Promoter Justin Strong gets real about investing financially in Pittsburgh’s music scene

By April 30, 2019 No Comments

“We have to get over this 1990s mentality. We have to spend more at the door.”

Justin Strong

By Margaret Welsh
Pittsburgh Current Music Editor

Touring is, of course, not as simple as just setting up some shows and piling all your gear in a van. What if your day job won’t give you time off? What if you have a family and a mortgage? What if you’re just broke? A robust and active music scene needs everyone’s help. And for Spirit general manager Justin Strong, that help has to come in the form of cold, hard cash.

“I think what Pittsburgh suffers from the most is, the consumer behavior needs to change,” he says. “We’re still charging covers today, in 2019, that I was charging in 1992. The price of movies has gone up. The price of gas has gone up, the price of milk. And it’s like, what do you want to be produced for five bucks?

“We have to get over this 1990s mentality. We have to spend more at the door.”

Strong’s been in this game for a long time. He got his start putting together events in college, and then went on to open the Shadow Lounge, the fabled East Liberty venue where Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa honed their skills.

He’s always approached booking more as a producer than a venue owner, but he’s all too aware of the stark economic issues at play. “In my older age, I’m more skittish,” he says, particularly when it comes to booking out-of-town artists.

After expenses, and once everyone is paid properly, any given show – including Spirit Sessions, Strong’s popular open-stage series – will easily cost around $500-700. “There has to be this jump of faith,” he says. “We wanna bring in these acts, but they’re charging us New York prices. And they don’t realize that Pittsburgh has a foreign exchange currency rate.”

Strong has some pretty simple ideas on how to begin to make that consumer shift. First, he says, bookers need to form an alliance. “I always say, get the major players onboard and say, ‘Look, let’s all agree: Fridays and Saturdays, if you have a DJ or a performance of anything, charge $10.

“On the weekends, I don’t think there should be anything under $10 at the door,” he says. “That money is going to go to the artist to make a living. If they could just do their craft and be artists, and practice – which means they don’t have to work their second job – they’re going to put on a better show.” Plus, the more money a promoter brings in, the more money there is to invest in the venue, and the better the overall experience becomes. And when local artists make money, they can tour. They start representing Pittsburgh in other cities, ultimately raising our city’s profile as a desirable place to play.

Strong also suggests, among other things, a PR effort by the city and various arts non-profits to encourage patrons to think about where and how they spend your money. “Mathematically its simple, but its behavior,” he says. “We will spend $8 on a hot dog at PNC Park. We’re cool with that. So I would just line up the comparisons of what you get for $10 [for a three or four hour show], and do a conversion rate. How many movies is that? How many hot dogs? If you want to have some intent about this, then we just gotta shift the money a little bit. That’s all.

“There’s nothing sexy about racing to the bottom,” he adds. “Romanticizing the struggle. I think Pittsburgh has struggled enough. Let’s just pay some bills here. Let’s support each other and say, ‘Hey, I value you and I’m going to show that value with tangible love energy in the form of U.S. currency.”

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