SongSpace owes its existence to four people: Brad Yoder, Steve Hirtle, Fred Rogers, and our founder, Linda Holsing.
Linda met Brad Yoder in May 2002, right after the CD Used was released. They became friends, and she started helping him with some of his publicity. At the time, he was playing around 100-150 shows a year, in a variety of venues: coffeehouses, bars, colleges, festivals. Linda went to see Brad and several other Pittsburgh acoustic artists every chance she got, and in doing so she became very aware of the good and bad aspects of venues. While it was great that these venues gave artists a place to perform, the physical space was about all they gave them. Most shows were tips only. There was no thought given about the “stage” area or the ambiance of the room. The audience often talked throughout the show. The coffee machines were loud. There was not always a place to set out merch. The venue rarely did any type of publicity for the show, often not even listing it on its own website (this was in the infancy of social media, when MySpace was just becoming popular). Brad was the type of performer who gave 110% regardless of the number of people in the audience or the conditions of the venue, but Linda kept thinking there had to be a better way to present shows.
During this time, Linda found one venue that consistently got it right: The Down Under Coffeehouse series, run by Steve Hirtle in the basement of the Allegheny Unitarian Church. Steve presented about 8 shows per year, primarily local Pittsburgh artists. The shows were publicized through emails and Pittsburgh websites. There was always a friendly person sitting at the door to take admission. The chairs were set up nicely. There were refreshments (hot and cold drinks, popcorn and sweets) on tables along the back walls. Occasionally a massage therapist set up her chair. There was good lighting for the stage area and the room. The sound board was well run, usually by Steve. It was a listening room, so no random conversations were going on while music was playing. Steve welcomed the audience and gave some information about the performer and upcoming shows. The artists were paid. The merch table was large and easily accessible. It was a wonderful place to listen to music.
Somewhere around January 2009, Steve told Linda that he was going to stop running the Down Under shows. She felt like there was going to be a void in Pittsburgh to lose this type of venue, so she started formulating plans for an acoustic music series at First Unitarian, where she was at the time a new member. As you can tell from the above paragraph, much of SongSpace (particularly the original setting in the Undercroft Gallery) is modeled directly after Down Under, with one notable difference. Brad had introduced Linda to music from artists who performed at NERFA, and she wanted the SongSpace series to present both local and regional artists, to expand the scope of performers.
Now the Fred Rogers connection. While Linda loves many of his quotes, one comment in particular seized her attention. He talked about how much he disliked the early days of children’s programming, which he felt was disrespectful to children. He said that he viewed “those few feet between the screen and where children were sitting, watching, was a sacred space.”; Could that be a more wonderful image? This philosophy is part of the core of SongSpace. The artists we book have to be engaging with the audience, providing them with thoughtful and well-crafted music, and the audience should be attentive and engaging back with the artists. Such magic and joy could—and does—happen in that sacred space.
Rev. David Herndon was very receptive to the idea of an acoustic music series when I presented him with this idea in spring 2009. He introduced me to Emily Pinkerton, who was able to provide valuable insight, from the perspective of both an artist and a church representative. Our committee first met in September 2009, and we presented our first show, Molasses Creek, in March 2010. As audiences grew and grew, the series soon outstripped the capacity of the Undercroft Gallery for its main shows, and it moved to present all shows in the main sanctuary of the church. The sanctuary has wonderful acoustic features — some call it the best hall for music in Pittsburgh — and with a new professional-quality sounds system installed under the direction of the church’s music director Emily Pinkerton, it has provided an admirable home for the series.
In 2014, after five great years, Linda stepped down from her post as Artistic Director, booking agent, and chief organizer of the series, to focus more on family and personal issues. Brian Junker, who has been running sound for the series since its inception, and Irma Tani, stepped into Linda’s many roles (and Linda still comes to volunteer on show nights!). The SongSpace committee (Brian Junker, Will Snavely, Mark Holsing, Emily Pinkerton, Gary Crouth and Irma Tani) has remained more or less intact, and still very enthusiastic about SongSpace, and so the series is still going strong.
Today, SongSpace books five shows a year in the First Unitarian Church Sanctuary, of which one — the January show — always features exclusively Pittsburgh artists, while the others feature regionally and nationally touring headliners, often with Pittsburgh openers. We get so many requests for shows, that we have re-opened the Undercroft Gallery for SongSpace Gallery shows. Gallery shows provide mid-week revenue for artists travelling through Pittsburgh between weekend gigs, and they also give us a chance to try some artists out before putting them on the main Sanctuary stage.