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INTERVIEW: DirtFest Organizer MATT DALTON – July 2016

| 13 July 2016 | Reply

Our own Mike Hubbard took the reins and interviewed Matt Dalton…

Ever wonder about what it takes to put together a music festival?  I know I have, so I jumped on the opportunity to chat with Matt Dalton, co-owner of Metro 37 recording studio, and organizer of Dirt Fest, an annual hard rock/metal festival in Michigan.  2016’s event is scheduled for August 13, so I was fortunate to catch Matt for a few minutes to get some background on Dirt Fest’s origins, the logistics required to pull an event like this off, and what is in store for 2016.


Mike: Summertime is music festival time.  Can you give a little background on Dirt Fest, its history and how it came to be?

Matt: It came to be just based off of me needing to fill a void as far as opportunities are concerned for myself.  I was in a band coming out of high school. My whole thing was doing everything DYI.  I’m from mid-Michigan and there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff available to me, so starting off I had built my own recording studio to do my own music.  For bands from the area, I would put on hall shows.  We would have a place to play and the other bands would have a place to play, and that kind of graduated to the idea of taking a hall show format and just putting it out on the grass for one day out of the summer, seeing if that would turn into anything cool.  It has grown into what it is now.  So it started off with local bands and then it grew into regional bands and then about 10 years ago we finally started to have enough clout and expertise to start booking national talent.  Fast forward to now, we just moved it from mid-Michigan to Pontiac, and we are hoping that it is going to be nice for the growth of the event, to get it a lot closer to where more of the people are down here in metro Detroit.

Mike: Very cool.  Did you have a specific goal or vision for Dirt Fest or is did it evolve organically over the years?

Matt: Ya, I think that is more of the case.  It is just an organic idea, not really something that is intended to compete with any other music festival that is out there. I think that we were a little bit ahead of the curve starting what we started back in the late ‘90’s, and it’s definitely become a lot more of the trend to have all these summer music festivals.  Like you said it’s summer, it’s the music festival season, but back when we started it off that wasn’t really the case, and so we were just filling that void trying to have something to do for the summer that’s a little bit bigger than the hall shows that we did on a bi-weekly basis, or whatever it ended up being.  But our vision for it has always kind of stayed the same, kind of like do what we feel without bending to any particular trend or try to make it fit any particular format.  It’s kind of taken on more of a hard rock and heavy metal feel over the past years of doing it, but that’s kind of the audience speaking to us more than us speaking to the audience.  Who was responding to us was primarily the hard rock and heavy metal community, and so we kind of just continued to listen to those people and making sure that we were filling the need for them. Because there are plenty of other what I like to call ‘playlist festivals’ where they try to cater to every taste and there’s almost no identity to it.  You will have Slayer and Metallica playing the same festival as Beck and Skrillex, and it’s like ‘sure that sells tickets’ but what’s the identity?

Mike: You definitely have a strong identity with the kind of bands you book for Dirt Fest.

Matt: Thank you!  That’s definitely what we strive for, more of a community style event.  Yes it’s hard rock, it’s heavy metal, a little abrasive.  It’s not something you’re going to necessarily bring your kindergartners out to, although we do see a lot of kindergartners out too.  There’s metal parents out there bringing their metal kids in training.  It’s definitely a bit on the edgier side of the community.

Mike: As you mentioned, the line ups typically have a lot of local Michigan bands, but also in recent years a lot of national headliner-type bands.  What are some of the bigger bands that you’ve had there, or some of your favorites over the years?

Matt: It’s tough to pick favorites, just because like I said, I don’t necessarily program the bands to fit my tastes.  I program the entertainment to fit the taste of our audience, so if I were to be booking the bands that I like personally, if it were the bands on my iPod, it would be a much different festival.

Mike: Maybe looking at it differently, what are some of the bands that really got the biggest response from the audience over the years?


