Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh City Programs and Their Impact on Income Mobility

navjeevanI was born in New Delhi on October 2, 1996, on what would have been Gandhi’s 127th birthday. For the first two years of my life my family lived in India, before moving to Singapore and later San Jose and southern California after my sister, Vidhu, was born. We eventually settled in the southern San Francisco peninsula, where we’ve lived since I was in fifth grade.

In middle school—in spite of puberty, society anxiety and preteen obnoxiousness—I met a couple of my closest friends, realized a love for stand-up comedy and developed a standing addiction to mobile games. An avid reader, I picked up “The Age of Turbulence” by former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan the summer before I started high school. Though I’m sure I didn’t fully understand the book, I remember being fascinated with Greenspan’s descriptions of his work in economics. This sparked an interest in economics that continued throughout high school, where I discovered a love of public speaking and became involved in Model United Nations and the debate club. These activities strengthened my interest in economics as many of the issues discussed in both clubs had to do with economic policy.

After reading books like Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” and participating in conversations leading up to the 2016 election, I’ve become more cognizant of how inequality shapes our culture. When choosing an honors thesis topic, I decided to explore how we can take action on a local level to combat inequality. I hope that through this work we can shape policy that will allow people to lead better lives and focus on things that are more important and fulfilling than just getting through the day.

Learn more about my project.

Working with Unanticipated Elements That Become a Part of My Own Narrative

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Fall 2014 FORGE semester outing with our refugee family

Each week, I open up the thesis proposal I wrote in March to re-evaluate my research goals and scroll down to the timetable that I’d created with my adviser.

Looking at it, I’m realizing that I need to adjust the deadlines I’d set for myself. There were several unanticipated bumps along the road that had kept me from completing the bulk of my fieldwork for my research by the end of September.

I felt disappointed and frustrated. Now that I had classes Monday through Friday, I wondered whether or not I could make up for a few months of fieldwork. For days, I contemplated over how I would reallocate my timetable and it proved to be extremely difficult. Without any data, I struggled to imagine the extent of my abilities to conduct interviews while juggling classes. It’s easy to schedule in time where I work on my literature review and put together my poster for a presentation for a Dietrich College Family Weekend event, but the interviews will require a few hours that include commute time, the actual duration of the interview and the time it will take for me to transcribe the recorded interview and reflect on the interviews as part of the analysis.

The longer I wait for the IRB to approve of my study, the more anxious I am. Whenever anyone asks me how my research is going, I feel a knot in my stomach because all I’ve accomplished in the last week is adding a few more articles to my annotated bibliography.

I still see my FORGE family on the weekends and it’s amazing how a few hours with them helps me relax. I relax because the conversations I have with them are not about my research. I relax because I can sit on their couch with them and watch Hindi movies without subtitles. I relax because they’re looking forward to celebrating the upcoming Nepali holiday. I relax because being present with them reminds me why I was motivated in the first place to pursue my thesis.

I’m looking forward to my weekends as soon as my IRB proposal is approved, because I will be having conversations with a community that reminds me of the importance of the present.

It’s ironic to me that as I constantly think about narrative inquiry, one of the methods I am using for my research, I realize that it’s much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. Narrative inquiry is a methodology that encourages researchers to value the lived experiences of their subjects.

Lekkie Hopkins, who advocates using narrative inquiry in refugee research, wrote, “Researchers must understand that if storying is to grapple with the richness and complexity of lived experience, it will probably be chaotic and messy, as well as clear and straightforward. Researchers wanting to investigate the sociology of refugee experiences might be well advised to ensure that the stories they gather from research participants are not too neat, too straightforward, too much reduced to bare essentials in their telling, lest the chance to allow the stories to become personally and politically resonant be lost.”

I remember reading Lekkie Hopkins in March of this year and interestingly, I’m looking back at her abstract and making a connection to my own narrative as well as the narratives of the refugees I hope to hear soon. My own narrative, or my own lived experience, will be messy and chaotic at times and that’s how it should be.

I know that this sounds cliché, but it really is important to live in the present. Too much time is spent organizing, and reorganizing, my Google calendar. I’ve adjusted my timetable, come to terms with it and moved on.

Alternate Tunings

With school coming back into session, I’m reminded that it’s time to get back into the grind of my thesis.

The tail-end of the summer and these first few weeks of school have brought my mind back to focusing on my work, and also questioning some of the ideas I’ve had about the final form my project will take.

