January 20th, 2023
Building the Disney World of Hip-Hop
A conversation with Matt Zingler, co-founder of Rolling Loud, the largest hip-hop festival in the world
Matt Zingler knows a lot about curating a standout festival experience and encouraging the creativity of others. We let him speak for himself:
Inked: People know you for your work as a co-founder of Rolling Loud, but I don’t think our readers know as much about the strong connection you have to the tattoo community, so let’s start there. How did you first get into this world?
Matt Zingler: I got my first tattoo when I was 15. I got it in a garage with one of my friends off of his dad’s Playboy magazine. And it was a barcode. We each drew barcodes on each other because we could only draw straight lines.
How straight were those lines?
It didn’t really look like a barcode [laughs]. What really got me into tattoos is that I just love the look. I thought they represented a rebellious, independent style. Not a lot of people get tattooed at that age, but I had a lot of tattoos before I was 18.
How did that go over at home?
It was fine. It wasn’t accepted, but, you know, you do what you want.
So it wasn’t a big deal?
It was a big deal. But who gives a shit? At that age, you kinda do what you want and if they don’t like it, well, it’s too bad, then don’t talk to me.
Did you get into doing tattoos right after that first one?
I really got into tattooing because I used to do a lot of drawing and painting, and I would give people my artwork for the holidays or birthdays. And people stopped wanting my art, so I was like, well, if I start tattooing people then they can’t give it back [laughs].
With everything you’re involved with, do you still get the chance to tattoo?
I don’t tattoo much anymore, I’ll do it very rarely for friends. I’ve never charged for a tattoo and I’ve probably tattooed at least 200 or 300 tattoos. It’s usually friends of mine or people I’m doing a fun little trade with. I’ve always been appreciative of people wanting me to tattoo them. I used to tattoo a lot of people in my kitchen. It’s not the most sanitary place, but, you know, that was before I had a shop.
I think it’s interesting that if you aren’t doing much tattooing, what made you want to own a tattoo shop?
I collect old-school cars and I collect Bally pinball machines and old-school arcade games, and my wife doesn’t like them in the house. So I started a tattoo parlor, really, to fly artists in to tattoo me personally and have all my cool stuff around me while I’m getting tattooed. Then, over time, my partner Panda was tattooing out of here full time as a studio and he was like, “Hey, I want to really wrap this up and make it into a big business.” And that’s how we started the shop.
Do you think there are similarities between how you staff a tattoo shop full of different artists and how you curate the lineup of a music festival like Rolling Loud?
I’m very selective of the artists I allow to represent my brand, which is a little different than in Rolling Loud. There I’m booking who’s relevant, who the fans want to see, and it’s not as much about my opinion. I’m able to be a lot more biased about the quality of work and art that I’m allowing in the shop. But what’s really cool about the shop is that it’s connected to a private music studio. A lot of artists that perform at Rolling Loud, they’ll utilize the studio and we’ll close it up for them at night and they’ll get tattooed in the shop and use the music studio and create a very unique experience that’s not really attainable anywhere else.
A lot of what you do seems to be fostering the creativity of others.
I’ve always been very appreciative of people’s trades, and if I’m able to shed light on it, I love doing that. But most importantly, I love to provide services for friends and people in the industry. That’s really what drives me. If I can provide amazing tattoos and a unique workspace for music, it’s just a relationship and it’s a building thing, right? It makes my brand stronger as an individual by being able to offer high-quality services. I love to amplify people, I love to use my platform to promote positivity.
Is there possibly a deeper reason as to why you try to have such a positive outlook?
When I started Rolling Loud, nobody really believed in me and nobody believed in what I was doing. They thought it would never work. As I proved everybody wrong and established myself in the music space, along with other spaces in the arts and entertainment sector, I really do preach the idea of, “What we believe, we become.” I would always tell people Rolling Loud is the largest hip-hop festival in the world, even when it just started, because I was doing something no one else was doing. That’s what I want my platform to show—if I can do it, you can do it.
One of the notable things about Rolling Loud is that it isn’t like a standard music festival that people think about during the three days it’s happening, but something that is on people’s minds year round.
Rolling Loud, although it’s a festival, it was always meant to be a lifestyle brand. We like to activate year round across the board in all categories: Rolling Loud Records, film production, liquor, merchandising, partnerships for endorsements… all kinds of stuff. We’re also involved in philanthropy, being active in the communities where we activate. We’re trying to touch as many people as we can with the brand and just keep it in your face.
One thing that too many festivals do is book nostalgia acts almost exclusively. Sure, they’ll be some openers who are on the rise, but the headliners will be established artists who may not have even released anything relevant for a decade or more. Rolling Loud doesn’t operate that way. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening?
What’s great about Rolling Loud is that we’re in a specific genre of music, being a hip-hop festival. So we really only have to focus on one genre. We do have a great team here at Rolling Loud and everybody has an opinion and everybody’s listened to. As well as the fans, you know, we really understand our fans. So when we’re building the lineup, that’s part of the art of Rolling Loud—it’s curating something special that you’re only gonna see at that event for those three days. We really pride ourselves on trying new things and being different, but also making it as relevant as possible. So we’re always watching and studying who’s dropping what albums, what music’s coming out, when schedules roll out, how active artists are in certain markets. Maybe they’re bigger in New York than LA, so we’re definitely cautious of artists’ relevance per market. We like to provide unique experiences in those markets so that the markets are always differentiated.
Given how many artists you pack into each Rolling Loud festival, is it important for you to keep prices relatively low?
I think it’s very important. I think that the main issue that we’re running into now is inflation and just cost, right? Everything’s expensive right now. We try to pride ourselves on providing a unique experience for fans where if you were to see all these artists separately, it would be at least four or five times the price. We always want to be cost assertive with fans and offer them something unique. And if they want an elevated experience, that’s when GA Plus and VIP come into play for the fans that want to spend more money. We want to offer the fans a low ticket price, but we also consider the location and try to make it so the fans don’t have to travel as much. We pride ourselves on trying to be in a major city where you can walk or commute every night, and maybe that will help offset the cost of going to the event if you’re local.
Imagine yourself as a 17-year-old hip-hop fan going to Rolling Loud for the first time. What do you want them to get out of the experience?
I would say that you shouldn’t receive anything specific from attending a festival, but a festival provides you an opportunity to meet like-minded people who enjoy music you enjoy. In today’s world, it’s very difficult to meet new friends, especially as an adolescent. Or if you’re in high school or in college, everything’s very segregated. I think there’s a great value to bringing everybody together every year. You could really walk away from Rolling Loud with some amazing friends and build amazing experiences for yourself aside from just seeing the music. We spend a lot of time at the actual site to develop experiences throughout—there’s carnival rides, activations, graffiti parks, tattoo parlors, beauty bars where you can get glammed up. There’s so many unique things you can do at Rolling Loud. What you get out of it is being there and being part of an amazing movement while seeing artists you might never get to see again.
Rolling Loud has expanded across the globe over the last couple of years—most recently you’ve announced a festival in Thailand. With that in mind, where do you see the brand 10 years from now?
Rolling Loud, to me, is the Disney World of hip-hop. I see Rolling Loud everywhere in the future. I see utilizing the IP on hotels, creating unique experiences, merchandising, department stores, cannabis, music, film. Anything that encompasses lifestyle and music, even things that don’t. It could be really anything you can think of. I think the brand is able to be activated throughout all types of products and in all places throughout the world. I’m very excited to show you guys what we have in store.
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