Matt: The big response bands have been Killswitch.  We had them in 2014 and we have them back this year.  Last year we had Coal Chamber, I mean that was a big deal to me.  I listened to Coal Chamber growing up.  That was one of my favorite bands in that Nu Metal era, listening to Limp Bizkit and Korn and Marilyn Manson, White Zombie, big Nu Metal stuff back then.  Coal Chamber was a big one for me.  So last year I ended up having the opportunity going on tour with them for about 6 weeks, and then brought them to Dirt Fest shortly after, for the summer.  That was one that was cool, and they had a big response.  We had the first reunion of Chiodos, back in 2012 I want to say, when Craig came back and joined the band.  That was one of those electrifying performances that was real special.  Craig has been a friend of mine for a long time.  We worked that out to do that show.

Mike: That was really cool.  That was a big deal that got international coverage.

Matt: Same with last year.  We got a lot of international coverage with having Hellyeah play on Friday and Down play on Saturday, with people putting 2 and 2 together going ‘ooh, is this a potential Pantera reunion?’, and that created some buzz.  That’s cool for getting recognized even if that’s not the case and that’s not what we were intending.  It’s cool that people start talking about it.  You know over the years there’s little things like that we do try to keep very true to those roots.  Like I said, where it was started off as a way for me to have an opportunity to play somewhere, so I want to be sure that these younger developing bands have an opportunity to play something that gives them a little bit more experience in the professional band world, giving them a chance to play alongside some of their favorite bands, and some bands that they can look up to at a business level. And it gives them a chance to see what it takes, I guess, instead of just being out in the crowd and hoping that one day they get to share the stage with some of these bands that they look up to, and hopefully develop to that same point.  There have been a lot of bands that we’ve had over the years that have gone on and used Dirt Fest as a spring board, or at least a piece in the puzzle to their success.  Look at Wilson, look at Battlecross, bands from the mid-2000’s like For the Fallen Dreams.  We have them back this year, but we’ve been supporting them since back before they had a record deal. See You Next Tuesday, Pop Evil, there’s a number of bands that are right here from Michigan that have played on the Dirt Fest stage before they were known anywhere else and we are very proud of that.

Mike: It’s almost like you are reading my notes here.  That was going to be my next question, what are some of the bands that were local and unknown that went on to do bigger and better things?  It’s great to see that, and it’s a great opportunity for local bands to rub shoulders with some of the heavy weights to see how it’s done.

Matt: Exactly, because I mean we’re by no means the only festival that allows that to happen, but I think that it’s dwindling.  There’s fewer of them now it costs a lot of money to have local bands play festivals.  People don’t really realize the promoter’s end, what it really costs to provide that opportunity, and I think it’s a valuable opportunity for not only the bands, but the community in general, to make sure that we are supporting our home grown talent.  Bands have to start somewhere, the bands that everybody loves have to start somewhere, so the more of them we can generate from here the better.  I love when they come from metro Detroit, and all over Michigan for that matter.

Mike: Great, very cool.  You mentioned the move from Birch Run to Pontiac this year.  How did that really come about?

Matt: Well, for anybody that’s driven along I-75 in the past 6 months or so will see that right there in the parking lot of the Birch Run expo center there’s a Ford dealership that’s being put up, and it’s not a little operation.  They are taking up basically the entire parking lot that we used for the event, so there’s really shrinking opportunity for that location to be the home for the event.  So I had very good relationship with the people down here in Pontiac at the Crofoot, so I gave them a call and said ‘hey I’m looking for somewhere to move this, I’d like to come to metro Detroit, but I’m not going to come to your backyard without asking if you want to be a part of it too’.  That would just be bad form to do that, and it was kind of a no brainer on both of our parts.  They said ‘ya, let’s partner up on it’.  So really it was that easy to say ‘you want to open up yours doors to me? I’d love to partner with you’, and so from there we’ve just been forging ahead.

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Mike: Great! So how do you expect the experience will change for the audience in Pontiac versus up in Birch Run?

