[auditorium]The Wharton Center certainly has its staple concerts. Acts like Ben Folds and Guster return year after year to a welcoming crowd of undergrads hoping Ben Folds will tell another quirky story about his time in East Lansing and they will be able to sing along to “Fa Fa” by Guster. Concerts on MSU’s campus are always a delight for the students, but for such a large school, are we really getting the diversified live music selection that students are jonesing for? It seems like nearby smaller colleges – Calvin College in particular – are showing MSU up with the acts they welcome onto their campus stages.
Calvin College students have the Student Activities Office (SAO) to thank for their concert line-ups. Ken Heffner, the director of Student Activities, oversees the planning of multiple concerts each semester. In fact, the school acts as a self-contained music scene — creating stiff competition for other western Michigan venues. The reasoning behind this is related to Calvin’s overall mission of civic participation and cultural evaluation. “We’re working on the assumption that students should be introduced to the popular arts in a way that they can understand and make more sense of them,” Heffner said.
Most concerts cost $5-$10 for Calvin students, and $10-$20 for the general public. Additionally, students save $5 when they purchase a Flexpass for $20, which grants admission to $25 worth of shows. Heffner said they promote shows just like any music venue would, using newspaper, radio, magazines and Internet ads. As an example, Calvin sold about 750 tickets to the Stars concert on Sept. 6. The college provides about 20 percent of the Student Activities spending budget to demonstrate their dedication to the program. “I think the general perception in culture is that pop culture doesn’t mean anything,” Heffner said. “It’s just fun, it’s an escape, it’s mindless. What I’m saying is, it’s not mindless: it means something.” [heffner]
The mission statement of Calvin College’s SAO is inspirational, since they try to avoid the usual decision “to either reject culture at large (and popular culture specifically) or to embrace culture unquestioningly,” through a discipline of “Holy Worldliness.” The mix of critical thinking and popular events inherent in that mission might seem out of the ordinary for this college campus. “Within the Christian community, this approach to music is pretty rare,” Heffner said.
Since it is a Christian college, a band’s religion is taken into consideration. “We’re always fascinated by what people believe, and we assume that that shapes the art they make,” Heffner said, “but we’re not looking for people who believe the same things we do.” In order to get to know artists better, and to facilitate SAO’s mission, Heffner schedules a before-the-show conversation between the band and audience whenever possible. These conversations are recorded and made available on their Web site.
In the spring of odd years, the college puts on a Festival of Faith and Music (FFM). FFM 2007, the third incarnation of the festival, took place last March and featured concerts and conversations with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, Anathallo and Emmylou Harris. “The festival is kind of like the icing on the cake – sort of a public presentation of what we’re doing here all the time,” Heffner said. “It’s a way for us to share that at a more national level. People came from all over the country.”
The Calvin operation makes use of many technological advances, all of which are featured on their Web site. They have an online box office that charges a $2 surcharge on ticket purchases, which is attractive in comparison to steep Ticketmaster service fees. The SAO Podcast, accessible through iTunes or as an RSS feed, provides information and music clips for upcoming concerts. A group of 30 students puts together Uncompressed, a quarterly magazine focusing on Calvin’s music happenings. The group also leads music discussions and listening nights, incorporating theological elements at each level. [sufjan]
Heffner meets weekly with a student activities board to discuss previous shows and plan future ones, making the process a group effort. Heffner thinks about 1,000 Calvin students are regular concert attendees, but perhaps 1,500 other students have never been to a concert before. A large portion of the college’s 700 faculty members also regularly attend shows, and both they and the students provide consistent feedback on concerts.
Heffner seems proud of Calvin’s music program, and he has the right to be. His concert line-ups are drawing huge question marks above many music lovers’ heads at schools like MSU. “At a college or university – which tend to be engines for ideas – why is there no interest in approaching what’s going on?” Heffner said. “When it comes to new music, they don’t want to do anything with it.”
At MSU, a school with about 10 times as many students as Calvin College, the response to that question comes mostly from the Residence Hall Association (RHA). MSU doesn’t have a full-time staff member in a position like Heffner’s. Instead, RHA, a student organization on campus, puts on concerts themselves. Anthony Carlo, the director of Special Events, and Michelle Dickinson, the director of Public Relations and Advertising, are both heavily involved in the concert scheduling process.
