When volunteer applications for Norman Music Fest came out for the 2018 festival, OU Price College of Business junior Alex Fuqua signed up to be a water vendor. But as he entered the festival grounds, his job changed.
Fuqua’s supervisor came and grabbed him from his vendor position, and within minutes he found himself instead managing professional musicians during an established music festival.
“I had never (managed a stage) before, and (my supervisor’s) like, ‘Here’s your schedule, here’s everything you need to do, have fun, I’ll come back in an hour and see if you’re still swimming,’” Fuqua said. “I did well, and now I’m doing it again this year — it’s been a wonderful time.”
Norman Music Fest is original and free to the public, but it differs from other music festivals in another big way. Behind the scenes of lively music, food and fun, Norman Music Fest is a volunteer run non-profit entity, reaching over 100,000 music fans with the help of around 150 volunteers, a NMF spokesperson said.
Compared to volunteers at festivals like Austin City Limits or Bonnaroo, who receive free access to the festival after their shifts, and even a meal token for each shift worked, volunteers at Norman Music Fest work for no material incentive other than a T-shirt. However, the good they contribute is enough to make them come back the next year, said volunteer Dakota Sponsler.
“(Volunteering) helps Norman,” Sponsler said. “It helps local businesses, and it’s just cool to be a part of something that’s free, and this is how they keep it free — volunteers, like us."
Sponsler spent the 2019 festival working on Saturday beside four of his Navy friends at a vendor station in the food court selling water and other beverages as a way to help their Navy committee.
While some may register to volunteer for a free t-shirt or access to volunteer rest areas, most people contribute their time and efforts to make sure NMF sticks around, said volunteer coordinator Stephanie Brickman. Brickman also serves as secretary for the 100 percent volunteer-run Norman Music Alliance board of directors.
“The vast majority of our volunteers want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and want to ensure the success of NMF for years to come,” Brickman said.
The process for registering as a volunteer is quite simple, and even more so for veteran volunteers. Through an online database called iVolunteer, volunteers must agree to the conditions and choose to help out in either merchandise, hospitality or stage management. People who have volunteered in the past receive an email letting them know that the schedule is available, Brickman said.
“We have so many veteran volunteers who check out the musical lineups versus the shifts and plan out the three or four hours to sign up so that they will have the opportunity to enjoy the music,” Brickman said.
Brickman said her favorite part of coordinating the volunteers is moving people around a spreadsheet knowing that these dedicated volunteers want to present a successful NMF as much as the board members who plan the festival all year long.
“Norman is a city of festivals — Medieval Fair, Jazz in June, Groovefest, Christmas Parade and NMF — and those festivals and events that take place annually rely on volunteers to help present them,” Brickman said. “The non-profit entities that plan and operate the festivals and events run on very small budgets and very little paid staff. They only exist because of dedicated volunteers who embrace the quality of life that festivals and events provide for the community.”
Though volunteer Michael Contreras lives in California, he and his family has attended NMF for the past six years, visiting during the day for the family events and getting a babysitter in the evening for a date night. This was the first year Contreras volunteered after his wife suggested helping out the festival.
Contreras worked at the festival in band registration, which is responsible for checking in band members to provide information about their set, as well as accommodating them with food, water, beer and air conditioning. He was drawn to band registration for the chance to interact and have a conversation with the band members, he said.
Though Contreras has attended festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza with big-ticket artists, he said his experience volunteering at the smaller Norman Music Festival was special.
“I was asking some of the other volunteers how this is possible and this is all sponsored, with no city money being used,” Contreras said. “Something this big, free to the public, is so cool.”
After his first time volunteering, Contreras said he will definitely return to band registration and plans to get his wife and friends involved.
Norman Music Fest is composed of over 300 nationally known and new, local bands alike, so for some groups, it is their first time in front of a big crowd. For Fuqua, this is the most exciting part of volunteering as a stagehand.
“(I volunteer) to encourage these kids to actually come out and play,” Fuqua said. “For a lot of them, this is their first festival, and it’s really cool to just be like, ‘Alright kids, you got the music, here’s the stage, let’s go.’ It’s awesome just to see them do it.”
OU College of Arts and Sciences senior Emily Sullivan, a first-year volunteer, said the opportunity for new bands to play for large crowds at a free festival is exciting to see first hand.
“They get to be put out there in front of people who have never heard them before, and the audience gets to experience music that they’ve never heard before,” Sullivan said. “There’s a lot of discovery from both parties.”
To those on the fence of either simply attending or volunteering at the festival, Fuqua said go for it and do both.
“Come as just a member of the crowd, do that, and then if you want to be involved, the volunteer office is right next to the stages,” Fuqua said. “Walk in, sign a waiver, get a T-shirt. They need the bodies — they need the help.”