Co-Founder of MATTE Projects
Interviewed on February 4, 2018
MATTE Projects, co-founded by Max Pollack, Brett Kincaid, and Matthew Rowean in New York in 2011, is a creative agency and production company. It strives for creating unique experiences and bringing together culture through its thoughtfully-curated productions, including two of the most iconic and anticipated annual music events, Full Moon and Black. MATTE Projects is also the brain behind several creative works for a roster of clients in different industries.
What is your background before co-founding MATTE Projects?
I studied history in college because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do afterwards. I had always loved music, and I took a design thinking class in college, which got me into design, so I wanted to bring together music, branding, and some kind of creative problem solving process. My first internship was at an experimental electronic music venue. Then I got an internship with a creative agency doing creative strategy, which turned into a job. That was my first experience doing marketing and advertising. I left that for a job at a music PR company because I wanted to be in the music industry. I was an assistant to the head of the company, but I was terrible, so I got fired within three months. I didn’t have a job, so I started working part-time at Saks Fifth Avenue as a sales associate while I did event production on the side. At that point I met my co-founder Brett Kincaid through a mutual friend whom I went to school with. In high school and college, I was always producing concerts and booking music acts, so I had that background, and I knew I wanted to do that in New York, and Brett had started a staffing company for events, such as finding waiters and bartenders, and he wanted to do concert production as well, so we started working together. We threw a few shitty concerts and started managing a small venue, and I also started a music blog and got followers, so we started to get to know this world a bit more, but we kept thinking what the next move would be.
We were getting to the point where we were doing all these creative works and events, and it just didn’t make sense anymore. I had to sneak out to the closet to take phone calls while working at Saks. There was definitely a lot of uncertainties, but I was also lucky in a lot of ways. I am from New York, and my family is here. I thought, worst thing worst, I could restart.
How did you come up with the name MATTE?
We like the sound of MATTE. It’s the idea of something that’s a little bit rough, not as shiny, but still sophisticated. MATTE also has some other cool interpretations. For example, it is a film technique. It just feels right for us. What’s funny is that MATTE is also Max and Brett combined. We had the name before our third partner Matt Rowean joined, and his name happens to fit the spelling perfectly.
The company was originally named just MATTE. When and why did you change the name to MATTE Projects?
We had MATTE and didn’t know what to call it, so we had MATTE Productions at first, but I thought that was wack. Then during the first photo shoot we did for Black, one of the designers on set said, “I think you mentioned one of the projects…” And I immediately thought “projects” would be cool. Common Projects was the only name around at that time that I knew had “projects” in it. We chose “projects” instead of “project” because it also represents everything we are doing. We are not doing just production or just events. Originally MATTE Projects was just for our production and events side of the business, and our agency was called MATTE Finish. I hated the name MATTE Finish, but we did it at first because Matt’s company was called Finish, so we put them together.
How did you come up with the logo?
I want something simple and clean. I want it to look like a framed photo and have space between the frame and the photo. That’s the idea of the frame around MATTE.
What was the first project that you did as MATTE?
I got an email from one of the music agents that I worked with in the past about doing an event for Kitsuné. I thought that would be a cool opportunity, so I asked Brett if he wanted to do it with me. It went really well. The owner of Kitsuné was there DJing as well. That was also the same day when we did our first video production. We filmed it and worked with an editor to come up with a recap, and we got a couple sponsors who gave us a little bit money. Then Kitsuné asked us if we wanted to do more events for them, so we became their US promoters/representation for all of their stuff. We did SXSW, Winter Music Conference, and Coachella for Kitsuné. Then Brett and I started doing small production jobs and videos for clients. That was the beginning of everything.
Full Moon is the first major music event that you did, and it has evolved into a very attended annual music festival in New York. How did you come up with the idea of Full Moon?
The first Full Moon in 2011 was actually started by Brett and this other guy Ben Hindman. They wanted to do a Thai-inspired Thai Full Moon Party. Brett brought me on to do a few music bookings. It was a really good party with 1000 people at Beekman Beach Club. The next year, Brett and I were working together more, and we changed the branding. I thought Full Moon was a really cool concept, but we needed a different direction. We didn’t want it to be Thai, so we reworked a little bit and called it just Full Moon instead of Full Moon Party. That was the first time we formalized the name MATTE too and presented Full Moon as MATTE. The idea was to make it sexier and cooler. 2500 people came, and it was the biggest party that we had done at that point. Matt Rowean, who was Brett’s friend at that time, designed the flyer. That was also the first time when the three of us all worked together.
Black is another annual music event that you first introduced in 2013. How did you come up with the idea and concept of Black?
It was an evolution. We already had Full Moon, which is very summer and fun, so we wanted something different. We wanted it to feel funky and downtown-y. We had the name Black because we liked the dark sound, and our established aesthetics for MATTE were in black and white. We wanted it to have an artistic design aesthetics, so we had an original shoot and made a video which was all about this black submerging you. The artists we booked were Matthew Dear, Chairlift, and the Rapture DJs, so the whole event had this New York cool kids and underground vibe. It was a really great and fun party.
From there, our idea for the next MATTE was how we could define Black through three different concerts, and each one had a little different field. So the first Black was electronic music, and the second one was rock and roll, and the last one was RnB and hip hop. We brought in cool set design into play as well. It was at Irving Plaza.
