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A melodic restoration: Thrival Festival aims to restore Hazelwood

By Brady Langmann / Staff Writer

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Of the three producers behind this weekend’s Thrival Innovation and Music Festival, not one has a background in the music industry.

Executive producer Dan Law once focused in foreign policy with a master’s degree in public and international affairs. He’s backed by Danielle Belko, formerly a producer for local video game developer Schell Games, and Jordan Robarge, a systems engineer one year removed from undergrad at the University of Virginia. The self-described “mob squad of festival promoters” works for Thrill Mill, an East Liberty-based startup accelerator and organizers of Thrival Festival.

“We’re not a big media conglomerate, we’re a nonprofit,” Law said. “I think that’s valuable because if you come up through the music industry, you may only know the music industry.”

An initiative of Thrill Mill, Thrival will bring 25 acts to Hazelwood’s Almono site Sept. 25 to 26. The weeklong event’s goal is to combine diverse musical offerings with innovative programs in technology and community issues, with the revenue helping local entrepreneurs build their startups.

So far, the organizers’ unorthodox backgrounds have paid off. Based off current ticket sales, Thrival expects anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 attendees — far from the 2,000 that attended the festival’s first year in 2013. For Law and his team, making room for Pittsburgh’s music lovers is one of numerous challenges in a business they’re still figuring out as they go.

Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, members of legendary hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan, top Thrival’s music offerings along with LIGHTS, a Canadian synthpop star. Pop-punk band Panic! at the Disco, rapper Wale and indie rockers Manchester Orchestra also highlight the lineup, with several local bands filling the undercard. The artists complement the “innovation events” held in various Pittsburgh locales this week, which included talks on gentrification in East Liberty and a presentation on experiential education in the Hill District.   

At $35 for a weekend pass, nabbing several national touring acts is unusual for Pittsburgh, whose festival scene is mostly limited to smaller, niche-specific events like McKees Rocks’ FEASTival or Northside’s Deutschtown Music Festival. Even Three Rivers Arts Festival typically brings in one upper-tier headliner a year, such as Jenny Lewis this past summer. According to Law, some bands “don’t see Pittsburgh as a viable market,” with high-profile acts like Foster the People often struggling to sell tickets at Stage AE and sometimes resorting to offering discounted seats on Groupon.

That makes curating a music festival in Pittsburgh difficult. For each of the headliners, Law combed through at least three years of data, including everything from bands’ gross revenue during past trips to Pittsburgh to their number of plays on Spotify. With negotiations lasting several months, the music lineup wasn’t finalized until 24 hours before it was announced to the public in July.

“When you’re looking at booking bands, it’s not as much of an art form as you think,” Law said. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, this is good music, so therefore we should book it.’ That’s not really how it goes. It’s a science.”

While Law haggled with music agencies, he searched for a bigger venue than Bakery Square, the home of 2013 and 2014’s iterations of the festival. In August, he found the 178-acre Almono spot — formerly the home of LTV coke works site, a steel mill that closed in 1999 — which has undergone an extensive rehabilitation process in the past 20 years. At one point, the brown field was so polluted that trees were planted to soak up toxins from the ground.

Now the restoration is complete. And with the capacity to hold 10,000 people and an opportunity to bring positive attention to Hazelwood, Thrival reserved 12 acres — the size of about nine football fields. But with reports of several shootings over the summer and an economic downturn following the closing of LTV coke works, Robarge admits making the trip to Hazelwood has been a concern to potential festival-goers.

“Part of the reason we’re having it in Hazelwood is to kind of help revitalize that community,” Robarge said. “There have been people who’ve contacted Dan [Law] and said, like ‘Oh my mom doesn’t want me to go here because it’s the most dangerous place in Pittsburgh.’ That’s something that we’re trying to change as well — that should not be how they view it.”    

According to Tera McIntosh, director of community engagement for the Hazelwood Initiative — the neighborhood’s development corporation — Thrival provides the opportunity to showcase Hazelwood’s recent progress. New businesses and seasonal marketplaces line Second Avenue, a busy commuter passageway that McIntosh said most don’t realize is part of Hazelwood.

“Often people forget about us over here because we’re not that loud, but we’re on the drawing board and things are happening here,” McIntosh said, adding that Thrival offered free tickets to Hazelwood residents and attended several community meetings. “Everyone’s excited for [Thrival].”

Despite support from Hazelwood’s community leaders and a strong music lineup, Law said this weekend is still a “pass or fail” situation. Thrival wasn’t allowed access to the Almono land until Wednesday morning of this week, leaving only 48 hours to set up the festival’s entire infrastructure.

Law aims to elevate Thrival to the point where Pittsburgh will engage equally with both the innovative and musical aspects of the event.

“The course that we’re charting is kind of a messy one. It’s like we’re the first ones to the wall. Pittsburgh has its systems, and if you’re working within these systems it doesn’t respond well to a shock to that system,” Law said. “This is the make year.”

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A melodic restoration: Thrival Festival aims to restore Hazelwood