Voices of Canceled Stanford Shows: Producing a concert at the end of the world

May 8, 2020, 12:39 a.m.

On the evening of March 4 in the middle of Week 9, around 100 students gathered at Kairos for an event I had been planning all winter quarter. ‘Indie Nights: An Evening with The Grinns’ was the first show I was able to produce through Stanford Concert Network (SCN). At the time, I had no idea that it would be the last concert I would be able to attend for the foreseeable future, or that I would become so nostalgic for that act of gathering in a large group of friends and strangers. Despite my planning months in advance, the show almost fell apart in the few days leading up to it, between the University’s COVID-19 response and last-minute set changes — a producer’s worst logistical nightmare. Looking back on the experience, I know that the night only was a success thanks to all the help offered by my hardworking, passionate peers in SCN.

Deceptively smooth sailing

SCN has given me the opportunity to create the kind of invigorating, intensely personal music experiences I have always relished as a concert-goer. Before I could even stand up and dance, my parents took me to concerts in a stroller. From small outdoor Bluegrass shows viewed from lawn chairs during hot Georgia summers, to local indie bands playing in grimy bars in Cincinnati, live music has always been in the air I breathe.

At Admit Weekend, I discovered SCN — an entire organization dedicated to organizing, promoting and attending concerts on campus. They had brought an impressive roster of acts to campus across a variety of genres, from Fetty Wap and Post Malone to MGMT and Glass Animals. I decided right then that this group would be a priority for me.

After a year of being mentored by the club’s directors and producers and getting as involved as I could be as a first-year member, I was lucky enough to be elected a producer for the 2019-20 school year. This meant that I was allotted my own slice of the club’s budget and free rein to organize one to two on-campus shows throughout the school year. Of course, all this was to be done under the watchful and necessary guidance of the club’s directors and seasoned producers, for I personally knew almost nothing about all the steps involved in making these things happen.

After going through producer training and researching local indie bands in fall quarter, I reached out to my top two artists over winter break — The Grinns, an indie surf rock five-piece band from Orange County, and High Sunn, a bedroom pop group from San Mateo, led by prolific young songwriter Justin Cheromiah. Both bands agreed to play my show, so I was able to book an exciting double-headliner. My friend and favorite student musician Jacob Eisenach ’22 agreed to open the show with his band eisenach, which I knew would draw a crowd of his student friends and fans, even on a Wednesday night in Week 9.

Many long email chains later, I had the venue reserved and the acts officially booked, and it was only the end of January. It felt like the hardest part was done. February consisted of making sure I would have all the people I needed the day of the show, for things like lighting, tech, hospitality and photography. As the date of the show approached two weeks out, I tapped into the social media influence of SCN members to market the event to the general student body. Enough of my friends assured me they would come that I slowly gained confidence that there would be a crowd, and the show wouldn’t flop.

A week before the show, everything was in place — or so I thought. I knew that various unexpected problems would arise in planning any show, but with the coronavirus pandemic on the horizon, this show ended up throwing me more curveballs than I ever imagined possible.

A series of crises averted

Monday, March 2, two days before the show

As I was checking my morning email, I received a message from Justin of High Sunn, informing me that he sadly would not be able to make his set due to a pressing family emergency. I was very dismayed that I wouldn’t be able to have such a talented and young Bay Area artist at my show, who I had really been looking forward to seeing live, but family absolutely comes first. I could bring High Sunn to campus hopefully at a later date. It seemed like dumb luck at this point that I had booked two headliners, when most shows of this size only have one. The Grinns with eisenach opening would still make a great set, and I did not have to scramble to replace a headliner in two days or cancel the show. Sad news, but not crisis-inducing.

Tuesday, March 3, the day before the show

I received the first of what would become a continuous stream of stress-inducing emails from the University concerning COVID-19, which we are all too familiar with now. It announced that all gatherings of 150 or more people on campus were banned, effective the next day, March 4. The day of my show! This put me in a panic — I wracked my brain for the official capacity of Kairos we had stated in the contract, which I believe was 150 people exactly. Would the show be canceled? Even if it happened, would anyone come now in light of this news?

