Interview by Courtney Patterson
Justin Strong jokes he has never made a good drummer because he gets too bored with playing the same beat. Strong will soon switch up the rhythm in a big way—After almost thirteen years of running Shadow Lounge, the East Liberty hub for culture and nightlife, he is preparing for his final weekend at 5972 Baum Boulevard. On March 29 and 30, Shadow Lounge will host The Legacy Series, a showcase featuring nearly 30 performers, including headliners Sonji and Eviction Notice, to give patrons a chance to say goodbye-for-now to the beloved club. Strong intends to re-open Shadow Lounge in a couple years, after he buys or builds out a new space. In the meantime, Strong and his company, 7th Movement Development, will continue partnering with and developing other venues around Pittsburgh to host events. Shadow’s adjoining club, AVA Lounge, and the Blue Room will remain open on S. Highland Avenue.
Shadow Lounge has provided a stage for local up-and-coming and national artists to show off their skills at open mic nights, hip hop shows, dance parties and poetry slams. It has also been the site of countless Sprout Fund events and Seed Award projects, including Rhyme Calisthenics, Flamenco Pittsburgh, Vanessa German’s Testify performances and Fotograffiti, and The Sprout Fund’s book launch for Making the Connections. Chris Ivey’s documentary, East of Liberty: A Story of Good Intentions featured Shadow Lounge heavily. And let’s not forget all of the Hothouse after-parties. The Sprout Fund is grateful to Strong for his support as an early board member, but most of all for contributing to a growing and thriving arts and music scene in Pittsburgh.
How did Shadow Lounge spring up in East Liberty?
After I graduated from Allderdice High School in 1996, probably 95% of my friends left Pittsburgh, and the majority did not come back. My cousin and brother said there’s nothing ever happening, especially for all ages or 18+. I always thought if I just did a party or an event there would be something to break the streak of nothing. While at Pitt, I started hosting my own events. After my freshman year, my friend and I decided to throw a fashion show to give our friends who were back from college something to do over the summer. I hosted a lyricist battle called Got Skills, which was probably one of the main things that got me known in the scene. Eventually, we got the bug to have our own space to throw events. After looking in Oakland for two and a half years, I found someone in East Liberty who actually wanted to sign a lease with a 21 year old who had the crazy idea to throw parties. Back then, I had no intentions of Shadow Lounge becoming a music venue. We just wanted to throw parties and have some open mic sessions.
What has been the most rewarding part of your experience managing and developing the Shadow Lounge?
What’s been rewarding is seeing the artists who have grown to different levels of success whether it’s Mac Miller or Wiz Khalifa, or just some local kid who got better; providing space for all the community events and for people to get their message out and gain support; and really just proving that the scene did exist, does exist, and will continue to exist. It’s about more than just a party. We’re on this road of life together, getting things done. You see the beginning of a lot of people’s journeys, and we’re woven within that. I’ve met a lot of great people; some have moved on, some are still here.
I used to track Forbes Magazine’s “40 Best Cities for Singles.” Pittsburgh used to be dead last. My #1 goal was to get us to the top 20. The last year they published the list, we were 23 or 24. Now we’re considered one of the top 10 places for young entrepreneurs. I feel like we’re doing our part to keep people entertained and interested in being here.
What role do venues like the Shadow Lounge play in stimulating the arts in Pittsburgh?
Any successful economic region has a very healthy arts and entertainment scene, and beyond that they have a very supportive subculture. Nowadays companies are more mobile. They go where the bright minds are. If the bright minds don’t want to leave because they’re having fun, then that company is going to set up here. Places like Shadow Lounge and vehicles like The Sprout Fund help to impact people’s perceptions and their experiences in the scene, the city, and the region—and that affects their decisions about whether to leave or stay. We’re all agents in the cultural scene. You could say, ‘Hey we had all these different events and they were fun, but there’s a ripple effect in all of this.’ You could measure all of that over the course of 30 years.
What was one of your favorite shows at the Lounge?
Probably more recently, the Little Dragon show in 2011. We got the group through a booking agent who knew our reputation from other artists. With the way the Lounge is set up, the band had to walk through the crowd. I’m always in the production end, so I seldom get to have that fan experience. But to see someone else have it, that was great. People might have a bad day, or a relative passes away or they lose a job—but we’re able to give them four hours of a good time. Something you’ve been working to produce for two months comes down to four hours, and that could make a person feel like life’s not that bad after all.
Lots of people know you as the owner of Shadow Lounge. What else should people know about you?
You get so caught up in the business that it defines you. There’s that fear of the business owning you instead of you owning the business. There are a lot of personal sacrifices that went with it. My family has gone to the beach every year since I was sixteen, and there were a good four years when I missed it. I’m known for being the father of Taide right now; she’s almost as popular as Shadow Lounge I’m finding out. Having a daughter has changed my perspective on the business, helped me make better decisions on management, and forced me not to be at the Lounge all the time.
I’ve started writing more standup. The Lounge got me into writing poetry. We’d just sit here, week in and week out, surrounded by people like Vanessa German, Nathan James, Nikki Allen, DJ Brewer and Brian Francis. We used to keep a dream journal lying around, a notebook that nobody moved. Some of my first works are in there. I learned that even though I’d be stuck here a majority of the time, I could find some little bit of self and personal life in there.
What do you say to people who will miss the Shadow Lounge?
Hopefully, it forces younger people to step up. Maybe three pseudo Shadow Lounges will pop up during that time. That would be great for the scene. We can’t put all of our hopes on one person or one venue. I’m working on other projects beyond the Shadow Lounge, other venues. The idea is that we’ll take what we have bottled up on this corner, and just spread that love throughout the city.
As you’re gearing up for the final weekend, how are you feeling?
I’m ready to be done. I’m still running the production of the Legacy Series, so it’s a big event for me, like the block party or New Year’s Eve. I’m trying to make a list of everything I’m going to forget. I’m dealing with a ton of artists that I have to get on stage on time and off stage on time. We’re recording video and audio, so there will be the post production for that. We’ve been working on this next Shadow Lounge venture for the last 3 years, so to be able to put some time and focus on that is kind of exciting. It’s really about ownership. I see the bigger picture and there’s always been a bigger picture. We’re getting to the next level.
The Legacy Series takes place Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30, with doors opening at 6:30 pm. For more information about the artist line-up and tickets, visit http://www.shadowlounge.net/rostrum-records-presents-the-legacy-series-fri-recording-live.html.