Ask any musician the number-one question received from moms, dads, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends at dinner tables around the globe, and you will most likely hear some form of "gee, this music stuff sure sounds like a lot of fun, but...is it your JOB?"
In Pittsburgh, a city long prided on work ethic and self-sufficiency, the answer to that question is more and more regularly becoming a surprising "Yes".
For the last decade or so, the Pittsburgh region has attracted an influx of new and talented people into its workforce, not only with medical careers and tech jobs but with an increasing variety of opportunities to earn a living in the arts and entertainment. It's a town seemingly designed for the artist class: Affordable housing, easy and convenient travel to dozens of other major cities, growing visibility from tourism and national press, and a supportive community atmosphere across ages.
Many 'Burgh musicians also find 'day job' options within their field rather than the proverbial restaurant job - teaching lessons, conservatory and professor positions at the area's many universities, even promotional company work. "Artists will always have to make sacrifices to create their art, but Pittsburgh seems to be moving in the direction where those sacrifices are becoming less and less prohibitive," says Randy Baumann, host of celebrated Pittsburgh radio station WDVE-FM's Morning Show. "We have a fertile ground for the music scene to grow into that which would sustain an entire demographic of musicians to be able to say that they exclusively earn a living playing music in Pittsburgh, and that's a pretty cool thing."
One need look no further than multiple Pittsburgh venues selling out on the same evening (Thunderbird Café, Arcade Comedy Theater, Spirit in Lawrenceville, and Pittsburgh Winery, for example) when five years ago, a single sold-out event on a given night would most likely mean crickets and tumbleweeds at other venues across town. There truly appears to be a growing population of music fans throughout the greater Pittsburgh area, many crossing neighborhoods or coming in from suburbs, spending their dollars in Pittsburgh venues and allowing a developing class of working musicians to pay the bills.
Andrew Kirk, Pittsburgh resident and jazz drummer, manages a local group called The Bachelor Boys, which pools hometown musicians to form bands for weddings and corporate events. And, with more and more college graduates remaining in town after commencement - often holding their weddings in the area as well - the team has found itself booked for three or sometimes four events on the same evening. It's a great chance for clients to experience a wide variety of Pittsburgh talent, as well as an opportunity for a garage-rocker to work with a female pop singer, jazz trumpeter, and synth-pop bassist, all on the same paid gig. "The fact that many young folks come here for school and then choose to stay speaks well of [Pittsburgh's] vast opportunities to help musicians refine their craft," Kirk says. I find that indie, rock, hip-hop, singer-songwriters, etc. in Pittsburgh all have a similar sense of community."
This sense of community is hardly anything new, as Pittsburgh Rock 'N Roll Legends Awards 2016 inductees, The Clarks know well, not to mention hometown rocker Norm Nardini (whose website has long proclaimed, "Norm has never held a day job; his music is his life!"). These and many other artists have long made Pittsburgh and surrounding areas their own sort of Motown region, supporting families and attracting visitors and locals alike to town.
It's certainly not the only measure of success, and did any 13-year-old aspiring rapper ever pick up a pen and imagine paying the water bill with the fruits of their lyrics? Slacker movies may portray musicians as a lazy bunch, lying around on couches and sneering at pony-tailed managers.
But this is Pittsburgh. And Pittsburghers want to work.
Josh Verbanets is a Pittsburgh-based songwriter, musician, and performer, best known as front-man for the band Meeting of Important People, as well as one-half of children’s performing duo Josh and Gab. Follow him on Twitter at @MOIPband, on Instagram at @jawshyvee, or listen to his band’s new album TROIKA.