“We Just Think We Can, So We Do”: An Interview with NMF’s Shari Jackson

Executive Director talks community, diversity, and fond memories of Oklahoma's biggest free music festival

Officially making its long-awaited return since pre-COVID 2019, the resilient volunteer-driven Norman Music Festival will take place in Downtown Norman this weekend from Thursday-Saturday, April 28-30. The gathering of both local musicians and renowned national bands has become a pinnacle of independent music in Oklahoma, and while it may seem like a thing of magic, there is a lot of sweat and love at work behind the scenes.

The Norman Music Alliance is a small but mighty nonprofit that makes NMF possible every year. We chat with its executive director, Shari Jackson, about the ongoing legacy that it has become.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What is the mission of Norman Music Festival?

Shari Jackson: “To help develop the arts community in Oklahoma through support of local original artists, support of music fans, support of art education and support of local businesses.”

That’s [The Norman Music Alliance’s] official mission statement. What it means to us is doing all we can to showcase the diversity of the talent in the Oklahoma music scene. This festival isn’t a rock show, or an Americana showcase, it’s:

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…and more. We have no shortage of fantastic musicians and great bands here, and about 90% of our bands are from Oklahoma. We want to do our part in helping create a music industry infrastructure here in Oklahoma that makes it viable for creatives to stay instead of taking off for a coast. Our mission also means making sure that we stay free and available for all to enjoy, to allow the free connection of artists to their audiences, and we get to do so in a downtown setting providing a benefit to our locally owned venues, restaurants, and shops. 

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What does NMF mean to the City of Norman?

Jackson: Norman calls itself the ‘City of Festivals’ and we have Medieval Fair, Summer Breeze, Jazz in June, Fall Fest, Groovefest, 2nd Friday Art Walk, etc in addition to the Norman Music Festival. In Norman,.we love a reason to get together and invite 100,000 of our closest friends to come hang out. So first, it’s a treasured annual event. I hope it’s a reason for people to be proud or our city, to celebrate as a community. I personally believe strongly in the power of the arts to heal and help and we definitely need some healing energy. The pandemic has been hard on everyone.  

NMF is also Oklahoma’s largest free music festival, generating nearly $4 million dollars in economic activity for our community in a weekend. In addition to being great for civic pride and public health, arts programming has a significant economic impact.  

I also love that it puts Norman on the map for something other than football. Everyone loves game day, but we are an arts community and we love showing that to guests.  

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What does the City of Norman mean to NMF?

Jackson: Everything. It’s home. It’s full of wonderful weirdos. It’s a college town that brings the world to our front door. It embraces music and community. Entrepreneurs are everywhere. We can fight over ANYTHING like a family. We’re small enough to know each other, but big enough to have a sophisticated arts scene and growing ‘districts’. The ‘little bit of everything’ nature of NMF is a great reflection on the best characteristics of Norman.  

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What are some venue changes since the last NMF in 2019?

Jackson: The big change to NMF this year is the addition of extra outdoor stage time. We have four stages – usually one Thursday, 3 Friday, and our Main Stage (sponsored since YEAR ONE by Fowler Auto!) is usually the finale, setting up on Saturday afternoon. This year however, we’ll have music on all stages Friday night AND all day Saturday.

Everyone’s favorite venues Opolis, Bluebonnet, Red Brick Bar, Bison Witches, Sergio’s Michelangelo’s and Resonator will all have a lineup. In past years, NMF has created the lineups for our indoor venues, but one of our changes this year was to give control back to the venues. Norman has a great nightlife scene and all the venues that have been such terrific partners over the years deserve a chance to put on the lineup that fits for them. And all of them will take at least 50% of the bands from our open call for artists so we make sure to keep promoting as many local bands as we can. 

NMF is partnering with deadCenter this year for its inaugural Oklahoma Music Video Award category. The finalists for this year’s award will be announced on Thursday, April 28 at the Sooner Theatre just before a screening of Skating Polly: Ugly Pop directed by Henry Mortenson. Henry will be at the festival to help host the screening, and then, just after the screening ends, the audience at the Sooner will be treated to a set by Skating Polly themselves!

