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Arts & Culture

How BCA looks for an A-plus

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Correction appended.

It starts in September. The first words on everyone’s lips after the obligatory “Hey, how was your summer?” undoubtedly revolve around a single topic: Spring Weekend. What makes or breaks that long-awaited event is Brown Concert Agency’s success — or failure — in acquiring the best artist lineup to satiate Brown students’ musical thirst.

This year commemorates 50 years of Brown students showing off their musical zeal and partying on the Main Green — in ways other schools can only dream about. Past artists have included some of the greatest musical acts of all time, including Ray Charles, U2, Bob Dylan and Wyclef Jean.

As always, speculation about this year’s show started early. Whispers of Kid Cudi and Animal Collective could be heard at parties, on the Green and in the Ratty. When the lineup was finally released on March 10, the hype had approached a breaking point, with students trading supposed inside information faster than they could spend a flex point.

“I was so excited,” remembers Sam Barney ’12. “I saw my friend’s status on Facebook, immediately researched to make sure it was correct, and then ran upstairs to tell my friends.”

This year’s lineup combines musical legends and up-and-coming artists. Headlining the shows this weekend are MGMT on Friday and Snoop Dogg on Saturday. The concerts will also feature the Black Keys, Wale, Major Lazer and Last Good Tooth, a local student band.

That makes six artists, two days and one agency to make it all come together. With 6,013 undergraduates to please, it’s hard to fathom how BCA tackles the process of artist selection  — but somehow it does.

Capturing the zeitgeist

With 50 years of successes behind Spring Weekend, BCA started with a bit of modern technology its forerunners would have jumped over the moon for — iTunes.

To find out what Brown students are listening to at the moment, BCA takes a “loose and dirty sampling of about 12 students’ iTunes accounts” off of the Brown network of shared iTunes libraries, said BCA booking chair James Hinton ’10.

The agency is “trying to capture the zeitgeist,” Hinton said.

Though this year marks the 50th anniversary of the concerts, BCA chose not to change its methods for finding and selecting artists because the system has been successful in the past, Hinton said. 

The agency begins its search at the beginning of the year by compiling a list of 100 to 200 possible headliners, Hinton said. This year’s list totaled 145 potential artists and bands.

In November, the Undergraduate Council of Students’ poll goes online. Students are asked to write in their top five choices for Spring Weekend performers — not only to help out BCA, but also for the chance to win tickets to the concerts, an incentive for students to take a few minutes to fill out the form.

Hinton explained that BCA uses these results to generate a histogram displaying the amount of times students mentioned each artist. The “super-popular” results, generally the top 20 or so, are automatically checked for their availability. Then, the negotiations begin.

Booking Brown

“The polls don’t dictate our decisions, but they do serve as a good barometer for student interest,” said Alex Spoto ’11, BCA’s administrative chair. Negotiations generally come down to scheduling, money and availability, he added.

This is especially true when responses like Lady Gaga pop up over and over again. “Someone who could sell out Giants Stadium could never be booked by any college,” Hinton said.

In negotiations, BCA does hear a lot of no’s, Hinton said, but it’s not for a lack of trying on their part. This year, BCA almost secured both the Beastie Boys and Missy Elliot, but due to health reasons and scheduling conflicts, respectively, both had to decline.

“To move a group of that caliber, you need a lot of pull,” Hinton said of the Beastie Boys. “I was honored that they even talked to us.”

The problem with many big artists is that they are very “routed,” meaning that they are following specific tour routes either across or circling the country, Hinton said.

Consequently, BCA makes sure to check which artists are going to be near either New York City or Boston before beginning negotiations.

Hinton added that it’s easier to schedule smaller artists who mostly book gigs one at a time and don’t have a strict tour schedule they must follow.

This year’s selection was part luck, part work. “Snoop was a very last-minute opportunity,” Hinton said. “He got a cancellation, and we got really lucky.”

MGMT was at the top of BCA’s poll this year, Spoto said, and the organization moved early on to get them.

Once the headliners are in place, the agency has more freedom in determining the rest of the line-up, Hinton said, allowing the group to focus on finding a variety of musical acts.
However tricky the negotiations might be, Brown has garnered a certain standing in the music industry. “Brown is a really desirable place to be,” Hinton said.

Spring Weekend has earned the reputation of being a kind of festival, Hinton said. Compared to other colleges and universities, Brown is a very musically conscious campus, he added.

“At other schools, you have to get over the ‘Who’s that?’ factor,” Hinton explained. “You don’t have that at Brown.”

Busting the budget

A deciding factor when booking an artist is the price. BCA is funded by the Undergraduate Finance Board, and this year there were rampant rumors running around campus about huge increases in BCA’s budget.

