A scaled-down Deutschtown reemerges as Northside Music Festival

After a tumultuous 2022 and a founder's acrimonious exit, remaining co-founder Ben Soltesz vows a leaner, trimmer Northside music fest.

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DMF 2017. Photo courtesy DMF.

After its biggest and most challenging year, in which most artists and several vendors received partial payment or went unpaid, Deutschtown Music Festival (DMF) will return this summer with a new name: Northside Music Festival.

Started in 2013, Deutschtown became one of the largest, free multi-day outdoor music festivals in the country, growing from less than 50 bands in its first year to over 400, spread across more than 30 venues over three days.

“We’re looking for quality over quantity,” said Soltesz of the Northside Music Festival, scheduled July 14-16. “It’s not going to be 400 bands.”

The name change comes after festival co-founder Cody Walters, former main street manager at the Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC), was let go by the organization one day after last year’s festival.

“It wasn’t really fair to use the Deutschtown name,” said Soltesz, given Walters’ departure. 

Walters believed his days were numbered after longtime former ED, Mark Fatla, was let go in summer 2021. Walters says the board perceived him as a loyalist to Fatla, while also acknowledging that his style could be considered abrasive. (NSLC does not comment on individual personnel matters.)

“Neighborhood groups are formed out of emotion,” he said. “They’re not formed out of any emotion other than dissatisfaction and anger.”

Soltesz serves as president of the board for NSLC. The organization is comprised of community groups representing 14 Northside neighborhoods and serves as DMF’s nonprofit fiscal sponsor. In that capacity, the NSLC registered “Deutschtown Music Festival” as a fictitious name in 2018.

DMF 2017. Poster by Joe Mruk.

DMF began in 2013, when mutual friends connected Walters and Soltesz, who at the time served on the East Allegheny Community Council and Spring Hill Civic League, respectively. Both had been impressed by the draw of free festivals, like Lawrenceville’s Rock All Night Tour (RANT), and hoped to do something similar in their home communities.

In 2018, the Northside Chronicle, a subsidiary of the NSLC, described Walters and Soltesz as the “dream team” behind the festival, whose “unrivaled” love of the Northside “overflows from every detail of this festival.”

“In the past, there was an employee or two that actually worked on the event,” said Soltesz. “That’s just not going to be the case anymore.”

“NSLC will solely be the fiscal sponsor for this volunteer-led event,” says Dana Fruzynski, NSLC interim executive director. “In the past, the festival used significant staff resources. Going forward, NSLC’s role will be one of ensuring that the festival budget and spending practices match with guaranteed income to the festival.”

Fruzynski declined to provide minutes from a recent board meeting at which Soltesz requested NSLC serve as the event nonprofit fiscal sponsor of the event, saying the nonprofit organization does not share its board minutes publicly.

The COVID-19 pandemic scuttled 2020’s DMF, and Walters says the festival lost tens of thousands of dollars in 2021, when the one-day “Hands Over Deutschtown” festival, headlined by Squonk Opera, was rained out.

The worst of it came last summer, when a tremendous thunderstorm disrupted performances and vendor sales Saturday afternoon.

“Until this previous year, we made enough money from all of the sales in the beer area that when it was all said and done, we had this pot of money that was going back to some of the bands,” explains Soltesz.

“And that worked great, you know, until it didn’t, which is what happened [last] summer.”

Historically, bands were paid about $25 dollars a member to perform, explains Hugh Twyman, longtime DMF band curator. He says the DMF band sign-up page includes a rainy day clause that asserts that festival organizers will do their best to pay bands, but payment is not guaranteed.

Sources indicate that only a few participating artists received payment for last year’s festival. Several DMF sponsors and vendors who spoke with the Independent affirmed nonpayment.

“That was a black mark on this festival,” said Soltesz. “That’s why I wasn’t really sure about even doing this again.”

Soltesz declined to provide names of the members of Northside Music Festival’s volunteer-led executive committee, saying roles and commitments are still being defined.

Until last week, Twyman, the band curator, and others didn’t know if there would ever be another DMF given Walters’ acrimonious departure.

“I don’t know who is organizing it,” said Walters, regarding Northside Music Festival. “Whoever it is, if it’s a bunch of community people, great, good luck, have fun. It’s a lot of work! I love the Northside. I want to see it happen as much as anyone else does.”

“But to call it Deutschtown? It is not.”