A group of music lovers with big dreams came together to create a Tampa staple.
Celebrating 10 years, Gasparilla Music Festival (GMF) has become one of the most wildly popular events in the area. Known for its mix of local bands and major acts, the festival features a variety of genres, including pop, hip hop, rock and roll, country, and jam bands.
Gov’t Mule closed out this year’s chill yet energetic event on the main stage in downtown’s Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. The North Carolina band’s electrifying rock- and-roll tunes spilled out for blocks around while fog and flashing multicolored lights filled the stage. As the sun set, a lawn full of families, friend groups and dates gathered on blankets and lounge chairs, chatting, clapping and shouting their praise while kids ran around the grass and the splash pad.
Rocking her fedora hat halfway up the lawn, Diane Schaefer, a five-year attendee from nearby Venice, put her whole body into the music, wiggling her hips and swirling her arms through the air with her partner by her side. Further up, near the stage, Christina Beaugrand swayed to the beat while her 9-year-old daughter, Avery, did cartwheels.
“She loves music as much as I do,” says Beaugrand, a St. Petersburg resident at GMF for her fourth year. “There’s something for everyone, and I think it’s cool that I can bring her.”
Sitting toward the back on higher ground, Tampa resident Yvonne Gougelet enjoyed the sights and sounds in the company of three friends.
“I wanted them to see how special this festival is,” Gougelet says. “The view, the background, the skyline — you don’t get that at any other festival, where the main stage has an open back.”
The iconic University of Tampa minarets and river graffiti provide the festival’s backdrop, while museums, the beer can building and City Hall’s old Hortense clock tower paint the surrounding scenery.
Founded in 2011, Tampa’s homegrown musical celebration has come a long way since its humble beginnings. The Gasparilla Music Foundation was birthed by a group of like-minded individuals in Tampa who sought to expand the local arts offerings at the end of the Gasparilla season.
A local music lover and avid festival-goer, David Cox is one of GMF’s founders. Cox was inspired to start a fun event that was uniquely Tampa, complete with headliners, local acts, food and beverages that showcase the region’s culinary chops and history.
“I’m proud that Tampa can have a big, world-class event like this right in our downtown space,” says Cox, GMF’s executive director.
Cox and the other founders saw an opening when Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park neared completion. With sights set on the venue, they planned to bring to Tampa the world-class and innovative programming it was craving.
“We really wanted to amplify Curtis Hixon Park being a focal point of Tampa,” GMF co-founder Grymes Cannon says. “The Old Curtis Hixon Hall was also a big inspiration. So many legendary performers had played on these grounds, including Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. We wanted to honor that legacy by hosting a new generation of incredible performances.”
Initially, Cannon and fellow organizers overcame several obstacles, including convincing the city to allow them to fence off the park. They more than succeeded in the herculean task of starting a music festival from the ground up thanks to the Ring of Fire, 72 people who believed in GMF’s vision and wanted to see it become a reality. The first iteration of the festival took place March 10, 2012, with 5,000 patrons.
As Tampa has grown, so has GMF. With attendance steadily rising each year, GMF saw a record-breaking 25,000 people at the 2021 celebration. What launched as a one-day event expanded to two days in 2014 and to three days this year. Widely divergent national acts have included Modest Mouse, The Avett Brothers, Erykah Badu, The Roots and Father John Misty.
“I’m proud that we made it to our 10th year,” Cox says. “It took a lot of work and a lot of community support to get us here.”
Ty Rodriguez also has been on the board since GMF’s inception. Even after losing his voice at this year’s festival, he was eager to speak about its impact.
“I’ve worked at both Bonnaroo and Coachella,” says Rodriguez, a local restaurateur and one of GMF’s organizers. “The artists don’t know Tampa, but they’ve heard of Gasparilla.”
It’s clear from GMF’s growth and the caliber of talent the festival continues to showcase that organizers are excelling in providing a memorable fan experience. This year’s 10th anniversary weekend saw performances from 35 bands across four stages.
“GMF has really brought a richness of music into Tampa, highlighting the area as a destination for larger artists, and bringing in musicians who wouldn’t normally come here otherwise,” Rodriguez says.
It was the festival’s first year with an electronic dance music-forward first evening of shows. National acts such as Nas and Sylvan Esso headlined the weekend. The lineup also featured some of Florida’s best talent, including locals Visit Neptune, Ella Jet, Future Soul and Glove, who just played Lollapalooza.
A team of four staff, two interns and over 500 volunteers brought the festival to life.
“We’ve become a family,” says five-year box office manager Lara Sullivan. “I work festivals all over the country, and this is definitely my favorite.”
Organizers keep lines short, grounds clean and with the help of sponsors, ticket prices low. These days, GMF’s challenges are keeping up with demand and finding enough hotel rooms for attendees, both local and from out of state.
In line with its mission, the foundation has launched several initiatives to support and promote music and education. Among these is the Recycled Tunes program, providing access to music classes and new instruments in over 30 local schools in need.
“It’s one of the most unique events that take place in the state of Florida, let alone Tampa,” says Rodriguez. “When we started, there was nothing like this, and to see where it is now, it’s the reason I’m still involved 10 years later. It changed my life to be a part of something that’s bigger than myself.”
Want to learn more about Gasparilla? Check out The Making of Gasparilla