At the end of this month The Fest will celebrate its tenth anniversary. The event began in 2002 and was founded by No Idea Records publicist Tony Weinbender. Weinbender was inspired by MACRoCk, (The Mid-Atlantic College Radio Conference) and upon receiving encouragement from some friends, decided to start a music festival in Gainesville, FL. Over the years The Fest has grown in both size and popularity, fueled mostly by positive word of mouth. For many attendees and performers alike, it’s considered to be a definite highpoint of the year and something never to be missed. Fest 10 promises not to disappoint, as it’s unmistakably the biggest year yet. Spanning three days, 11 venues and over 250 bands, 2011’s Fest should be a memorable occasion to say the least.
Some of this year’s noteworthy acts include: Hot Water Music, The Bouncing Souls, Samiam, Against Me!, Dillinger Four, Less Than Jake and more. The lineup features some of The Fest’s greatest alumni, along with plenty of exciting up-and-comers as well. However in the beginning, The Fest experienced its share of challenges and growing pains. Weinbender borrowed some money from his parents, a computer from a friend and basically started from scratch. “Taking the format of MACRoCk, I kind of knew how to do a festival. I knew how to run multiple venues, share equipment, do changeovers and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “The biggest challenge was getting people that I didn’t know in town and bands I didn’t know to trust me. A lot of people were really excited about it, but some people were like, ‘Well, what the fuck is this? Who are you and why are you doing this?’ The other thing was that we didn’t really know how to promote outside of Gainesville and we didn’t have the resources to do that then. It was hard to get people to come from far away. We didn’t have a website where we could do ticketing like we do now. We kind of just had tickets for sale in town.” Despite a few early struggles, Weinbender was left with an overwhelming sense of optimism once the initial Fest was complete. “What was awesome was when it was all said and done, and those two days were over, everybody was really excited,” he said. “All the bands that played were stoked, all the people that came and participated were excited and the momentum right after that was super positive. We knew we had to do it again. It was like, ‘What can we do to make it better? How do we change things?’ Then everybody wanted to be involved.”
When asked if there was a single highlight from the first Fest that stood out most, Weinbender cited the performance of Gainesville-based punk band Against Me!. Against Me! is of course the most recent Gainesville band to follow in the footsteps of hometown heroes Less Than Jake and Hot Water Music, and enjoy widespread success. “That year was the first year that a lot of us in Gainesville got to see Against Me! play to a larger audience. They had been used to playing really small places and it was amazing to see everybody having so much energy and enthusiasm to see them play,” he said. Against Me! also played a role in helping Weinbender realize that he wanted to do another Fest and make it an annual occurrence. “Right after the first one, we started working on the second one right away. I remember hanging out on this porch after it ended and Tom Gabel from Against Me! coming up. Tom was really young at the time, we hadn’t had much interaction, but he really encouraged me to do it again. He was like, ‘Look, we should do this again. This was awesome for everybody. Don’t get discouraged, we should really do this.’ I remember us not really knowing each other at the time, but me being really glad that he was onboard.”
Since its inaugural year in 2002, The Fest has steadily expanded organically. Weinbender has refused various corporate sponsorship, instead remaining focused on the ethical and fan-friendly approach that he’s utilized from day one. Such integrity has no doubt helped lead The Fest to where it stands today. “This year is the biggest one we’ve had. I went full-blown, took both guns out, I just went for it this year. I wanted to go big on ten,” he said. “I spent way more money on bands than I ever had. I wanted to bring back the alumni and I wanted to stack the bill. I started promotion way earlier. I started booking I think pretty much in December. We went for it this year and it paid off. Hotels sold-out so fast and then tickets sold-out so fast. The growth and how Fest has grown is still baffling to us, especially this year. How the word has spread about what we’re doing, and I think the reason why it’s spread is what we’re doing is really positive. Every attendee that leaves and every band that leaves goes back to where they’re from and they tell the tale of Fest.” As far as describing The Fest for someone who’s never been, Weinbender said, “Not to sound cheesy, but it’s a big family reunion for our scene, our culture and our music. It’s 6,000 people that like the same things you like. This is about family. Everybody that’s here is super-friendly and people come from all over the world. Everybody’s at shows together, arm in arm, meeting and talking. The town itself is beautiful this time of year and all the venues are within walking distance. Everybody’s just happy. Everybody’s honestly having the best time ever and that’s one of the biggest selling points. We can advertise all we want, but making it awesome year after year has really been our strongest marketing. If you make something work and you make people happy, they’re going to go and tell other people, then they’re going to come and more people are going to be happy. That’s our main goal, to try and make everyone have a good time. It’s three days out of the year where everybody gets to fuck off and enjoy themselves.”
