All Good: ‘The Biggest Small Festival We Can Be’- A Conversation with Tim Walther
Tim Walther makes no bones about being a jam fan. He founded Walther Productions just over ten years ago in the wake of Jerry Garcia’s death, at a time that would prove to be ironically fortuitous for Walther and other like-minded music fans. With the end of the Grateful Dead, summer schedules were suddenly pocked with gaping holes, and Walther and his now fiancJunipa Contento were two of many potential promoters that jumped in to fill them. Their contribution was the All Good Festival, and what started out in its first year as “a party for a thousand people” has now ballooned into one of the summer’s top festivals, and will celebrate its tenth anniversary this year at Marvin’s Mountaintop in Mastontown, WV on July 14-16.
In ten years, both Walther and All Good have changed with the scene. Last year’s line-up, while staying true to its jamband roots, also opened itself to acts on the fringes, like the Flaming Lips, reflecting a new diversity that carried over this year into other festivals such Langerado and Bonnaroo. For its tenth birthday, Walther has a few special gifts for his first born. When he wrapped up the Black Crowes and Ween, he thought he couldn’t go any bigger, but with the addition of Trey Anastasio, Mike Gordon and the Benevento-Russo Duo, this year’s All Good line-up is by far the biggest it’s ever been, and with all acts appearing on a single stage, fans don’t have to miss a note of it.
Walther couldn’t be happier about it all. This year’s All Good looks like it will reach his long-standing goal of 20,000 attendees, and by now, he’s worked with just about every act he ever could have dreamed of. In fact, one could easily make the mistake of assuming that he’s got nothing left to work for. But while he may have few of his original dreams left to fulfill, looking back on ten years of success, Walther is as aware as anyone that the future can always bring new dreams and new surprises.
BG- So, 10 years! How’s that feel?
TW- It feels good. It’s been an interesting road for sure. We feel like we’ve experienced a little bit of everything in ten years and we’re really excited about this year as far as taking things to the next level and creating the best atmosphere we’ve ever created. So it’s safe and fun for everyone.
BG- All Good’s really grown. Was that something you guys were going for or was it something that just kind of happened.
TW- We’ve been growing steadily the whole time. We’ve always tried to build the festival a little bit from year to year and not really go for huge growth all at once. I think our growth mirrors the growth of the scene. The scene is consistently in a slow growth pattern, and we’ve always been aware of the importance of growing with the scene and not getting ahead of ourselves. I’ve seen other festivals go out there and try to hit a grand slam and jump three steps at a time. That’s the wrong way to go about it. We just take it one step at a time and work through all the growing pains, the ups and downs of the scene, the politics and everything else. It’s important for us to hang in there as one of the pioneering festivals of this kind and to remain true to the music and the scene.
BG- Tell me a little about how the festival has grown. What’s changed since the first one and what’s stayed constant?
TW- Well, for the first one, we were basically very young to the scene and Junipa and I and just a few friends pretty much put on the whole event. It was more of just a party for a thousand people as opposed to the festivals of today, so we had to grow in a lot of areas: from running the whole thing ourselves and wearing twelve different hats to going out there and seeking the best people for the key positions. Our staff has multiplied from five to five hundred in ten years.
BG- What are some your favorite acts that you’ve had over the years?
TW- Back in the day, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones was the first national act to come out to the All Good festival, and it was really exciting to have them out there at the time. Aquarium Rescue Unit was another one of the first to come out and really add national flavor to what was really just a local and regional festival at the time. I’ve always been a big fan of Keller Williams, Dark Star Orchestra, Umphrey’s McGee, moe., The Disco Biscuits, String Cheese Incident and all of the other bands that have been a big part of our growth over the years. We were very excited to have the Flaming Lips out there last year. Spearhead was great. I’m looking forward this year to having Ween on one of the only events of this kind that they’re playing this summer. We’re also real proud to have Trey and Mike and the Duo out there.
BG- Yeah, the Trey and the Duo thingwas that something that you went after or did the opportunity just sort of present itself and you grabbed it?
TW- It was both. We had our ears to the ground. We had someone else on hold and it looked really good for a while, and then we heard that Trey was going out during this time, so we kept that on the back burner as we moved forward. And as soon as Trey officially became available, we definitely started to work hard toward getting the band on the bill.
BG- It seems like that’s a huge step for you guys. Do you feel that way about it?
TW- Absolutely. You know, I feel like the Black Crowes was a big step for us, and then Trey happened and it worked out even better. A lot of times, we don’t get the first bands we go after, but a lot of the bands on the All Good this year were our first round picks and we’re pretty excited to have them come in and do the show with us. With all these types of festivals that are growing throughout the years, we feel we have to come out with a new and stronger line-up every year. And we’re pretty excited to say that we only have three repeating bands out of thirty-five this year, so it’s pretty much a brand new schedule of bands.
