After much hand-wringing, finger pointing, opining on social media and even a bit of eager anticipation, the Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem’s report, “Activating a Community Response,” was released electronically on Thursday, July 19. It can be accessed on the organization’s website, www.pghmusicprojectorg.
The report follows a 10-month effort spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the Pittsburgh Office of Nighttime Economy and 91.3 WYEP-FM. The content came from a survey that picked the brains of Pittsburgh “creatives” — the blanket description given to musicians, songwriters, DJs recording engineers, producers and others — on how they are received in the city. In the end, 1,800 of these creative people responded to an online survey. The study was conducted by Sound Music Cities, LLC and the 86-page report was written by SMC’s Don Pitts.
The diversity of opinions on the wide range of topics can be summed up by two quotes on the first page of comments from survey respondents: “Fix the scene,” followed, across the column by, “You have a fundamental lack of understanding of how independent music operates. No one wants your involvement in this. Leave us alone. That’s all we want.”
In typical Pittsburgh fashion, a large contingent of respondents wants someone else to do the legwork, while a different group wants the bigshot advisor to get the hell out of town. But it was never the job of the Austin-based Pitts to “fix” things but to help the city take stock of the parts that can be used to lift the scene up.
Having come of age in the city’s punk rock/indie rock scene, this writer can understand the hesitation people felt when it was announced last fall that PDP, WYEP and the Office of Nighttime Economy were working with an out-of-town advisor on the topic. Independent music of all stripes was born out of rebellion, or at the very least the desire for uninhibited self-expression. The idea of these institutions leading the charge seemed like it would reinforce the status quo.
But people shot first and didn’t even bother to ask questions later. Conclusions were drawn long before the end was in sight. The ugliest moments of this came in February when the Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem held a town hall meeting at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater; people came expecting to hear answers before the survey was even completed. This happened despite Abby Goldstein, WYEP’s General Manager, opening the event by saying the evening was an attempt to gather input. Pitts hadn’t planned to speak, but even when people demanded to hear from him an angry audience member shouted him down before he could say a word.
If only they would have held their fire.
The final report can assuage any misgivings about Pitts or the Ecosystem Project itself. It includes five sections: Leadership Development; Career Development; Regulatory Reform; Industry Development; and Audience Development. Each section offers statistics taken from the surveys. (Pitts also spoke with creatives in person during the process.) Following specific recommendations, case studies are included in each section as examples of how other cities improved similar situations.
Jeff Betten, general manager of the Misra Records label, read the whole report and came away feeling positive. While he’s heard criticism, it seems more like a knee-jerk reaction to the whole survey itaelf.
“I think if everyone actually took the time to read the entire document, not rehash it, there’s nothing in there that I feel you can object to, if you’re being on the level,” he says. “It’s going to depend on whether or not we have the ability as a city to come together now and say we want these suggestions to be implemented. That is the next question. The report itself, I feel, is fairly uncontroversial in what it’s suggesting.”
Mitch Swain, CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance, says that some information on Regulatory Reform in particular might lead to alliances between creatives and City Hall. “The biggest part of my job in working for the Arts and Culture community is advocacy. [It involves] developing relationships with elected officials and business leaders and being able to relate the intricacies and the specifics of the industry that I work in to them so that they can understand it,” he explains. “Once you can do that, then you really start to break down some barriers and understand the challenges that they face. If people in the music industry could understand how to do that, I think they would find more friends among elected officials.”
Before the report was made public, though, some initiatives already started to take root. Among them, WYEP has become part of VuHaus, a national live performance video platform, with content from 22 other public radio stations around the country. Of the 20 videos the station has on the platform, four of them feature local artists. It’s perhaps a small percentage but it’s a start nonetheless. While the radio station has been criticized for its limited exposure of local musicians, Abby Goldstein says that “looking for more ways to nurture and promote and support the local music scene is a big strategic focus for the station.”
Goldstein also points out that the actions that might be taken as a result of this survey can’t be expected to yield results overnight. “We think this report in an opportunity to plant a seed for a tree under which some of us may never sit,” she says. “But that 10 or 15 years from now, we can look back and say, ‘Wow, this really did have a positive effect.’”
Mike Shanley is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org