Bigger than ever, the Oakland Music Festival is back for nine days

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They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it but what if your goal is to transform it? After three years of steadily increasing attendance and growing popularity, Oakland Music Festival (OMF) CEO and founder Alfonso Dominguez decided to do something different—change the format of the festively entirely. What started as traditional, one-day music festival has morphed into a nine-day span of performances, panels, workshops and networking events.

On Friday, OMF 2016 was officially underway. Over 45 different artists are scheduled to perform in over ten venues throughout Oakland through Sunday. For Friday’s kickoff, the $55 all-access week-long passes were all sold out, leaving the option of pricier $75 passes or paying up to $25 per event, depending on what’s going down.

That night, the Starline Social Club felt like a scene from Stan Lathan’s 1984 breakdance film, Beat Street. The Egyptian Lover, a legendary 1980’s Los Angeles DJ, spun beats that brought some of Oakland old-school and new-school b-boys to the floor, dancing in euphoric nostalgia to the sound of break beats, autotune, and house music. Long after Egyptian Lover shut the Starline down, people stood outside past 2 am, some talking, some standing in circles, cyphering.

On Tuesday night, about 50 people gathered at SoleSpace for the OMF x Arts, Culture, Music panel titled “Tools for the Future.” It’s the launch of OMF’s other OMF—the Oakland Moving Forward speaker series.

The four panelists—Kev Choice, Nima Etminan, Baba Zumbi, Sarah Sexton—and moderator Tomás Alvarez III sat down for a conversation focused on both Oakland’s and the national music scenes. Alvarez started with a question that lacks a single answer: Why has the Oakland indie scene grown so fast?

Sexton, owner of Oaktown Indie Mayhem, a booking and promotions company focused on helping local and independent artists, jumped in. “I personally think a big stimulus of that is San Francisco artists being pushed out. Oakland saw a lot of collaboration between San Francisco and Oakland There’s underground hype that’s been building over 8-10 years that’s got the arts scene in San Francisco interested in Oakland,” she said. “There’s a really amazing raw synergy of people from all over lots of different cultures that end up blending with and working with the locals in that area, and it can often spawn a lot of subgenres.”

“The Bay Area is just becoming a technology-forward thinking area,” said Etminan, vice president of operations at Empire Distribution, a digital distribution company in San Francisco. “You never really had a lot of music business infrastructure in the Bay Area. Now, a lot of the digital music companies are based here.”

“It’s like there’s this jewel of this music scene that’s been integrated or gentrified by other people and it’s taking a little it away from the foundation of what Oakland really is and turning it into something else. I guess it makes it more ‘glorified,’ but it’s been culturally rich since Day One,” said Choice, a composer and producer who has opened for Mos Def and Robert Glasper and toured with Too $hort and Ledisi.

Choice said he grew up as a “quiet, shy and very reserved” kid in East Oakland. “It was a tough environment, but it was also a lot of love and strong sense of community. Growing up, if you weren’t a drug dealer, or athlete, or hella fresh-dressed, you wasn’t getting attention.” At age 11, he started playing the piano, performing and rapping, hobbies that he said made him feel important, valued and worthy of notice. “Before I had music, I didn’t have a voice,” he said at the panel.

Zumbi, an Atlanta transplant, moved to Oakland in 1997 after graduating from college. He’s one-half of Oakland’s hip-hop group Zion I. “At that time, the underground hip hop scene was going crazy. It seemed like every show was packed. Even if there weren’t any known headliners, people were just rushing through the door to get a taste of the culture,” said Zumbi.

Now, he’s excited about the changes he sees happening in the Oakland music scene. “It’s inspiring that the youth have recaptured the creative mantle of the DIY work ethic,” Zumbi said. “What I love about the Town is that we don’t wait for anyone’s validation. We create from the heart and allow that spark to carry out across the world.”

Cali Oto, a 19-year-old rapper from Walnut Creek, came to the panel specifically to see Zumbi. “I saw ‘hip-hop,’ I saw ‘discussion,’ and I made my way over as soon as I could after work,” Oto said. Zumbi is one of his “all-time legends” (he’s been listening to him since he was 4 years old), and Oto said the musician once pulled him and his friends up on stage to rap with him.

“They were really dropping knowledge,” he said of Tuesday night’s event. “My brain’s in shambles right now. Hopefully I’ll piece myself together as the night goes on.” After the panel was over, Oto and Zumbi stood outside, spitting rhymes as music played from a speaker.

But it hasn’t all been smooth this year. On Saturday, the scene of a scheduled performance at Lake Merritt was unusually tranquil. There were no signs of stages, crowds or anything really, aside from the usual cohort of yogis and families hanging out. A notice posted on the festival’s Facebook page read: “Dear Friends, Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control, we must sadly postpone the Music at the Lake event scheduled for this Saturday.”

In an email to Oakland North, OMF vice president of public relations Hunter Marshall wrote, “We were informed late last week that the police were concerned about large expected attendance for the event, and notified that we would be required to hire a certain number of police to work for the day in order to move forward. The costs associated with that many officers was significantly higher than we could afford for a free community event, so we were forced to postpone the Lake event until we can secure adequate funding to cover the associated costs while still keeping it free and open to the public. We are hoping to reschedule for the spring however, and will be working to find sponsors in the meantime.”

