Gainesville Fest. Or just simply known as Fest. It needs no special title. People know what it is. The first year that I went I piled into a rented minivan with six other friends, some of which I barely knew. My name was on the rental because I was the only one old enough to rent a car. We drove straight from New York to Florida. It took about 20 hours and I think I did about 12 hours straight driving for no good reason other than being a determined road warrior. I was afraid of an entire town drowned in beer and the accompanying annoyance that comes with being a straight edge guy amongst hordes of drunk people. But I had to admit, that year (and every year since) people at Fest have been nothing short of awesome. That’s the great thing about Fest- 5,000 people from everywhere take over a small college town and appreciate that they’re wearing shorts, watching punk bands, and having fun in the sun on the cusp of Winter. How could that put anyone in a bad mood?
After communicating via e-mail for a few years with organizer Tony Weinbender about press stuff he suggested a phone call for this interview. Truly a pre-internet dude at heart. I furiously scribbled as he talked so he will have to forgive me if I paraphrased some answers slightly, or just edited out bits because my hand cramped up.
Before getting to the actual questions Tony went into his history of growing up in Roanoke, Virginia and making punk connections the old-fashioned way: go to shows out of town, play in a band, meet people face to face, remember those people, play their town, and have them play in yours. From connecting with regional heroes Avail, to founding the MacRock Fest in Harrisonburg, to moving to Florida and becoming a full-time roadie for Less Than Jake, to working in-house at No Idea Records, and eventually establishing Fest, and it growing to be one of the biggest and best punk events in the U.S. (13 years running!) Tony has come a long way. Here’s what transpired of our lengthy conversation.
What do you think separates Gainesville Fest from other fests happening around the U.S.?
It’s definitely different. When we grew up there seemed to be more of a format with various fests. More of the underground hardcore and punk that came from the DIY culture would all gather in one big venue for the whole day or weekend, which could get kind of dull, just hanging out in this one building all day. But when I lived in Virginia and put together the MacRock festivals I applied something I learned from going to CMJ in NYC, and that was using multiple venues. So when I did end moving to Gainesville and eventually putting together Fest I wanted to have multiple venues. It’s something different, ya know? I also wanted to have a lot of diversity of bands that played, different styles of music. That way, you have a hardcore band playing in one venue at the same time that a punk band is playing at a venue next door. It gives the attendees the power, instead of just sitting in one venue all day, waiting for whatever bands you wanted to see. With Fest I wanted to do this fun and exciting thing for people and to be able to help my friends who were in bands. Ya know, give these bands some exposure. I mean, it might even be a big thing, but with certain bands, especially smaller ones, if they play Fest it could really do wonders for their band.
Also, I think, with Fest, it’s this huge community, like a family sort of thing. People travel from all over the world for it and we all get together to enjoy this thing. I think that is part of what separates us from other fests happening.
It seems like the popular format for a lot of fests to follow is to have one big venue with multiple stages and it doesn’t always feel like a real community sort of thing to me. With Fest we’ve got these messageboards, and facebook groups, and other things where people just spend the whole year talking about Fest. It’s weird. It’s almost like a con.
A con? Like a scam?
No, like a comic con. Like San Diego Comic Con, ya know? The people who are into those sorts of things just create this whole world around it and talk about it all year, ya know? Fest has people following it like that. It’s weird. When we first started doing it we used to call it a family reunion because so many of our friends and friends bands would all get together this one weekend of the year to be here and hang out. Some times I take for granted that what we do is really awesome.
Do you go to other fests and get a feel for what they do, and maybe apply it to Gainesville Fest?
Well, a lot of the fests I’ve gone to over the last several years have been smaller. I don’t go to the bigger ones really because you’re usually stuck at one venue the whole time and I don’t really care for that. But I like to go to Best Friends Day up in Richmond because I’m from Virginia and a lot of the bands I like and am friends with end up playing. I also went to Insubordination Fest and that was a lot of fun. I like the smaller fests because I can actually hang out at them. I can’t really do that at Fest because I’m generally too busy running things.
I will say, though, that Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin was really great. They have a different format than we do, but the guys who put it together- we’re all cut from the same cloth. Because of Austin being the type of town that it is they can do things on a much grander scale than we can. But the organizers really open their arms to us at Fest. It’s like a big fiesta there. It’s really cool to see people from our scene do really huge things. Like, they just did Slayer! But they’ll still make room to have a band like Joyce Manor play, and then still book smaller shows throughout the year. Those guys who book FFF Fest come from the DIY scene. One of them is involved with Chaos In Tejas and that’s a really cool Fest as well that uses multiple venues. And the best part is Austin is cool with it. They’re used to stuff like that happening.
