A competitive celebration of Oakland’s musical soul

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In an effort to promote Oakland music and local artists, Sarah Sexton of Oaktown Indie Mayhem and Cortt Dunlap of Awaken Cafe have teamed up to create Oaktown Music Festival — an online-based battle of the bands. Soliciting nominations from the Oakland community and putting together an all-star jury of of local music giants, including Glynn Washington of NPR’s Snap Judgment and Steve Hogan of Pandora, Sexton and Dunlap are awarding prizes in four categories: Best in Show, Best Song by Oakland Band, Best Song by Oakland Solo Artist and Best Video by Oakland Band or Solo Artist. In its first year, Oaktown Music Festival received more than 2,200 nominations in a one-month period for more than 250 Oakland-based bands through its website.

The Daily Californian had a chance to catch up with festival creators Sexton and Dunlap to discuss the festival, their aspirations for the event and music coming out of Oakland.

The Daily Cal: Why did you create Oaktown Music Festival?

Sarah Sexton: Cortt and I have been working on a music program at Awaken Cafe in Oakland for almost a year. The local talent we’ve seen come through has been phenomenal. We thought it would be fun to create this online-based battle of the bands music festival to highlight the different styles and genres and all the good stuff that’s coming out of the Oakland area.

Cortt Dunlap: There’s been a movement in Bay Area restaurants and others across the country toward localism. At Awaken Cafe, we’ve built our business to be local-centric: We source our food locally, we work with local vendors, we employ people from Oakland, our investors are from the area — being local is really important. As we began to launch the music side of the cafe, we kept with that tradition. The more we are exposed to all the talent in Oakland, the more excited we get about the idea of helping to foster our local music community. The music festival is sort of an extension of that goal.

A lot of people, myself included, will spend 50 or 60 bucks to go see some national act at the Fillmore or the Fox. But there’s all this music that’s just as good coming out of our own community. The intention of the festival is to announce to the community and to the country and to the world that Oakland has a really happening and vibrant music scene. There’s something happening here.

DC: What sets Oaktown Music Festival apart from other music festivals and contests?

SS: This was something to really engage with our community. I don’t think there are a lot of festivals whose lineup is comprised of artists that the community has had a direct hand in selecting. At our festival, people get to choose what they want to hear.

CD: We’re also different in our asking for nominations of individual songs and videos rather than an album or the entire catalog of an artist or group. A lot of independent bands don’t have the budget to record tons of material at the same level, so we only judged them on those tracks that they were able to put the most energy into.

DC: What has been the best part about organizing Oaktown Music Festival?

CD: It was so much fun to sit down and listen to all the music that came in. Sometimes a song would blow us away and another would make us laugh. There were emotional songs, funny songs, genres we weren’t expecting to hear — it was a party.

SS: I loved getting in touch with new bands. I mean, I’ve been working in the music and art scene here in Oakland for a long time. It’s amazing to continue to run into new music and entire musical communities that I had no idea existed. Even after years, there’s always some new awesome amazing band or musical neighborhood to surprise you.

CD: We thought we had a pretty good handle on the Oakland music scene — until we did the festival!

DC: Did you see any trends in the songs and artists nominated?

SS: I was really surprised at the relatively small representation of hip-hop. This area has played such an important role in the history of the genre, but I think it’s moving out of that era. I don’t mean to say that hip-hop isn’t around, but the hip-hop that’s really thriving is the stuff that incorporates other genres. In any case, Oakland is changing dramatically. More than anything, I’m seeing a lot of electro-indie pop coming out of here. The number of nominations we got for those kinds of bands definitely reflects that trend.

DC: What does the future hold for Oaktown Music Festival?

CD: The sky’s the limit. We would love to get national attention and have people come to Oakland from all over to see Oakland music. We would love to be able to open up more prize categories and include more winners. We would love to include more genres, like spoken word or storytelling. But before we really start talking about next year, we’ve got to get through the first.

SS: This festival is something that’s really wanted by the community. It’s possible that the idea will gain momentum and become its own entity, beyond my or Cortt’s ability to manage it the way we are now. But for the time being, we’re happy with the size of the festival and look forward to some growth. We expect that it will be at least twice as big next year, and we’re happy with that.

Contact Eliot Claasen at [email protected].