The festival has grown dramatically in just a few years. The festival launched in September, 2013, with two stages, about 15 artists, mostly from the Bay Area, and about 700 attendees. Tickets prices ranged from $20-$70, depending on the type of show. It was billed as an “all-ages event” event in Oakland’s Uptown district (think 18th Street & San Pablo). The problem? Rain isn’t music to any outdoor festival or festivalgoers’ ears. Dominguez ended up losing money due to weather.

In 2014, the festival returned, still with two stages, but this time rocking a more national lineup of up-and-coming artists whose careers have since then taken off—Dom Kennedy, SZA, Jesse Boykins III, ESTA—and a host of Bay Area bloomers. Attendance reached about 2,500 and tickets prices were bumped up ever so slightly, from $25-$70, though a limited amount of discounted and early bird tickets were made available. The location moved to downtown (think 22nd Street & Franklin). This time, kids under 10 were admitted free, though some artists performed in 21+ venues.

In 2015, they kept things pretty much the same—booking another crop of rising artists like Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid, GoldLink, while still showing love to Bay Area’s own artists—but the festival grew. Musicians and DJs performed on six indoor and outdoor stages, fans came in from all over California and the country, and attendance boomed to 3,500. According to Dominguez, 2016 is slated to be the first year that OMF will make a profit.

Dominguez said he knew almost immediately after 2015’s festival that he wanted to switch up the beat. He said it costs a minimum of $200,000 to organize a one-day event, which goes into paying for the artists and headliners, a slew of permits, stage and production costs, and Oakland rent—which is always rising. Keeping that format meant facing the challenge of how to recoup those costs in only one day.

In revamping the festival, he cited South by Southwest, a weeklong Austin music, tech and ideas festival, as a source of inspiration. “Seeing SXSW thrive, and how the format was, and how that creates a larger impact through the city, we wanted to figure how we can create more impact for the city and less impact on us as a small business,” said Dominguez.

He said the weeklong format creates opportunities for people to learn about new venues and artists and for venues to benefit from more business. And in a 2014 survey conducted by festival organizers, of the 338 people surveyed, 83 percent responded that they would like to see more food and beverage elements as part of the festival.

With a one-day festival, Marshall said, there is less of an opportunity for people to fully experience Oakland. “It’s not as educational or informative to be on the street,” he said.

“It’s very hard to recreate all the aspects of Oakland with a gated, pop-up event,” added Dominguez. “It’s inviting people from other cities to explore.”

In past years, Marshall said, people have flown in from New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities, but don’t stay past the weekend. “People are coming in, which is great to see, but [now] they have an opportunity to do more than just this one day,” he said. “Maybe they’re into art, food,” he said, referencing the mezcal and tequila tasting at Tamarindo, that was a part of this year’s festival.

Dominguez and Marshall said they also spent a lot of time having conversations with local business owners and festivalgoers. According to Marshall, people said they enjoyed the “auxiliary events”, outside of performances, including art shows, music exhibitions and other community gatherings.

Marshall says they aren’t looking for attendees of a certain demographic. “We’re looking for people are into different music and are open to different sounds,” said Marshall. “We’ve got kids who come out from 16 to 18, and we’ve got 45-year-old music-heads from back in the day who like coming out. We try to keep it as inclusive as impossible.”

This year’s line up has featured B-Side Brujas, a quadruple dose of vinyl DJs who spin Afro-Latinx jams; Show Banga, a rising MC whose sound is reminiscent of the signature Bay Area bounce (and whose 2015 album featured Bay Area legend E-40); and Gabriela, whose melodic voice glides over her own soulful lyrics.

The running attendance for all of the events so far is 1,750, with sales for tonight’s show featuring Masego, Jay Ant and Joyce Wright at The New Parish reaching the 500-person limit.

Bay Area rapper and DJ Jason Valerio, better known as Trackademicks, and Eli’s Mile High Club owner Billy Joe Agan, are helping wrap the festival up with two back-to-back events at his bar on Saturday.

Agan, whose bar is north of the downtown Oakland bustle, reopened Eli’s in August after closing it last December for renovations. Agan said Dominguez knew of his plans to revive the former blues bar; the two are long-time friends who have witnessed Oakland shift economically and culturally. “Oakland is changing really dramatically,” said Agan. “It’s important that people like Alfonso keep doing their own thing and molding Oakland’s sort of cultural identity in the image that they see fit. Because, you know, Oakland is a town that’s heavily invested in its identity and it’s really important that it keeps it or else it’ll die off or become languid.”

Valerio has been performing at OMF since it started in 2013. This year, Valerio said Dominguez and Marshall reached out to him to help curate events. “I’m excited for this format because it allows more dialogue, more, more sides of the culture to be explored,” said Valerio.

When he started making music in 2004, he added, the city wouldn’t have been able to accommodate a festival like this. “I feel like Oakland for sure now has the infrastructure. It didn’t back then. But even just downtown, with all the bars and clubs, can really bring a lot of people to the city, which is already happening now.”

He’ll be spinning at Eli’s Mile High Club Saturday night alongside Fool’s Gold co-founder Nick Catchdubs, L-Deez and the trio that makes up Another Party Fam DJs.

In the future, Marshall said, they’re exploring the idea of giving the festival a film aspect and more gallery shows for visual art, but for this year, they didn’t want to “do too much.”

“If we continue fostering and sustaining our creative culture, that’s our mission for Oakland,” said Dominguez.

For more details about the rest of the festival, click here.

Correction: On October 9, 2016, an update was added to this story to correct where the mezcal and tequila tasting was held.

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