a concern for redeveloping a strong scene.

“There is no infrastructure. Don’t get me wrong, bands are still doing it, and there are bands making money, but they are doing it in spite of the scene. They are doing it because they are just working their butts off. But there really isn’t a good internal structure. There could be so much more,” Schneider said.

Oakland remains without a showcase club that can match the draw of those former venues.