No Free Lunch: A Big Show

Opinion by Dave Grundfest
Feb. 7, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

No Free Lunch: A Big ShowFor the 2010-2011 academic year the Stanford Concert Network (SCN) received $133,055 in special fees, more than any other student group. SCN is tasked with providing contemporary live music to the Stanford undergraduate community, and the majority of their funding — $96,000 in 2010-2011 — goes directly to artists, paying to have them perform on campus. Although the group does a great job of putting on a consistent variety of high quality small performances, when it comes to large performance with big-name artists, they’re somewhat lacking. When was the last time you went to a big-name concert on campus? Or better yet, when was the last time you went to a concert with more than a couple hundred people there? Obviously large venue shows, with big-name artists, are a rarity at Stanford — we sure haven’t been to any recently — but why can’t Stanford have big-name concerts?

If you ask SCN the answer is budgetary and goes something like this: $133K is in the neighborhood of what it would cost to bring one really big name to campus once, and a group tasked with facilitating all the live music on campus can’t justify spending it’s entire budget on one or two shows. This combined with strict regulations on event sponsorship keeps most big-name talent out of Stanford’s price range. Fair enough. But superstar talent aside, why can’t the few bigger name concerts we have take place in a venue more conducive for live performances than the Alumni Center?

The quick answer: because Stanford has an administrative department for everything, and usually an oversight committee or two for good measure. Planning major events at Stanford is a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare, with enough red tape to make anyone want to keep things small. Take Frost Amphitheatre, by far the best venue for a big live concert on campus: to schedule an event there requires a request to the Registrar’s Office to reserve the space, then an application to the Office of Special Events & Protocol followed by a review from the Committee on Public Events, all simply to tentatively book the space. Once that’s taken care of, you have to deal with the fact that there is limited infrastructure in place to handle these kinds of events easily. So it’s off to 12 or so other departments to handle everything from sound and lighting to security, ticketing, crowd control, trash and recycling, janitorial services and temporary restrooms. Then again it’s not impossible, either. In spring of 2006 SCN hosted a sold-out show in Frost featuring Mos Def who charged $40K to be there, a big chunk of their budget. But who wouldn’t happily trade the concerts we have now for a sold-out show in Frost every quarter, even if the tickets were $18? Perhaps most telling is that there are only two events scheduled at Frost for the remainder of the school year — an Admit Weekend performance and Multicultural Springfest, both put on by University departments with full time staff to plan and coordinate.

So what’s the answer? Well for starters, the SCN could shift their focus from small, niche shows, to hosting a broad interest show in a major venue every quarter. The University already requires that all shows in Frost be ticketed, so they might as well charge a nominal ticket fee for those who actually choose to attend. Considering that Frost’s capacity is around 6,000 people, a full house with everyone paying 10 bucks to attend would be nearly half of SCN’s annual budget in ticket revenue. Pulling this off would require an enormous amount of energy on the part of SCN and more hours spent filling out forms and navigating confounding University regulation than we care to imagine. We don’t envy whoever has to do it, but someone should and SCN looks like the best candidate.

The underlying issue is that while the University expressly prohibits few things, they do a great job of regulating to death. If you make the activation energy for student planned events too high, they simply don’t happen. There are university employees tasked with everything from promoting diversity, to planning cultural events and organizing community building activities, so why can’t we have one or two whose sole purpose is to put together big events where a wide cross-section of the student body shows up and has a great time? Sounds like community-building at its finest to us.

Zack and Dave are recruiting for the new Office of Undergraduate Fun, interested applicants should direct their inquiries to [email protected] or [email protected].

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