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What are some other changes to NMF made since COVID?

Jackson: Well, it absolutely sucked not having a festival for 2 years. We were one of the first events to shut down in 2020 and skipped the last two years because we did not want to create a risky event for our community. We absolutely wanted to do our part. We’re very fortunate right now to see the caseload continue to decrease and vaccination levels increase, which leaves us hopeful for a safe event.

As far as changes made because of covid for this year, our decision to provide more outdoor stage time had everything to do with making sure audiences could make the choice to be outside and socially distanced. We’re also asking our venues to post covid protocols on their doors, and we’ll put those online or in our app so all audience members can make informed choices while visiting the festival. In addition, we’ll have hand sanitizer in all portable restrooms outside and increased safety protocols on stages to make sure we’re doing all we can to create a safe event.

Make Oklahoma Weirder: How has NMF outlasted so many of Oklahoma’s other big music festivals?

Jackson: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I know THE answer. Ryan LaCroix with KOSU/The Spy, former board member, coined the term #TheLIttleFestivalThatCould. We just think we can, so we do. When we meet an obstacle, we just find a way around. We have amazing support from our core sponsors including Fowler Auto and Brandon Kistler’s Hal Smith brands (The Garage, The Winston, Pub W), the Norman Arts Council, and a BIG list of individuals and companies that pitch in to make sure we have what we need, including Toucan Productions who runs production, and the fantastic venues, restaurants and shops in the Walker Arts District.  

It’s also the dedicated board members of our organization that basically take on another part time job to help put it all together.  We share knowledge with our sister festivals and lend a hand to each other as well. One of the things we do best here in the Norman arts scene is collaborate and help each other out.  

Also because I think we are artistically different. It’s not a country festival, not a rock festival, it’s a MUSIC festival. ALL the music. For EVERYBODY. For FREE. 

Husbands playing NMF X

Make Oklahoma Weirder: What are a couple of your favorite NMF memories?

Jackson: A 2am impromptu game of duck, duck goose in the middle of main street with about 50 grown adults (and a Stormtrooper walking by in full gear). I will never delete that video from my phone. Watching the street become a chalk mural year after year (we still don’t know who brings the chalk, but we LOVE it!)

I also LOVED welcoming Japanese Breakfast to Norman in 2018. They got off the bus in an empty parking lot on Thursday morning and we hadn’t even built the stage yet. You could see the skeptical looks on the faces of the band. “Where is this festival being held?”, they asked. I let them know that they could go have lunch and relax, they wouldn’t recognize the place when they came back for their set. When Michelle Zauner, lead singer, took the stage that evening in front of a HUGE crowd that knew their songs, I remember her stepping up to the mic after the first song with a big smile on her face. I don’t remember her exact words, but she expressed the pleasant surprise at the cool setting she found herself in. I love that we surprise our touring bands who often don’t know what to expect from Norman, Oklahoma. Favorite line ever from a headliner, “MAN, you guys are like SXSW but cool.” 

One more: So, in 2017, we had a day interrupted by ‘weather’. (I won’t go into details, there are words we avoid saying, like actors referring to a certain Shakespeare work as ‘the Scottish play’) After reschedules and delays all day, Thee Oh Sees got on stage at 11:15 pm, far later than scheduled. Our festival must stop all big noise outside at 12 midnight. Well, it’s 12:07 and the band is still going. My phone is blowing up, the neighbors are beginning to complain, officials asking me when we’ll be finished. I text one of our team at the main stage to let them know we have to shut it down and I get a ‘NO’. My answer: “Then you’re paying the fines!” The retort: “Worth it!!” We had to pull the plug on them in the middle of a song at 12:12am – they ignored us and finished the song and it was perfect. When we apologized to the group, the bandmembers told us “It’s a punk show, all punk shows should end by getting shut down!”  

Make Oklahoma Weirder: Anything else to add?

Jackson: It takes nearly $250k to put on the Norman Music Festival that is 100% free for our community. If you can donate, you should. Help keep it free for everyone and make sure we’re here in 2023! Donate at www.normanmusicfestival.com 

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aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.

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