Eight miles down Tobacco Road, Duke University’s Last Day of Classes, or LDOC, celebration has become a thing of legend.
The annual event, held on the final day of the Duke spring term, has featured such high profile musical acts as rapper Kanye West, alt-rockers Third Eye Blind and local piano pop rocker Ben Folds.
UNC students often make comparisons with Duke’s sterling track record of bringing high profile artists to campus, especially after the Carolina Union Activities Board announced this year’s homecoming concert, which will feature indie super group The New Pornographers.
A loose survey of student unions at other universities shows CUAB is not alone in working the difficult college concert circuit.
“Generally, the only time you get feedback for programming is after you do a concert,” said Matt Woodward, president of the N.C. State University Union Activities Board.
And CUAB board members say the unique constraints of the homecoming concert make planning the event extremely difficult.
“The timing and the cost are some pretty hard edges that we have to deal with,” said Kinsey Sullivan, CUAB’s music committee chairwoman.
A financial juggling act
Duke’s LDOC and big concert events attract attention to the Duke University Union, but the organization plans dozens of smaller scale events throughout the year.
“Our focus is on bringing consistent entertainment,” Duke University Union President Rachel Sussman said. “The union works as a whole to make sure that we have a good variety of events on campus.”
Among other types of student programming at NCSU, Woodward’s board sponsors a large annual welcome week concert. Mashup DJ Girl Talk was this year’s headliner for the free event, which brought more than 5,400 students to the Raleigh Downtown Amphitheater in August.
Funding models for student activities boards vary greatly, but most receive at least a portion of student fees. CUAB annually receives a third of student fees, amounting to $13 per student each year.
NCSU’s board is funded by a similar per student rate, and Duke’s board receives portions of the roughly $100 in student fees each Duke student pays annually.
“We use the projected number of students each June to plan our budget for the next year,” Sussman said.
Part of that money goes to the Duke University Union’s Major Attractions committee, which is in charge of bringing big name speakers, bands and events to the campus and has an estimated annual budget of at least $100,000, said Julia Hawkins, chairwoman of the committee.
At the University of Michigan, the University Activities Committee’s Big Ticket Productions committee is the last of 15 to receive funding.
“Everyone else hands in their budget, and we get what’s left,” said Vishal Chandawarkar, co-president of Big Ticket Productions.
Last year, Big Ticket Productions received $35,000. Their one large scale concert of the year, with hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco as headliner, cost $100,000. The $65,000 difference was covered by a variety of concert cosponsors, including the legislative branch of the university’s student government and a variety of other departments and committees from across campus, Chandawarkar said.
“Our budget keeps going down, but we try and partner with a lot of other groups for sponsorships,” Chandawarkar said.
When Hawkins’ committee chooses artists for campus concerts, variety is the emphasis, she said.
“We pick our committee members so they represent a diverse sampling of campus,” Hawkins said. “People from the Greek community, the engineering school, people interested in indie rock or hip-hop.”
Last year’s large scale events included concerts by Fiasco, rapper Matisyahu and Kid Cudi. The perceived “mainstream” nature of those artists led the Major Attractions committee to choose indie rockers The Local Natives and Blind Pilot for its upcoming fall concert.
“People were really happy about last year’s concerts, but there are, of course, people who don’t like hip-hop and who just don’t like that kind of music,” Hawkins said. “The campus is ready for something new, and I think the Local Natives show can help bring in those people who thought that Duke wasn’t really their place.”
Committee and student union presidents agreed that choosing an artist for student subsidized concerts that’s universally popular is a logistical nightmare.
“We aim to put on a concert that everybody can enjoy,” said CUAB president Cierra Hinton. “But that is just near impossible.”
For Hinton’s committee, the list of acts that appear at the Homecoming Concert is severely limited by the specificity of the event. The artist in question must be available at the time of the fall homecoming football game and for a price that fits within the larger CUAB budget. The homecoming concert is funded in part by the Carolina Athletic Association, but changes in that group’s funding structure limited its contributions to $5,000 — starting with last fall’s $100,0000 Passion Pit concert.
And even a concert as popular as the Passion Pit show had its detractors. The concert sold out, but CUAB committee members heard protests, Hinton and Sullivan said.
“It’s not that we don’t care or that we haven’t thought about the show,” Sullivan said. “We pick acts that we do want to see.”
In Ann Arbor, students aren’t generally aware that Big Ticket Productions is subsidized by student fees, Chandawarkar said.
“I haven’t heard anybody complain,” Chandawarkar said.
As students complain in public forums and tickets for the homecoming show sell at a slower rate than at this time last year, the realities of filling 4,500 seats in Carmichael Arena become clear.
“We were extremely lucky last year that Passion Pit fit within all of our parameters and was so popular,” Hinton said. “We didn’t get that lucky this year.”
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