Local billionaire Thomas Tull is throwing himself a festival to celebrate his new record label and inspire a community around local music in Pittsburgh.
It’s too bad he didn’t know 300 local bands already had plans that night.
Tull, who moved to Edgeworth in 2018, is kicking off his Maple House record label on May 21 with a gig alongside some very good musicians: Jason Isbell, Black Pumas, and ten other acts. Ghost Hounds, his own band, is fourth on the bill — ahead of four-time Grammy nominee Elle King, and right before Lake Street Dive.
“We are so excited to bring this world-class festival to our hometown of Pittsburgh, PA,” said Maple House Record’s president, Da’Lyn Bauman in the press release. “Our hope is that this festival inspires an even greater community around the local music scene rooted in rock and blues.”
It’s one thing if there are competing shows, says Millvale Music Festival organizer Paul Bossung. That sort of thing can happen, even though Millvale’s May 21 date was announced months in advance. But saying that they want to inspire the local community, and then scheduling their festival for the same day as one of Pittsburgh’s largest free music festivals?
“That is truly our entire purpose and our mission, to support the local music scene,” Bossung says. Timing Maple House for the same day and then wrapping it in community seemed, to him, “a little hurtful.”
The Millvale Music Festival is a council of the nonprofit Millvale Community Development Corporation. It began in mid-May 2017 with about 100 bands; today, it has grown to triple that number of bands, all of which are paid. The daylong event also features 30 local comedians, 50 local artists, and thousands of supporters who flock to the riverfront borough situated opposite the Allegheny from Pittsburgh.
“Millvale Music Festival is a local institution,” says Jeff Betten, who has operated Misra Records out of Pittsburgh since 2015. “All the best intentions in the world can’t make up for the fact that it makes Maple House look like a Starbucks setting up business next to a mom-and-pop coffee shop.”
Born of modest circumstances in upstate New York, Tull made his first real money in laundromats before moving into private equity. In 2003, he quit finance and raised half a billion dollars to launch Legendary Entertainment, the Hollywood production house behind dozens of blockbusters like 300, The Hangover, Godzilla, and The Dark Knight Rises, which was shot partially in Pittsburgh. The company sold in 2016 for a cool $3.5 billion. Over the last year, Tull’s net worth doubled from $1.2 to at least $2.3 billion, while some estimates put it at $3.4 billion.
A lifelong Steelers fan, in 2006 Tull screened his film We Are Marshall for the Steelers and hit it off with the Rooney Family. In 2009, he bought a 16% stake in the team. When the Rolling Stones played the Steelers’ home stadium in 2021, it was Tull’s band, Ghost Hounds, who opened.
Millvale Music Festival still hasn’t heard from Maple House. After their announcement, Bossung says, a handful of blues and roots-rock bands dropped off the bill, with concerns that either they would want to go to Maple House, or that most of their friends would.
Baumann says Maple House was supposed to happen in November but was pushed back due to COVID and delays in planning. “When we confirmed the date it wasn’t mindful in terms of understanding that that festival was also happening,” she says. “But it was unintentional. And hopefully, in years to come, we can do some things with that festival, and we’d be excited to collaborate.”
Bauman heads Maple House Records but lives in Los Angeles. “When people think of Pittsburgh, they don’t necessarily think of it as being a robust music city,” she says. “But what I found, and all the folks that are involved and who live here found, it’s actually got an incredible music scene and really, really active concertgoers that are excited when cool events come to town.”
She said Maple House Festival is intended to “give everybody an opportunity to come together,” and they are excited to bring on more local bands in the future, adding that she’s hopeful that the festival inspires some of those local bands to reach out to them, so they can really start following their progress.
One band that doesn’t need much assistance is Ghost Hounds. Alongside a couple of Pittsburgh locals, the band’s stocked with hired guns from New York. Tull has his own label, management and festival, toured with ZZ Top, and if he wants to pay a bunch of Grammy nominees to perform with his band, more power to him.
It’s just that, at least here, in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood, people play nice together, so that everyone has a chance to succeed.
“We all work together,” says Bossung. “We partner and talk a year in advance with Pittonkatonk, Three Rivers Arts Festival, Deutschtown, and other festivals. We try to coordinate and make sure we don’t overlap. Just trying to be part of that friendly scene, all together, is really all we’re trying to do.”
Proceeds to Maple House Music Festival, located at Hartwood Acres in Pittsburgh’s North Park, benefit the Allegheny Parks Conservancy. Set times and vendors will be announced Friday. Instead of “all local” vendors, as originally announced, there will now be “a select few.” Tickets cost $59 adults; $29 children (ages 3-10). VIP tickets cost $199; $99 children (ages 3-10). Limited parking is $10.
He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.
He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.
In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.