A quick TL;DR of my life: my band released an album, I played a lobster festival in Chicago, and I’ve been accepted as an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar, which I hope will fund a trip to SXSW to meet industry executives and leaders in March.

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All of these experiences have led me to question what the final form of my thesis project will take.

Initially, I wanted my project to be presented as a film, more specifically a documentary. This film would be 30-45 minutes, and more or less be a traditional linear narrative that puts forth my argument about the Pittsburgh music scene.

However, I find myself now questioning myself. After finishing my research this past summer and limiting my scope, I now worry about almost being too argumentative and having tunnel vision with my film.

My music experiences and interactions with individuals have taught me that, if anything, the developments in the music scene are inextricably tied to huge other cultural factors locally, nationally and regionally. It’s no surprise that with huge amounts of money coming in from the tech boom and with younger, more affluent people moving into the city there has been a shift in the live music scene.

Also, I’m quickly realizing that the notion of making a large film has a learning curve, and even with a team to help, could lead to us getting mired in production aspects rather than focusing on content.

As a result, I’ve been debating using an online, interactive method of conveying my narrative as opposed to a traditional film.

Businessman pressing virtual icons

This narrative would be less “linear” and act more as a timeline that displays information with firsthand videos and documents accessed by the reader. As a result, the reader can move around more and create their own personalized experience in learning about changes in the music scene. Also, as the music scene continues to develop and change, more people could post and add to this narrative.

The one weakness of this change would be that my ability to convey an argument would be weakened. My ability to control how the narrative functions and is followed is hindered by the increased interactivity and responsibility of the user/reader.

Ultimately, I think that this hurdle of deciding the final form of my project is the next challenge for me to tackle (and fast!)

Learning From Refugee Youth

Student example from Story Exchange

Student example from Story Exchange

“There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature; the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. In short, it was conversation.”

– Studs Terkel

As I continue to prepare to conduct interviews (which will likely begin around the same time as fall semester), I’ve been working with PRYSE Academy, which stands for Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment. At PRYSE, we encourage the students to tell stories through a variety of media. The story doesn’t have to be their own, however, it usually ends up being their own, and it usually begins with “I like…” The PRYSE Academy students have given me some ideas about narrative inquiry before I’ve even begun the interviews.

The students, who are in middle and high school, love talking about themselves. Last week, we had educators teach a workshop on storytelling. Rather than giving each of the students lined paper, the students were given a large piece of white construction paper. The instructions were simple: At the top of the paper, write “I am…” and fill the rest of the paper with words, pictures, or drawings of your own. They were asked to answer the question, “Who are you?” through words and pictures creatively. As expected, many of them began with their name. The educators encouraged them to use adjectives to finish the sentence as well. However, very few chose to complete the sentence, “I am…” Rather, the students completed the question, “I like…”

Using a variety of craft supplies including markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, glue and glitter, the students made collages covered in soccer balls, music artists and food – posters of what they liked. When they are asked to talk about themselves and who they are, the first things that come to their minds are what they like and what they are passionate about.

From the combination of words and drawings on the students’ posters, the students were asked to share a narrative that showed a little bit about who they were. This was the most difficult part for the students, but their poster boards served as an outline for their narrative. One student had drawn himself playing soccer and basketball. He had his arms crossed unsure of what was being asked of him.

He said, “I don’t have a story to tell.”

I asked, “Why do you like soccer?”

He clasped his hands together, placed them under his chin and said, “I tried out for my middle school team and got in. That’s it.”

“Tell me more about the team. Do you like playing with your team?”

“Yes! We won our first game by 20 points! That felt great.”

“That’s great!”

“But then we lost our last game of the season…”

“Aww.”

“But that’s not important, because I had fun.”

We had a story. We spent a little more time piecing together more details for the presentation. His narrative shows his peers his favorite sport as well as a glimpse into who he is – a team player. It took a bit of time for him to find the pieces of his story to tell.

The narrative process is not an easy one that will simply come to my interviewees. They won’t be middle and high school students; however, the Bhutanese-Nepali adults will also need time to piece together their own narratives. Narratology and narrative inquiry researchers agree that the interviewee should get the opportunity to express himself about the things that matter to him. This is often called “nondirection.” The interviewer should not always try to steer the interviewee into one direction. However, the interviewer should never lose control of the interview.

Just as I let the PRYSE Academy students navigate their own stories through creative processes on the topic of identity, it may be beneficial for my interviews to prepare example narratives on the topic of economic self-sufficiency, which will give them time to think about how to begin forming their narratives around this topic. This will hopefully keep what researchers call “specificity” in play during the interviews. For me, this means listening for what the interviewees want to talk about and ask follow-up questions about specifics when appropriate. Interviewing is a skill that I am working on and hope to develop through this research. I’m learning to do this with the students where they often make it very clear to us when something does or does not matter to them.

Learn more about my project.

Why It Matters (#SaveJamesStreet)

It’s always distressing to see the problems addressed in my thesis playing out in real-time within our music community. One incident in particular hit me hard – the shutting down of the James Street Ballroom during the Deutschtown Music Festival on July 9, 2016.

During the weekend of July 8 and 9th, Pittsburgh held its fourth annual Deutschtown Music Festival. For local residents and members of the Pittsburgh music community, this weekend holds a special place in our hearts. For two days, the North Side of Pittsburgh is taken over by incredible local music, showcasing the best talent in the city and our thriving music scene.

However, one situation nearly put a damper on the entire event. On Saturday, the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy was shut down by the PLCB due to a noise complaint from a nearby resident.

In short, the PLCB threatened to permanently shut down the ballroom, and arrest management at the establishment (for a more thorough analysis of the incident, click here.)

The situation created a huge uproar within the local music scene and brought city-wide attention. Members from all corners of the scene, from musicians to booking agents to production company owners, had harsh words for the action taken by the PLCB.

On my end, this situation highlighted the huge hypocrisy that underlines action taken against music in the city.

Unlike some of the spaces and venues I am studying, the James Street Ballroom is a completely legitimate venue – it has its codes, it has permits and has showcased 300+ person shows with national headliners for years.

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By citing antiquated laws, a neighbor with a personal vendetta has now almost completely shut down a legendary music venue.

Now, I’m not someone who wants to preference the needs of music venues over other residents of an area. For example, the wrong action to take is to completely ignore the concerns of residents when creating spaces for live music. This can only exacerbate these situations and further create conflicts between members of music communities and larger communities at a whole.

Yet local law enforcement and city authorities must have a way of discerning between legitimate concerns and those that hide behind legal loopholes and rhetoric. In the case of James Street, one specific space was shut down during a neighborhood-wide music festival, with no complaints given against any of the other significantly louder outdoor stages.

But there is a silver lining to this whole debacle. One, it really demonstrates why my thesis matters, especially in a time when the Pittsburgh music scene is growing. By understanding how neighborhood changes are affecting the local music scene, residents and local music venue owners can work together to create a more amicable scene.

Second, and more importantly, the situation highlights just how strong our community is. Hundreds of people have come together to support James Street in their time of need. A recent Indiegogo campaign to help the historic venue hit its goal 22 days before the deadline, with money still being raised. A plethora of fundraising events have been planned in order to help the management pay for the high soundproofing needed to get the ballroom functioning again. Members of the community have united and even created the #SaveJamesStreet hashtag to unify the efforts and create more traction on social media.

The incident at James Street exemplifies how even the most established music venues can be threatened, but also demonstrates just how powerful a helping community in action can be in times of need.

 

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Looking back over the last six weeks, I’ve gained a whole new perspective on my project and the music industry as a whole. Overall, I could characterize these in the form of three insights. 

Insight #1: “Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”. 

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This insight applies to both my project and how the music industry itself works.

Relating back to my project, I’ve learned that sources and resources are not as far off as I originally envisioned.

Although Pittsburgh often isn’t highly ranked nationally for its music as much as other cities, like New York or Austin, it still has a plethora of incredible resources for my thesis.

One form of resources is classic “research” data. These include databases, libraries and other typical sources for information. Just being at Carnegie Mellon University, I’ve had access to an immense amount of data that I still have to scour over!

However, the most fruitful resources I’ve stumbled upon are people! So far, people have been the greatest, and the most interesting, source of information from my project. Whether it be one of my advisers suggesting I check out a certain book, meeting a local musician who experiences the music scene I am studying firsthand, or talking to promoters who have seen the cultural changes affect their work, people have dominated my interest and study in the field.

This emphasis on people also connects my insight to my study of the music industry. Although technology changes and economic models shift, people are the constant in the equation. In many ways, the music industry acts as a giant social network. Very rarely are artists “found”- instead, it’s a process of connecting with others, building connections and being in the right place at the right time with the right people. 

