This week marks Thrival Innovation & Music Festival’s fourth year in operation in Pittsburgh. Launched by the nonprofit startup incubator, Thrill Mill, Thrival now consists of a week-long innovation expo, complete with keynotes, exhibitions and tabling, as well as a two-day music festival. Though this year’s lineup features heavy hitters, CHVRCHES and The Chainsmokers, Thrival didn’t start out on such a grand scale, and like most events of this nature, has been growing organically for almost 10 years.
According to Bobby Zappala, founder and CEO of Thrill Mill, Thrival originally started in a Shadyside parking lot as The Baller Barbecue. The original idea was to get stakeholders in the Pittsburgh startup community together to network. The first Baller Barbecue was hosted in a Shadyside parking lot right next to the home of one of Thrill Mill’s board members. A few local bands played, fruitful connections were made and then everyone went home.
The event was held once per year, and then the frequency was increased to 2 or 3 times a year. Each time, the event grew in scale. More bans played. Food and drinks were available by donation at first, but changed to be available for purchase later. Eventually, the entire event became a ticketed affair with proceeds supporting Thrill Mill’s incubator program.
As the Baller Barbecue Expanded some others in Pittsburgh began to take notice. Foundations looking to increase Pittsburgh’s regional renown and spur economic growth approached Thrill Mill with the idea to make The Baller Barbecue a much larger event. Thrill Mill rebranded their event and Thrival was born.
The first Thrival focused heavily on innovation programming, bringing in speakers from the region and working with the startup community in Pittsburgh to celebrate how far the city had come in the last 10 years. Though innovation was the primary focus, music made a significant appearance, as Thrival brought Frightened Rabbit, RJD2, De La Soul and Formula412 to a single stage in Bakery Square.
After the success of the first event, Thrill Mill hired Dan Law to be the executive director of Thrival. Dan was able to land some major sponsorships from PNC and others to expand the music lineup. The event added a second stage in Bakery Square and brought headliners Portugal. The Man and Moby as well as supporting acts, Phosphorescent, Misterwives, Raury and Mayer Hawthorne.
Last year’s event brought a presenting sponsorship from UPMC Enterprises and a new location in Hazelwood. The lineup expansion continued, with the festival bringing Panic! At The Disco as well as Manchester Orchestra and former Wu Tang Clan members, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah. The event marked a turning point for the music portion of Thrival, as the event began to function like a regional music festival rather than a large concert, drawing people from the surrounding area.
This year, Thrival has booked its most ambitious lineup yet. With UPMC Enterprises’ continuing sponsorship the festival has been able to book acts that have topped lineups at other regional festivals and bring the event to Carrie Furnaces. It’ll be bigger than the attendees of the first Baller Barbecue could’ve ever imagined and help solidify Pittsburgh’s place as a successful rust belt revival story with the region’s premier entertainment experience.