For the past two-and-a-half years, the University Programming Council (UPC) at the University of Massachusetts has toiled over the idea of charging students for the Spring Concert, held annually at the Mullins Center.
The Spring Concert, an event hosted by the UPC, typically features some of the most popular contemporary musical acts in a live concert at the Mullins Center.
For every year since the event began, a UMass student identification card has been payment enough to acquire a ticket to the Spring Concert, until this year. For the first time in the history of the concert series, students are being required to pay for their Spring Concert ticket, at the behest of the UPC, but not before much deliberation.
“Ten dollars, to me, is so worth paying for any type of concert, when you can see artists that are on the radio,” said UPC President Brianne Niego. “We did really struggle back and forth with it, because we do pride ourselves on throwing free events.”
With performers B.o.B., Pretty Lights and 3OH3!, the lineup for April 17’s Spring Concert does not include some of the legendary names like Jay-Z, Phish or Bob Dylan the campus has become accustomed to. However, a still-bruised economy and the rising asking prices of premium musical artists have reached a breaking point, forcing the UPC to examine its priorities.
“One of the problems is that we are a very spoiled campus,” said Lloyd Henley, associate director of the Center for Student Development and faculty advisor to the UPC. “We are used to such top-caliber artists, and so one of the things I said to UPC and the SGA is, ‘Something’s got to break.’”
Funding for the Spring Concert is based on the Student Activities Trust Fund (SATF), an allocation of the student activities fee paid each semester by every undergraduate UMass student, according to the SGA’s SATF explanation page on its website.
Any student enrolled in at least one credit hour in the fall 2010 or spring 2011 semesters paid $47 per semester towards student activities, which include guest speakers, sporting events, concerts and other University-run events, according to the Bursar’s Office Tuition and Fees page.
Last April 11, the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate Ways and Means Committee issued its recommendation for a budget allocation for FY2011 following months of detailed analysis and review.
This process involves taking the money accrued from student activities fees and distributing it among the 298 Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) and other campus programs, including the Spring Concert, also according to the SGA’s site.
The SATF allocations were then approved by the Center for Student Development (CSD), with this year’s budget showing an increased allocation of just over 14 percent to the Spring Concert Fund from last year.
The UPC, the most-funded RSO on campus, is allotted a $203,000 budget for this year’s Spring Concert (up from $190,000 in 2010) to cover the entire cost of the event, yet it’s still having difficulties curbing the rising costs of holding the event, according to Niego and Henley.
In deciding how to address the rising price of putting on a top-notch concert while staying within budget constraints, SGA Senator and Secretary of University Policy and External Affairs Dave Robertson believes it could be as easy as increasing the activities fees.
“What I think needs to happen is there needs to be an increase in the [Student] Activities Trust Fund,” said Robertson. “Right now, it’s $94 a [year] and that’s why most of the clubs are free and most of the events are free. But, in terms of national ranking, that’s like the 45th-lowest activities fee,” said the one-time SGA presidential candidate.
Robertson believes an increase of $6 per year would raise enough money to make every concert and activity on campus free, but perhaps not without controversy.
“If you raise the SATF six dollars, you get $120,000 more right off the bat, so it would have been a free concert,” he said. “But, also, some people complain, ‘I don’t really want to go to the concert. I don’t want to pay $6.’ They don’t realize that six dollars goes to a lot more than just the concert,” said Robertson.
This past year, fees did not increase and, according to Josh Davidson, chairman of the SGA’s Ways and Mean Committee, they should stay the same until the budget process is modified.
“I really feel that we can spend the money a whole lot better,” he said. “The way that we allocate money to groups can be much more effective. I would like to see those things happen before we raise the fees.”
The majority of the Spring Concert’s budget, separate from the more than $75,000 allocated to the UPC which goes to the dozen or so other events it puts on aside from the Spring Concert, goes to paying for the artists, Niego explained.
In 2010, Spring Concert tickets were sold out entirely to students, which was encouraging for the UPC, but also acted as a monetary ceiling, as Ludacris and the three other acts were paid a combined total of $130,000, leaving little room to spare for the other expenses.
