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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Tony Weinbender has two great loves: music and Gainesville. Seventeen years ago he lost $500 trying to combine those, but in doing so, he created an event that became a city staple and a community that never stops coming back for more.


Weinbender, 42, looks like an average Gainesville resident. He lives here with his wife, Elizabeth, and two dogs, Oliver and Biscuit. Exactly a week before FEST 17, Weinbender was laughing with an old friend at Piesano’s bar and sipping on a beer, waiting for a volunteer meeting for the event. He said it’s a stressful time of year for him, but it doesn’t seem to be. He looks utterly relaxed. That is, until he starts to talk about his FEST, his people, his music, then, he looks like a kid in a candy shop.


“I love the fact that I feel like, at 42, I’m just as involved as I was at 16,” Weinbender said about the punk rock music scene. “It’s just a much bigger scale now.”


Weinbender grew up playing in punk bands in Virginia. During spring breaks, he and his friends would all come down to Gainesville to play at the original Hardback Cafe, which is now Boca Fiesta.


He was going to school and working at his college radio station when he got a call from his friend Vinnie Fiorella, the drummer in the band Less than Jake. Fiorella was starting a record label. He asked Weinbender for help.


So Weinbender dropped out, packed his bags and moved to Gainesville. He worked at Fueled by Ramen, Fiorella’s label. The drummer was usually touring with his band, so Weinbender said it was just him and another employee, whom he hated. One day, the two were so fed up with each other, Weinbender said he quit and the other guy fired him at the same time.


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After Fueled by Ramen, Weinbender was listless. He said he lived in a house with eight roommates and did just about anything for money. He moved furniture, sold his plasma and did whatever other odd jobs he could find. He finally found a job at Leonardo’s Pizza by the Slice.


“I just don’t want this to be everything,” Weinbender remembers thinking at 25.

Weinbender’s friends saw that he was upset and reminded him of the music festival he used to plan while working for his college radio station, the MAC Rock or Mid Atlantic College Rock festival. They decided they would put on a punk rock festival in Gainesville.


Weinbender said he couldn’t get a loan, so he went back to Virginia and asked his divorced parents for $500 each, promising to pay them back after his festival succeeded. A couple of friends helped him. They made their own ticketing platform instead of paying Ticketmaster’s fees. They called old friends in the punk rock scene. Eventually, they booked about 60 bands over a two-day period in small local venues, most of which no longer exist, during UF’s spring break.


Weinbender lost half the money loaned from his parents in that first FEST, but it was fun. Only a couple hundred people came, but he said they all begged him to do it again.


Do it again! Do it again! It’s only going to get better if you do it again. That’s what Weinbender remembers his friends kept saying.


He didn’t even wait a year. In October, on the weekend of the Florida versus Georgia football game, he tried again. Almost all the original FEST attendees came back, most of them with friends. This time, Weinbender said FEST 2 made back that $500 lost the first time. He’s been holding FEST on the same weekend ever since.


The next year was the first time FEST had an attendee from overseas. Weinbender remembers doing registration with his friend PJ who leaned over and whispered “I think that’s the German!”


Weinbender said they freaked out. They bought the man from Germany round after round of beers and were soon fast friends. FEST 4, he came back, this time with two of his friends. The next year, he came again, this time with 12 friends. One of those 12 met his wife at that fifth FEST. They got married and he now lives in Gainesville.


That’s why FEST doesn’t have an advertising budget. Because, according to Weinbender, word-of-mouth is the best advertisement anyone can have. He said he wants everyone who comes to FEST to have such a great time that they never shut up about it, so their friends feel the need to come back with them the next year.


“We’re not looking to really grow. Fest is this size,” Weinbender said. “As long as we can keep doing it and everyone is happy, we will. I’m looking to just sustain and keep my people happy.”


People who keep coming back to FEST are family to Weinbender. He said each year is like a reunion.


According to him, there’s never been a fight at FEST and arrests are extremely rare. He said most of the interactions FEST has with the Gainesville Police Department are foreign attendees who, after a few too many beers, forget that in America, they’re not allowed to walk the streets with an opened container.


After FEST 10, the city surveyed local businesses asking what their thoughts were on FEST, and all but one, which Weinbender called a “foo foo restaurant that’s already closed,” endorsed the event. Even though they look like a bunch of “punks,” the FEST crowd is much more tame than those brought in by game days in the Swamp, Weinbender said.


Since FEST 10, Weinbender’s been able to live off FEST’s revenue with a couple odd jobs. The two months after the event are dedicated to what Weinbender calls “clean up,” which is mostly accounting and making sure everyone is happy. In December, he throws a Christmas party for his approximately 50-person staff. There, he asks them to pitch charities where he’ll donate leftover profits. Then, he starts planning for the next year.


When you ask Weinbender to name his favorite FEST performers, he throws up his arms and asks how he’s supposed to choose. Some of the bands are close friends, like the Menzingers who are performing at FEST for their 11th time this year. Some are “scores” he’s been badgering to come forever, like Get Up Kids who are playing at FEST for the first time this year, but who he booked as a tiny band 20 years ago at MAC Rock. Some are just new bands whose music he loves.


It seems suspicious, like he’s trying to be political and avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, but watching Weinbender talk about each band and his FEST family, it’s difficult not to feel his excitement and genuine love.


“It’s the same reason I worked for a radio station. Same reason we made mixtapes for our friends as kids,” Weinbender said. “If you care about music you want to share it.”


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