November 20, 2008

The Producers

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Imagine it’s 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. You’re still drunk from last night, you’ve got work and laundry piling up and it’s not even light out. Yet here you are at Barton Hall, chugging coffee and assembling steel trusses, heavy-duty rigging for light fixtures and scaffolds into a stage. You’re making signs that say: ‘Backstage Band Area’ or ‘Bathrooms Here,’ or running errands to Wegmans to buy your guests of honor their organic bottled water of choice. A truck breaks down on its way to Ithaca, so the stage you need to have assembled by 3 p.m. won’t be ready for a few more hours. But the show must go on — will go on, at 6 p.m. Screw how early it is, it’s time to get to work.
This doesn’t sound like most of our lives (we don’t know about you, but we tend to be in a deep coma at 6 a.m. on Sundays) but it is the life of a Cornell Concert Commission member the day of a show. The Cornell Concert Commission (CCC) is unique from other schools’ concert programming boards. Patrick Maloney ‘09, CCC outgoing executive director, explains that it’s “because we do everything ourselves — we’re security, stage crew, hospitality, etc. Other schools are usually just a selection committee but we see it through.” Working the day of the show is a big job: a veritable 22 hours that can include anything from setting up the stage to helping the group get back on their bus, to working the front concert pit, to keeping the audience from disturbing the artists. And yet it’s a job met enthusiastically: while the CCC has about 80 members in their general board, “Not everyone even gets the crew they want,” says Mike “Tex” Garrett ’09, outgoing production director. The full-day crews are, in fact, the quickest to go.
For those of us concert-going, not-throwing, folk, it’s easy to criticize the artists that the CCC brings to campus. In a survey* of 24 students asking how they felt the CCC represented their tastes, five responded positively that they felt the CCC did represent their musical tastes (“amaziiiiiiiing,” was one response), and six responded that the concerts “somewhat did.” Eight, however, felt that their tastes were not fairly represented; they responded that the concerts were “too alternative,” “not internationally varied enough” or “too mainstream, not enough R&B.”
In fact, Joshua Mintz, ’09 responded to our survey: “Stop catering to the EMO / Rap crowd. No more shitty rappers or kids crying about losing their girlfriends.”
Why is it that the Concert Commission is criticized for bringing certain genres of music to Cornell? No doubt, Concert Commission attracts a certain type of person with a certain taste in music. “I think the term you’re looking for is hipsters,” half-jokes Maloney. At the meetings we attended there were few minorities among the general body. Regardless of their membership, the CCC tries their best to bring a diverse range of music to campus, as per their constitution. Some genres, however, are notably missing from discussion: country, Christian rock, international artists.
The CCC is aware of these criticisms. “You know we really have to consider the difference between our taste in music,” a Concert Comission member said at the meeting we attended, “and popular taste.” Maloney responds with an open invitation, “Whenever people tell me things like that, I always say, come to the next meeting. Come bring your suggestions. But they never do.” Notably, in our ad-hoc survey, when asked if they would consider joining the CCC in order to voice their opinions, all but one responded “No, sorry, too busy.”
Regardless of outside judgment, their selection process is pretty democratic. After assembling a long list of requests from the general board, Joe Scaffido, staff, (CCC’s faculty advisor) and industry agents send a list back of bands that are within price range, etc. The executive board checks which names are on both lists and presents them to the general board for a vote. The names are ranked, offers go out — and then it becomes an issue of practicality. “We rarely, if ever, get the first few names on our list … There’s definitely a push [from competing agents], and a pull.”
Ultimately, the decision of which artists to bring to Cornell relies on a mixture of luck, funds and consensus. Some bands aren’t available, some are too expensive and some just won’t come to Ithaca. It’s nothing new to any of us that we all live in the middle of nowhere — and middle of nowhere is not where most bands want to play. As if coming to Ithaca weren’t enough: no liquor is allowed on campus, so any musician who requests liquor is out, as well as any who may “smoke a blunt and back flip into the audience.”** Bailey Hall, specifically, is notoriously stringent about the artists who can perform there. Furthermore, Barton’s availability is a limiting factor. “The reason why we always get Sundays is because track meets and ROTC get Barton on Saturdays. We literally are at the bottom of the list,” says Garrett.
The benjamins are the biggest issue. About $12 of each student’s activities fee (undergrads pay about $200) goes to the CCC and $5 from the graduates, totaling about $180,000 per year, according to Liz Rapoport ’09, outgoing finance director. Though it seems like a decent sum, this is portioned out over at least two to three shows per semester. This is different than schools like Brown, who throw about 90% of their budget into Spring Weekend — their (pretty kick ass) version of Slope Day.
Regardless, Concert Commission has been successful in using their budget (and selective taste) to grab up-and-coming artists before they get big. Upperclassmen are always proud to remember having seen Kanye right after his release of “Late Registration,” and before he reached mega-stardom. In fact, the CCC is unique in the number of acts they try to bring to Cornell — most schools spend biggest for spring weekend, and have a few small shows, if any, during the rest of the year. (Also, Slope Day board is not a part of the CCC, as incestuous at times as they may seem.) It is an interesting question though — what would our music scene be like if we only had Slope Day?
For all of the obstacles and surprising amount of logistics they deal with, the CCC still manages to enjoy themselves. And honestly, how could they not, when tasks include picking artists up from the airport, taking them hiking in the gorges or partying with them after a show?
Mandy Hjellming ’09, outgoing hospitality director, agrees. “Essentially, our purpose is twofold: first to provide a variety of concerts to the Cornell Community, and the internal purpose is to give our general body the chance to know what it’s like to put on a concert.”

* Survey was conducted in Olin Library at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. Only 20 some-odd people responded. We recognize this may not be a genuine cross-section of the student body.

** Which sucks, because we would love to see that happen in Bailey.