Back to the Mountaintop With Tim Walther
Perhaps one of the music industry’s hardest working men, Tim Walther is a veteran when it comes to having a good time and approaching music the right way. From touring with the Grateful Dead, handing out flyers for a six-pack and a ticket, to producing what Rolling Stone magazine calls “The best fest for Jamheads,” the All Good Festival founder knows how to successfully throw a musical event. Shedding light on his career and the growth of All Good, Tim discusses the beauty of grassroots marketing and his eventual expansion overseas towards Amsterdam’s Jam in the Dam. If you want to know the differences between Bonnaroo and All Good and Amsterdam and tiny Masontown, West Virginia, it’s all here
JH- What inspired you to start throwing together shows?
TW- It all started with touring with the Grateful Dead and getting to know that scene and becoming a part of that scene and really wanting to what I could in my life to keep that scene alive and remain a part of it. That’s really my inspiration. There’s a big gap between touring and starting Walther Productions. Managing restaurants, managing a pizza delivery place, and doing sales and all kinds of different things. I just eventually came back around to looking to work with my passion.
JH- When were you seeing the Dead?
TW- 1988 I started touring with the Dead until 1995. I did around 52 shows. I’d do tour a couple weeks at a time. I had the experience of selling different things on tour as far as beers and nature burgers and grilled cheese just to make it to the next show.
JH- Where did you get your start? What was your first experience entering the music business and your reaction to it?
TW- I was dating a woman whose best friend was dating Lo Favor, the lead singer of God Street Wine. I was actually building decks at the time and working as a partner at this decking company. I’d eat dinner with Lo every time he came to town, the four of us would get together and go out to dinner. One night he was looking for somebody he could trust to work the doors at this dive called the Grog and Tankard down in D.C. He didn’t trust the guys working there and he had me work the door. I was really excited about their music, I became a very strong advocate of God Street Wine and after I worked that show I said, “I’d love to get some more people out for you next time. How bout I had out some flyers and put some posters up at the colleges.” I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time but I just wanted to help the band grow.
So I printed out some cut and paste 8.5×11 flyers on white paper and I was handing those out to people trying to get the word out. At the time God Street Wine was growing and they attributed some of the growth in this market to me and when they graduated to the Bayou they told the door that they’d have to pay me $150 to promote the show. Up to that point I was pretty much doing it for free tickets to the show.
So I got my first check and I was like, Wow man maybe I can do this for other bands.’ I was familiar with some other bands at the time like Solar Circus and Blue Miracle. So I started to go to work for those guys. Free tickets, $25, six pack of beer. I was just trying to get to know the scene. I felt like that’s where I needed to get my start, on the street, and try to get to know the business. As it turns out, it was a really good place to start. To this day we still have a very strong emphasis on grassroots promotion. For the All Good Festival I don’t know anybody who puts out more flyers than we do. We probably put out 400,000 handbills for this years event.
JH- Is there any specific location that you like best for shows?
TW- Marvin’s Mountaintop is our home for All Good. I’ve been to a lot of places all over the country and it’s in the top tier of outdoor venues. It’s beautiful out there sitting on top of the mountains and being able to see everywhere for 10 or 15 miles, overlooking mountaintops. When you show up to the site, the rest of the world goes away and that’s when the All Good experience begins. As far as clubs go, 9:30 is an awesome club. It’s the number one club in the country for selling tickets and it’s understandable. They run a tight operation and have a sweet club. There’s a lot of nice clubs in this market. Ram’s Head Live, State Theater, Fall Church, the 8×10. I can’t say I favor one over the other because they all have their niche in what they do best. They’re just all really quality clubs.
JH- All Good is in its 11th year now and has grown tremendously. Rolling Stone just ranked it in the top 6 festivals this summer and dubbed it “The best fest for Jamheads this Summer.” When you first started All Good, what were your initial aspirations? Did you ever envision it growing into something this large?
TW- I had goals back then in 1995 of growing a festival like this up to 100,000 people. My goal was by 2000 to get to 10,000 people and by 2005 to get to 20,000 people. 25 years was my goal to get to 100,000 so I guess I can still get there we’re at 11,000 now. Right now I really like the size of Marvin’s Mountaintop. It’s 20,000 capacity and I think it really lends itself to be a larger event but still have an intimate feel about it. People can feel that it’s not too big. I’m a little bit torn though, I feel like we’ll be at Marvin’s for at least the next couple of years but I think the time will come to decide whether we want to go to a bigger space or if we like this size. Right now my gut tells me that this is the right size. At this size we can keep it really fresh every year and deliver a top quality event for the people and have everyone feel like they’re part of the family and community and keep it tight knit because it really does feel like a big family when you get out there.
JH- Do you feel like a larger festival like Bonnaroo compromises the intimacy that can be found in smaller festivals?
