Nine Years and Still Going Strong: A History of Lobsterfest
By Matthew Bemer, Copy Editor
The scene is Saturday, June 2, 2003. The afternoon heat swelters and beats against the students out on Ohio University’s South Green Beach. Most universities are already on break, but not the students who attend the Athens university. The school is infamous for 10-week quarters that extend the academic schedule to June.
In the midst of the sweaty college-aged crowd is a stage. The bands that will take the stage during the course of the day will include the likes ofKoufax, Cinema Eye, Chicago Typewriter and The Story Of. Some students watch while others yell out from their dorm windows, upset about noise on a Saturday the weekend before finals. This is the scene of ACRN’s first Lobsterfest, named after the radio station’s mascot, Snat the Rock Lobster.
Music and a Town Called Athens, Ohio
Athens is geographically located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southeastern Ohio. The town sits in a valley along the Hocking River. It is the site of the first university founded in the Northwest Territory: Ohio University, which was founded in 1804.
It's hard to talk about Athens’ culture and music without mentioning Ohio University. The university draws around 20,000 undergraduate students to its Athens campus, one-third the size of the entire population of Athens County. Students come from Columbus, Cleveland, Toledo, Pittsburgh and further, bringing with them a taste of their hometown’s music scene.
OU’s All-Campus Radio Network is the place where those students blend their musical tastes. Established by Ohio University Professor Archie Greer in 1971, ACRN broadcasts to Ohio University students, providing them with the latest in college-rock and local music. As of recently though, ACRN has become more than just a radio station.
Humble Beginnings and Early Troubles
ACRN was in the business of booking shows around Athens for years before they first booked Lobsterfest, but when Ohio University student Scott Santos approached ACRN’s Assistant Promotions Director Alex Weinhardt and PR Director Aaron ‘Bogie’ Brogen with the idea for a music festival, it was a no-brainer.
“He [Scott Santos] wanted to do an independent study with us where we set up a music fest and he wanted to affiliate ACRN. We [Weinhardt and Brogen] were kind of his liaison to the radio station,” says Weinhardt. “With the help of all the directors of ACRN we created Lobsterfest. To our knowledge, that was the first time the radio station had done something like that.”
It wasn’t as simple as just creating the festival, admits Weinhardt. Months of booking and planning went into it. ACRN opted to have Lobsterfest outside and decided on South Green Beach as the festival’s location. The beach is a high traffic area, located between two of the university’s residential greens.
Troubles arose when ACRN’s Promotions Director at the time withdrew from Ohio University a week before Lobsterfest was about to happen. The resulting scramble to cover for the vacated position resulted in numerous last-minute decisions.
“We were just calling on friends' bands,” says Weinhardt.
Weinhardt based the rest of the lineup on what bands had played the night before and were still in Athens the day of the fest.
One thing was certain: Toledo-native Koufax would headline the first Lobsterfest. At the time, the band was being recognized by The Get Up Kids and had put out albums on Doghouse Records as well asVagrant Records.
“It wasn’t well attended, but everybody that was there had a blast,” laughs Weinhardt. The only complaints received were ones from residents complaining about the noise at noon on a Saturday afternoon. For Weinhardt and the rest of the ACRN gang, Lobsterfest was a success.
But the next year’s Lobsterfest met similar troubles.
The Ohio University Senate Appropriations Committee funds Lobsterfest, but ACRN is the student group affiliated with the actual festival. Because S.A.C. funds Lobsterfest, the worry doesn’t fall so heavily on ACRN to raise funds to pay for bands.
Every year, student organizations must apply for S.A.C. funding. If funding is given, any events put on with the money must be free for all those that attend. Since 2003’s Lobsterfest, the festival has been a free event for anyone in attendance.
In 2004, ACRN did not pursue funding for the festival from S.A.C. Weinhardt, out of frustration, resigned himself from planning that year’s festival.
“I got really upset,” says Weinhardt. “Essentially, [the General Manager] forgot to apply for funding from the university. It was absurd. We basically ran on a zero dollar budget.”
Nevertheless, Lobsterfest 2004 still happened. ACRN scrounged up a stage and sound system for the festival. Without a budget, the festival hosted mainly local acts.
Summer of the Lobster
In March of 2005, news of a lobster named Bubba spread across the U.S. The news story, though somewhat arbitrary, made it to national headlines. Bubba, a 22-pound lobster, the largest lobster ever found in the U.S, had died because of stress. If Bubba’s death meant anything to ACRN, it would juxtapose the success the organization experienced at 2005’s Lobsterfest.
Brian Ostrander took over as Promotions Director for that year’s festival. Ostrander and ACRN saw the biggest increase in funding that year--a budget of $2,500 for sound and staging alone. This marked the first time since Lobsterfest’s creation that an outside production company ran the staging and sound.
“The first year I had [done Lobsterfest], we just did [the festival] on a much larger scale,” says Ostrander. “We were just trying to make it as professional as we could.”
Ostrander booked The Wrens as the headliner for that year’s Lobsterfest, a choice that reflected the station’s indie-rock roots.
“They were a really important indie-rock band in the mid to late '90s and even the early 2000s. In 2003, they put out a record called The Meadowlands, which is still one of my favorite records [today],” says Ostrander.
The Wrens sparked an interest not only in the Athens community, but in Columbus and other parts of Ohio as well.“A bunch of people came from out of town for that show,” says Ostrander. “Columbus is only an hour and a half away, but to me, that was a huge deal.”
A destination it had become. Thanks to Ostrander, that summer’s Lobsterfest saw the biggest turnout the station had seen yet.
Ostrander booked four years worth of Lobsterfests and saw increasingly better turnouts each year. The funding flowed in from the university which, combined with station money, resulted in consistent headliners year after year.
In 2006, Lobsterfest added a second venue to the festival. After spending the Saturday on South Green Beach, Lobsterfest would continue the night at The Union. That year’s headliner was Matt Pond PA.
In 2007, Ohio University finished the new student center titled “Baker Center.” ACRN teamed up with Ohio University to promote the use of Baker Center and booked Lobsterfest ’07 outside at the bottom of the building.
“The idea came up to move the event to [outside] Baker and have [the university] co-sponsor the event. That would give us more money to spend on the event,” says Ostrander in regards to why he made the choice to move Lobsterfest.
Not only had the festival moved to Baker Center, but that year ACRN’s station moved into its current location on the third floor of Baker as well. The location provided ACRN members and bands with an air-conditioned pressroom and a chance to cool down from the June heat.
Murder By Death headlined that year and was supported by other acts such as Southeast Engine, Owen, The New Amsterdams and Kevin Devine.
However, in 2008 Lobsterfest moved back to South Green Beach due to issues with the university.
“We initially intended to have it at the Baker Center, but it didn’t work out for them logistically,” says Ostrander. The university’s funding dropped, but S.A.C. still was able to fund the festival. Despite the complicated move back to South Green Beach, rumors of bookingAndrew W.K. as a headliner surfaced.
“[Andrew W.K.] was in the mix, just for the fun of it,” says Ostrander. “We almost [booked] [The National] that year, they just wanted a little bit too much money at the time.”
Up to this point, Ostrander had booked Lobsterfest headliners that were primarily up and coming indie-rock bands. Booking Andrew W.K. would be the first time a well-known pop act headlined ACRN’s festival.
“I figured we should just go for it, make the last [Lobsterfest I would book] a party,” says Ostrander.
The rumors came true and in 2008, Andrew W.K. headlined Lobsterfest. Despite the location changes, Lobsterfest was still able to host two stages--one big and one small.
Ostrander guesses around 500 people attended that Lobsterfest, a number that is impressive given the events’ history.
“It was ridiculous,” says Weinhardt, who was one of those in attendance at that Lobsterfest. “There were like a bajillion people there!” Returning to Lobsterfest that year for Weinhardt was a jaw-dropping experience. “It was cool because me and my buddy helped create this.”
“Andrew W.K. came to the show and he was hanging out with his parents. They drove him into town,” says Ostrander. “While he was getting ready for the show, putting on his white outfit, stretching, doing his vocal warm-ups and he called me over and we planned out how he was going to run out and how I would announce him on stage. It was just a lot of fun to work with him. He was really excited to be there.”
Lobsterfest 2008 concluded Ostrander’s career as Promotions Director of ACRN. Thanks to his efforts, the future of Lobsterfest was bright.
A New Era
In 2009, S.A.C. funding significantly dropped for the festival, but ACRN still managed to book Jay Reatard, a punk act signed to Matador Records. The GM of ACRN at the time was Jason Robinaugh.
“It got smaller, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Robinaugh.
That year also saw an additional spot added to Lobsterfest’s lineup for the Athens High School Battle of the Bands’ winner. The first winner given this spot was an Andrew W.K. cover band, who, after seeing Andrew W.K. play the year prior, started the band.
“It was cool to see that a bunch of kids were motivated to form a band and play music because of something that we all worked on,” says former ACRN member Aaron Vilk. “We felt that [it would] be cool to give back to them by doing that.”
For Vilk, booking that cover band meant more than just another spot filled on the lineup.
“That was the most tangible moment of me seeing a fan of ACRN,” says Vilk. “I know people listen, support shows and read our articles but I think seeing that was like the [moment] where [I realized] that people actually pay attention.”
As funding slowly dropped, the festival compensated in other ways. ACRN members began to fundraise independently for Lobsterfest. In 2010, Aaron Vilk became Promotions Director and made the decision to cut costs by not hiring the stage production company.
“I miss [the big stage]. It was fucking cool and took a lot of the frustration out of [the whole process] of doing sound,” says Vilk. “That was the first thing to go though because we didn’t have the funding.”
Clearing out room from the budget for a stage did allow Vilk to book more than one night for the festival. In 2010, Lobsterfest became a three-day affair, spanning venues across Athens and ending on South Green Beach the final day. That year, The Sidekicks headlined.
