CMA Awards 2018

Thrival Festival Brings Grade-A Music, Technology to Shed Light on Pittsburgh's Cultural Transformation

Tony Piscitelli
Thrival Festival

Pittsburgh has always been a steel town, but it's looking to steal your brainiacs. The Pennsylvania sport-crazed city wants all your tech luminaries, fresh-faced entrepreneurs, and artistic minds to see that – yes, Pittsburgh is where they belong.

“Pittsburgh is the new wild west,” says Dan Law, executive producer of Thrival Innovation and Music Festival, a four-day event that brings leaders from the business, technology, and entertainment industries together to teach Pittsburgh citizens how to take their ideas to the next level while showcasing incredible achievements they've already made.

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A self-described “true Millenial,” Law graduated with a masters in foreign policy at the height of the recession. After a couple years working as a line cook, a used car salesman, and in dreaded sales, he was approached by CEO Bobby Zappala, COO Stephan Mueller, and Charman Luke Skurman of Thrill Mill, a non-profit start-up accelorator to join the Pittsburgh initiative as it attempted to create a crowd-facing event series that would lure fresh minds to its walls and show off the companies it helped to grow.

The problem excited Law. It gave him a chance to use his policy-driven mind to work while having some fun and making a positive impact on the community he loved.

“(Pittsburgh) had to figure out what our culture was going to be, who are we going to be moving forward into the 21st century,” he says. “It became a challenge for young people to step in and be a part of that equation.”

Thrival was the result, and four years in, the festival has grown to epic proportions. This year's event, Sept. 20 to 24, is capped with a two-day music festival headlined by The Chainsmokers, Chvrches, Ty Dolla $ign, Thievery Corporation, and more.

On the panel side, Thrival strives to provide attendees with something different from the usual one-track conversations. For instance, a discussion on musical events' ability to aide the evolution of community between Sam Fotias of Movement in Detroit, Parag Bandhari of festival live-stream outlet Uphoric TV, and Tommie Sunshine (James “Disco Donnie” Estopinal Jr. of Disco Donnie Presents was scheduled to appear but couldn't make it).

“I think there's enough panels out there about how to throw an event or different marketing things you can do,” Fotias says. “When an opportunity comes to discuss the relationship of a place that you live and its cultural impact, and how or why you enjoy being a part of that – that's interesting.”

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The parallels between Detroit's own struggle to redefine its culture and national reputation and Pittsburgh's own opportunity to change is, in Fotias' mind, all part of a larger national conversation.

“Cities basically built on the shoulders of the industrial revolution tend to see a lack of support for the cultural subcultures,” he says. “There is a lack of understanding for the culture, how it ties into society, and the benefit those things have on the society as a whole. I find it inspirational when communities that have been predominantly unsupportive of the arts suddenly find it as a way to be a catalyst of regrowth and regeneration in their regions.”

Fotias first spoke to Law about Thrival's mission by happy accident and immediately saw it as an event he'd like to be a part of. Likewise, a number of successful start-ups, companies, and organizations have resettled in the Steel Town after attending Thrivals of the past. This year's festivities are already the biggest in the organization's history and can only get bigger. Uphoric TV is scheduled to broadcast the musical performances live via its website and YouTube. Pittsburgh's future is looking bright, and Thrival is thrilled to be a part of it, but any amount of success only stoked the fire to burn faster.

“Pittsburgh is the land of opportunity, but it's moment is also fleeting,” Law says. “Five to 10 years. That's our window of opportunity to really gain a new identity and redefine ourselves as a new economy and a city that welcomes creative people and fosters a community of inclusion.”