The history behind Gainesville’s annual punk rock music festival. 

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It’s the end of October, and football fans clear out of town to Jacksonville for the Florida-Georgia game. Empty parking spots, a quiet midtown and a downtown brewing with anticipation are left in the wake of the party buses.

The tailgater exodus coincides with another scene’s migration. Punks, travelling from as far as Australia, populate downtown Gainesville just for The Fest, one of the biggest punk rock music festivals in the world.

This year marks Fest’s fifteenth birthday and its largest lineup yet; over 350 bands are scheduled to play, plus 100 more at a two-day “pre-Fest” in Ybor City. And the music is just the beginning. Fest also includes a flea market, plus comedy and wrestling shows.

But back in 2001, Fest, with just 60 bands and small venues, looked very different.

Illustrations by Aneri Pandya.

Fest was founded by Tony Weinbender. Born in 1976 in Roanoke, Virginia, he calls himself a “kid of the radio generation” — his mom listened to a lot of music and always had the radio on. Weinbender knew he liked punk music, he just didn’t know what to call it.

It wasn’t until a friend, Chad Smith from band class, played him three punk rock LPs in the summer of 1989 that Weinbender was able to put a name to the genre. Before music was digitized, albums spread by word of mouth. That summer, Smith’s cousin took him to a record store and introduced him to bands like Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains and Minor Threat.

“People sat you down and said, ‘Listen to this,’” Weinbender said. “ …Finding punk rock was really just Chad going to see his cousin.”

Weinbender and Smith spent many summers skateboarding together, a hobby that further expanded their punk repertoire.

At a skateshop the pair decided to form a band, Swank, after seeing a flyer for a show. Swank was on track to do fairly well, and they toured all throughout the southeast, including Gainesville. But Swank broke up, and Weinbender figured he might as well go to college.

Weinbender attended James Madison University in Virginia for about two years. While in school, he volunteered at the college radio station and got the opportunity to attend a music festival in New York City. However, none of the bands he listened to were represented. He came back disillusioned, but “ambitious as [expletive]” to create something.

This was the start of MACROCK, a multi-venue show and music conference that still takes place to this day in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was also Weinbender’s first time organizing a music festival. He leaned on this experience heavily when life—following a world tour with popular ska band Less than Jake and a stint at the record label Fueled by Ramen—stopped him in Gainesville, bussing tables and washing dishes at Leonardo’s 706.

“My resume sucked,” he said. “I learned how to wait tables and waited tables for years.” But he kept asking himself, “‘What am I doing?’ Friends of mine said that when I did MACROCK it was awesome, so they said, ‘Why don’t you do that here, [in Gainesville]?’”

Weinbender got around town a lot. He had a wide network of friends, from Satchel Raye of Satchel’s Pizza to his coworkers at Fueled by Ramen. He knew people who worked at Common Grounds, which is now Gainesville Cycle on University Avenue, from his time coordinating shows for the record label. When he decided to attempt organizing Fest, he reached out to them, as well as to now-closed venues like Sidebar and The Purple Porpoise.

Soon, Weinbender had the bands locked. Promotional posters, made on an old Macintosh computer and printed off a donated printer, lined the streets.

“It was really small,” Weinbender said. “You really relied on your friends and the fact that Gainesville had such a thriving music scene. That’s how we did the first Fest.”

But the initial go was far from profitable: Weinbender lost $500. He was still waiting tables for a living and “taking that hit was really hard.”

thefest-4“I didn’t have two pennies to shake together at that point,” he said.

The loss was disheartening. Weinbender wanted to pay the bands, who played in “good faith,” but for a long time Fest did not make substantial money. Starting in 2004, Weinbender worked a side job as a publicist for No Idea Records, an independent music label in Gainesville.

“That was his day job,” said Matt Sweeting, a No Idea Records employee. But, “Fest was his baby.”

Though the first Fest was gritty and hodgepodge, the guests didn’t seem to care. It was a Fest after-party that persuaded Weinbender to keep going.

“Everybody was like, ‘This is so awesome. You have to keep doing this,’” Weinbender said. “I was like, ‘You know what? We have something good here. I’ll work the extra hours.’”

In 2012, Weinbender stopped working at No Idea Records. Fest had been growing in size, and Weinbender decided to see what would happen if he focused on Fest full time. He took out a loan, and the music festival expanded rapidly: ‘pre-Fest’ began the next year, and in 2015 Weinbender partnered with the City of Gainesville to include Bo Diddley Plaza as a venue.

“I’ve always worked in music but haven’t always been able to survive off of music,” he said. “I did this more for my sanity and [for] the heart and soul of it.”

Despite its expansion, Fest continues to call Gainesville its home.

Due to close quarters, loud music and booze, punk rockers can garner a bad reputation. But Fest stays amiable In fact, Weinbender said there has never been a single fistfight at Fest.

“The scene is really good to each other,” Weinbender says. “Usually guys end up hugging it out.”

“There’s a constant state of euphoria that’s so interesting to me,” Sweeting said. “It’s kinda like Disney to little kids, or Vegas to rich, young people, or Tokyo in general. You kinda just walk around with a shit-eating grin on your face the whole time.”

Jeremy Murdock, production manager for The Wooly, has been involved with Fest from the beginning, when he started as a volunteer. After Bo Diddley Plaza, the Wooly is the second-largest venue at Fest.

Murdock said working Fest “is stressful in the context that you’re at capacity the entire time,” but he also enjoys it. The festival is like a homecoming for his friends.

Despite the crowds, security, for both the venues and the Gainesville Police Department, is simple. GPD even vouched for the festival two years ago when there was a dispute with a venue.

Some of the biggest supporters of Fest are local businesses, whose sales boom over the weekend.

“We have to staff so many more people,” said Alaina Walton, a prep baker and barista at Karma Cream. “Nobody’s allowed to request off because it’s so busy.”

You can always tell when people are for Fest, she elaborated, because they’re usually European.

“Our attendees are good people,” Weinbender said. “That’s how we got the support of the city [to use Bo Diddley Plaza]. Good people … can go in front of the city council and say, ‘We’re there, we hang out with Fest-goers. They’re great.’”

Most of the management for the festival goes into coordinating the bands and training the volunteers, many of whom, like Murdock, return year after year.

Volunteers work a single shift consisting of responsibilities like building fences, filling kegs or working security at stages. In exchange, volunteers get a free Fest pass.  

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“[Bands] are always amazed at how well things are run, how on time it is, how “pro” it’s run” Weinbender said. “But nobody working it is “pro” … We have stage managers who are nurses the rest of the year.”

Volunteers are an integral part of Fest. This stems not just from Weinbender’s time volunteering at his college radio station, but from the festival’s scrappy beginnings. Weinbender didn’t start out with the intent to profit off the festival—all he wanted was to do “good things for good people.” 

Weinbender said that he tries to put the attendees first when it comes to Fest. The festival is about more than the bands that play or the volunteers who donate their time. Fest was first organized by Weinbender and his friends, and that feeling of camaraderie still hangs in the sweaty air.

“There’s a constant state of euphoria that’s so interesting to me,” Sweeting said. “It’s kinda like Disney to little kids, or Vegas to rich, young people, or Tokyo in general. You kinda just walk around with a shit-eating grin on your face the whole time.”