I know Fest is a job throughout the year for you, but when do you generally start planning each year’s event?
Well, Fest always happens at the end of October. So for a couple weeks after it happens I basically do clean up for a couple weeks afterwards. Most of that is paying bands who took off before they were able to get paid, or forget to come by the office and get paid. So I’m tying up loose ends with that stuff, and a lot of accounting things. Lots of little details. Curtis, who does Best Friends Day, is actually a certified CPA, so he comes down and helps out on that end.
So after that is Thanksgiving, and then Christmas, and I generally hang out with family during that time. We usually get started in January. That’s when I begin talking to venues and get their feedback and ideas about what was working for them, or not working for them, during Fest. It gives them a couple months to reflect on it, and we just work out how to proceed with next year’s Fest. I like to get all that stuff cleared up early.
I really don’t have a lot of vacation. Thanksgiving and December, that’s about it.
How many people do you have on staff to help you, not counting the couple hundred volunteers you have every year?
I’m actually the only full time person on the payroll. Sarah Goodwin has worked on Fest for the last four or five years. She started interning with basically no experience, but picked things up really quick. She does a lot of contact with bands after I book them, produce the guidebooks- that big book we make every year, and she uploads stuff to the site. Last year we had another person named Sara intern as well, and she has moved up to dealing with sponsors, hotels, and social media stuff. Rich (Mineo, Horsebites) does our artwork. Ted Barnes does all our layout stuff. Steve Wocziack does our website. They all live in different states. Lots of people help out with volunteering, and now some of them get paid to do other random stuff, like video work. We can all work through the internet. That never used to be the case. I’ve actually never met Ted Barnes in person, but he’s done work for us for years. It’s a small group of people overall. But then the week before Fest a lot of friends come into town to do work, like sound guys. They all make the whole circus run.
Are there bands that you approach every year about playing, but for one reason or another they cannot play? And by that I mean dream lineup type bands?
For years it was the Descendents, but this year they are finally playing. The Descendents happened this year. I generally try to keep it interesting and add a lot of new bands. But I’ve always wanted to have the Murder City Devils, the Weakerthans, and Superchunk play, but it never works out. It’s not even a money thing. It’s usually just scheduling. I wanted Big Business to play, but it couldn’t happen because they’re going to Europe or something.
So you got The Melvins instead!
Right! But yeah, it generally comes down to scheduling and I can’t blame anyone for that. There have been bands who dropped off because they got offered a spot on some big tour instead. You got to go for that, ya know? If we asked some band to play, and they couldn’t because they were going to Europe and feel bad about it, it’s like, ‘go to Europe. That opportunity does not always come around’.
But as far as dream list goes it gets smaller and smaller, as we’ve had a lot of bands we’ve always wanted to play already play. But things will always pop up. Bands will get back together and do some shows that you wouldn’t expect. This year it was Mineral, and I’m really excited that they’re playing. At this point we have a bit of sway and have been able to re-unite some bands, like we’re waving some magic wand.
A few years ago Seaweed played. That was incredible. Last year it was Knapsack. Getting Snuff to come out one year was a dream come true. Getting From Ashes Rise was a big deal because when they were around they never came down this way. And a lot of these bands are down for it because it’s not some big deal where there’s a big backstage for bands. They hang out in the street with everyone else. Most bands are really into that idea. Some like having a backstage, but for the most part, that’s part of the appeal of the bigger bands we get- they like the idea of everyone just hanging out together.
Playing off of that, are there bands you’d like to have play that you know just wouldn’t mesh with what was going on at Fest?
I do like diversifying the lineup. I’d like to diversify it even more. But I think it would hurt things at this point if we were to diversify it even more. A few years back we put on the Harvest Of Hope Fest and at that we were able to diversify it more. We could have hip-hop groups play, but it wouldn’t work at Fest even though I love hip-hop and grew up with it. I wouldn’t ever have something like DJ’s, or trip-hop bullshit. But I do like the more indie hip-hop stuff, and wouldn’t mind venturing into that.
Overall, I think my taste in music is representative of what Fest is. That’s what I like. I’m 38, but I still get goosebumps when I hear Avail. I know it sounds corny, but I love that there’s an ‘emo revival’ happening with a lot of bands now. I really liked all those bands. I think labels like Top Shelf and Tiny Engines, who are putting out new bands that sound like old bands, like Prawn, are great. I mean, they just released a new Braid record! That was huge for me when we got them to play Fest.