Reading through the history, it’s clear that certain individuals (such as Ahmet Ertegun) are the “right people.” In my insight, they are the “objects” that are always closer than they appear and guide the market with a seemingly invisible hand. These individuals are the key figures of the industry, who seem to continuously pop up and guide the trends and changes that ultimately affect those on the bottom (for better or for worse!)

Understanding this power dynamic and identifying these key individuals has the benefit of streamlining my research in the early stages. By learning about the careers and choices of these people, I am able to get a quick overview of how the music industry has changed and then focus in on finding more specific and “lost” voices to fill out the narrative further.

Insight Two: It’s OK To Be Lost 

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This insight connects to my method of conducting research, and how it’s changed from previous research experience.

The fellowship is the first time where I’ve truly immersed myself in the literature without a preconceived conclusion or answer.

Usually, and I think this is true of most college students, I’ll enter a research endeavor with a conclusion in mind. My research from that point onward becomes less about “learning,” but more about finding evidence to prove my conclusion correct.

As a result of the time allotted for research and the larger scope of the final thesis, the fellowship allows me to engage in research without these preconceived notions. Instead of finding evidence to support my conclusion, I’m more interested in finding how things work, common narrative threads and a deeper understanding of my field.

Many times this kind of research has led me down a whole bunch of rabbit holes, some helpful, some not. However, the idea of being “lost” has definitely lost its negative connotation and has opened a whole new realm of research methodology for me.

Insight Three: If Lost, Writing Is Your Map!

Krishna - map

Although there are benefits to “being lost” in your research, inevitably you’ll have to define your borders and scope. I’ve learned that writing has been the best way to synthesize my ideas.

If “getting lost” is my research methodology and people are my main source of information, writing is the guide that helps me put all the pieces together. By synthesizing my data, I’m able to really see the forest for the trees.

Writing also reveals gaps in my research. For example, even when writing my blog post I’m realizing I have to find my firsthand sources of individuals who are currently involved in the music scene. I also understand that I have to find more hard data for my research.

Moving Forward 

With six weeks of this project under my belt, I’m about halfway done with the fellowship. Here are some of my goals moving forward:

  • Write a blog post weekly (minimum).
  • Write a final list of individuals to interview and complete it.
  • Finish my annotated bibliography.

I look forward to sharing the rest of my findings with all of you!

“Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain”

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One of the most misunderstood elements of the music industry is the industry itself.

For many, the music industry is a narrative with artists as the most public figures, and a hodgepodge mix of agents, managers and executives who are largely unknown. “Success” is often seen as a stroke of brilliant luck, and failure often blamed on artists becoming burnt out or washed up.

However, like most convenient shorthand historical narratives,  this story removes many of the major characters that dominate the music industry and shape an artist’s career.

Unbeknownst to many, there are countless stories of artists coming into conflict with their industry companions. For example, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys — perhaps the most acclaimed American pop songwriter — famously shelved albums’ worth of material due to labels not believing it would be commercially successful in the market.

For others, these men behind the curtain curated the success of global phenomenons. The Beatles were not just a group of musical geniuses – they had a highly developed and responsive team to assist them in all aspects of their career. In fact it was their manager, Brian Epstein, who led them to early success by firing their original drummer, Pete Best, and convincing the group to change their wardrobe to the now famous suits and ties onstage.

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But how does this relate to my thesis?

Well, my thesis studies how cultural factors have affected the local Pittsburgh music scene and pushed it more underground in college areas. However, I’m also interested in studying how the music industry itself has changed with advancements in technology, and, particularly, how these advancements have changed the role independent musicians play in the industry.

I quickly realized that in order to understand how the music industry is changing, I had to understand its historyI decided to pick up a book called “Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry” by Gareth Murphy.

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I  drew three conclusions from Murphy’s work:

The first conclusion is this: Since the inception of the record industry with the creation of the phonograph, industry executives  have always struggled to maintain monopolies over all aspects of an artist’s creation. By using a plethora of legal, financial and personal means, record executives have always sought to seek control over how artists create, and what they create.

Even today, artists still come into contractual disputes with labels over issues like ownership of material, royalty distribution, album obligations and more. In the mid-1990s, Prince had a famous dispute with his label Warner Brothers, creating a string of albums (releasing three in 1996 alone!) over his album obligations to the company.

The second conclusion is that, with every technological advancement, music becomes increasingly democratic and creates a new power struggle between artists, consumers and industry executives.