TW- I do. I think Bonnaroo is awesome. I think those guys have set a precedent and have done an incredible job throughout the years of running a really tight event. For an event that size they have just done an amazing job of taking care of the people and making the site operate and keeping the logistics tight. It’s pretty amazing. For me personally, my chief complaint about it would be the same as everyone else’s. You just can’t see it all. You got three of your favorite bands playing at the same time and you just can’t see everybody.
JH- Given the size of All Good, you could easily have more than one stage. I know you added a smaller Magic Hat stage last year, but what influenced the decision to have one main stage as opposed to a more spread our grounds where multiple bands can play at the same time?
TW- Well we do have multiple stages. We have three stages now. There’s the main All Good stage and then there’s the Magic Hat stage which is fifty feet away from the main stage. Then there’s the Ropeadope stage which is more about having musicians at our festivalit’s very non structured and loose. We invite musicians to come up and collaborate and do some questions and answers giving people a chance to speak. It’s a very informal setting. We don’t schedule any acts up there that compete with the main stage so the concept is still true that we have no overlapping sets in the main concert area we have two stages and when the band finishes on the main stage the band starts on the second stage and it goes back and forth.
We think it’s our calling card at this point to allow everybody that buys a ticket to All Good to see every band they paid to see in its entirety. I don’t know of any other festivals of this size that are doing it this way. A lot of festivals have sixty to ninety bands and we’re at about thirty-five. I like the number of bands that we have because I feel like you can pay attention to each band that comes along and get a taste of the variety out there as well.
JH- Who are some of your favorite acts that have performed at All Good?
TW- I’m a big fan of Les Claypool. I just saw him last night and took down a pint of moonshine as a gift. He’s coming back for the third year. For the most part we don’t repeat too many bands. Last year we repeated four bands from the year before and this year we’re repeating three bands from last year. We try to keep at fresh mix in there every year. I’m really looking forward to the Michael Franti and Spearhead set. Grace Potter was a big hit last year. I’m looking forward to her coming back and knocking it dead. I’m really excited to have Leftover Salmon on the bill, I haven’t seen those guys in a couple years. It’s our first ever show with Bob Weir and RatDog.
I’d like to say I have had time on stage to watch the festival. We were really excited to have Ween last year because we worked on them for three years and I think they just knocked it dead. My goal for the last four or five years has been to get everything so tight that I can just sit back and enjoy the festival. I enjoy the vibe of the festival and the people but I can’t say that I get more than three hours of stage time with fifteen minute segments throughout the weekend. This year will be different though I have some friends coming up and I’m gonna hang out and have a great time and see a bunch of bands.
Our staff, I certainly couldn’t do this without them. We had 550 people on staff last year which is pretty amazing. It went from 300 to 550. I think that’s how many people it takes to do this thing right. The fans are coming, our tickets are selling like crazy, we’re well ahead of where we have ever been and we’re really just focusing on the experience. We’re trying to make sure that everybody has a great time and introduce some new flavors to the event that are outside of the music to keep people entertained. We’re doing a pretty interesting group effort on reducing the environmental impact caused by All Good. We’ve teamed up with Rex Foundation, Conscious Alliance, Headcount, and Rock the Earth. We’re asking everyone to carpool and making a donation to all of these organizations for every car that shows up with three or more people. So we’re making a collective effort to reduce environmental impact and simultaneously raise money for these organizations. They’re all going to be there promoting their efforts.
JH- What would you say your most rewarding experience has been throughout your musical career?
TW- Putting on this festival is the most rewarding thing that we do. It’s really what it’s all about. We work 60 hour weeks for eight months a year and 75 hour weeks for four months a year. It’s just a lot of work. People look at the music business and think, “It’d be so great to be a promoter, it’s such a glamorous lifestyle! You get to hang out with all these musicians” It’s 98% work and 2% glamour.
For me, when I stop inside the All Good Festival I feel like I’m on vacation because there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. That’s when everything has already been set up, everything is coming to you, the vibe is happening, every minute is exciting. It’s really where it all comes together. I think the bands feel the same way. They’re out there doing club gigs all year round and I’m sure they really look forward to the festival setting and being able to make that connection with the fanbase and the energy.
One of the things that our stage concept lends to is the building of the energy. You have people in that same area and the energy grows for twelve hours. By the time you get to ten or eleven o’clock at night the energy is just popping. That’s what I really like about it. That’s going back to Wilmer’s Park days when I got to witness that energy grow throughout the weekend. It just seems to build upon itself.
JH- This year’s lineup is quite diverse with Bobby, STS9, moe., Leftover Salmon, and all these other big names, is there anyone in particular you are most excited for?
TW- moe. And Leftover Salmon and Keller and DSO. Those four acts, being four of the six leading acts on the bill have been the major staples in the career of All Good. I really look forward to seeing all those guys come out. It’s a family affair when they show up backstage and a really great vibe. They’re all integral parts of the scene and have helped it grow to where it is today.
JH- Given All Good’s location in West Virginia, do you feel like you compete with Bonnaroo?
TW- No I think it’s less and less all the time. They tend to be going in a different direction and we’re maintaining our place in this world. I really don’t see it as us competing. I don’t feel like we’re competing with anybody. We’ve formed an alliance with seven or eight festivals trough out the country. Even Gathering of the Vibes, I don’t feel like we’re competing with them. They’re in Connecticut and Ken Hays and I have a great relationship and we support each other. We don’t feel like we’re overlapping, we go to each other’s festivals!
It seems like the cream has risen to the top and the six or seven festivals that have made it this far all work their region and establish themselves there and stand separate from each other for the most part. It’s a really good thing, there were years where it felt like I was competing with other people. Right now I’m just competing with ourselves. Our competition is to do a better job than we did last year and create a better experience than we did last year. That’s where I feel like I’m competing. It becomes more and more difficult every year. Every year I think it’s going to become easier and the intention is to do a better job every year so it maintains its level of intensity and making it happen.
JH- At any point in your career, have you looked back and wished you could have done things a little differently or are you perfectly content with the way things have turned out?
TW- I’d say you always wish some mishaps didn’t happen. Other than human error that really can’t be avoided, there’s not much I’d go back and change. We started in the right place and I feel like we’re still there. When I started this business I knew nothing about the business, I felt like my main roles were going to be grassroots promotion, club shows, festivals, marketing kind of things, and that’s really what it has been. I decided early on, in a lot of cases bands are on one side of the fence and clubs and promoters are on the other side of the fence and I felt like it was really important to me to remain on the same side of the fence as the artist to be an advocate of the artist to work out fair deals and work together on things and not against each other. It’s something that’s really important to me. I got into this thing for the music and I think there’s enough money to go around for everybody. I just want to be able to go to sleep at night and feel like I’m doing right by the artist.
JH- When you throw together a lineup like this year, are these primarily your first-round picks? How do you decide which big names you want and which you don’t and then proceed to throw together a lineup that works effectively and appeals to the masses?
TW- In general terms most of the times you don’t get your first choice. My headliners this year, maybe two-thirds of them are my first choice. This year was a pretty good year. Years past sometimes my headliner is like my ninth choice! With the amount of bands at our festival, for us the programming is everything. It’s confirming bands one at a time. We try to get our headliners and work underneath that. I don’t really want to book a lot of our bands during the day until I know what the flavor of the day is going to be at the end so I know what I want to do to build up to the flavor and how I want to have one band go to the other. That’s something we’re really focused on and I think if you have been to our events you can see the transition of the programming on a day to day basis is really tight and the music just really flows into each other really well and that’s what we strive for.
JH- In addition to running production for shows and festivals in the states, you have expanded overseas and started this wonderful thing that is Jam in the Dam. This year’s lineup has expanded to include six bands (Disco Biscuits, Umphey’s McGee, Dark Star Orchestra, Lotus, Perpetual Groove, and Tea Leaf Green) instead of the four-band bill that has been the past three years. What sparked that decision? How has Jam in the Dam grown and what part do you play in that?
TW- I’m a minor partner on this thing. It’s really Armand Sadlier’s, from Vision International, baby. I do some advising and consulting and a good part to do with who gets on the bill. But it has been his brain child and he decided to go and expand it this year and I think it’s a really good thing to put more bands on the bill. It’s always been mid to higher level bands and now he’s getting some up and comers which I think will add a lot of great flavor to it. I’m a big fan of Lotus, Perpetual Groove and Tea Leaf Green. They’re all going to bring some people and it’s going to be a very diverse crowd as far as ages and musical taste. I think it’s just looking to grow a little bit and do something different as well as give the fan a lot more for the money this year with six bands on the bill and four nights. Also, we became the manager for DSO which has become the third tier of my company. We’re Walther Productions, All Good Festival and management for DSO.
JH- Which locale is more conducive to a successful festival: Amsterdam or Masontown, West Virginia?
TW- Oh wow! I have to plead the fifth on that one! I think they’re both great. I love Amsterdam. Believe me I love the fact that I get to go on a paid vacation every year to Amsterdam. We usually work the festival for four or five days and then vacation for four or five days around the country. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people. It’s hard to come back to the U.S. because it’s just not pretentious there. People are very grounded. One of the things that’s really cool about Amsterdam is that I don’t think there’s a gender gap in terms of the production. I feel like men and women are truly equal over there. You barely see any women in production in the states, but in Amsterdam there’s no difference from one person to the next.
That’s not really answering your question, but for now I would say Masontown, West Virginia. Best place for a gathering in the whole world. Show up with good intentions and let everything go and be a part of the event. It’s somewhere I’d like to spend more days than I get to spend each year. It’s just a place where everything goes away and at some point throughout the weekend you have forgotten about the rest of the world and you’re just right there in the moment, the present, in touch with the people around you and the music is happening. That’s where it really begins to take off for people