So, switching gears, what’s the most difficult part of putting together Fest every year?
I’m a very organized person. I’m a go-getter. I work very hard at this every year, and put a lot of time in. So it drives me nuts when people muck up the works, like city municipalities. They’re not used to what we do. When people talk about ‘red tape’ and ‘jumping through hoops’- it’s really true. The smallest things can be really tough. It would be great if there was just one person who oversaw everything. But instead you have to go through a bunch of different people for different things associated with codes and whatever, and then you call that person, and they shuffle you around to someone else. The buerocracy of it is nuts.
It sounds like the plot of a Parks and Recreation episode.
It’s just like Parks and Rec and I’m Leslie Knoppe. It’s like the people in the beurocracy just don’t want to work. They just want to sit around. They don’t understand that people outside of government want to do things, and have a deadline for doing them.
I know I make them sound bad, but most of these people are nice, they just don’t get what we’re doing. Of all the groups we have to deal with I have to admit that the police have been the nicest. They will go to bat for us. They have stood up for us at city hall and talked us up. They’re the ones who see the attendees at Fest every year and see that they’re great people, not city council members. And out of all the people we go through in the city for Fest we tax the cops time the most, and they’re the ones who end up helping us the most.
Another thing that can be difficult are some businesses that can be slack. It used to be more of an issue, like old venues that aren’t around anymore. We’d talk to them months ahead of time and then they’d just shut down right before Fest.
Related to that, unlike some other fests that take place in large cities- like CMJ in NYC and FFF Fest in Austin- Fest takes place in a pretty small city and I’d imagine you probably have a significant relationship with the city that might be outside the norm?
Honestly, if Fest took place in a bigger city I think it would be a lot easier because bigger cities have things in place for bigger events like this, as they are more used to large events. They have the facilities in place. Gainesville doesn’t necessary have all those facilities in place. But after Fest 10 the city seemed to realize, ‘oh shit- a lot of people come here, we need to check in on this’. They could have been real bad about it, but we have a fairly good relationship with the city. In the past we never had to worry about fire certification. But now the fire marshal shows up and is asking about banners that bands hang on the stage. I end up having to call the manufacturer of the banner and ask if they’re fire resistant. They have no idea. They’re made of vinyl, how should I know? It’s weird little things like that. I’m like the lobbyist for Fest. But I can’t complain, ya know?
A place like Austin though, they get it. In Gainesville, at first, the venues were hard to have get on board. They would charge me for everything, even though we were the ones doing all the work throughout the weekend. I didn’t get it at first. But I know a lot more now. I guess the biggest benefit of Gainesville is that it is a small city and there is definitely a community vibe here. And also doing pre-Fest in Tampa has been great. Dealing with some of the venues there has been great. It’s different.
That leads me to my last question- why pre-Fest? Why add more days to the Fest in a different city?
There’s a few reasons. First, our PBR rep (PBR sponsors much of Fest) lives in Tampa. They pushed us to do something there. And the venues were really cool. The initial idea was to do a spin-off of Fest, like in the Spring. We could do more of a variety of bands, like metal and hip-hop. It would have been like Harvest Of Hope, just without the camping. The camping bit of that fest was terrible. I’ll never touch that shit again.
Secondly, Tampa made sense because more and more people were flying into Fest early every year so we thought we’d give them something to do. We had pre-Fest shows in Gainesville that were selling out, like on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Fest. Plus, for most people it’s cheaper to fly into Tampa than Gainesville and a lot of people were doing that anyways. The venues in Tampa are bigger as well. So we thought we’d try it out. It was comfortable. We had 668 people buy passes last year for it, before people even came to the door just buy a ticket. It wasn’t great. We lost a little bit of money, but we could afford it. It was nothing drastic. It was definitely worth it. As of now, we’ve already sold more passes than last year, so we’re on track to do pretty well with it.
But we just try to put on the best production that we can do and the people who do come out give it good reviews. People talk about it. People last year were bragging about it. Ybor is a cool city to hang out in. It felt like the early years of Fest. So I think it’s working.
At the end of the day though, if doing Fest sucks more than working a regular day job than I’ll stop doing it.
Gainesville Fest runs from October 31st- November 2nd this year. Pre-Fest in Tampa/Ybor City is October 29th and 30th. Get info on the insane amount of wild bands playing, as well as passes, here: