For all the praise he has received, Vice President for Programming Aaron Cohn is arguably the most critiqued member of Binghamton University’s Student Association. Students are quick to judge who Cohn brings to campus, but the process is more in-depth than they may think. Cohn sat down with Pipe Dream to discuss what goes into planning a campus concert and why he probably can’t get Lady Gaga.
What is step one of booking a concert?
Step one is realizing that the whole process is like putting together a puzzle on top of a fan because the pieces don’t want to go together. I think that’s a good metaphor for it. Basically, step one is a lot of back and forth between finding out who is available. There’s a lot of internal brainstorming among SAPB [Student Association Programming Board] people and there’s a middle agent, which is www.concertideas.com. They tell us who is available, but we wouldn’t be doing our due diligence if we didn’t inquire about certain people, like Lady Gaga or Jay-Z. But the fact is, they’ve flat out said they won’t do colleges and that’s just what happens.
Once we find who’s available, it is crucial to gather data. The Google Doc surveys have been extremely successful because, for whatever reason, a third of the campus population fills that out. We take that more seriously than anything else. We get around 3,400 respondents back and about half of them leave comments. We read every single one of them.
So how do these people end up on your list?
People end up on the list based on availabilities and booking popularity on Concert Ideas. We also have 20 schools that we think have really good programming boards: Cornell, Northwestern, University of Connecticut. We kind of watch the things that they do.
Who did more people want?
I don’t know if I can go into that here. Just because the survey winner isn’t the only [factor]; there are still a lot more factors that we look at. The next huge obstacle is getting dates, which are hard to come by due to the multitude of events in the West Gym and the Events Center. We get, every semester, maybe two dates in each building. The times when we did our biggest shows — Drake, Foo Fighters, Green Day — were pure luck. On all of those shows, the artists were going from New York City to the Midwest or vice versa. Usually there’s one date where a performer happens to have an off day and is on tour sort of coming through our area, and if that doesn’t match up with the dates the Events Center gives us, we can’t make it happen. That’s one of the most frustrating things.
We also need to take ticket prices into consideration. With us, we have a 7,000-person facility and college students don’t have a ton of disposable cash and neither does the community. We’re a small market. There’s a total of $50,000 in fees, between stage, physical facilities and police officers paid $60 an hour. We need to have 10 of them for six or seven hours that day. That’s a lot of money right there. The stage, the labor, hospitality costs, costs of the middle agent. So that means we use ticket sales just to pay for the artist.
The most we can pay an artist for an Events Center show is between $125,000 and $200,000 when a lot of these artists are walking away with $1 million for Madison Square Garden. Luckily, we have built up somewhat of a reputation about being really good to artists, which is why this fall we were one of two colleges on the Drake tour. A lot of artists have had such bad experiences at colleges that they just won’t go.
What kind of experiences?
It’s a difference of working with students versus professionals, that’s just the way it is.
What’s next in the process?
You need the artist to be willing to come here, you need the students to want the artist to come here, you need a date at the Events Center and the price needs to be reasonable because students aren’t going to pay $150 a ticket. You also want the tour to line up because most aren’t interested in doing a one off. If you hit a big concert, that’s catching lightning in a bottle. And if you can’t catch lightning in a bottle, there are still those mid-level acts that are plan B and are still good.
When everything lines up, you submit an offer and the most important thing is the total price that you think you can get the artist for. That’s what having a middle agent helps with, getting industry rates for the artist. You never want to overpay. Then after that, the artist will either accept, deny or come back to us and ask for more money. After that happens, say we book an artist, the rest of that is just coordinating.
Would there ever be no concert?
You don’t want to overpay, there’s always bargain basement acts that you could get. In the concert industry, it’s not hard to spend money, but obviously we want to give Binghamton students significantly better shows than our competing colleges.
Would you consider UConn, Northwestern competing?
I would consider them to be peer schools that also run a very tight ship.
Do you know what the date is yet for the spring concert?
There are two dates we’re looking at right now. We’ve been turned down by a lot of the top names, not all, but a fair number. It has been a particularly frustrating semester. Also, with our two spring breaks this year, I know it’s great for students, but it makes getting dates and facilities that much harder.
Are you looking at both comedians and musicians?
Do you think comedians are more successful?
It totally depends on the comedian and the music act. They’re just so different. We call other colleges that performers have been at and ask how [certain people’s] performances were. The winner of the survey is the biggest determinant, but we still want to know how well the performer puts on a live show.
Have you heard anything about Spring Fling?
Again, we’re struggling. I think we may be close on a breakthrough soon.