A Conversation with Programming Board

Leaders of Dartmouth's Programming Board look forward to increased engagement from the student body.

Leaders of Dartmouth’s Programming Board look forward to increased engagement from the student body.

On Friday night comes yet another Dartmouth tradition – the Programming Board concert on the Gold Coast lawn. This year’s event features Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco and Massachusetts-based rap duo Aer, and is likely to draw hundreds to Tuck Drive.

In anticipation of the event, key executives of Programming Board sat down with The  Review to discuss the upcoming concert, its behind-the-scenes operations, and its reputation on campus. Present were Executive Director Caroline Steffen ‘14, Concert Director Zachary Tannenbaum ‘17, Public Relations and Marketing Director Blaine Ponto ‘14, and Programming Director Chelsea Mandel ’15. The Programming Board serves as the primary student-run planning body here at the College.

Though most noted for its concerts, it also runs a series of other events throughout the year, including sponsored overnight trips to nearby cities and free barbeques. The organization has recently faced criticism for its handling of the College’s large-scale concerts, both from other organizations on campus and the student body at large.

However, the Programming Board retains a prominent place in the College’s budget. Steffen noted that “our funds come solely from the Undergraduate Finance  Ponto added that “students approve our complete budget.”

“We have around $300,000 a year,” said Steffen, pointing out that “it’s important to realize that our funds are also in charge of orientation, so we have a set amount we have to give to orientation each year. We give a certain amount to the Winter Carnival Committee, so they can put on all of the events during the weekend of Winter Carnival. We also have co-sponsorship funds, so those are funds that we’re allocating to other groups that are coming to us with proposals of events that they want to put on. We then break it down per term, and it more or less ends up that the rest of what’s left funds our events and concerts. Concerts are a huge portion, probably the largest chunk of our budget.”

Tannenbaum, when asked how he became concert director, responded that “close to the Time Flies concert, I volunteered to help out for set-up and take-down before and after the show, and I think at that point I was able to prove that I knew what I was doing and had a good idea of how a concert was run.” He also mentioned that he had a knowledge of concerts acquired secondhand from his father, the Director of Student Activities at Bates College.

He went on to explain the process through which they secured Lupe Fiasco and Aer and, last year, A$AP Rocky and Shaggy. “The initial process is that we create a list of all of the possible artists that we would love to see on campus, which can range from anything from as small as you can think of to Beyonce to Jay-Z. From there, we reach out to our middle agent, who’s not associated with any one artist. The company he works for is ConcertIdeas.com – we send them our list of names and they’ll send back the availability on the date that we have chosen as well as the price, and from there we’re able to narrow our list down. From that list, we select someone who we think is appropriate for campus.” At this, Steffen took care to note that “we conducted a survey on campus about the genre, not specifically the artist, and took that into consideration.” Ponto spoke of reflecting the “dominant musical taste” of campus, stating that rap and hip-hop is a “pretty standard go-to.”

The group did speak highly of indie rock group American Authors, who they had play in front of “about 400” at a concert at Alumni Hall in the winter. They collectively expressed exasperation at the rumor that the show cost $50,000, noting that the figure was, as Tannenbaum said, “not even close to the number… [it] was a lot less.” While they acknowledged criticisms surrounding the ticket allocation system, they noted that they preferred not to use tickets in the first place

As Steffen put it, “we wanted it to just be open before it reached capacity, but a couple of days beforehand, S&S as well as the administration were concerned with having a line that long forming in the Hop. Unfortunately, we had to go with a pretty last-minute ticket distribution idea.”

Steffen continued: “I spent a lot of time on the phone with the company after the fact… what happened is that if you signed on and tried to get tickets, but too many other people were also trying to get tickets, you were placed in this kind of purgatory where it’s sold out but not everybody has completed their transaction. You had to sit and wait until you were the next in queue, and a lot of people signed in when too many people had the tickets in their cart, and since they didn’t wait they didn’t get the next round of tickets…whereas people who signed on and waited or signed on a little bit later after the first wave had left were. For us that was completely unideal… but unfortunately there weren’t many avenues we could go down, because we had to limit the people there.”

Ponto said that “it ended up working out perfectly… it was pretty close to capacity;”

Tannenbaum added that “we didn’t have to turn anyone away.”

The group expressed excitement about the Friday night concert; when asked as to its total cost, Steffen replied that “we’re running at about $110,000 for this concert. That includes all the security we have to bring, Green Mountain, Safety & Security. It includes all of the artists, getting them here, making sure they’re comfortable when they’re here. It also includes production, which is a massive cost and one you have limited negotiation in. We also have to cover incidentals – people to cover the behind-the-scenes work.”

