In part one of this two-part series, Money College columnist Steven Kent talks about a subject he knows extremely well: the college concert scene, and what makes it tick. Look for part two of the series next Sunday.
A couple of years ago, COED Magazine ran a derisive little piece pointing a finger at "the worst college spring concerts" of 2008. Although the article came across as a bit mean-spirited (do we really need more post-prime potshots at Eve 6 and the Gin Blossoms?), the COED staff made a point to which I can still relate from my own undergrad experience: On-campus venues at many schools, theoretically havens for exhilarating new music, often end up clogged with mid-'90s holdovers strumming out acoustic versions of has-been hits.
So how do colleges determine how to spend those hefty student activities fees and get the best acts for your dollar? And why do some schools seem to attract exciting new acts while others (like mine) seem to get stuck with journeyman post-prime acts and frat-rocking finger pickers through their whole college careers? In order to find out, I spoke with several students and professionals from across the spectrum of the campus concert scene in the first of Money College's two-part examination on the unseen infrastructure behind campus concerts.
According to Gordon Schell, member relations manager for the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA), there are as many answers as there are college campuses. NACA, which charges schools a variable annual membership fee for its services, acts as a liaison between colleges and artists, advising schools on how to book acts, providing contacts, performing research and generally consulting with them to keep costs down and student satisfaction up.
In his experience, says Schell, each campus has its own unique booking procedures and requirements. But there are some general strategies that sharp student concert committees employ to negotiate with agents and artists in order to reduce the cost of booking in-demand acts.
Sometimes, Schell says, keeping costs down is a simple matter of having students and staff who keep up on the newest music developments and stay on top of recent releases. "Schools are looking for any way to save money [in this economy especially]," Schell says. "Students and staff today are very savvy in hitting up MySpace and Pitchfork, learning where artists have been and what they're charging. Some are savvy enough to see how an artist's last album did, and factor that as part of the negotiations process, for example."
Are student concert committees who really know their music actually approaching the agent of a popular artist whose last album underperformed and asking them to lower their booking fee? Pretty much, Schell tells me. He says that schools who want to get a better deal when booking acts often send students out to talent showcases such as South by Southwest, CMJ or the NACA's own regional talent exhibits (usually the most common option). At these shows, student-run concert committees from multiple schools can work together to plan all their intended dates and lower their collective booking fees in a practice known as "block booking."
"That's where the savings really is," Schell says. "If schools are at an event, and they see an indie band perform, then seven schools in the Midwest can get together and coordinate dates. That can save the artists travel times, time playing phone-tag, and so on. When you cut that out, and artists can leave the conference with some dates in their pockets, they can offer a significant discount."
The outgoing entertainment chair at Penn State University's Student Programming Association, Claire DiGiacomo, says that Penn State's NACA membership and participation in its regional conferences allowed students to forge relationships with industry agents and block-book popular bands like Jack's Mannequin, Flogging Molly, Motion City Soundtrack and rapper Pitbull for free or low-cost shows during her tenure at PSU.
"We found it so helpful to work with other schools at the NACA conferences to keep costs down," she says. "But some of the bigger name artists don't do block booking, and at that point it's more about relationships with the agents that can get you a discount. So the conferences are also a good way for students to start meeting agents and building those ties."
Still, Schell notes that students who don't have the authority to book acts without running their entertainment choices by university administrators can get sidelined from these sorts of ad hoc negotiations. Schools that allow their concert committees more autonomy might actually save money by doing so. Although this kind of cooperation may benefit students financially, a potential dark side comes to mind: If everyone's getting together to book the same acts, could that lead to homogeneity in the music scene among campuses and shut out local and up-start acts, at least on a regional basis?
Schell didn't think so, saying that each campus has its own distinct flavor and music preferences. And some parts of the country are simply more open to leading-edge, innovative artists than others. "Some things are just gonna work in Boston," he says, "that won't fly in Sioux City, Iowa."
At Penn State, DiGiacomo says student programmers try to focus on landing a few big draws a year through its NACA connections, but they also budget time and money to spotlight smaller (and much cheaper) local acts every week during the school's Friday Noontime Concert Series.
"It's all about the repetition," she says. "Every Friday, students know they can show up and see a local band play while they eat. That way, we don't have to worry so much about who the individual artist is or exactly how many students will want to show up."
Check back next Sunday for part two of Money College's special series on college concerts, when we examine the D.I.Y side of college concerts at a Midwestern school that attracts top indie talent -- and talk to artists about their on-campus exploits along the way.
Steven Kent is the Dollar Store Dilettante, a blase lad who knows more about saving a buck and stoking his hipster credentials than all his editors combined. His Money College column runs Sundays; send tips and best MP3s of Pitchfork bands to Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How schools get the best on-campus concerts for less