Dirtbag Journalism

Interview : Ice Cream Man


In 2004, a man named Matt Allen knew it was time to pursue his dream. A grand dream nobody had ever successfully accomplished. And what was his dream, you ask? His dream, which is inspiring to many and ludicrous to a few cynical others, is to distribute half a million free ice creams at summer music festivals (including Bonaroo, Pitchfork, and Lollapalooza), community events, and hospitals by October 2011.

Six years in and he’s given out 300,000 ice creams for free, thanks to his persistence, the right sponsorships, a dedicated team, and the mobile nature of his business. Not only does Allen, a.k.a. Ice Cream Man, do the ice cream thing, but he also has his own show, Road Trippin’ with Ice Cream Man on Babelgum, where bands candidly perform near his truck. Some of the bands he has featured are MGMT, The Avett Brothers, and Tegan & Sara.

This summer he even had the privilege of singing “Happy Birthday” to Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus before their set at Sasquatch Festival, followed by his crew throwing free ice cream from the photo pit to the 20,000-strong crowd. Here, Ice Cream Man tells Dirtbag about living the dream, obtaining sponsorships, and his love for Canada and The Strokes.

DJ: Do you ever get sick of ice cream? Or living up to the hype of being THE “ice cream man”?

ICM: We’re very fortunate to have Ben & Jerry’s donating most of the ice cream this year. It’s hard to get sick of Cherry Garcia, or Mint Chocolate Cookie. If I never ate another Strawberry Shortcake again in my life, I’d be fine with that. I’m a fan of sugar in general, and I eat it quite often but I don’t really overdo it. There’s not much different with being myself and being ICM. I’m not really good at acting, and being in an ice cream truck while giving out free ice cream is great in order to be happy and positive. The nice part too is there’s really not much hype. A lot of people at the festivals know of ICM, but outside of that it’s rare for people come up and say something.

DJ: Have you ever given ice cream away at a festival in Canada?

ICM: Canada is a tricky place. We’ve done one: Virgin Festival in Vancouver a while back. We tried to get up to Montreal and Toronto this year but the G8 and G20 conferences were going to make it too hard to get across the border in an ice cream truck with a bunch of film equipment. We’ve been wanting to hit Pop Montreal for years. We’ve also wanted to stop by the Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto. Hopefully we’ll get up there next year. I like Canada a lot.

DJ: Who is your favourite Canadian band?

ICM: I’m a big fan of Islands, Think About Life, Miracle Fortress, Arcade Fire, Holy Fuck, Dan Mangan, Hayden, Rich Aucoin, Broken Social Scene, Stars, Metric and more. Y’all got some great tunes up there… and CBC rocks!

DJ: Do you still live with your mom? What does she think of this ice cream venture?

ICM: Yup, mid-thirties and living at ma’s house about half the year. She’s great and I wouldn’t be able to do ICM without her. The only way we’re able to survive is because companies sponsor us and help us out: Mopho is an iPhone app we use to post all our pictures, Ben & Jerry’s, and Energizer sponsors Road Trippin’ with ICM. This gets us through the summer, but believe it or not, giving away free ice cream has yet to get us rich. I’m not sure if either of my parents still get what we do, but they’ve always been supportive. My mom even came out to Newport Folk Fest and helped us give away ice cream a few weeks ago.

DJ: You’ve said you hope this nontraditional business idea’s success will help inspire others. Has anybody ever told you you’ve inspired them?

ICM: I wish I remembered a few of things I’ve heard because there have been some people who have said ICM helped them launch different things. I think one of them was an adventure, another was a band, one was a cross-country trip, and there were a few more. I’ve always said it’s the idea that I hope will inspire people, like, “some guy decided to try to give away hundreds of thousands of free ice creams and did it,” as opposed to it being about me. ICM is really a whole bunch of people pitching in to make this machine run. I’ve always wanted to just be the mascot who gets to run around the country having fun and giving away free ice cream.

DJ: What more do you aspire to accomplish?

ICM: I really just want to finish up this project, stay focused on reaching our goal of half a million, and to get the business to a point where I can step aside and it can live on with the crew we have. Collectively our top 10 crew-members have over 50 years experience with slinging cream and managing projects so they can seamlessly take the reigns and keep ICM alive. The only other thing I’m focusing is throwing a blowout party festival in October of next year. More info on that in the spring.

DJ: Do you ever lie on your inflatable mattress atop the freezers at night and wonder to yourself, “Why am I doing this? Is this really worth it?”

ICM: Haha… never. I’ve never once doubted ICM nor any of my other adventures, outside of getting physically hurt and not knowing if it’ll be possible to finish something. I’ve often said giving myself 7 years for ICM was the smarted decision I made. It’s given us time to organically build our business and for lots of wonderful things to happen, like Road Trippin’ with Ice Cream Man and all the people we’ve been able to work with. It’s never been about ‘why’ or failure or the possibility of it being down. It’s about ‘how’ and how to manage growth. Seven years is a great amount of time that will allow me to finish what we’ve started without getting burnt out.

DJ: What is the biggest challenge for you when on the road, at festivals, and business/sponsorship-wise?

ICM: The biggest challenge is the money part. Getting sponsors is tough, even when you put together solid proposals, have access to places other companies can’t get, and can customize packages due to our national reach and mobile nature. Advertising and marketing are expensive, and what we offer is comparatively cheap; but that still doesn’t make it easy. Like my dad used to say, “you gotta throw a lot of darts.” We’re hoping next year will be a bit easier, better, and bigger because of all the momentum we have going and since I’ll be wrapping things up. We’ll need a lot of cream, pops, and bucks to reach the half million goal.

DJ: As you gain more fame/presence in the music festival scene, do you find it easier to get sponsorships? Do the sponsorships get bigger (monetarily)?

ICM: We’re pretty niche right now because we often keep going back to the same festivals and reaching the same people. Road Trippin’ with ICM has helped a ton because people all over the world can see what we’re about… I just drove from Boston to Chicago to San Francisco over a 12-day stretch, so there’s not too much ‘free’ time there [to work on sponsorships]. Getting sponsors is always tough. We’re really hoping to have some agent type folks help us out and take a cut.

DJ: Which band have you seen this year who made you think, “Wow. This band is really hustling to make 2010 their own and I like it”?

ICM: The Strokes…. damn they’re killing it right now. Two weeks ago I wasn’t a Strokes fan at all, but after Lollapalooza and Outside Lands I consider them a great live band and strong headliner. See the Strokes and you’ll know what I mean.

DJ: What do you say or what have you said to any naysayers or to people who just don’t “get” or understand what you do?

ICM: Having done this for 6 years I’ve heard almost every remark or comment you could probably imagine. To be honest, I don’t care what people think…. it’s just free ice cream; they can think whatever they want. You can learn a lot about someone from his or her first reaction to free ice cream. Happy people usually light up and get excited.

DJ: What is the most important thing you have learned after six years of giving out free ice cream and being part of this business venture?

ICM: Patience and persistence. Good things take time, and bad things can happen very quickly. We live in the best time in history in the best place on earth, and I really hope people are making the most of it. Once you really start getting out there and doing cool, crazy, creative, and adventurous stuff, it’s hard to go back. Who wants to sit in an office after that?

Posted by : Melissa Kim