BG- You’ve been on the scene for a while and you’ve seen it change and grow and morph, and it seems like especially in the last four or five years, it’s really opened its arms to a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of that’s probably because of Bonnaroo. Do you feel pressure to try to fit yourself to that? Or is it something that you do willingly?
TW- We definitely don’t feel pressure. You know, our tastes have been changing over the last couple years, and All Good is going to continue to grow with the scene. The scene is changing. People’s tastes are changing. A lot of these bands have been around for a while and if any group of fans has an open approach to music, it seems like the jam genre fans do, so we just love to expand by offering a few new acts to the scene each year and keep it interesting. The main thing is to keep it fresh, and grow along with the times. So no, we don’t feel any pressurewe’re just growing with the scene.
BG- How did you guys react to Bonnaroo when it first came along? How has that shaped the way that you’ve approached things since then?
TW- I can’t say that it’s had a huge impact on what we do. We just looked at it and said, “Wow!” You know, it was something that people thought about for a long time: “What if you put all the best bands together and just did one huge festival?” The difference was that these guys went for it and made it happen, and more power to em. I think all we did was try and stay away from it. You know, we wouldn’t want to put our festival in the same time frame as Bonnaroo, but other than that, I think it’s good for business to bring that sort of notoriety to the scene. Having a hundred thousand people going out to see this kind of music and camp out helps all these bands grow and helps the scene flourish.
BG- Especially when you were coming up, when Walther Productions and the All Good Festival were a little younger, how would you balance your position as the owner of the company with your desires as a fan? How did you keep yourself from going overboard and getting over your head but at the same time taking the risks to make the festival what you wanted it to be?
TW- I think what we’ve had going for us over these ten years is that we do a lot of club work throughout the year. We’ve done as many as four hundred shows in a year’s time. We’re still doing about three hundred a year, so we’re constantly on the pulse and in touch with the fan base and interacting with them, going to shows and dancing with the music and keeping in touch. It’s not as much of a risk for me as it used to be, because I feel like I’m in tune with what’s going on, with what people like and with what bands are here to stay. It’s really a matter of trying to put together the most compelling lineup of artists and then marketing it the best that we can. A lot of people will say, “How can you take that much of a risk? How can you put that much money on the line?” It’s just a matter of building up to it. I couldn’t do this if I wasn’t a full-time promoter putting on three hundred shows a year and staying in touch with the fan base.
BG- Over the years, if you had to pick one highlight from the All Good festival, what do you think it would be?
TW- Good question. It’s funny. I’m still waiting for the day when I can actually check out the music again at one of our festivals. Maybe it was when Junipa and I were on stage with Leftover Salmon leading into their encore at Oakley Farm and Vince Herman went on to compare a beach ball to Junipa’s stomachat the time, she was 9 months pregnant and about to burst with our daughter, Myrah.
BG- If you could have any active band that you wanted at the All Good festival, who would you go for?
TW- Well, I’ve got a couple on the burner that I’m going after for next year, but I can’t really talk about it. Other than that, I feel blessed to have worked with all the bands that we have worked with up to this point.
BG- What are some of the roadblocks that you’ve hit over the years, some of the obstacles that have been really tough to get over?
TW- At Marvin’s Mountaintop, the big obstacle is just getting that many people down a one-lane road into the site. That’s something we’re working really hard on right now, and we’re well on our way to solving it. When we went out there and hosted five or ten thousand people, it wasn’t that difficult, but now we’ve figured out some alternative routes and a way to process people in two places at one time. Just managing the larger crowds in a scene where you want to give people as much freedom as you possibly can and at the same time make sure there’s a safe environment is a major challenge. So you have to balance the two, and that becomes hard at times, because you can’t have security in every corner of the place at the same time. Sometimes there are people doing stupid stuff that you just can’t control. We try to create the “All Good” environment. We want people to feel comfortable knowing that they’re coming to the “All Good” festival. It’s gonna be “All Good times” with “All Good people.” It’s a concept we created early on and a vibe we’ve maintained over the years.
BG- What are some of the things you’re going to be doing differently this year than in years past?
TW- We’ve brought in some bigger players to the site from other large events around the country to beef up our operations and security, and we’re doubling our services. We’ve actually quadrupled in size in the last four years. We’ve jumped from five thousand to ten and fifteen and we’re looking at twenty thousand people this year. So we’re increasing all the key amenities: doubling our water stations and port-a-johns and creating additional ways into the site. We’re now able to process people in two locations at once so we can get the traffic in twice as fast. We’re building new access roads. We’ve been working on those things since August of last year. We’re also bringing in a lot of artists to work on site art and overall atmosphere, and we’re working on some interactive playshops. Ropeadope’s going to join us again this year and will be leading a new music seminar where main stage artists will play and answer questions from the crowd.
