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Indie Rock Roots - Pittsburgh, PA | Talking with Connor Murray of Crafted Sounds

Interview by Paul D Houston

I grew up in Akron, Ohio, a small burnt out industrial town with not much to do. If you wanted to go out, or find good live music, you had to go to Cleveland, about an hour north or Columbus, about an hour south. When you got tired of those "big" towns, your options were, Detroit about 2 hours northwest, but Detroit was as burnt out as Akron, so that was hardly ever an option. Chicago was about 4 hours west and that was an exciting option, but a long ass drive. And then there was Pittsburgh, about 2 hours east. And that's where I gravitated to eventually in the mid 1990's. Something about this old steel town, with its gray and black structures. There was a hardness to this town that I liked. It was one of those "small-big towns" you hear about. Enough going on entertainment wise, but still a sense of small town community vibe throughout.

The Pittsburgh of the 90's was different than the Pittsburgh of now. There was an intentional rejuvenation enacted by the local government in the last 10-15 years and a lot of that darkness that clung to the alleys and backstreets of downtown is gone, replaced by new shiny retail shops and big bold community centers and corporate offices. Economically, Pittsburgh is now a different place than when I lived there, and thats probably a good thing.

One thing I loved about my time in Pittsburgh, was the local music scene. There was a lot of leftover punk bands and influence in the rock scene there. The indie rock movement of the 90's hit Pittsburgh too, but it was a dirty and grungier indie rock due to the local punk influence. It was a small scene then and from what I hear, it's still mostly that. With that in mind I made contact with Connor Murray, label manager for Pittsburgh based CRAFTED SOUNDS. They work within the local indie rock scene in Pittsburgh and are having solid success doing so. While they are pushing to work with bands outside the Pittsburgh scene, they are a haven for some really good Pittsburgh area bands.

So, Connor, Pittsburgh is a place with a unique feel and sense of history to it. Why set up there and can you explain to us what kind of music CRAFTED SOUNDS specializes in and why?

I do not think we necessarily specialize in a certain sound, however I do lean towards acts with noisy lofi, garage/grunge tendencies. I think that's reflective of what I listen to more in my free time. (My current faves Stove, Truth Club, Dehd, Priests, B Boys and many others.) I do not think that I look for artists that sound like people we may already work with. I look more for complementary sounds that can incrementally expand a listener's palette or a band's reach. In a small city with many scenes you can exhaust a niche market very quickly by working with many acts within it. It's impossible to work with everyone, so I try to work with people that cater to different sounds around the city. We've put out experimental records, a hip-hop record, shoegaze records... it isn't the same thing every time, nor should it be in my eyes. Furthermore, I do not think we should only work with artists from Pittsburgh. I definitely want to expand more regionally in the mid-Atlantic, so that our acts can play together regionally, etc. Music is definitely geographically impacted. I love capturing that and exploring the creative bubbles of different scenes. It is even cooler when you connect those different bubbles.

You release only on cassette, why? We are friendly with BURGER RECORDS, who we believe sort of brought back the cassette format for rock bands, were they an influence on your cassette only format? Or what?

I thought I was going to jump into vinyl this year, but I had to return to school for my senior year at Pitt, so I had to cut back work hours, and life expenses added up... so the vinyl fund went to shit. I was pretty bummed about that, but whatever. Tape is the primary format for now. I do not really see value in putting out a CD at this point unless we were big enough to cater to that format as well. I am curious how that format does for indie labels of our size. I feel like it would be a waste of resources.

People are streaming more right??? 

BURGER is really cool. Love what they do. Honestly, they were not a huge influence on me as far as the tape format was concerned. Labels like Friends Records, Too Far Gone Records, and Disposable America really turned me on to the format. I just remember there being a bunch of bands in Baltimore and DC with tapes for sale at shows and I thought that was so cool. That was like the major motivator to at least adopt the format.

How is CRAFTED SOUNDS doing in Pittsburgh, reception wise? Are you able to get your cassettes in the local retail music shops? Are they selling at the live shows? Who is your buying audience for this?

Pittsburgh has been great. If I didn't come to Pittsburgh. I do not think that we would have been as successful as we have been. It's a small city, and it is relatively easy to meet other creative people. People like the idea and the look of the tape thing. Tapes hit that physical sweet spot bewteen CD and vinyl, which is attractive for DIY artists and labels. 