Next year, we wanted Black to be a more immersive warehouse experience. We thought black is defined as the absence of all. It is very minimum and absolute. Black is also the combination of all colors, so we created art installations that represented colors. Our music program was very dark, and the light was all black and white. We wanted it to be interpretive, so we asked artists what black meant to them, and we created interviews and framed more content, so it became more like a platform. It’s getting more refined in terms of the realization of our experiences and the realization of working with artists to interpret the broad subject through certain lens. This year it’s all about disruption and interpretation of disruption through black lens. And it’s two rooms of amazing music programming and much bigger art installation. And each of the graphic design has more concept to it. And it got more conceptual and fully realized which is to me also something interesting because of how we have evolved as a company.
Why did you have Black in Mexico City?
First of all, I love Mexico City. That’s one of the coolest cities I’ve ever been. Food is amazing. People are amazing. We knew a really good promoter there whom I worked with for Kitsuné before, so we had someone we wanted to work with. We went down there and had a meeting with them, and they were super receptive of it. There was also a lot of buzz in New York and Los Angeles about going to Mexico City as well, so we used it as an excuse for people who were already thinking about going to Mexico City anyways. Black was very different there because we interpreted it through a local perspective. A lot of visual artists and DJs were from Mexico City. We also had Seth Troxler and Thugfucker. We had 300 people coming down from New York and LA, and there were 2500 people from Mexico City. It was a new concept for them. We’ll do it again in Mexico City and hopefully in Europe and Asia as well.
How did you choose and book the artists?
We have a certain vibe for each event, so I chose the artists based on our own tastes and what would make sense for the event. It defnitely took us awhile to build relationships with agents and managers and for them to trust us. But I’ve been doing it since college and worked at an agency, so I had some track records.
How did you start the agency business and how did you get your first client?
We never wanted to be promoters forever. Our goal was to work with brands. I had always wanted to bring together music and brands in someway but didn’t know what that was. Matt’s background was in branding and had actually started an agency, and we all started working together at his loft in Lower East Side and came up with pitches to clients. We worked on some small projects after Kitsuné. We did a project for Red Bull and some behind the scenes videos for Urban Zen, so we had some works to show, and Matt brought in more legitimacy because of his background and experience. Our first real client was a Swedish cider company called Rekorderlig. Our pitch to them was our understanding of what was happening in New York because they were launching in the market, so they had to get to the right places and do the right cool things. They saw that we were dedicated and passionate and had certain visions, so they gave us a shot.
BUILDING THE TEAM
Who was the first person you hired and how did you find that person?
We had three interns when we first started: Catrina, Cesar, and Kiara. I don’t know how we convinced them. Catrina was referred to me by a friend. She was working as a scribe at a hospital and going for a medicine route at the time but realized that she wanted to do something different and more creative. My friend was working with her at the hospital and asked me to talk to her, so we gave her the internship to try out, and then she became our first hire. She actually still works for me and leads all of our accounts right now. Cesar and Kiara were also referred by friends. Then we hired a full-time designer and video editor.
How big is your company now and what are the roles?
We have 65 people right now. We have the design department that does creative design and graphic design. There is the creative strategy team that does writing, directing, and art editing. We still do a lot of post production, video production, and film production. The accounts team is in charge of accounts services, client management, and project management. We have the experiential team that does events and a small music team that does music events. And we have an administrative team that does accounting and operations.
How did you finance the company?
We really bootstrapped and never raised money. We basically paid ourselves nothing for three years. We were offering our services really cheap just to get the opportunity to do it. We took the money we made from clients to invest in new projects and hiring people. In early stages, there were many times that we were completely losing everything and had a lot of anxiety. The first time we did Black, we lost $10,000 and we didn't know how to pay this. Thankfully another job came in at the same time, so we used that to cover the loss.
What did you market your events?
At the beginning, we were reaching out to friends and friends of friends and creating cool flyers that had this interesting hype. For us, it’s always been about saying less and making it more mysterious, so people want to learn more about it. Sometimes that backfired on us because no one understood what we were saying. A lot of our marketing is based on lifestyle and creating a sentiment through branding and imagery that evoke certain feeling. Now I think people actually want more experience and concept, which is really what we are looking for now. Back then we were doing it because it was more exciting and creative, but it was also out of necessity because we were not able to afford bigger acts.
There are so many events and creative agencies in New York. How do you manage the competition? Why do people come to you instead?
We were never able to compete against big promoters and get huge talents that could sell tickets, so we focused on building a brand that would be more attractive in other parts. Our events have always been more designed. We are really particular about what everything needs to look like. When you come to our event, it feels different from a regular event at that space because of the music and the people we bring there. We do certain kinds of music. It was French house and indie dance stuff at the beginning, and no one was really doing that, so we found a lane there. We approach concert promoting differently from others because we are never doing one thing. We are moving between industries, and that cross pollinates a lot of ideas. We weren’t coming from an ideological approach based on that industry. For example, we take what we learned from music and apply to fashion and what we learned from fashion and apply to advertising. No one was thinking like that at that point because everything was very vertically oriented.
I learned through experience. There were lot of mistakes and failures. I would do something and keep changing it until it’s good.
We were not taken seriously at first because we were two 24-year old kids. People were skeptical about what we could do. We had to convince people to be certain of us when we were facing a lot of uncertainties. We had to take a lot of assurance and confidence of ourselves.
People can be caught up by trying to make something perfect in one take. They should but also keep in mind that things all evolve overtime. One thing doesn’t have the be the end. We can keep refining it.
Don’t assume you know what you are doing. A lot of times people try hard to define exactly what they are doing and have almost too strong of an idea. But things change constantly. You need to have the ability to be flexible and try out new things. Don’t spend so much time mentally figuring it out before you take the first step.