Deutschtown Music Festival Co-founders Cody Walters and Ben Soltesz reflect on how the event first took off.
By Chloe Burkart
It all began when Cody Walters, co-founder of the Deutschtown Music Festival (DMF), noticed a vacant lot behind his home. He and his wife have lived in the Northside since 2009. He wanted to transform the lot into a cross between a garden and a place to park but initially thought it was owned by the City of Pittsburgh. As he began to delve deeper, he learned it was owned by the East Allegheny Community Council (EACC). Walters pitched his idea for the lot to the council, but was turned down: they thought the space would serve more purpose as another house.
This experience motivated Walters. It wasn’t long after when he found himself elected as a member of the board at EACC. He served on the board for five years before obtaining his current position as Main Street Director at the Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC). While on the board, he worked on events and programs, orchestrating holiday parties and selling advertisements.
“I was really good at throwing parties when I was 19,” Walters said with a chuckle.
This party planning turned out to be crucial experience when he went on to organize what would become the Deutschtown Music Festival.
“I told people I was from Deutschtown and they had no idea what the h— I was talking about,” said Walters. But DMF helped put Deutschtown on the map.
The first Deutschtown Music Festival wasn’t a festival at all. At least it wasn’t intended to be. In 2011, still a member of the EACC board, Walters dealt with a plethora of complaints about nuisance bars around the area. Residents thought the local bars were annoying, an eyesore. The party planner in him came up with the perfect solution: a bar crawl. His idea was to get the locals into the bars they detested, so they could see they weren’t a nuisance at all but rather just another facet of the community for them to enjoy. Soon, the planning and organization process was underway.
The first year four bars and 12 local bands participated. It was so much of a success that the community demanded another one the following year. And the year after that. The “nuisance bar” problem faded fast. As the crawl grew, more bars wanted to be involved. More bands wanted the chance to play. More people wanted to volunteer. Cody Walters needed a business partner.
Enter Ben Soltesz of Spring Hill. Soltesz has always been a music lover. As his kids grew older, he began indulging in his passion for live shows once again. He and his wife started attending banjo night and bluegrass night on the Northside, and was inspired to find a way to take part in live music as more than a bystander. Soltesz started poking around the music scene and talking to people, which is how he met Cody Walters. The began to chat and found out their ideas meshed so well it was like they shared a brain.
Soltesz started messaging his favorite bands to see if they would play the festival for free. Interest skyrocketed: Everyone wanted in. Walters’ party planning expertise combined with Soltesz’s sheer love for live performance to create an unstoppable force. That year, they hosted 50 bands. The numbers continue to grow exponentially. DMF was voted “Best Music Festival” in 2016 and 2017, and “Best Street Festival” in 2017 by Pittsburgh City Paper.
But what makes Deutschtown Music Festival so successful is not the awards or accolades. It’s not the more than 325 bands that will perform at this year’s festival, nor is it the thousands attendees. It’s Cody Walters and Ben Soltesz themselves: Their love for Pittsburgh’s Northside is unrivaled, and that love overflows from every detail of this festival. They’re a music festival dream team.
“I wanted a way to make the Northside a better place,” Soltesz said. And at that, he and Walters have continually been successful. The two-day festival brings residents from all parts of the city and its suburbs to Deutschtown, fostering a sense of community and a feeling of togetherness. It also gives Northside and Deutschtown locals yet another reason to be proud to hail from this part of the city. Beyond that, Walters explains a three-fold gross self-promotion that is built into the structure of the festival. The neighborhood, the businesses, and the bands all benefit with the existence of DMF.
New to this year’s festival is the Skyline Stage: One of two family friendly stages at the event, it offers a beautiful view of downtown Pittsburgh. Parkland Stage is also family friendly. The rest of the festival is only accessible to those at least 21 years old. In addition to the music, expect over 30 food trucks and dessert options, free park activities, a beer garden, and an artists’ market. Visit the festival website to filter festival activities by date, venue, and age requirement. Use its searchable content to sync can’t-miss performances to your phone’s calendar. And look out for last minute additions to the lineup: You never know what tricks Walters and Soltesz have up their sleeves.
“I want to create an experience that people will walk away from and say, ‘Wow, that was really unique,” said Walters.
He emphasized that no matter who you are or how you’re involved in the event, whether you’re a resident of the neighborhood or a musician trying to break into the industry, you have a voice through DMF.