Later that evening at our club meeting, the directors informed me they had gotten official approval from the administration for my show at Kairos to go on, though they had to make the sad announcement that Loveapalooza with Jean Deaux that Saturday was canceled. Crisis averted, barely.

Wednesday, March 4, the day of the show

The directors told me to clear my schedule, as I would need to be on call all day for anything that might come up. I thought this was surely an exaggeration. It was not.

I woke up to a text from my student opener Eisenach, telling me that he had come down with an illness and likely would not be well enough to perform his set by the evening. 

This was crushing news — Eisenach’s live sets are always an absolute blast, and I knew many people were planning on attending the show to see him specifically. If Murphy’s Law needed more proof, here it was. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for a day of frantic, relentless texts and phone calls. 

Fortunately, SCN as a club is very well connected to the student musicians on campus. The directors pulled some strings, and before 2 p.m., we had not one but two acts accept our offer to perform a short opening set for The Grinns — Marco Zocco ’21 from student rock band Margin of Error, and Mike Mulshine, a grad student solo artist. 

I was relieved that we would still have legitimate student openers for the show, but I already felt like the show had changed so much from what I had envisioned that it hardly felt like my own anymore. Only one out of three bands that I thought would play just days ago would be there now.

This was only the beginning of many obstacles we faced in pulling the event together that day, from endless technical difficulties to scheduling conflicts with students working the show, and it is truly only through the resourcefulness and tenacity of my fellow students in SCN that we were able to get things in order, so that the artists could play their sets and the crowd could have a great time.

I was overcome by a strange realization as we were scrambling to put everything together in the last couple hours before the show: All of these people who I was “in charge of” each knew way more about what was going on than I did. As the leader, really my whole job was to make sure everyone showed up and to know who to direct each question and concern to. When it came to managing any specific aspect of the show, like tech or hospitality, I was just learning on the fly, and I had to fully trust the people I had on those jobs. But standing as I was with a birds-eye view, it was amazing to see how everyone came through and made each piece of the show function.

Bella Cooper ’20, one of SCN’s fearless leaders and a director for two years now, despite her busy schedule the week of my show, gave me perhaps the most crucial advice of the whole night, advice that I kept running through my head over and over the day of, when it felt like everything was going wrong. She told me that things will go wrong, and that there will be unexpected problems day-of. Yet ultimately, no matter what, someone is going to get up on stage and play music, and people are going to show up and have a good time listening. And of course, she was right.

The big night

Our soundcheck ran late, and we had awkward pauses for technical difficulties, but once the music really got going, none of that seemed to matter to anybody. Marco Zocco was the first one on stage: jeans, a black T-shirt, shaggy hair and an acoustic guitar. I was hearing his music for the first time like everyone else there, and to my relief, he was a powerful stage presence and an absolute crowd pleaser with a rich, crooning voice. Mike Mulshine followed, a charismatic one-man show who rapped deftly over jazzy piano beats that filled the room with wholesome vibes. These two new opening acts brought their own unique sounds to the table, all while energizing the crowd in anticipation of The Grinns’ set.

All the while, friends and strangers were trickling into Kairos. Some were there because I coerced them to be, some were there as fans of The Grinn’s or the opening acts, and some were there just there to enjoy the last Wine & Cheese Night of the quarter. But as I continually scanned the crowd of smiling faces, a strange magical feeling filled my heart, that mix of joy approaching overstimulation you feel when you bring your friends from different social circles all together in one place. All the stress and all the hours we had put into this show were instantly worth it when I got to see all these people having a good time together, and to feel like I had a small part in infusing their lives with those little moments of joy that we all live on.

When The Grinns finally took the stage and we got the tech adjusted to their impressive five-piece setup, the crowd went crazy. When you bring a real professional band to play a college house party, people aren’t expecting it. The Grinns’ massive sound commanded the crowd’s attention and the compulsive dancing began, only to increase its fervor with each song. 

