The last weekend of August was meant to be filled with music. The streets of downtown Norman were meant to be closed, and crowds were meant to gather around stages, listening to old favorites and new ones alike.
But the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans once again.
Norman Music Festival is a free three-day festival put on by the Norman Music Alliance, usually held at the end of April on Main Street. In March, the festival was postponed until late August due to coronavirus concerns.
Shari Jackson, executive director of the Norman Music Alliance, said her team was hopeful that things would calm down by the fall. However, as the amount of COVID-19 cases in the state increased, the festival was officially canceled in June.
“The numbers stayed high and began to increase again, and we realized that inviting folks out to get in front of a crowded stage was not at all an advisable thing to do,” Jackson said.
Jackson said by canceling the festival as soon as possible, the Norman Music Alliance was able to avoid spending money on a festival that would not be able to happen. The festival costs around a quarter of a million dollars to put together, and all of that money is a result of donations, Jackson said.
“Every dollar is donated, everything we do we give to the community,” Jackson said. “We just go door to door to every neighbor and small business and everybody pitches a little in the pot, and some pitch a lot.”
Jackson said there were big plans in place for the 2020 Norman Music Festival — as it was supposed to be a full, three-day festival for the first time, with live performances all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and would include an arts market and street performers.
“This was a year that was going to be redefining,” Jackson said. “Everything was going to be big and beautiful and great, and then we just had to say poof, there it goes. Like a sand mandala, we just had to wipe it all out.”
Canceling the festival ended up being a simple decision, but not an easy one, Jackson said.
During a board meeting, she said committee members voiced concerns about the safety of musicians and audience members, along with the financial uncertainty of local businesses during the following months.
“We don’t want to push musicians or audience members into an unsafe space, and we don’t want to push partners to be spending money they can’t right now,” Jackson said.
With the festival canceled, Jackson said the Norman Music Alliance is focused on helping support local venues and musicians whose lives have been altered by the pandemic.
“Our independent live music venues, avenues for that entire industry, are crashing down right now, and we hurt for all of the bands that made their livelihoods (performing). They made rent touring and playing gigs and they can’t,” Jackson said.
Jabee, a hip-hop artist based in Oklahoma City, has been performing at every Norman Music Festival for almost a decade and was set to perform this year.
He said his favorite part of the festival was always the excitement of the crowds and the ability to connect with new listeners.
“I have several people that support me now that their first time seeing me or hearing me was at a Norman Music Festival show,” Jabee said. “For me, it’s always an opportunity to do something new, try to do something big, and I know that it’s going to be one of the biggest crowds I’ll probably do that year,” Jabee said.
In addition to the loss of his festival performance, Jabee was not able to celebrate the June release of his new album, “This World is So Fragile and Cruel I’m Glad I Got You,” in the ways he imagined. Since the pandemic started, Jabee said it has been difficult not having the income he is used to getting from live shows.
“I wasn’t able to have a release party,” Jabee said. “I wasn’t able to go on tour. I’ve been really building up to this one moment for the past three years, and the rug got pulled from underneath me. … A hundred bucks for a livestream and having your Cash App link posted is not the same.”
While he has been partnering with local businesses and organizations to do virtual performances and livestreams, it’s harder to make hip-hop have the same effect over video.
“I think the best way for me to impact people is live,” Jabee said. “Buying music and listening to music and watching videos and all that is cool, but I feel like my gift is the performance I give live. It’s hard not to be able to do that.”
In addition to providing local musicians with exposure, Norman Music Festival has around a four-million-dollar economic impact on the local economy, Jackson said.
“People come out. They spend money. They put gas in their cars, buy new clothes. They buy some vinyl. ... Arts and the impact of public arts events, they are economic drivers for communities like Norman.”
Will Muir is the manager at Guestroom Records, which often serves as a performance venue for the festival. He said the decision to cancel the festival was a necessity.
“The first word out of my mouth was ‘Good,’” Muir said. “We have no business having a music festival right now.”
Muir said that while the festival brings new customers into the store, the store’s sales on festival days are not that different from typical weekends. While regular customers might avoid the crowds, purchases made by festival attendees make up for the loss of any sales.
Muir said he still misses the atmosphere that accompanies the festival every year.
“It’s sort of like a homecoming every year,” Muir said. “Lots of bands that are normally on tour and things like that were all in one place. Everybody’s having a good time together celebrating music.”
The store has introduced several new policies in order to make shopping safe, including mandatory masks and using hand sanitizer when you enter the store, Muir said. Guestroom is also operating at a limited capacity, which is a drastic change from busy festival crowds.
“During the Norman Music Festival, at any given time, there could be anywhere between 20 to 60 or 70 people inside the store,” Muir said. “Our capacity right now is five.”
The store has also seen a definite drop in sales, Muir said, and while many regular customers are still coming in to shop, they do so less frequently.
“I have lots of people I used to see personally at least three times a week, and now maybe I see them once every two weeks,” Muir said. “I hope that everybody can continue to make choices that help keep our community safe so that we can get back to having some live music around here.”
The Norman Music Alliance is working on virtual shows to bring music back to the Norman community, Jackson said, but when it is safe, Norman Music Festival will be ready.
“We definitely want to be a part of the after for all this,” Jackson said. “When it is time to put a stage up, when it is time for people to gather and listen to great music again, we’ll be there.”