Matt: It’s hard to say.  I’d love to be able to look into a crystal ball and predict how that’s going to happen, but if my experience in this has taught me anything it’s that I can’t force the fans’ experience, and it will be better for me just to observe and learn from how people buzz around and react and act at the event here, and take what I learn from there and improve on anything that I can for next year.  I think that we’ve learned a lot from doing it in Birch Run, and a lot of those ideas, and the ways that we do Dirt Fest to make it unique and special, are going to be able to translate to the new location.  But this spot in Pontiac at the Crofoot gives us a little bit more options, just different options.  We’re going to have stages inside the Crofoot which is going to give people a chance to get into the air conditioning if they want to, and we’re going to have things like a merch locker system so people can drop off things that they purchased over the course of the day.  They don’t have to carry it around with them all day.  Little things like that that we haven’t been able to do at Birch Run, or maybe we could have but just didn’t think of it.  It’s going to be one of those things where I’m excited to wait and see, just as much as other people are excited to wait and see, and then learn from it, and then continue to build on it.

Mike: Cool!  I read somewhere that said you were limiting the number of tickets below the current capacity of the area.  Was that really thinking along the lines of what you described, because you want to learn before the thing blows up too much, about what to expect, or were there other thoughts on why to limit the tickets?

Matt: I mean you have to have a limit.  The area can only physically hold so many people.  Looking at who our talent is on the bill, we have a pretty good idea of how many people to expect.  So we are just kind of planning for that amount of people.  We’re not doing Iron Maiden, so we are not expecting 20,000 people to show up to the event, but once we see as close to the event as we can what the ticket count is going to be, we’ll be able to judge it from there.  We’re not capping it at a low level like 3,000 or anything like that.  We’re still hoping for something like between 7,500 and 10,000 people.

Mike: I think I saw something that said you probably could max out at about 20,000, but you are going to try to limit it to 10,000 to keep things under control.  Or did I misunderstand that?

Matt: I don’t think there’d be a way to put 20,000 people in that parking lot, to be totally honest with you.  Physically speaking, it’s not really that big.

Mike: You mentioned no Iron Maiden in this year’s lineup, but there are some pretty big names.  Perhaps the deepest set of national acts that I recall in recent memory at Dirt Fest.  Is that part of the move to Pontiac, to try to bring in some bigger names, or is that really just kind of coincidental?

Matt: It’s not that it’s coincidental, it’s just that there’s an art to booking these bands in the summer, because like you said it’s summer festival season, so people’s routing and availabilities are taxed more than they ever have been, and the demand to get these artists to your event when you have a targeted date, whether it be a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, whenever the festival is happening.  We just happen to be a single day festival, so that gives us an even bigger challenge.  It’s just a matter of who’s going to be able to do it.  So we’re out there on our grind, as good as we can be, trying to make sure we get the artists that are going to be available.  I don’t think that in the last 5 or 6 years that location has been at all a factor in the bands that have been available.  It’s just the time frame more than anything.  Time frame and budget.  We’re not looking to book bands that cost a million dollars.  We’re looking to keep Dirt Fest as something that has that organic home grown feel, so we’re not looking to book bands that are in that extreme upper echelon, at least not at this point.  It just kind of boils down to who’s available and who we can get to be on the bill, but we are definitely happy with this year’s lineup.  I mean the variety of what’s in the, what you want to call hard rock and metal, and all of its subsets and bastardized genres, so there is something for everyone for sure.  We’re touching on metalcore, we’re touching on extreme metal with Born of Osiris, we’re touching on the younger kind of Warped Tour style of metal with Asking Alexandria and Attila, we’re going straight hardcore with Bury Your Dead, Hatebreed, and Walls of Jericho, and you got Soil and Wilson for people who are more into your radio rock.  So it’s definitely a very diverse line up even though it’s going to be a bunch of guys with beards and drums and guitars yelling at you from stage.  There is still a bunch of variety.

