In part two 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. Read part one here.
"Some things are just gonna work in Boston that won't fly in Sioux City, Iowa."
That's where we left off last time, with Gorden Schell of the National Association for Campus Activities suggesting that some schools are destined to remain draws for the most cutting-edge acts by virtue of geography and regional flavor.
However, one of the nation's most prominent examples of an indie-friendly, do-it-yourself approach to college concerts resides just a couple of hours down the road from Sioux City, in Grinnell, Iowa. In part two of Money College's spotlight on campus concerts, we'll take a look at how one student concert committee lures the most buzz-worthy independent acts in America using a student-led, ground-up approach to concert organizing.
A quick scan of the on-campus shows at Grinnell College reads like an excerpt from a recent year-end best of from Pitchfork Media or Paste Magazine -- Vivian Girls, Shearwater, Cloud Cult, RJD2, Bowerbirds -- and all of the shows at the school's Gardner Lounge are completely free and open to the public. Grinnell Concert Committee Chair Alex Schechter says his school pays for all its shows ahead of time out of the school's student activity budget, raised from the school's annual activity fee of $340 per student, rather than trying to raise money through ticket sales.
"Other schools don't get the kind of acts we do," he says, "because they're so dependent on ticket sales. We've already accepted that we're not in it to make money at this, so we can use the student activities fee to cover new and more experimental bands."
Singer/guitarist Dante Schwebel of San Antonio's Hacienda told Money College that Grinnell's no-frills free shows offer a compelling reason for a tour stop in Iowa, and says that benefit shows can draw bands to play for less than they might ask otherwise.
"Sometimes there's a cause [the schools] are raising funds for, so you can't really argue with that," he says. "On the other hand, there are some universities that have an arts and entertainment budget and wisely spend it on live music. Grinnell College is one of those. They bring in quality acts and then don't charge students at the door."
Schechter says Grinnell's autonomous, student-run concert committee plays a big part in its ability to book the most popular acts in the indie rock scene. By cutting out school censors and forging its own relationships with labels and agents through direct, student-controlled booking, Grinnell has a reputation as a top college concert draw and maintains a stable of trusted contacts in the music industry.
"We really have no overhead, other than someone to run budgetary issues," Schechter says. "And we deal with booking agents ourselves. If we want to book [hip-hop artist] Why?, we just go to Why?'s agent and start talking. Almost every artist's agent I work with has been thrilled to deal with a school's students directly. Often times, schools will work through a middle agent, and middle agents want to avoid risk. They see that so-and-so played wherever and made money, and they recommend that to other schools. It does create a situation where most schools seem to be booking the exact same artists."
Still, a growing number of colleges book at least their larger shows through such a middle agent -- an entertainment professional who charges schools a fee in exchange for expertise, contacts, and a ready-made list of available acts, complete with price quotes. Although these fees can run as much as 10% of the total booking cost or higher, when I spoke to Mike Geremia, a college middle agent for Main Stage Productions with 27 years of touring and booking experience, he said that schools that try to go it alone can encounter much bigger costs trying to navigate the touring demands of popular acts like Ke$ha or Girl Talk without expert help.
"Schools will say, 'Why can't we do this on our own and save 10%?'" he said. "But they tend to forget things -- a barrier before the stage, or they realize they have to buy a generator two days before the show. When a lot of schools have two concerts a year, with a couple students running it, they may look at an artist's tour rider and say, 'What the hell is a 300-watt three-phase amp?'"
Such concerns aren't necessarily limited to arena-size acts, either. When I e-mailed Canadian Polaris Prize-winning hardcore punk band F****d Up about their most memorable U.S. college shows, guitarist Mike Haliechuk, a.k.a. 10,000 Marbles, mentioned one outdoor concert a few summers ago at a State University of New York campus where the organizers used wooden barricades, not the best idea at a F****d Up show.
"Well obviously the barricades got lifted in two seconds flat," he wrote, "and the sound got cut after about half a song because kids were dangerously getting close to the stage. So we drove like 20 hours to play two minutes of music that day at SUNY."
Alex Schechter of Grinnell, concedes that Grinnell's self-reliance limits the scale of acts the school can bring, but said that bringing in a greater number of up-and-coming artists for intimate shows might benefit its students equally as well. Essentially, it comes down to whether students want the convenience or big-ticket acts playing next to their dorm rooms or value more frequent visits from a diverse cast of ready-to-boil bands.
"We can't get Lady Gaga or Kings of Leon," Schechter says. "But I don't necessarily think that's a loss, because people can drive to a major city and see those big shows. We're catering to something else here, and that's fine. If a band is a bell curve, we try to get them right before they hit that middle part, where they're most popular and in demand."
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 some colleges take DIY approach to booking the best bands