BG- Did last year’s mess have anything to do with building new roads?
TW- It did. You really can’t fight with Mother Nature. We got about four inches of rain in an hour and a half and the only road we were using to process people got flooded out. We had three feet of water running over our road at our peak traffic time. There was a two mile backup at that time and it just got worse, because we couldn’t process anybody for three hours. There wasn’t much we could do about that. Marvin’s been up there his whole lifehe’s 58and he said that was the most rain he’s ever seen there in such a short period of time. Ever. Pretty ironic.
BG- Yeah, it was a pretty vicious storm. Being in the campgrounds during it wasn’t much fun either.
TW- Yeah, I can imagine. You know, the good thing about the site is that it drains really well, as you may have noticed. It’s six inches of soil and grass and then solid bedrock, so I think on similar sites like that, there would have been a lot more problems with people getting stuck and a lot more mud. I think the site held up pretty well overall, even though it got crushed there for a short time.
BG- Are there going to be two stages this year?
TW- There’s gonna be a side stage, which is basically for bands to play between sets. It’s called the Magic Hat stage, which will be directly adjacent to the main stage. We still pride ourselves in not having any overlapping sets, so you can see every band on the schedule in its entirety. That’s what we’ve chosen to do. It’s a little bit different from last year, when the second stage was detached from the main stage. This one is gonna be pretty much right there. You basically just turn your focus a little bit.
BG- How did this year’s line-up take shape? Who were some of the first acts that you guys got and did that have an effect on what you booked on top of it?
TW- The Black Crowes were one of the first bands in there, and then Ween, and we kind of went from there. Umphrey’s McGee, Les Claypool. You kind of build it as it goes. We sort of say “OK, if we get this band in this slot, we’re gonna get this band before them, but if this other band comes in” We have a list of four or five bands in each slot, depending on what happens before and after them, as far as stylistically how we want the day to go.
BG- You said earlier that the first All Good Festival was just a party for a thousand people. When you were doing that, did you have dreams or goals of doing something as big as this? Did you have that ambition at that point?
TW- I did. I read Bill Graham Presents and Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow as I started to dive into this business, and I had a goal of doing something like he had done, and now that I’ve been in the business for a while, I no longer have the unrealistic goal to go as far as he went. The business changed from the time he started to the time Walther Productions started, and it’s changed a lot more since we lost him. He did some pretty amazing things in his time but he was in the middle of something very special during one of the most incredible periods in the history of rock. I don’t think that what he did can be done again. It’s already been done. But he did inspire my goals. When I started in 1996 with the festival, I had a goal of ten thousand people by 2000, and of twenty thousand people by 2005. I saw it as a slow growth thing, starting at a thousand and building a little bit each year. We reached ten thousand in 2003, and we may very well reach twenty thousand in 2006. I didn’t really set goals beyond that. We are still deciding whether we want to go to a larger festival site or just stop expanding in size and keep our focus on improving the experience for everyone.
BG- Yeah, how do you deal with that? It seems like with a capitalist economy and the kind of mindset that people have, there’s always that idea that you either grow or you die. You can’t stagnate. If you don’t want to get any bigger, how do you reconcile those things?
TW- Like I said, you don’t have to get bigger. You can do other things. We can do other festivals. We can work on other aspects of our business. I’d be just as happy making the All Good a festival that sells out in advance, where people know what to expect. There just may not be a need for a festival larger than twenty thousand people. We’ve tried to be the biggest small festival that you can be. We’re not too big where it’s so out of control that you lose that intimate feeling of seeing the band you wanted to see and being with the people you want to be with. And we’re not too small as not to be competitive.
This year’s All Good Festival takes place at Marvin’s Mountaintop in Masontown, WV July 14-16 and features: Trey Anastasio & Mike Gordon w/ Benevento/Russo Duo, Ween, Les Claypool, John Medeski & The Itch, Southern Culture on the Skids, Bob Schneider, Oteil & the Peacemakers, Disco Biscuits, The Black Crowes, Robert Randoph and the Family Band, Umphreys McGee, Galactic, Donavan Frankenreiter, Railroad Earth, Tea Leaf Green, RAQ, Greyboy Allstars, The Wailers, Rebirth Brass Band, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Xavier Rudd, The Bridge, Steel Train, Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers, Soldiers of Jah Army, The Brakes, Hackensaw Boys, Danielia Cotton, ALO, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Gary Jules, Mofro, Hot Buttered Rum.