Nelsonville Music Festival: An Athens County Gem

By Claire Klodell, Staff Writer

An endless mirage of cornfields, pro-life billboards and the iconic “Hell is Real” sign is what the typical drive through southern Ohio looks like. For a few days during June, however, there is an ending destination which makes the road trip slightly more eventful. This is a major understatement; Nelsonville Music Festival has been transforming a lethargic car ride into a three-day holiday since 2005.

The festival began as a one-day event for the first three years and featured only six bands. For the first year, it was held on the square outside of Stuart’s Opera House and then relocated to Rocky Boots along the Hocking River for 2006 and 2007. The event expanded to three days in 2008 and moved to Robbins Crossing at Hocking College. Willie Nelson headlined in 2009, which was the moment of realization that this was going to blow up in the upcoming years. 2012 was when Nelsonville Music Festival grew to a four-day event.

Stuart’s Opera House is located in Nelsonville’s Historic Arts District and has organized the festival since 2005. It has been showcasing events since 1879, but closed for a brief period of time in 1924. Stuart’s reopened its doors in 1976, and now hosts over 75 events per year. ACRN spoke with Brian Koscho to learn more about the evolution of such an elaborate event.

All Dogs // NMF16
Live act at 2016’s NMF | Photo by JC Griffith

“Every year it evolves a little bit more, we’ve added whole stages, like the Boxcar Stage, which is free for all four days was added in 2016 and its backdrop is an old boxcar we repainted and fixed up adding a live mural to NMF last year. We’ve added more aesthetics on the grounds, like the Gladden House Sessions a few years back. It’s a partnership with Ohio University Media Arts and Studies and WOUB Public Media, and featured musicians playing sets filmed on the front porch of one of the cabins with multiple cameras and great audio along with interviews,” he said.

“We are always thinking of ways to improve the experience and add new things to keep it exciting. Things have evolved and changed over 13 years of course, but the mission and basic idea is still the same, to have a great festival and bring the work that Stuart’s and NMF does into the community on a larger scale that has a positive economic impact on our region and helps raise money for Stuart’s Opera House. But, we are always thinking of new things to add and ways to improve the experience.”

Deemed as “one of the best-kept secrets of the U.S. music festival circuit” by Billboard, Nelsonville drew in 5,000-7,000 attendees per day in 2016. For a little over half a million dollars, they can support 21.9 full-time equivalent jobs and generate $23,894 in local government revenue.

nelsonville graph
Graph of Nelsonville Music Festival Attendance in 2016

Wayne Coyne, the lead singer of The Flaming Lips, yelled out to the crowd from the Main Stage, when they headlined in 2015. “We hope this festival goes on for another 100 years! We play festivals all over the world and this is just a really beautiful, cool thing you’ve got going on here.”

Mainstream festivals like Coachella have become so immensely commercialized, even when their CEO funds anti-gay, climate-change denying hate groups. Whereas with Nelsonville, they have a reputation of consistently advocating for sustainability.

“We do what we do here because it is important to us. This event has been Zero Waste for years and years now and even before that we were concerned with recycling and our carbon footprint as a whole. There has always been a huge focus at the festival and in advance to create as little waste as possible and to educate and inform the attendees on how they can help do that. We view NMF as a community event, and we want to be good stewards of our environment as a part of that community,” said Brian.

Zero Waste is no exaggeration, 92 percent of the trash produced at the 2016 festival was diverted from the landfill.

Zulfa Rizqiya, a volunteer in the Beer Garden of NMF in 2016, said, “If NMF didn’t advocate and practice sustainability, it would definitely lose a large portion of its audience. Sustainability is a major part of what makes NMF great, not only because it helps combat our major climate issue, but also because it’s what the community values.”

While Nelsonville is not a city recognizable by anyone outside of Ohio, she believes it is the prime place for the festival to be located.

Courtney Barnett // NMF16
Live act at 2016’s NMF | Photo by JC Griffith

“Unlike other music festivals, NMF is defined by its location and community. I mean, you have Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo with names that are arbitrary to their locations. What does the name “Lollapalooza” have to do with Chicago? NMF complements Nelsonville by embracing the quirks of its location, setting itself apart from other festivals. Who didn’t love the giant parade of balloon cicadas invading the main stage last year in honor of the 17-year cicadas? Musicians even raved on stage about how they could rent bikes at the festival and explore the beautiful county through the bike path. You won’t get these outside of Appalachia.”

This year, Nelsonville Music Festival will feature over 60 artists including Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes), They Might Be Giants, Emmylou Harris, Parquet Courts, Twin Peaks, Shannon and the Clams, and many more. The event will take place Thursday, June 1 through Sunday, June 4 at Robbins Crossing at Hocking College. You can purchase your tickets here.

“Nelsonville is Stuart’s home, and we think it is a great place to host a music festival. Southeast Ohio and Athens County are wonderful places, and we couldn’t think a better spot than Nelsonville to have a big old party,” Koscho remarked.




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