For example, when radio first became accessible it gutted the phonograph market. It also led to a new wave of youths learning how to use the technology and privately broadcasting before a series of laws were made to retain broadcasting power in the hands of a few. This is still seen today with the debates over online streaming, and using music pirating services.

The third conclusion I drew is that, as music becomes democratic, new fields of music begin to emerge in the marketplace and the record industry seeks to monopolize on these as soon as they are financially feasible. This leads to the formation of new genres becoming thrown to the forefront of the industry, and why certain periods of time are marked by the prominence of certain genres.

This is demonstrated by the rise of country music in the early- to mid-twentieth century. As the technology changed, more acoustic instruments were able to be recorded and records were cheaper to produce. As a result, new markets were found for newer artists in areas like Appalachia, the south and the midwest. Realizing that there was a demand in the marketplace, the record industry prioritized creating these records, leading to a sudden boom of country, folk and bluegrass music. Within a decade, individuals like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb and more would become household names thanks to record labels understanding and responding to marketplace demand.

But Dhruva, why is this important to YOUR thesis? 

Well here’s the interesting thing: For decades, maybe even centuries, the music industry has confronted these three conclusions in various cycles. Yet, our current global music scene may be the first where artists can truly be independent from labels and potentially achieve total success. 

Technological advancements in recording, music consumption and music distribution have given more power to artists than ever before. Of course some of these technological advancements, such as online streaming, have fundamentally changed the economic landscape for many musicians (that’s a discussion for a later blog post). Yet, an artist could now create and record an entire record, and promote and release it to a global audience without the support of a record label at any point in the process.

(As a side note, the Grammys recently corroborated this point with an announcement that they are allowing online streaming albums to be nominated for awards).

Connecting this back to my thesis, this is a major shift in the music industry. Especially looking at a city like Pittsburgh, where a large chunk of the music scene exists in DIY spaces, it raises questions and challenges the narrative around an artist’s success. Artists may have the ability to actually shape and curate their own careers from the ground up.

Whether or not the man behind the curtain is there to help, artists now have the choice to follow the industry’s yellow brick road or forge their own path.

Tuning Up

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Music is the most powerful form of human expression.

Sure, that’s a bold claim but think about it – each of you reading this probably has a subconscious (or Spotify-curated) playlist of your life. Songs that can make you remember, that can make you forget, that can make you laugh, that can make you cry, all in just a two minute and thirty second snippet.

So I’ll say it again – music is the most powerful form of human expression.

Music has been my companion through breakups, new loves, mental struggles and more. Music gave me the ability to speak my mind and share my experiences with others. It let me connect, taught me how to empathize and keep an open mind. More than anything, music gave me a voice.

It’s with this same love for music that I approach my Dietrich Honors Research Fellowship.

If you haven’t read the summary of my project on the official Dietrich homepage, here’s a quick review: My project studies the changes in the Pittsburgh music scene over the last 10 years, and how cultural forces like gentrification and urbanization have pushed the scene underground and into different neighborhoods outside of college areas. In turn, I’m interested in looking how these changes, notably the rise of the “Do-It-Yourself” or DIY aesthetic are signs of larger changes within the music industry, particularly how music is distributed and heard by consumers.

Although the final shape my project will take is still tentative, I want to make sure I can capture the way music has transformed the lives of so many people in the city. I also want to capture how music itself is transforming, for better and for worse. To do so, I’m hoping to incorporate filmed interviews, audio clips, concert footage and more to curate an intimate experience demonstrating the power of music.

But why is this project so important?

Compared to other projects that may be more scientific or even  more ambitious (sorry, no Hyperloops or cancer cures here), I admit my project may seem a bit trivial. Yet, every day people are being displaced by large corporations that inherently change neighborhoods and the nature of our city. These cultural forces do more than just bring J. Crew and Apple to Walnut Street – they first repress, and then oppress, the disenfranchised, stripping them of their homes and then their voices.

For many of you, this may seem a bit political (#feelthebern). But music is political – it connects us and helps us communicate and understand things across cultures and times. When the music is pushed out and eventually begins to die, the implications are more than not being able to see Beyoncé at Heinz Field. It’s the death of creativity, the death of compassion and the death of what makes us human.

At the heart of my project, and why I believe it’s so important, is my firm belief that everyone should have access and be able to perform, see and have the same musical outlets that changed my life. Everyone should have a voice.