Norman Music Festival 2023
A large and enthusiastic crowd for the 2023 Norman Music Festival is expected to surpass pre-pandemic numbers, when more than 50,000 attended on April 28, 2018. (Michael Duncan)

When musicgoers awaiting the alt-rock headliners fill Main Street on Saturday night from curb to curb, many returning to the largest music event in Oklahoma may reflect on just how much the Norman Music Festival has contributed to a changing downtown Norman since it began in 2008.

While some mid-sized cities’ centers have declined, Norman’s downtown has evolved into an arts and entertainment district, with the Norman Music Festival as its flagship event expected to draw more than 50,000 visitors to the three-day event.

“We’ve had a real impact, particularly seeing art galleries, restaurants and nightlife and breweries that have come downtown because the festival has helped create a sense of place. There is personality to downtown Norman – a real vibe. People want to be a part of it,” said Shari Jackson, executive director of Norman Music Alliance, the nonprofit organization that operates NMF.

Norman Music Festival 2023

Stage map

The NMF music schedule begins tonight in downtown Norman restaurant and bar venues and one outdoor stage. Friday and Saturday, it will expand to include the other outdoor stages. In total, 258 bands, soloists, DJs and comedy acts are scheduled to perform.

Former NMF board chairman and current Norman Arts Council communications director Joshua Boydston said the festival has played a big part in making downtown Norman a destination spot, something he saw as a small-town high school senior visiting downtown Norman to attend the first festival in 2008.

“Being a part of that crowd — which was much bigger than I or the founders ever expected — was the first time I ever really felt at home in Oklahoma. I think pretty clearly so many other people felt the same,” Boydston said. “The bones of what we know downtown Norman to be now were built by some really hard-working folks who opened spots like Guestroom Records, Opolis, Forward Foods and Mainsite gallery and the revitalized Sooner Theatre and The Depot. But the Norman Music Festival projected something onto that skeleton to let the masses see that potential too.”

Blues singer Caleb McGee is scheduled to return to the Bluebonnet Bar for a midnight Friday performance at the Norman Music Festival on Saturday, April 29, 2023. (Michael Duncan)

The logistics of putting on a music festival

A remarkably small group of about 15 persons from the nonprofit Norman Music Alliance board of directors and additional festival team volunteers do the bulk of planning and logistics of the festival, aided by up to 100 others who help during the event.

“This is absolutely a community endeavor and a gift we give ourselves here in Norman to have a big party like this,” Jackson said.

The festival budget of about $250,000 is funded by donations, vendor fees and merchandise sales. Norman car dealership Fowler Automotive is the primary sponsor, a long-standing tie to the festival that the company has maintained since its executive Jonathan Fowler served on NMF’s first board of directors and its original festival team.

There will be 20 food trucks in the downtown area to complement existing restaurants, 30 commercial vendors and about 30 visual artists displaying at NMF’s art market near The Depot gallery on Jones Street.

This year the festival is not all music, having teamed up with the deadCenter film festival organization for a special Sooner Theatre showing tonight of Oklahoma BreakdownThe Mike Hosty Story, a documentary on the iconic Norman music legend. Tomorrow, the theater will host stand-up and improvisational comedy acts.

It was a packed house at Norman’s Bison Witches on the opening night of the Norman Music Festival on Thursday, April 28, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

But before everything begins, the festival team and its contractors will erect 3,000 feet of chain link fencing around downtown Norman, position 60 porta-potties and place $7,000 in generators and $9,000 worth of trash cans for the event. They will also arrange for and set up the “backline instrumentation” — amplifiers, microphone stands, power cabling and other technical equipment for the four outdoor stages.

Two of those stages will stand at opposite ends of Main Street — as if bookends of the festival layout. Within that perimeter will be two other outdoor stages and 13 indoor venues in local restaurants and bars.

The festival team has only five hours to get the outdoor stages up and running after the City of Norman closes off Main Street on Friday afternoon before the first bands kick off that evening.

“We are a bit of a unicorn in the festival world. Most have two or three days at least to build out the festival grounds. We only have five hours to get the stages up,” Jackson said.

This year’s NMF planning began 11 months ago, only a few days after the last guitar riffs and drum beats closed out the 2022 festival after midnight at Norman’s oldest bar, The Bluebonnet.

“Right after the festival is over, we take a deep breath and have what we call a brain dump where we try to capture all those times during the festival that we saw things that could be improved and had ideas for doing it better,” Jackson said.