“BCA has historically received the most money of student groups over the years,” said Jose Vasconez ’10, UFB Chair. In the past BCA has received around $100,000, Vasconez said, adding that this year the agency received substantially more because it is the concert’s 50th anniversary.

BCA’s sizable budget reflects the importance of Spring Weekend to the Brown community.
“Brown is the king of individuality. For Brown, this is a last thread of community,” Hinton said. “We don’t have chapel anymore. … We don’t go to football games. With the money that I paid for the Student Activities Fee, I can’t imagine a better use for it.”

“I feel like it was worth it,” said Justin Wolfe ’12. “I like the idea as long they keep getting good bands.”

Austin Peters-Miller ’12 was more skeptical. “We spent a lot of money on big names and not necessarily good music,” he said. “BCA is high on money but low on creativity.”

“Spring Weekend is the only event that brings most of Brown students together,” Vasconez said, adding that the event inspires community-building among students in ways other Brown events do not.

Surviving the speakeasy
Absent from this year’s pre-Spring Weekend event schedule was BCA’s annual Battle of the Bands. Each year, bands from the Brown community have traditionally competed for a spot on the Spring Weekend stage.

But this year, BCA decided early on that they had not seen enough groups at the Battle of the Bands competition, Hinton said. Consequently, a subgroup of BCA, called The Agency, hosted “Speakeasy Sessions” throughout the year. The shows featured three times as many bands as Battles had in the past, he said.

It was never clearly stated that the bands would be up for a spot on the Spring Weekend stage, said Agency chair Akshay Rathod ’10.

The sessions included a panel of judges from BCA, much like the Battle of the Bands had, but the concerts took place over a longer period of time.
“Last Good Tooth emerged as a very strong group,” Rathod said.

Though BCA administrative chair Spoto is currently in Last Good Tooth, Hinton said the band was under consideration for the Spring Weekend spot before Spoto became a member and that he was not part of the decision-making process. Hinton said Last Good Tooth has a large foll
owing both at Brown and at the Rhode Island School of Design, which influenced BCA’s decision.

According to Rathod, there were two rounds of auditions at the beginning of each semester to be in one of the four Speakeasy shows. The selective process allowed BCA to see how serious the bands were about performing.

Some students said they were displeased with this method of choosing a student band to play at Spring Weekend. “I don’t think it’s the most appropriate way of doing things,” said Jamilya Ramos-Chapman ’11. “Battle of the Bands just sounds more epic. They survived. They won this contest. They deserve to play at Spring Weekend.”

According to Gabriel Doss ’10, emcee of last year’s Battle of the Bands winner, Doss the Artist and the PGA Tour, the status of the Battle of the Bands was unclear until recently.

“On the whole, we were disappointed with the lack of transparency,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “But we’ve played a show with Last Good Tooth, they’re a good band and we think it’s awesome that they get a turn to shine this year.”

In tune with the times?
According to a Herald poll conducted last month, the majority of students — 79.7 percent —approve of BCA’s selections. But 12.4 percent of students said they disapproved of the final artist lineup.

Several students interviewed by The Herald said they felt that BCA was a little bit behind the times in their choices. Ramos-Chapman said she had some doubts about the effectiveness of the UCS poll results. “Snoop Dogg popped up a lot? I mean, he was the stoner of 2001.”

“We got U2 in the ’80s when they were big. Now we get Snoop 10 years too late,” added Shawn Patterson ’12.

Patterson also said he felt that Snoop Dogg didn’t best represent Brown. “I don’t think he raps about things Brown students support,” he said.

Other students are excited to see the rap legend. Brittany King ’12 said, “From what I’ve heard about Snoop Dogg, he’s an amazing performer.” Drew Kunas ’12 said he is just “glad there’s a lot of grass on the Main Green.”

MGMT has also garnered mixed reviews. According to Kunas, “the only thing that could make Chicken Finger Friday better is MGMT.” On the other hand, Amanda Kim ’12 said she thought BCA  “could have done a lot more with the money they got,” calling MGMT “so two years ago.”

Still, the air is full of enthusiasm for this year’s Spring Weekend. “I’m pro-Spring Weekend regardless,” said Jenny Bloom ’12. “It’s sheer excitement just for Spring Weekend.”
With the excitement continuing to build — and 50 years of performances to live up to — one question remains: Will BCA be able to deliver?

Due to a design error, a graphic in an earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that 17.4 percent of surveyed students “approve” of Brown Concert Agency’s Spring Weekend choices. In fact, 37.3 percent of students “somewhat approve” of the choices.

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