The RHA has faculty advisers that oversee their practices, but MSU doesn’t provide the organization with any assistance. “Usually with our shows, we just price them so that we can break even and that they’re low enough for students,” Carlo said. “The university doesn’t really give us money to lower prices or anything.”
The process to schedule a concert involves complicated behind-the-scenes work, starting with a street team that meets occasionally to brainstorm what bands to invite. Carlo also uses Pollstar.com to see how well a band’s shows have been selling, and ConcertIdeas.com to see band availability and costs. Then Carlo works with band agents, files an Activity Planning Form at MSU Student Services, coordinates rentals with Wharton Center if it’s a Wharton show, and leads the actual concert production with other RHA members and volunteers. Before the big night, Dickinson directs the show promotion with radio spots, newspaper advertisements and posters around campus. They also post information on the RHA Web site and the MSU Concert Connection group on Facebook .
[ballroom2]Tickets for shows at the Union Ballroom and Erikson Kiva are sold at Flat Black and Circular, a record store on Grand River Avenue in downtown East Lansing, whereas Wharton shows are sold on WhartonCenter.com . Carlo hopes to establish an online box office for RHA sometime soon.
RHA concerts are designed for MSU students, who get reduced or free concert admission, but all shows are open to the public. The Guster concert at the Auditorium on Sept. 30 cost $17.50 for students, and $25 for general public. The RHA sold about 1,000 tickets to the show. Smaller shows, like Mobius Band at the Union Ballroom on Oct. 28, usually cost $5 for students and $10 for the public. “Because we’re an on-campus student government, we try to at least give the students who live in the residence halls the opportunity to purchase the tickets first,” Dickinson said. Now, the RHA offers Internet pre-sales for members of the Facebook group at the Wharton Center site.
Professional writing junior Molly Tranberg grew up near East Lansing and has been attending concerts here for quite a while. Tranberg feels student ticket prices are reasonable, but she noticed a deceiving new aspect of the purchase system when she bought a ticket to the Jimmy Eat World show on Nov. 11. “They started putting a fee on the tickets this year, so the advertised price isn’t what it actually costs,” Tranberg said. The $2 restoration fee is added to every ticket, in addition to a $1.50 convenience fee online or a $7 phone order fee. However, shows not associated with Wharton have no extra fees.
The RHA’s role is a noble one, and their accomplishments are noteworthy considering their limited resources. “When we aren’t necessarily selling a show as well as we’d like, we have to keep in mind what our purpose is, because, again, we’re not here to make a profit. We’re here to just entertain the students,” Dickinson said. “Typically that means we can’t bring as many shows.” But the shows they do put on, especially in venues like the gorgeous Union Ballroom, can be very memorable. However, other than the street team, the RHA doesn’t have a detailed way of getting feedback from students; e-mail is their primary mode of gathering opinions about shows. [dickinson2]
Carlo and Dickinson do not necessarily feel at a loss for having limited support from the university. “I think the fact that they don’t have that much involvement in the process is beneficial to us,” Dickinson said. “Because we are independent, we get to make a lot of decisions. It’s a learning process for everyone. It’s the students choosing.”
It’s possible students not on the street team may feel that they have no input in the concert planning process. Even though Tranberg enjoys RHA concerts, she points out bands like Guster, Jimmy Eat World and Ben Folds are standards at MSU. “I’ve noticed that they do keep bringing back the same bands over and over again,” Tranberg said. “It doesn’t seem like there is much variety. They should try to encompass all the students’ musical tastes.”
Calvin College clearly has a strong filter on the swift flowing river of today’s music, and a progressive method of presenting that music to students. One is left to wonder why — with so many of mid-Michigan’s nicest venues, and such a large student body — MSU’s administration isn’t more concerned about being a conduit for music culture in the state of Michigan. Thanks to the RHA, a star will poke its head through the clouds on occasion, like in Ocotber 2003 when a then-obscure Death Cab for Cutie performed live at the MSU Union Ballroom. The makeshift stage and minimal lighting created an impermanent atmosphere that added to the musical fervor, and the sound echoed warmly on the dark red walls. The 400-odd people in attendance witnessed something extraordinary. Some would say that the ability of the university to provide that to students automatically denotes a responsibility. For now, it’s up to MSU student organizations to plan concerts on campus, and it’s up to MSU students to come out and show how badly they crave live music.

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