In addition to the costs of the artists, the Spring Concert’s budget must account for a host of other expenses, including the agent fees, marketing and advertising, private and public security, and most of all use of the Mullins Center, which is owned by UMass but independently managed.
Above all, the selection of artists and their steep costs still acted as the biggest impediment to a free concert this year.
“The biggest issue we ran into this year was definitely the rising prices [of the artists],” said Niego. “It got to the point where [it was] like, was the price of the person worth the amount of votes, and then going over budget when they weren’t the top choices?”
The UPC issued one poll and one survey last year, administered via Campus Pulse, allowing students the opportunity to give suggestions for potential Spring Concert performers.
The first was a poll issued in June asking students to submit three suggestions for musical artists of their own choosing, said UPC Treasurer Wing Lau. Approximately 3,000 votes were collected, and the UPC researched each artist and their potential for creating an exciting Spring Concert.
“Anyone who was over a certain price, we had to immediately take out,” said Niego. “We also researched their history; if they are reliable at shows, [would] they just cancel for no reason, are they going to put on a good performance, or are they going to charge us an astronomical amount of money and play for 10 minutes because no one wants a show like that,” said Niego.
Then, a second survey was issued last October, consolidating the top vote-garnering artists into three categories, based primarily on each one’s price range.
Lau said 6,065 students participated in the final survey, and the final results were submitted on Nov. 17. The UPC and the CSD then evaluated the results to determine which artists it would pursue after assessing their affordability and availability.
“We looked at the votes and we basically went down the list in order,” said Niego. “So, we started with the top vote, we checked their pricing again, we went to our agents and put in a bid. We had to sit around and wait for the artists to get back.
“What we ran into this year is that a lot of people either were not touring this spring…or they were touring overseas already and couldn’t break off of it. So, we did have to go, somewhat down the list in certain aspects, but we were still able to get a lot of the top votes this year, which I know there’s a lot of argument about,” she continued.
With the help of Henley, the UPC then contacts its most coveted musical acts and puts a bid, or a formal request, that binds University to the artist, Niego explained.
During the time it takes for the artist to respond to the University’s request, other artists are busy booking conflicting shows, which makes the process a painstaking one.
“While we put in that bid, we cannot bid on other artists, just because we cannot pull a bid,” explained Lau. “Once a bid is presented, we cannot pull it out. Say we have an artist like Kid Cudi and then we have a backup, we cannot go to the backup until the first one says no.”
UPC executives then scratched names off of the final survey list one-by-one until the first column of artists was nearly eliminated, Niego and Lau said.
Kid Cudi cancelled his tour, Ke$ha was booked and MGMT was not touring, they said. Instead of continuing to the bottom of column one of the survey’s top vote-getters, UPC executives opted to start their search again from the top of column two, considering the most popular artists in this grouping received more overall votes than the least popular in column one.
Deadmau5 topped column two in the voting process and Niego and the UPC executive board had to decide whether or not to put a bid in, while other bids were still being processed.
“We came together and asked, since he is so expensive, do we want to continue to pursue him, but also had bids in for Kid Cudi, so if they both accepted, they would be way over budget,” she said.
In the month it took for Kid Cudi to respond to the UPC’s bid, Deadmau5’s asking price went up $25,000, and a similar circumstance occurred with B.o.B., she said.
Since he performed at last year’s Welcome Back Concert in the Fine Arts Center on the UMass campus for $5,000, the artist has upped his asking price tenfold to $50,000 to play at this year’s Spring Concert.
The $10 ticket price charged to students is more than most expected to pay, especially for those unfamiliar with the budget process. According to Henley, it was an inevitable consequence of the high demand for tickets and a lack of funds needed to compete with the competitive market.
“In the past, we used to get the outside world that used to come in and pay full price and that used to help cover. But now, students are now coming to the concert and we’re selling out [on] just students, and so we’re not having any income coming in,” he said. “So it’s a great thing that we’re selling out for students, but there’s no other money coming in to try to help pay those bills, and that’s what’s getting us.”
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.