Matthew Altruda doesn't make music, but makes local music happen
Daniel J. Brenner | AnnArbor.com
“I have a great ear,” said Altruda. “And I love and listen to all kinds of music: classical, hip-hop, dance music. But I can’t even play a bongo drum.”
So as a kind of twist on the saying, “Those who can’t, teach,” Altruda instead epitomizes the idea that “Those who can’t, promote.”
Since his arrival in Ann Arbor (from Connecticut) in 1993—when he was enrolled in Greenhills School as a teenager—he’s been making strides toward a life in the music business, papering Ann Arbor’s streetlights and community boards with fliers that promote local bands and concerts.
“I always worshipped music,” said Altruda. “I was always involved in street teams for bands. And that led to me wanting to do that for a career.”
Altruda dabbled in radio in college—he now hosts Tree Town Sound, which focuses on Michigan-based bands and artists, on 107one—and worked various jobs at Borders (his father, Vincent Altruda, was president of the company) while taking steps toward becoming a band manager. Altruda’s higest-profile, longtime clients are The Macpodz.)
He didn’t have a mentor, but instead found his own way in the music business, making mistakes and learning as he went.
“So often, on the production side, things aren’t done right,” said Altruda. “And I say that, having lost thousands of dollars at a Michigan Theater show at the start my career. But it just feels really good to help really talented people and use the talents and skills I have. So when I open Theo Katzman’s CD and read, ‘Thanks Matt Altruda for encouraging me to follow my dream,’ it feels amazing. I get to be a part of the ride with a lot of people. And I work really hard. I don’t want to fail.”
Plus, Altruda did soak up advice during his early years in the business. For instance, one band manager friend emphasized the importance of contracts, and making sure the musicians get paid a fair wage.
And while Altruda has been laboring for years to cultivate a strong music scene in Ann Arbor, he first appeared on many people’s radar as curator of Sonic Lunch, a free, weekly, summertime concert series in Liberty Plaza.
“This is my fifth year with Sonic Lunch, and during the first couple of years, when I wasn’t working for Bank of Ann Arbor, I wasn’t even trying to get paid,” said Altruda. “I just wanted to get involved. This year, the bank hired me. And because I work for the bank, I have a lot longer to prepare and go after bigger things.”
“I think the local music scene is getting stronger, and I think a lot of the reason why is that we’re launching more artists and bands that get to be known at the national level, and that brings more attention to our community,” said Altruda. “Mayer Hawthorne is a great example of someone putting Ann Arbor more on the map.”
But another part of cultivating a vibrant music scene involves getting young people excited about live music.
“You have to start with teens and build a culture for it,” said Altruda. “The Neutral Zone is a perfect example of that. And the University of Michigan music school has some of the best young musicians in the world. But they graduate from school and move elsewhere. That’s the nature of having a music scene driven by a university. But a lot more would stay, I think, if the infrastructure to support them was here. Theo Katzman loves Ann Arbor, but he felt he had to move to New York to achieve the career he wanted for himself. I firmly believe, though, that he’ll move back here when he’s ready to have a family one day. Because this is where his home is.”
Altruda’s recently released this year’s lineup for Folk the Police—a show (Altruda’s brainchild) that follows on the heels of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival and features folk, bluegrass and rock musicians covering gangsta rap songs—which will include The Ragbirds, Black Jake & the Carnies, Dragon Wagon, and Dan Henig (whose coffeeshop performance of Lil Jon’s “Get Low” has gone viral).
But Altruda’s newest, previously unannounced project is a live, monthly, late-night-show format variety show called "Let’s Get Weird," which Altruda will host.
“It will be the second Saturday of every month at Live, and it’s going to be an early evening show,” Altruda said. “Our niche is that we’re going to draw on theater students at Michigan and EMU. The goal is to showcase various plays and artists in town, so that I can have performers from a Shakespeare play at Eastern perform for 10 minutes, and people who wouldn’t normally go a Shakespeare show would get a taste of what they’re doing, but there’d also be stand up comics, skits, poets—and each show will feature solo music, a hip-hop rapper or a live band.”
Altruda has teamed up with local theater artist Luna Alexander to make Let’s Get Weird happen; and contrary to conventional wisdom, attendees will pay more for an advance ticket ($10) than for those sold at the door ($5), since an advance ticket ensures a space, while those at the door will necessarily be taking their chances.
“I’m a big believer that art has a strong gravitational pull,” said Altruda. “ People may come in the door to see a certain musician, but they may find that Shakespeare scene super-compelling, too. I love the idea, and I’m happy to put my name on it. I may go down with the ship, which is true of everything I do. But we’re never going to know if this will work until we try it.”