Tapes cater to a small audience of all ages. Some people are rediscovering music on tape, while others are experiencing the format for the first time. Tapes do not fly off the shelf, but I am selling more than we did at the start. People like to buy them at shows, I have some stocked at a local record store (The Government Center), and we've even had some distributed in the EU via Z Tapes. They don't sound great, but they're cool... at least I think so.

*Note: Success is defined as breaking even and making cool relationships with people.

If I can ask, what’s the average amount of cassettes you are able to sell for an artist? I ask because, running a small record label myself, we are very tentative about the cassette tape format.

We do runs anywhere from 30 to 100. It depends on the project, and what is needed. We did 30 tapes for The Lopez record release in May that were sold exclusively at the show. That was awesome. We split inventory 50/50 with the artist and sell on Bandcamp, tabling events, shows, etc. I dub the tapes in-house. I literally have 2 tape decks that I operate on. It's ridiculous haha. We will work with a local print shop (Flower City Printmakers) to get our jcards done, and we explore a variety on tape shell design options (imprint, stamp, sticker, paint, etc.). Every release is different and we do what we can to make it as special as possible for the artist. 

In general how is the indie rock/garage/punk scene doing in Pittsburgh? When I lived there in the mid and late 1990’s, it was very lively, even if it was largely underground. Has it changed much since then?

I think it is doing well. I think you still have to dig for some of the things going on, but overall I think we are doing just fine for a city of our size. I'd like to think that more artists have been coming to Pittsburgh on tours more recently and artists from here have been getting some more national recognition, which is so cool to see. I always wonder what people think of Pittsburgh and the music we have here. Outsider perspectives have been generally positive recently in press. I hope that trend continues.

You’re also putting together live shows at places around the Pennsylvania area. Are these shows, with just Crafted Sounds bands, or other bands? 

Not every show that I put together has a CS band on it. Not every band I work with fits every bill I am booking. There are so many great bands we are not directly connected with via the label that also deserve to shine on stage. The impact of Crafted Sounds should not be exclusive by any means. If we can positively impact the scenes we operate in, then we are doing a good job. We just put on a local showcase in September that was all local bands that we do not currently work with and it was awesome! 

What are some venues in the Pittsburgh area, that you enjoy working with and just seeing a live show as a fan of music?

Howlers, Spirit, Roboto, The Funhouse, Babyland, Rock Room, and all the houses are great. They really cater to the DIY ethos of the label and the scene. I particularly love packing it in at Howlers and the basement at Spirit though. 

I don’t want you to pick favorites, but if there is one or two bands on the label, whom you’d talk about first when it comes to representing the labels sound, who would that be?

I am sorry... I just can't shout out one or two acts. I am very proud of the releases we put out this year and I think it says a lot about where we are headed sonically. There is some saturation in certain sounds, but overall I felt each release had a rather unique appeal. This year we put out our second releases with both Eyebawl and The Zells. It is so cool to continue working with acts past one release. I went ahead and provided a quick overview below:

Bridges - 21 song Pittsburgh compilation that has a little bit of everything

The Lopez - lofi power rock

Spooled Up - fuzzy rock w/ 90s feel (Baltimore)

Flower Crown - loud dream pop 

BBGuns - indie hip-pop

Eyebawl - grunge punk (Delaware)

The Zells - war, slacker rock

What do you have coming up in the near future as far as releases and other label stuff?

Flower Crown is making it to Canada in November and dropping a single in December that we are really excited about. Over the next month The Zells are playing with Bethlehem Steel and might be heading midwest for a show or two. Spooled Up is playing with Pile. I love Pile, Bethlehem Steel, and their label, Exploding in Sound. Eyebawl from Delaware is going to be playing in NJ and Baltimore as well. It is so cool to see them playing out of town more.

I think we are done with EP and LP releases for the year. I am plotting releases for next year I cannot discuss just yet ;) However, we have shirts and hoodies we will be printing very soon. They are available for order on Bandcamp! I am also redesigning our websites (label+blog+bandcamp), so I hope to share that in January. 

2020 has the potential to be a little quiet as I graduate from college and start full-time work. I definitely want to take some time to myself to do whatever I want, but most of the time I like doing this stuff, so I am probably just being dramatic.I am probably a big liar, and the label will probably release a bunch of cool stuff again. I am figuring it out over the next month or so ;)

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