Yet a common complaint on campus has been the division of concert-planning efforts between Programming Board and Friday Night Rock, a student-run group that runs a series of smaller concerts throughout the year. Friday Night Rock – which has a yearly budget of 30,000, plus an approximate $10,000 from co-sponsorships – could plan better shows if it had a similar budget to Programming Board, critics say.

When the group was asked to respond to these criticisms, Steffen stated that “the difference is in scale. They’re phenomenal in bringing a certain type of concert to campus and [working with] a certain type of venue and we really admire their skill in that. Our skill is less about the nuances of the interesting artists and more about having a really awesome, huge-scale event. I think it’s a completely different skill set.”

Said Tannenbaum:”Our events are more focused towards all of campus. Friday Night Rock does events that are more small-scale.

Ponto pointed out that Friday Night Rock’s events are “more niche,” and that “unlike Friday Night Rock, where they might be in Sarner, where there’s already a stage, a lot of the setup done… we have to build one on Gold Coast!”

Key members of Friday Night Rock disputed many of the Programming Board executives’ points. General Manager Alexander Procton ’15 pointed out that “while it’s true that Friday Night Rock does not have experience setting up for large concerts, the only reason Programming Board does is that they have historically organized these events. We have many members who would be ready and able to learn the ropes of organizing a large concert.”

Venue Manager Jordan Kastrinsky ’16 agreed, noting that the group has “a dedicated number of about 20 people [with] many other who are peripherally involved,” and that their Underachievers show had “at least 500 people,” more than the American Authors concert.

Both took particularly vociferous exception towards Programming Board’s insinuation that their group tended to attract “nichey,” less well-known artists. Procton argued that “FNR spends less than 10,000 on every show and has consistently brought interesting, fresh acts to campus. With the sort of money that PB is able to spend, we would be able to get artists of a similar caliber as the ones which perform at other schools’ big weekends.”

Kastrinsky said that “to say that we don’t have the capability to pick out big names is false. Booking big acts vs. booking small acts is essentially the same thing – it’s contacting the right people. The only reason they put on these shows is because they have the money. If the money was transferred to us, we could be doing so much more for this campus. At a lot of other schools, they have concerts every week or every month – serious shows, too. Think the equivalent of Chance the Rapper.”

Kastrinsky continued: “We’re pointlessly splitting up the efforts between two groups. There’s one [concert organizer] already on campus, and there’s another one that’s a great organization and definitely has a place on campus, but one whose place is not to deal with our major concerts. We are a concert-exclusive group that deals specifically with managing and running shows. If Friday Night Rock had picked out the show, I can guarantee you it would not have been Lupe Fiasco and Aer. Lupe got critically destroyed at several Ivy League schools.”

Indeed, Lupe Fiasco – who has been nominated for 12 Grammy Awards – received negative reviews from his performance at Columbia University’s April 12 Bacchanal. David Ecker of The Columbia Spectator’s music blog Slightly Off Key noted that “unfortunately for all those attending Bacchanal, passion was painfully absent from Lupe Fiasco’s set. He seemed content to let his DJ serve as the evening’s main musical entertainment while selectively doubling only some of his most well-known lines. In some ways, it was like watching a cover band, except that in this case the record was doing most of the covering. Lupe seemed far more passionate when calling the female members of the audience ‘bitches’ and calling out Columbia students for being ‘trust-fund kids’ than he was while actually performing his songs.”

Said Kastrinsky: “the guy clearly is against what Dartmouth is. Though there’s nothing wrong with that, we just wouldn’t get him: he obviously doesn’t want to be here. On top of that, Aer introducing him is a major mistake – their vibes are incompatible. I’m sure that Lupe is not thrilled about Aer opening for him… [Programming Board] has no consideration for how a show’s supposed to go, and they asked for no input whatsoever.”

Outside of Friday’s concert, members of both Programming Board and Friday Night Rock, expressed frustration at the supposed popular campus perception that there is a paucity of non-Greek events on campus. Tannenbaum said that “on any given day you can watch someone open their blitz and see them go one-by-one and delete all the emails they just got from the listserv. There are options outside of Greek Life, and a huge problem is that people just aren’t looking.”

Members of Programming Board also pointed out a number of intrinsic difficulties they face in planning events, centering on the lack of a natural concert venue in Hanover. As they noted, an adequate hall is difficult to find, given that the athletic facilities are zealously guarded by the individual sports teams and places like Sarner Underground and Collis Commonground are generally too small to host large campus events. They also articulated a desire that the student body grows more engaged with Programming Board. Steffen mentioned, in a tenor echoed by the other executives, that “we love getting ideas – if there are things that people want to see coming to campus, we are very, very excited to hear about it…we urge them to try and come and work with us.” Hopefully the campus takes her up on her offer.