Cool Jobs: Matthew Altruda - Music Impresario

When someone's nickname is "Toona", you know there's a story to be had. When that same someone has his finger on the pulse of the music in Ann Arbor, well, you know he's got a whole lot of other stories to dig into.
 
Matthew Altruda, Ann Arbor's unofficial music impresario, doesn't wait for someone to show him a good time - he goes out and makes it happen. Altruda has managed the Macpodz, booked My Dear Disco and considers Michelle Chamuel a "BFF". He hosts Tree Town Sound on 107.1 every Sunday at 6pm, puts on A2 Level Up at the BTB Cantina…and did I mention that he programmed "The Puck Drops Here" party on New Year's Eve? 
 
Altruda and his family arrived in town in 1993 when his father, an employee of Borders, transferred here. After college, he returned and managed the music department at the Arborland Borders. Then came the recession and the inevitable decline of the retail book industry. But if Alexander Graham Bell gave us anything (aside from the telephone, of course), it was the phrase "When one door closes, another opens." Altruda may have lost his job at Borders but by choosing to remain the music business, Ann Arbor gained an cultural asset.
 
Matthew sat down with Concentrate to talk about his various music jobs, life in our town and the bands we should be listening to. 
 
Let's talk about your first job - the one involving Sonic Lunch and the Bank of Ann Arbor. I don't know a single person who does not love Sonic Lunch. How did Sonic Lunch come to exist?
It's really because of Tim Marshall, CEO of the bank. He thought it would be a great idea to do a summer concert series and I was really drawn to it in its first year. At the time, I was managing the Macpodz. When Sonic Lunch booked the band, I started to get to know them. The next year I told him that I'd love to help bring them in some bands. The relationship just grew and it got to the point where they offered me a job.
 
So you work for the bank officially? 
I work in the marketing department as the event coordinator and media specialist. A lot of the job is social media based and a lot of it is community building. Local banks need to build community…whether you bank with Bank of Ann Arbor or not, everyone knows us and is blown away with how much we do for the schools, nonprofits and for quality of life; I was really drawn to that aspect. I never thought I would work for a bank but then I never thought I'd meet a CEO of a bank like Tim Marshall. I would follow him into battle anywhere. 
 
Much has been made about Liberty Plaza's shortcomings as a downtown park. As the home for Sonic Lunch how has it measured up?
It's been incredible for Sonic Lunch. I hear a lot about the homeless at park and you know they're not homeless to me…they're people. My interaction with (the people who dwell there) is that they are good people; they "get it". When they see Sonic Lunch is happening, they respect us so much that they police themselves. If someone is there who is drunk and rowdy, everyone else will push them out. They get that Sonic Lunch is for the city and for families. The ones that stay love the music too. 
 
I realize this is like asking you to choose amongst your children but...do you have a favorite performance from Sonic Lunch?
It IS like picking between your children so no I don't have a favorite but…the Mayer Hawthorne show was amazing. It was supposed to be outside the day before but the forecast said it was going to rain and so we made the call to move it inside. Luckily, the Michigan Theater is awesome and everyone - our sound guys, the Michigan Theater, Mayer's managers - worked their butts off to make it happen.
 
There was also Darren Criss' show; the fact that the Listen Up tour came to Sonic Lunch is unbelievable. He came to us, too…Theo Katzman and the My Dear Disco folks played in his band. Theo was talking to Darren about Sonic Lunch and Darren's manager came to me and said "we want to play this".
 
Onto the next cool job. How did the Tree Town Sound radio show happen? 
Long story short: the Humane Society was having their big benefit at Barton Hills Country Club. They came to me and said that they were doing a roast for Martin Bandyke and would love to have the Macpodz play. I said that I would love to be one of the roasters … they came back to me and said yes. It was me, Lee Berry from the Michigan Theater, Ken Fischer from UMS and the VP of Cumulus Media. I have a Comedy Central background so I went in there for a real roast … to light people on fire. And no one else even thought of approaching it like that. And I roasted everyone to bits, especially Borders, because I had recently been laid off. (Note: You can see Matthew's roasting here) The next day I got an email from the station manager at 107.1 asking if I wanted my own radio show. I took over their Homegrown Show but I wanted to rebrand it so I named it Tree Town Sound. 
 
What do you play on your show?
The show is me -- it's what I love and I support Michigan music. I play what moves me. And I get emails from all over the world from people who listen to the show. A lot of the love is because of people like Michelle Chamuel. I booked her band in college and she is one of my BFFs. Her first single after The Voice, the Reverb Junkie single, she let me play that on my radio show to debut it to the world. 
 