During the past decade, the list of bands that’ve played The Fest includes just about every notable, independent rock band that one could possibly conceive of. Such acts include: Naked Raygun, Lifetime, Leatherface, 7 Seconds, Avail, Ted Leo, The Lawrence Arms, Strike Anywhere, Small Brown Bike, Off With Their Heads and countless others. As for some of Weinbender’s all-time favorite Fest performances, he referenced two renowned bands on opposite sides of the spectrum. First was The Gaslight Anthem and he said, “When Gaslight played at Market Street Pub, which holds about 400 people, to see everybody come together and really embrace that band was great. To see them grow to the size they are now, I knew that band was going to make it big. They had that thing, that connection with their fans, and they also came up through the scene. They played the house shows and did the little tours. Nothing was really handed to them.” Weinbender also mentioned Seaweed, a band he’s been a fan of for many years. “Seaweed was another one. I had never seen them play and I grew up listening to them. I still love listening to them. I’m stoked that because of them playing Fest, No Idea got to put out a seven-inch with two new Seaweed songs. People were so happy watching them play. Some bands hit me in a certain way, it might be a memory that comes back, but you get those goose bumps that run through your whole body, and that was one of those moments. It happens a lot to me at Fest. I don’t get to see a lot of bands because I’m working, but when I do happen to see someone having a great show, that’s really special. I think for a lot of these bands, Fest is the best show they play all year. It’s the one time they get to play for a bigger audience than normal. It’s the one time that their fans from all over are right there and they’re all going apeshit with each other.”
Two of The Fest’s biggest accomplishments are its longevity and its founding principles that are still held true. The Fest isn’t about financial gain, nor is it about being the most popular festival. Rather, its focus is to offer a positive and affordable experience that’s consistently unique and entertaining. “Ten years is our biggest accomplishment. That’s it. Showing that we can do this on our own for a decade, and granted we have a three-day event that we still have to pull off at the end of the month before we can claim ten years, but that really is the biggest accomplishment,” Weinbender said. “We’ve stuck to our roots and I’ve stuck to my ethics. I’ve had certain companies try to throw money at me and I’ve denied them, because I don’t want their affiliation with what we’re doing. I don’t compromise on taste. I’m the curator of this and I curate the bands that I like. It’s kind of flattering to know that 6,000 people out there think my taste in music is pretty cool. The bands we support and the bands that we like are pretty awesome. There have also definitely been bands who’ve tried to play. I’ve had managers and booking agents try to tell me, ‘Oh, you got to get this band. They’re the next big shit.’ I don’t want the next big shit. I want the people that I care about playing. That’s what it comes down to and I think that’s a big accomplishment. We haven’t compromised, let’s put it that way.” In terms of the future of The Fest, Weinbender doesn’t often look too far in advance. He added, “I would like to see The Fest make it through Fest 10, and then on Monday be able to be like, ‘Boys and girls, we did it.’ That’s really the future of it. I don’t look to next year. I try to get through one year at a time. I have grand visions of all kinds of crazy shit, but let’s just get through one Fest at a time, man.”