Behind the scenes with AB Concerts

Elyssa Goodman

You’ve arrived early, managed to squish yourself to the front row and hold onto the barricade—nobody is going to move you because this concert is going to be awesome. In a couple minutes, the lights will dim, the band come on stage amidst a roar of cheering and the show will begin. But for committee of AB Concerts, three to five months of planning has just ended.

AB (Activities Board) Concerts is actually a division of Student Senate, according to advisor Elizabeth Vaughan in Student Activites, and was “created to bring performers to campus for social opportunities,” bringing students out of the library and computer clusters and into Weigand Gym or onto the Cut for concerts. The organization is made up of and entirely run by students, and it is this group of students that decides what artists will play the two big shows of the year—the fall concert, usually in mid-November, and the spring concert, during Spring Carnival.

Leading this group are the co-chairs of AB Concerts, junior Electrical and Computer Engineering major Warren Pryde and junior Computer Science major Zach Murphy, and their job is no easy feat. There’s a lot that goes into choosing an artist to play the fall and spring shows. The biggest factor, Pryde says, is cost: “People don’t realize how expensive it is to put on a concert. We have a lot of money, but it’s not a lot in the music industry.” The organization’s budget for the entire year is approximately $90,000 for both the fall and spring show. An act like one heard on the radio would cost upwards of $100,000, production costs not included.

So a lot of the artists that AB Concerts chooses to perform are understandably not Top 40 artists (past choices include Broken Social Scene, Blackalicious, Spoon, The Roots), mostly because they are more affordable. When assembling the fall or spring show (which always starts right after the other ends) the organization works with Pretty Polly Productions, an agency that arranges college concerts and other events, to find out what artists fall within their price range and who are touring or promoting themselves at the time. After seeing this list of artists, the list is pared down further to those that can feasibly come to Pittsburgh. Pryde says, “There’s a very specific date for the spring, and two or three in the fall, so sometimes tours don’t work out.” That is, an artist’s tour may not fall in the time when they’d ideally perform on campus. “For college shows specifically,” Pryde says, “the date has to work out and so does the routing through the area.” Routing refers to an artist’s trajectory on their tour. For example, if an artist is travelling from New York to Ohio, Pittsburgh would be in their routing. If they’re coming from Seattle where they’re hanging out at home to do a “one off” show (a one time engagement, off the tour circuit), routing doesn’t work out. And routing is important because it can affect whether or not the organization has to pay for airfare and rent equipment, which can get quite costly, upping the cost of an artist by at least $5,000.

Once the organization figures out what bands fit into the ideal cost and routing logistics, Pryde, Murphy, and the AB Concerts Committee (which anyone can join at anytime) produce a list of three to five bands feasible bands. This list is also based on a survey of Carnegie Mellon students of what genres they’d like to see. AB Concerts does their best to survey campus as to what genres hold the most interest, but even so it often comes under fire for selecting more obscure artists. Advisor Vaughan says, “They could do more to survey [the campus], but how do you do that? It’s a fair critique, but not intentional. It’s more of a practicality.” She continues, “They have to serve the entire campus community with two shows a year.” Pryde explains that the organization tries to balance out the genres with the fall and spring shows: “We don’t want to have the same concert twice,” meaning that if fall is for more of a hip-hop crowd, spring will be for more of a rock crowd, and vice versa.

After this list of three to five artists has been produced, the AB Concerts Committee votes on which artist is the top choice. Admittedly, the students that comprise the 40-50 students on the AB Concerts Committee do have similar taste in music, liking more indie-fied artists in both hip-hop and rock. “We’re not exclusive,” Pryde explains, “though we do tend to draw a crowd that is more passionate about music – people who will listen to a whole album as opposed to a single song. There is a lot of indie rock, indie hip-hop, indie scene [interest] in general, not pop. People are actively searching for music, not just taking what’s given to them on the radio.” Pryde continues, “The people on the committee have taken the initiative to join, put forth the effort. Because they’re actively pursuing [by participating in the organization], their opinions get more weight.” But if students have complaints or suggestions, they’re more than welcome to bring them forward, “We’re always open to hearing, but the best way is to be proactive and join.” Pryde encourages students to be open-minded, that just because they haven’t heard of an artist doesn’t mean they won’t like them, and to learn about the work that goes into choosing an artist. “We can’t satisfy everyone all the time, but we do our best with what we have. After all it is a free concert and, Pryde says, “you have no reason not to come.”

The artist the committee selects as top choice is then contacted and offered a bid, a document that tells the price, location, and expiration date of the offer. The bid is legally binding, so AB Concerts can only send out one bid at a time. “It can be really frustrating. It’s a waiting game,” Pryde says. Each bid might take two to three weeks to respond, but sometimes none of the original three to five bands are available. Then the committee has to infer what artists are similar to the original list, and would be available. Eventually, when an artist agrees to play, the contract process begins. “Zach, Liz, and I all sit down and we dissect the contract line by line,” Pryde says, and soon the three come up with what works for each party (the organization itself and the artist). Then Carnegie Mellon officials have to sign off on the contract, which takes a while because it legally binds the university to the artist. Everything has to go smoothly or it’s no go.

After the contract is signed, the organization begins publicizing the concert and goes into production mode. They have to rent a stage, equipment, lighting, sound and sometimes, as in the case of this past fall’s RJD2/Flosstradamus concert, turntables (the organization actually had to scour all of the east coast for the specific Technic 2 turntables that the artists requested, or they wouldn’t play). “There are things you wouldn’t think of. Half of what we spend putting the concert together is spent on production, making sure the equipment they need is there,” Pryde says. This also includes the artists’ riders, or list of demands. One is a technical rider, which can say exactly how their stage is to be set up (called a stage plot), the amount of kilowatts they need for sound, the kind of equipment they want, and more. There is also a more general rider which might state what the artist wants in the green room. For The Roots, the Carnival ’08 band, this included organic soap, mint-flavored toothpicks, and Evian. There are limits to this list, however, as the university will not allow AB Concerts to purchase alcohol for the artists with university money and, Vaughan laughs, “Some universities fall all over themselves to find the green M&Ms, but we’re not doing that.”

Finally, on the day of the show, everyone on the AB Concerts Committee is doing something, whether it’s working the green room where the artists hang out, taking tickets or checking wristbands, working line control, crowd control, merchandise, and setup.

“But then the doors open, everyone shows up and hopefully you have an awesome concert. And you just enjoy it,” says Pryde.

AB Concerts is all about students taking the lead. The agent at Pretty Polly Productions is usually more involved with other universities, but in true Carnegie Mellon fashion, the students choose to take on the work themselves. Also, at one point or another, the artist knows that students are putting together the concert. “We do a lot more work than at other schools,” Pryde says. It can be a difficult process, as Pryde and Murphy are usually “working through [school] breaks. You don’t really have a deadline, just varying levels of stress.” In the end though, Pryde says, “It’s all worth it to see the work you’ve done,” and to be able to go out onstage and introduce the band and get even that tiny bit of recognition.

“And now we present to you…”