Birth of the cool

The origin, history and people behind Antiwarpt.

click to enlarge THE ANTI- CREW: (From left) Antiwarpt organizers Anna Serena, Phil Benito, Bradley Askew, Manny Kool and Sean O’Brien. - SHANNA GILLETTE/SASHA RAE PHOTOGRAPHY
Shanna Gillette/Sasha Rae Photography
THE ANTI- CREW: (From left) Antiwarpt organizers Anna Serena, Phil Benito, Bradley Askew, Manny Kool and Sean O’Brien.

The idea for Antiwarpt was conceived in the back offices of Daddy Kool Records, where Brokenmold Entertainment’s Sean O’Brien frequently lingered to shoot the shit with Manny Kool and Anna Serena after dropping off posters and tickets for his shows. “We’d talk about music and local bands more than anything,” said Serena. At the time, she’d been thinking about ways to capitalize on the momentum and buzz stirred up by the successful 600 Block Party, and Warped Tour was right around the corner. “We were just sitting back there, hanging out, and Anna was like, ‘I’ve been kicking around the idea of wanting to do something the same time as Warped Tour,’” said O’Brien.

He and Brokenmold partner Phil Benito had deep ties in the local scene and an extensive network of connections paired with experience in booking and promotions; Serena and Manny’s connections and capabilities overlapped in some areas and complemented in others via their own experience working for Daddy Kool and No Clubs Productions.

So they set a plan in motion to showcase the high-quality local bands they all liked while offering a grassroots indie music alternative to Warped. With help from graphic artist and poster designer Bradley Askew (now a permanent member of both the Brokenmold and Antiwarpt crews), they organized the fest in a little under six weeks and the inaugural Antiwarpt Music Fest launched the evening of Fri., July 23, 2010, as Warped was winding down at the nearby Vinoy Park. Almost all of the 21 genre-spanning bands were local, but attendance was high (740 all told) and the response both from fans and media was across-the-board positive. “After that first year, it automatically turned into its own thing,” O’Brien said. “Bands were hitting us up, like, ‘We’ve gotta play next year, I hope we’re playing next year.’”

Encouraged and empowered, the Antiwarpt five started planning for the second annual fest over six months in advance, expanding it to include a Friday kick-off party, doubling the number of venues from four to eight, and adding a handful of national indie acts from Austin (Bright Light Social Hour, Seryn), Athens, Ga. (Reptar), NYC (The London Souls), and LA (Eyes Lips Eyes) to anchor a 74-band lineup jam-packed with talent from here, nearby and the greater state of Florida. Adding the national acts was a brazen attempt to get some national attention. “If we have the national acts, then hopefully someone takes notice on a national level. It’s kind of like tricking them into seeing what we have going on here,” O’Brien explained.

Antiwarpt II was held the Saturday before the 2011 Warped Tour to make it easier for more people to attend and to accommodate the bigger lineup. “By the second year,” Askew says, “we realized we didn’t necessarily have to be a part of what they’re doing, to do what we’re doing. Because what we’re doing is so diverse and so different.” Overall, attendance nearly tripled to a triumphant 2,200 attendees.

Antiwarpt III is on its way to becoming an even bigger blowout, with 99 bands performing on 10 stages all located within several blocks of each other on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Several quality national acts, including the Mountain Goats, join an impressive bill of Florida acts, and this year’s Friday kick-off brings a new venue into the equation — an outdoor stage at The Morean Arts Center — and another national act, Hank & Cupcakes.

Staging a festival isn’t easy, but growing and sustaining one is the real challenge, and it requires thoughtful planning and execution. This includes inviting back bands that ignited audiences and delivered overall unforgettable performances, and moving the ones that jam-packed smaller venues to bigger digs; making sure the venues are located close enough together so it’s a simple trek between them to catch bands; and scheduling tiered performances by artists in similar genres so they aren’t competing against each other. “I didn’t want people to have to be like, ‘This is my one chance to watch soul, which soul band am I gonna watch?’” O’Brien explained. “If someone digs soul, funk and jazz, they can go that whole day and see bands that almost fit that kind of thing all throughout. Same with the Southern rock sound. If you dig electronic music, you can sit in Sake Bomb and just listen to the different DJs and producers playing there all day long. You can pretty much pack a full day in of whatever you want to do and not have to worry about fighting to not to miss something. There’s going to be conflicts, it’s going to happen no matter what, especially for the music lover who’s not stuck in one genre.”

Keeping the dead time between sets to a minimum and making sure each set ends as planned is also important, as shows that end late throw off the careful balancing act of scheduling and make it a bitch for fest attendees trying to follow a carefully mapped-out agenda, especially at a fest with so much going on at once.

Overall, their goal has been to make the fest accessible and affordable. “We’re just trying to make it as people-friendly as possible. We have a shuttle for the people coming over the bridge from Tampa to St. Pete, so people don’t have to drive drunk, we’ve always kept the price low, there’s no VIP tickets or areas,” O’Brien said, a tactic to keep the fans up front and the talkers by the bar. “The whole thing is, we don’t want to price it out so people can’t afford it — we want people to people to come out and see the bands.”

Benito says the fest is a way to grow the local scene and draw some serious attention to it. “There’s been a ton of solid Florida talent doing the same thing better than what’s actually getting popular. They get overlooked because they’re in Florida and don’t have a platform to help them get recognized on a more national or mainstream exposure level. Hopefully fests like this will help change that.”

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