Pittsburgh music scene: The FYI on DIY


Kaycee Orwig | Senior Staff Photographer

Clara Kent performing at Pitt Tonight on April 2.

By Maggie Young, Senior Staff Writer

For those interested in pursuing a career in the music industry, Pittsburgh is a pretty good place to start.

Famous rappers and Pittsburgh natives Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller first began performing in the Pittsburgh local music scene. Now that this network of artists, booking agents and venues has officially churned out a few rap stars, the space — which some say is categorized by the coming and going of college students — is evolving to produce something a bit different.

Although it took some time for the Pittsburgh music scene to get where it is today, current local artists, like Clara Kent, say it’s an excellent time to be a budding artist in the Steel City.

Kent is an R&B artist and a Homewood native who released her first album, “Aura,” in April 2018. She views Pittsburgh as an ideal place for a growing artist to hone their craft, as she considers the City’s audience to be difficult to please. An R&B artist would have to work harder to grow a fanbase in Pittsburgh as opposed to other major cities.

According to Kent, Pittsburgh music fans can be tricky for a few reasons, the first being that Pittsburgh is not known as a popular destination for musicians. Oftentimes during tours, artists fly past the City on their way to shows in Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia.

“It’s nice to see that we’re not allowing that anymore,” Kent said. “We’re actually bringing that into question. Why is Pittsburgh a flyover zone or such a hard audience? It’s because we’re mostly known as a sports city or the Steel City. Music and art [were] kind of a novelty for a long time, but now we’re making it like ‘no, this is a place that you can really cultivate those skills and hone those skills.’”

Another artist who’s had the opportunity to fine-tune their music career in Pittsburgh is Pitt senior Thomas Troyan. They are a gender, sexuality and women’s studies major and the sole member of their music project “Jorts Season.”

They said they didn’t start playing shows until their junior year, after encouragement from other people in the Pittsburgh music scene, and have since enjoyed continued success with their project.

“It all started as basically me existing as part of the community and me meeting people and finding encouragement from friends and peers to pursue music,” Troyan said.

Until the past two decades, the Pittsburgh music scene has been largely underdeveloped, according to Kent. Even as that reputation began to change, she said artists of her genres — R&B, jazz and funk — still found it difficult to break into the space.

“There wasn’t a lot of room for any other genre to have a patient listener, like someone to listen for musicality or lyrics, experience a concert-like show,” Kent said.

The Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem study, which was created through a partnership between WYEP, the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and the City of Pittsburgh using input from members of the local music industry, presented areas where the music scene in the City needs development. Four pages of the report, authored in 2018, were devoted to comments from respondents of the study’s survey, some who asked for more support from the City or who cited a lack of marketing and promotional opportunities for local bands.

Kent said musicians have decided to diverge from the existing infrastructure of the music industry in Pittsburgh, taking control of hosting events and creating their own collaborative efforts. Artists used to rely on booking agents to organize performances, using promoting tactics and venues that weren’t reflective of the current music scene.

“Everyone was leaving it up to promoters previously, and those promoters weren’t tapped into what younger artists want or were doing,” she said. “They were kind of still stuck on the old system, on an old-industry way of doing things, instead of looking at other cities and seeing how they’re developing and how they’re growing, how they’re bringing in new people to be interested in their city.”

Kent believes her career especially benefited from seeing other local artists explore different avenues for showcasing their music.

“What helped me was to see so many artists really say, ‘you know what, instead of complaining about this, I’m going to throw my own event or I’m going to collaborate with other promoters and artists and really see what we can do,” Kent said.

Part of what allowed Kent and other artists to throw their own events were venues that were willing to let them perform. One particular venue Kent has played is right in North Oakland, a house venue called The Bushnel.

Stuart Lewis lives in the Bushnel house and was in charge of the venue within in his home, calling himself the “Show Runner.” Lewis said he had the help of various roommates along the way in running the venue.

Lewis, who graduated from Pitt in 2017, said he started The Bushnel after some time spent immersing himself in the Pittsburgh music scene.

“I love the Pittsburgh music scene. The Bushnel was born out of that love. I had been going to shows at other houses and venues and had made friends with [a lot] of musicians in the city before [starting to have] shows at The Bushnel,” Lewis said over email.

The venue hosted its first show in October 2016. Although the venue is now closed — and Lewis is moving out — The Bushnel saw countless musicians in the Pittsburgh music scene grace its stage.

Kent and Troyan were both budding artists in the Pittsburgh scene who had the opportunity to perform multiples times at The Bushnel before it closed. Most recently, Kent performed in one of the venue’s final shows, which occurred just a few weeks ago.

As the main operator of The Bushnel, Lewis said house venues like his are a great way to help newer artists connect with a potential fanbase.

“Small venues, like The Bushnel, often host emerging artists who are just eager to perform in general, especially if it is to a new audience that may have not heard of them before,” Lewis said over email.

As a participant in the space for about three years, Troyan described the Pittsburgh music scene as ever-changing. They said this is partly because Pittsburgh is a college city, and artists leave once their time in school is over. But they did note that everyone involved in the scene is dedicated to helping it grow and succeed.

“The one thing that sticks out to me about Pittsburgh specifically, I guess, is how passionate a lot of people are,” Troyan said. “You just see these people who are very clearly putting their all into what they do, whether that’s booking and promoting shows or just playing them even.”

While this scene is constantly evolving, Troyan said that they enjoy being a Pittsburgh artist at this time because of the inclusive nature of the people involved.

“Right now,” Troyan said, “I think it’s just a very welcoming and inclusive space.”