The best job I ever had (besides writing for Concentrate) was being a college DJ. Did you DJ back then?
Yep. I deejayed both at bars and on the radio. 
 
What happened after college? How does one even get involved in your kind of work?
I worked for Borders in their music department while I was in college and then was the music manager for the Arborland store. I never once really though I would have a career in music. But I also never really thought I would have a corporate career … so when Borders laid me off, I took it as a sign to do what I want to do. So I started managing the Macpodz and booking My Dear Disco. 
 
(In order to) do this kind of work, you need to be able to create opportunities for the band. It's ironic that we are sitting in Zingermans (where the interview took place) because I think Zingermans in an indirect way helped me define how I wanted to do my career by establishing a strong vision for myself. And I decided a couple of years ago that my vision was to make Ann Arbor the greatest music city in America. 
 
I also have made some great relationships … I have a hard time saying no to anything that makes our community a better place. So now I could be booking bands at the Leslie Science Center or Zingermans Grilling or the Townie Street Party or FestiFools or FoolMoon … all those events are so awesome. We really have a community of musicians here. Everyone works really hard together to pull the same cart.
 
Any up and comers we should know about? 
Tons. The talent that is coming out of this state is mind blowing right now. I have a show coming up April 11th at the Blind Pig- the Outer Vibe from Grand Rapids. These guys are arena good…they're a real rock band. They're like pop meets David Bowie with a touch of 80s metal with the tight pants and all … I brought them out to Taste of Ann Arbor last year and they crushed it so I'm bringing them back in April. Dave Menzo, a great local musician, is the opener. 
 
There have been rumblings about branding A2 as a music destination. What would it take to actually make that happen and would it really be viable (after all Austin and Nashville have spent years developing that identity)? 
Sonic Lunch and Top of the Park are free and while it's awesome having so many amazing free music festivals in this town, it also teaches people not to pay for music. So you have this little bit of a strain … you know, no one goes into Starbucks and expects a free coffee. So need to we teach people and make it part of our structure in life that we need to support these musicians.
 
Take Greensky Bluegrass [who are] from Kalamazoo. They are good friends of mine and I've watched their rise. They are selling out venues all over America and are a group that Michigan should really be excited about.  Also there is a group called Golf Clap that makes their own original house music. They are from Detroit and their career is blowing up right now. They are selling out gigs all over ...except in their own backyard.
 
So how would someone like me be more supportive of a group like Greensky Bluegrass or Golf Clap?
I think anyone who wants to get involved should take chances - go out and see a live show the same way you'd take a chance on a movie. Two people going to the Ark for $15, $30…that's like two people going to an Imax. Buy their music, share their music. If you love their music, post their FB page on your FB page and share it. 
 
How would Ypsi, with its robust music scene, factor into plans? What about Detroit?
Detroit is a hard market. Michigan is a hard market. It's cold and our economy is not the greatest. When budgets get cut, people stop paying for live music. 
 
Ypsi is facing some really hard times right now with Woodruff's closing. I know that Hasan (Mihyar, owner) put so much love into that space and it's such a shame. The Elbow Room is closed. Where is music in Ypsi going to go? It needs its own room because Ypsi has so much pride and so much talent it's ridiculous. 
 
What are some upcoming shows that you recommend?
Mayer Hawthorne is coming back to the play the Neutral Zone's fundraiser on May 10; I'm working with the teens there to turn the show into an amazing fundraiser. Definitely check out Fool Moon (April 4) - the DJs are going to be on cranes and forklifts! Mark Tucker (creator of Fool Moon/FestiFools) is a genius. Hash Bash is the next day and then Macpodz are playing with John Sinclair at the Blind Pig that night. Golf Clap has a show on April 10. There's the Outer Vibe concert on April 11. Green Sky Blue Grass will be playing the opening of Bell's Beer Garden. 
 
Okay, so how did you get the nickname Toona?
It came in about the 8th grade. My last name is Altruda and someone asked if I was from Altoona, Pennsylvania and then it turned into Toona. I brought my high school yearbooks to college and everyone saw Toona and it took off from there. So now most of my friends call me that.

Patti Smith is a special education teacher and freelance writer who lives in Ann Arbor and who blogs about beer atwww.teacherpatti.com

All photos by Doug Coombe

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