By Ethan Gordon
Pittsburgh Current Contributing writer
Located on the edge of Friendship and Garfield, Pittsburgh’s Mr. Roboto Project is the area’s oldest DIY music venue. Over its 20-plus year history, Roboto has become a place for everyone, from bands who are putting on their first show to breakout indie groups touring the nation. In fact, with the approval of Roboto’s board of directors, anyone can put on a show. For the small bands of Pittsburgh, the simplicity of the space is what makes it perfect.
After four months of closure, spaces like Roboto have been hurting. The harmful economic effects of COVID-19 won’t slow down for anything, even the city’s greatest spots to see a show.
Even though venues initially looked at reopening in June, it doesn’t seem like that’ll be happening anytime soon. Pittsburgh has a strong infrastructure for small and new bands, but the shutdown could easily change that. It leads to a fair question: will those venues, festivals, and booking agents survive the pandemic?
“I think we’ll do everything we can to keep [Roboto] afloat, and I think we have a nice community backing. I think we’ll survive,” says Brett Shumaker, Mr. Roboto Project’s booking coordinator and founder of the local booking company, Don’t Let the Scene Go Down on Me! Collective. “It’s been rough, since no one’s having shows right now, so no one’s really bringing in money, and everyone’s trying to do their own fundraisers and things like that.”
While Mr. Roboto already runs on the tiniest budget possible, the current lack of shows really hinders its ability to make ends meet. When Roboto is open, larger touring groups usually bring the most people and money to the space.
To supplement the lack of income, Shumaker put together a community compilation album. With contributions from nationally renowned groups like Dogleg, Screaming Females and Katie Ellen, and Pittsburgh artists like String Machine, Portrait People, Short Fictions and Baseball Dad, the two albums are easily worth your time. The Mr. Roboto Project Benefit Compilation Volume 1 and Volume 2 are out now.
For many musicians in the community, Roboto represents a comfortable location for new bands to give live music a shot. It’s even where many of those bands featured on the compilation played their first shows. “DIY venues were incredibly important to our conception & growth, specifically The Mr. Roboto Project,” says David Beck, the vocalist for the folk group String Machine. “For a place like Roboto to bite the dust, it would require an indifference to it that just simply isn’t there.”
Mr. Roboto’s community is a strong one, but Pittsburgh’s DIY scene comes from more than just one spot. In March of 2019, The Government Center, a record store on the North Side, opened its stage for live shows. Owner Josh Cozby explained that the venue isn’t struggling much financially, but the lack of live music changes the space’s entire dynamic.
“The biggest difference with not having shows is just kind of an energy difference. There’s just not a bunch of people coming in, excited to see live music,” says Cozby. “[Those things] definitely bring an excitement for music that is tough to replace.”
To keep customers engaged, The Government Center has invited several local bands to livestream on the store’s Instagram. Still, nothing can compare to an in-person performance. In terms of shows with a real audience, Cozby says it’s impossible to know, especially given the rising numbers of COVID-19 in Allegheny County.
“We’re just hoping for some miracle where our government gets its act together, and we have some sort of coordinated response [to the virus] that results in people not having the Coronavirus and people being able to go outside and gather again,” says Cozby.
Spaces like Roboto and The Government Center are central to local bands’ growth, but Pittsburgh’s music festivals are just as crucial. From the Three Rivers Arts Festival, to Art All Night, to the Millvale Music Festival, these events prominently showcase the city’s best bands and artists.
The Deutschtown Music Festival — a yearly project of the Northside Leadership Conference — is the city’s biggest, featuring hundreds of local bands at last year’s event. Usually held in July, the festival was one of the first summer events to get cancelled back in April.
None of these events are happening this year for obvious reasons, but the Millvale Music Festival was the last summer music festival to hold out hope. After rescheduling the event from May to August, the organizers announced that they’d be pushing the festival to 2021. It didn’t seem like a safe move to let the event happen, says Andrea Pinigis, the organizer of both Deutschtown and Millvale’s Youth Stages.
“It seemed in order to make the festival a fun time for everybody, [social distancing] could sort of take away some of that, because people would have to worry about if I’m six feet away from the person next to me, am I this, am I that. For it being such a huge festival, and trying to maintain all of the rules, it honestly really didn’t seem like it was completely possible,” says Pinigis.
The Millvale Music Festival hasn’t said anything yet, and time will tell if they follow in the path of other local festivals and announce a 2020 edition that is streaming online. The Three Rivers Arts Festival had its online edition in early June, with established local bands like Meeting of Important People and Buffalo Rose. But the lineup lacked those small, new groups which benefit from the exposure that comes from these events.
While some of the region’s venues are on life support, some hope has emerged in the past few months. The National Independent Venue Association was founded in March, and has since brought together venues from Alaska to Alabama to seek a relief package from Congress. NIVA is focused on getting the RESTART Act passed, which would “ensure the survival of independent venues across the nation.”
Take Spirit, an independent venue in Lawrenceville, which joined NIVA as soon as it could in March. Spirit’s co-owner, Leigh Yock, says that her job is currently focused on the survival of the business and supporting their employees as much as possible. “Our business’s success was primarily based around our building being filled with humans eating, drinking and dancing,” says Yock.
NIVA is a source of hope for Yock, even if it isn’t a sure-fire solution. “I definitely feel it is crucial for us to join together and advocate for support together instead of separately. There is power in numbers and we are all in very similar situations. We are also doing this on a local level,” she says. “We are all vulnerable and angry right now, but also inspired to come out of this pandemic and civil unrest better humans than we were before… I think the music scene will reflect that and do the same.”
One of the NIVA’s strongest Pittsburgh supporters is Adam Valen, the marketing manager and local talent liaison for Drusky Entertainment. The pandemic has forced the booking organization to cancel upwards of 170 shows, and even branch out into drive-in shows. Their first car-based event took place on June 27th with a performance by The Clarks.
“[The pandemic has] forced us to become more of a voice and advocate for independent venues and promoters. While we are just a promoter, we still work with several independent venues and promoters in the Southerwestern PA region and beyond. Many of which are in fear of permanent closure due to the pandemic. Joining the National Independent Venue Association, in addition to really keeping in touch with all the other independent venues and promoters, has been super prioritized on my list. I don’t want any of these venues that have such a unique history and story to close forever,” says Valen.
Even with a wide variety of support within the industry, not everyone is expecting for the RESTART Act to pass. If Congress can barely get stimulus to every American, how are they going to get aid for a specific industry?
The Mr. Roboto Project is a member of NIVA. But as for actually receiving financial aid? “I think it can’t hurt, but I’m also not holding my breath,” says Shumaker. “I’m hopeful that Congress will do something, but we’ll see. I think for now, we’re kind of, on our own, and hopefully we can help each other out.”