By Shawna Leader/The AS Review
Every year, student employees of AS Productions Pop Music select which concert acts will come to campus. Several factors go into the decision making process, but venue availability is one of the biggest. AS Productions Pop Music holds most of its concerts in the Viking Union Multipurpose Room (MPR), an 800-person space that does not always cater to Pop Music’s needs.
Pop Music’s student employees have, in the past few years, changed the office’s programming model, Activities Adviser Casey Hayden said.
“The Pop Music model is trying to have the best of both worlds: one, we can have shows frequently and two, we can bring recognizable names,” Hayden said. “And that’s a hard model to pull off.”
Most universities choose to have highly popular acts play on their campuses and have only three shows a year, Hayden said. Or they have several shows a year put on by local bands that are less expensive to book.
According to Director of Student Activities Kevin Majkut, the programming has not changed as much as the costs associated with programming.
“We’re back into a model again of trying to do high-profile acts,” Majkut said. “One of the differences is that the dollar values associated with those high-profile acts is a lot higher than it was 10, or 20 or 30 years ago.”
The higher production costs have implications for what shows happen in the MPR, Majkut said.
The MPR can only hold 800 people, which has an impact on the acts that are selected to perform because of financial issues. A smaller space sells fewer tickets, producing less revenue to cover costs.
“It definitely limits what types of artists we can bring because I couldn’t afford to pay somebody that much because we’re so dependent on ticket sales,” Pop Music Coordinator Hallie Anderson said. “It limits the size of artists I could bring with the space that’s available.”
Additional costs also have an impact, the primary expense being that the stage in the MPR has to be assembled and taken down with every show. But setting up a permanent stage is not a feasible option, Anderson said.
“Depending on how you set the room, it changes the capacity. So, where we put the stage, standing [capacity] is 800,” Anderson said. “We have different size pieces of staging, so those couldn’t be installed permanently because they’re needed in other locations, so we’d have to buy more staging, we’d have to buy more sound equipment.”
Putting in a permanent stage would also disrupt events held in the MPR by other campus organizations, Majkut said.
Another issue with the MPR is availability. According to Majkut, the MPR was never intended to be solely for concerts. Pop Music does not have priority; the venue is used by a variety of campus clubs, offices and organizations. This can cause problems when Pop Music tries to book acts. Because it is in between Seattle and Vancouver, Pop Music often tries to book artists who are passing through on tour. But there are times when artists are in the area and the venue is booked, Anderson said.
“It’s used by everybody on campus, so for us it’s really difficult to get a date in there,” Anderson said. “An artist may be coming through that we’d like to bring, but we just don’t have the space available to make it happen.”
There are other venues on campus that could (and have) serve as concert venues. These include the Performing Arts Center, the Fairhaven Auditorium, Carver Gym and the Old Main Theater. However, these venues create problems because they may not be the right space for the show and the spaces are often prioritized for certain programs, Anderson said. Some rental fees also apply.
“If we wanted to use Carver [Gym], athletics has priority,” she said. “If we wanted to use the Performing Arts Center, theater and music departments have priority.”
Certain venues do not offer an adequate space for the type of music being performed. For example, the PAC main stage offers a higher capacity, which has the potential to increase revenue and back a bigger act, but it is a seated-only venue.
If campus venues are completely booked or the venues don’t fit the act, off-campus venues are an option. Because of logistical issues with other venues, the Mt. Baker Theatre has become the most logical choice, Anderson said.
“We had two really successful shows, Death Cab and Iron and Wine, off campus, as sponsored by the school, in the past couple years,” Hunter Motto, former Pop Music Coordinator and current Program Director at the Mt. Baker Theatre said. “I think that helps, I think that proves we can do these successfully and have no problems.”
The major benefit of having a concert at the Mt. Baker Theatre is more seating. The theater has approximately 1,400 seats.
The greater capacity has potential to increase revenue, Hayden said. The Mt. Baker Theatre also benefits, he said.
“The Mount Baker really likes it when we take students out there; it really helps them connect with students and educate students on their venue and what they have to offer the community,” Hayden said.
However, using an off-campus venue has its downsides. One concern with an off-campus venue is liability, Motto said. Another is that booking a concert for an off-campus venue requires several levels of authorization, Hayden said. Additionally, rental fees also apply and the space is a seated venue, which can be problematic.
Holding shows off campus also poses a problem for new students who may not know Bellingham as well, Anderson said. It also shifts the focus from the campus to the community, Majkut said.
Although concerts are open to the Bellingham community, the purpose of AS concerts is “to create student-oriented events and to have those large events which help create community on campus. Students are interested in that, and large events help create a sense of community,” Majkut said.
Off-campus concerts would never be approved automatically, Hayden said. And it is unrealistic to expect that a new venue solely for concerts will be constructed on campus. But while the MPR has some negative aspects, Pop Music has made it work, he said.
“If you look at the acts that we’ve had over the last three or so years, we’ve gotten pretty amazing acts here,” Hayden said. “It’s not easy to get them [artists] to bite on those offers that are for a smaller space and less money, but it can be done.”