The Grinns played an amazing set of hits from their two albums “Golden Hour” (2018) and “Let the Daze Go” (2019). I was delighted to find that they are a group that shines at their best live — songs which were enjoyable as recordings became sublime when their sound filled the Kairos common room. The Grinns’ interspersed their originals with familiar covers adored by the crowd such as the Beatles’ “White Album”’s fun and folky “Rocky Racoon,” indie band staple “Valerie,” The Kink’s head-banger “All Day and All of the Night,” and a crowd-demanded encore of Frank Ocean’s “Sweet Life.” Lead singer Joey Kolk’s uniquely powerful voice was a highlight of the original songs and impeccably executed covers alike. I was dancing as hard as anyone in the room when they played their irresistibly danceable single “Why Do You Lie,” which was the song that first made me fall in love with them.

Even after The Grinns had finished and were packing away their equipment, people lingered in the space, taking in the vibes, chatting up the band members. I was practically glowing as I bounced around the room between each of my friends who had come in throughout the show, thanking them for their presence. As the room emptied out, I had no idea that I wouldn’t see most of those people again until next school year, if ever. I had no idea that this night had barely slipped through the cracks of a global crisis which would isolate us all for at least many months to come.

Life in a world without concerts

Even though so many adjustments had to be made from my original plan, and even though it was far from a technically perfect evening, I was truly thrilled with all the sets that were played and with all the people who came through, to unknowingly celebrate the transition from what now feels like one era of our lives to an entirely different one.

The following week, classes were moved fully online to finish out winter quarter, and the SCN directors announced that all of our events, not just for the rest of winter, but for the entire spring quarter as well, were canceled. As any Stanford student would know, spring is widely considered the most fun time to be on campus, partially because of the warm weather, and partially because for some reason, the warm weather makes people realize they should maybe not take 22 units and instead enjoy their lives a little. Accordingly, spring is always the best quarter for concerts, and SCN already had 10 events in the works. This included the 2020 Frost Music Festival, this year with headliners Mac DeMarco and The Marias. As one of the club’s vocal indie fans, it was especially heart-breaking not to see this amazing show pan out. The world had changed so much and so rapidly in one week, for me and for all students, that this news didn’t surprise me at all, nor did the announcement another week later that spring quarter would be entirely online for the duration of the quarter.

Going to a concert today sounds like a fantasy, the complete antithesis to everything we are supposed to be doing to protect ourselves from COVID-19 today. When I think back to shows I’ve been to at crowded music festivals or huge venues, these are events where thousands of people not only crowd together, but the typical rules of personal space tend to fully disintegrate. In the impossibly dense crowds you find in the pit, it’s entirely normal to be pressed up against people you’ve never met, to have their sweat and their breath in your face. It’s this very strange closeness, this pure collectivity which is hard to come by in daily life, but which many people find so nourishing to the spirit.

For those of us who love going to concerts, it’s hard having lost that part of our lives in this moment, but for the people who make their living organizing and promoting these events, as well as the musicians who perform them, the situation is genuinely dire, and they need our support. Many small artists are posting their personal Venmos and Patreon accounts to their social media during this time, and donating to these is certainly the most effective way to make sure your money goes directly to the musicians you love and not to large companies. Click here or here for articles that list lots of other ways you can support musicians and music-industry workers through this pandemic. 

Whenever it is safe for us all to gather close together again and let our bodies be moved by sounds, I know we will do it with more joy and more gratitude than we ever have. And whenever we are back on campus, you can be certain that SCN will be throwing its most exciting events ever, for all of us to reconnect with each other and with the music that binds us.

When the time comes, I hope I’ll see you all in the pit.

Acknowledgements: I want to thank Bella Cooper for always answering my endless questions, knowing what to do, and providing so many words of encouragement and inspiration; Dante Zakhidov for training me in producing, for always making me stay on top of things, and for being there the day of my show to help me navigate the challenges; Cooper Reed and Ricky Young for working through an extremely difficult tech set up; Federico Reyes for helping me quickly find a replacement opener; Mira Guleri for taking care of hospitality; Matt Simon for creating an amazing professional light set-up; Chloe Peterson-Nafziger and Maya Shetty for taking beautiful photos; and everyone in SCN for being amazing friends that put in so much work to foster the live music scene on our campus and to create so many meaningful experiences for its students. I cannot wait to be back on campus with you guys soon.

Contact Carly Taylor at carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Carly Taylor '22 is a Managing Editor of Arts & Life. She studies comparative literature and creative writing. On campus, you can find her organizing concerts and practicing martial arts. Contact her at ctaylor ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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