“We did more, because we couldn’t do big,” says Vilk.
Historically, Lobsterfest weather is always sunny, hot and muggy. The weather that year did not hold up and resulted in the fest’s first indoors main day.
“[We] pulled up to the fest and saw that they were tearing down the stages. We were all pretty bummed initially because it didn't look like it was going to happen,” says The Sidekicks’ drummer Matt Climer.
ACRN moved the stages to Nelson’s South Pole and the festival carried on as usual.
“People would come and go but there was a great turnout throughout the day. All in all, mother nature couldn't stop people from coming out and watching some great bands,” says Climer.
Lobsterfest experienced similar issues in 2011, when it started raining during the headlining band’s, Asobi Seksu, set, cutting the day short.
Despite the rain and further funding cuts, Lobsterfest moved forward and turned a new page in terms of its history.
“We managed to scrape something fun together that a lot of people enjoyed,” says Vilk of the fests that he had a part.
The Lobster, The Present and The Future
Lobsterfest 2012 marks the ninth official Lobsterfest. Kory Kasler took over the position of Promotions Director shortly after working with Vilk as an assistant on 2011’s Lobsterfest.
Continuing on the recent trend towards indie-rock/punk, Kasler bookedPujol as the headliner for this year’s fest.
“He’s a cool, down-to-earth guy and I think he fits really well with ACRN and the people who are fans of ACRN shows,” says Kasler.
Pujol’s appearance at Lobsterfest comes days before the band releases a new album titled The United States of Being, which will be released via Saddle Creek Records. Pujol is also schedule to perform at this year’s Bonnaroo Festival.
When asked what lead singer Daniel Pujol looks forward to the most about Lobsterfest, his answer is how ACRN will incorporate lobster into the festival.
Co-headlining the festival this year is Xray Eyeballs, a garage-rock act from New York. They too share a similar fascination with the lobster part of Lobsterfest.
“ACRN’s slogan has been 'The Rock Lobster' for many years, which was taken from the B-52s song of the same name,” says Kasler. “Snat is ACRN's official rock lobster mascot and without any of this, we wouldn't be calling the event Lobsterfest.”
Adding to the branding of the lobster, plenty of bands have tried on the mascot’s head over the years. “There aren't many times you get to try on a [Lobster costume] without being yelled at to take it off,” says Climer.
This year’s festival also features two Athens’ Battle of the Band’s winners, Mindy Braasch and To Be Determined. It is the first time that there have been two winners playing Lobsterfest.
“I’ve listened to [Mindy Braasch’s] stuff and I think she’s really talented. It’s always fun whenever we get to play with a young act doing their thing and being really passionate about what they do,” says Stephen Pence of She Bears when asked who he is most excited to see at this year’s Lobsterfest. She Bears will also play Friday night at Casa Cantina this year for what will be the band’s fourth Lobsterfest appearance.
Kasler has also booked five total venues, including the South Green Beach for main day. This year’s lineup is a good blend of local and regional acts. It's also one of the last shows happening in Athens before summer break.
“This year, I don’t know what Brothertiger’s plan are or Blithe Field’s, but they’re both seniors and they’re graduating this year,” says Kasler. “I can see how [Lobsterfest] will be a last hoorah.”
Pence remembers how that last Lobsterfest felt to him as his band was gearing up to go on tour after their graduation. “There’s something in the air that gets you a little bit more excited than most shows that you play,” says Pence.
As Ohio University faces the switch from quarters to semesters, Lobsterfest will have to adjust too. Some think that an earlier fest will help with booking bands and others believe that the switch could also help to get more funding for Lobsterfest. It’s hard to say exactly what will happen, but the voices of ACRN alumni know one thing for sure: they want Lobsterfest to keep going.
“We’re still talking about it,” says Weinhardt. “I hope that 10 years from now, I’m still stoked to find out who’s playing. It’s an awesome event, it’s sweet that it’s free and there’s not a lot [in Athens] that does cater to that [music]. I would love to see that keep going.”
Lobsterfest will continue and develop its own identity in Athens. Next year will reach its 10th anniversary, and it will be even harder to imagine a time when Lobsterfest was not a normal part of the university experience of an ACRN member. The entire year looks forward to the festival and even if funding drops or dates have to change, music will still be played and stages will still be put up somewhere on Ohio University’s campus.
“There’s just a point in the day where, everyone in the station who has been there since six in the morning setting up the stage, loading bands in, being out in the sun all day--there’s a point in the day where everything is just under control,” says Ostrander. “All the bands are there, everything’s loaded in, tons of people are hanging out and watching the show. We’ve put so much work and time into it all day, and not even all day. Months of work. There’s just a moment where it’s like, 'Alright...this is happening.'”
It’s in those times that Lobsterfest shines. The festival is about more than just music to those in ACRN. It is a testament to all the hard work and dedication put into the product. Of course, hanging out with the bands and hearing awesome music is a bonus.