Mike: Ok, great!  You mentioned that there’s going to be a bunch of stages.  About how many stages are there going to be?  I imagine there’s a lot of art behind how you organize which band’s playing which stage at which time.  Can you talk a little about that?

Matt: Ya, there’s definitely a strategy that goes into my planning, that goes into who’s playing on which stage at what time.  I sit with that portion of the spreadsheet for days with on end, and I go back to it and I adjust, and I tweak, and I adjust.  I have a personal relationship with just about every band that ever plays Dirt Fest, so I’m usually very familiar with their music and who their fan base is, and who their other friends are in other bands, who I don’t necessarily want them playing at the same time as each other on certain stages.  So when the fans are walking around they are looking for something to do, if they are at a stage where there’s a band they don’t particularly care for, or if they are looking for something else to do by migrating a few hundred feet, then there is going to be something else that may appeal to them a little bit more.  So there’s definitely a lot of time and energy that goes into that aspect of it.  We’re going to have the same set up that we’ve had the last few years, where we’ve got two stages next to each other for the headline acts that kind of ping pong back and forth.  There will be a few more stages outdoors, and like I said we’re going to be using stages indoors at the Crofoot for people to see band inside too, if they feel like getting out of the heat but not getting away from the action.

Mike: Great!  We’ve been talking about the centerpiece of the festival, being the music.  With any kind of event this size there’s got to be a lot of food and drink on hand.  What can people expect from that perspective?

Matt: We’re going to have a lot of different food trucks from around the area, so there will be a pretty wide variety of different flavors of things.  We’ll have Benito’s Pizza out there.  It’s been a staple of Dirt Fest the last five years.  People can always get the giant slice of pizza for a couple of bucks.  It’s actually unreasonable cheap.  Then beyond that we’ll have tacos and sandwiches, and BarBQ, and all different flavors for people to be able to keep themselves fed for the day.

Mike: Very cool!  I imagine a lot of work goes into putting this together, and you are pretty focused on this year’s event, with it just being about five weeks away on August 13, but any thoughts on what’s next for Dirt Fest looking forward to next year and beyond?  Or just kind of focused on the here and now right now?

Matt: I kind of always have to have what’s next on my mind to a degree, but without jumping ahead of myself, but really I look at the festival the same way that a baseball manager has to look at his next game, or a football coach has to look at his next game.  You know there’s going to be another one coming after the game this Sunday, but really 99% of your focus comes down to you gotta win this game, and getting everyone on the team focused on you do the best that you can this time, then you regroup from there and let the dust settle.  That’s kind of where I am.  The next one is on the horizon, but it’s not close enough to be too worried about it yet.  We have to make sure that this next one is as good as it can be.

Mike: Great!  Any last words of wisdom to give to any fans who are either thinking about, or already have plans to come out to Dirt Fest this year?

Matt: I think for anyone who’s never been to Dirt Fest, but has at least kind of heard about it and is thinking about going, but didn’t necessarily want to make the drive, if the new location and being a little bit closer puts you over the tipping point we’ll be excited to see all those new faces have a good time, because we are definitely an event that has a very unique atmosphere.  If I hear anything through the course of the year from people who attend the festival, it’s that Dirt Fest just feels different from any other event that they go to throughout the year.  So I’m really looking forward to seeing a lot of new faces that come and have a good time and experience the massive amounts of bands that we have, and the other attractions.  Like we’re going to have a BMX, not really a competition, but BMX riders on ramps, and stuff like that.  Just having all different kinds of atmospheres to be able to experience when they are out there, aside from the music and the sun, there’s always going to be some activity going on.  If you are someone who has been to Dirt Fest before, I think that it’s kind of like how I’m feeling about it, you know a little about what to expect, but there’s the added element of extra excitement and surprise, because it is a new area and it is going to feel a little different, and have a little bit different atmosphere.  So there’s definitely going to be a lot for everyone.

Mike: It sounds like pretty exciting times!  I appreciate the time you have given me tonight.

Matt: Likewise brother!





Category: Interviews

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ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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