On the eve of the festival this year, the concern is about those last-minute loose ends, such as making sure enough volunteers are available to man stages, ensuring the signage is ready to be placed or making sure the festival T-shirts are ready for sale, she said.

Oklahoma City’s Jason Scott and the High Heat are set to perform on the east Garage/Winston Main Stage of Norman Music Festival on Saturday. April 29, 2023. (Michael Duncan)

The band lineup for 2023

Jackson said that, during previous years, the festival had asked bands to perform without compensation, hoping the visibility in the festival was a sufficient benefit to entice them to play in a hometown festival.

“We realized that part of growing up for this festival was realizing we could not ask our bands to be our donors. And now, on our outdoor stages, every band is paid,” she said. “It’s not 100 percent what we wish we could do, but it is what we can afford and what we can do.”

But, she said, the expanded number of bands and stages has outpaced the ability for the nonprofit to raise funds. So, beginning in 2022, the festival organizers gave local restaurants and bars participating in the festival the choice to pick their own bands to perform at their venues.

The result is a smorgasbord of musical genres that fit each location, and it encourages festivalgoers to help the bands out financially by contributing to the tip bucket at the more intimate indoor venues.

“It’s been really wonderful to watch the personalities develop in every one of the venues,” Jackson said. “We realized we weren’t doing anyone a favor if they went to Opolis or Bluebonnet or Red Brick bar and it was just NMF-style entertainment and that was maybe not what the flavor of that venue was on every other weekend of the year. They absolutely killed it with the lineups this year.”

The festival has an app downloadable for Apple and Android phones. It helps festivalgoers plan their visit — an especially daunting task, given the number of stages, the variety of musical genres and the performance times.

For example, at 7 p.m. Saturday there will be 13 bands or soloists playing on different stages at the same time.

Boydston, who last year gave up his volunteer role of creating the musical lineup, said organizers hit a home run in their selections for the 2023 festival.

Billy Woods has released some of my favorite hip-hop albums of the past five years, and he still seems like an artist who might not stop in Oklahoma at all if not for the Norman Music Festival,” Boydston said. “Soul Glo is critically beloved and puts on incredible, high-energy shows. They are just a week removed from Coachella (Music and Arts Festival).

Illuminati Hotties feels like NMF distilled for me. Forward thinking, but fun and cheeky. Her songs are infectious, and familiar or not, I feel like most will be bobbing their heads along after each and every chorus.”

While many of the headliner bands on the main stages come from outside Oklahoma, the festival continues the tradition of having a local flavor.

The soulful lyrics of Samantha Crain, the energizing songs of Jason Scott and the High Heat and the rap songs of Jabee will be among the local flavor to the sounds of the festival.

DJ Andrew Carrizales spins the records at the 2022 NMF. He is set to return to Bison Witches’ back stage on Saturday. April 30, 2022. (Michael Duncan)

The economic impact on Norman

Organizers estimate the $250,000 NMF budget delivers an event that generates approximately $4 million in economic impact to Norman.

Sara Kaplan, chief business and community relations officer for the city of Norman, said her office subscribes to a service that anonymously quantifies the number cell phones operating in specific locations where events are occurring. That information allows city staff to measure attendance and the resulting economic benefit the festival and other similar events have on Norman.

At last year’s Norman Music Festival, the data showed more than 50,000 cell users in the three-block area of downtown Norman on Saturday. The peak time was between 6 p.m. and midnight, and the data showed about 12,000 of those attending stayed more than two-and-a-half hours.

Kaplan, who helps all festival organizers obtain necessary Norman city permits, said the City of Norman provides police, fire and sanitation services to help make festivals like NMF happen.

“Norman is absolutely the city of festivals. That is evident by the stack of special event applications sitting on my desk,” Kaplan said.

She said Norman recently hosted the Medieval Fair, had an Earth Day festival, and in the next few weeks will have the Norman Pride festival, May Fair on Campus Corner, Jazz in June and the Juneteenth festival.

The glitter of Rainbows are Free perform during the 2022 Norman Music Festival. (Michael Duncan)

Free admission will continue

As part of its continuing effort to keep the festival free of any admission charge, the Norman Music Festival launched an “NMF is Free Because of Me” social media fundraising campaign this week to capture the interest of those planning to attend.

Jackson said if everyone who attended the festival donated only $3, the entire festival would be fully funded. But she said there are no plans to ever charge an admission fee at the gates.

“It’s free. It is not a festival just for those who could afford it if we charged. Everyone needs a place to hear music, see friends and enjoy the day. We like being that place,” Jackson said. “NMF is free and it will always be free.”