UP CLOSE | The making of Spring Fling

The morning of Spring Fling 2008 dawned gray and drizzling. A steady rain fell into the early afternoon. And moments before Jamaican rapper Sean Kingston took the stage to open the concert, the rain stopped.

But as students stood in the mud of Old Campus, the seemingly miraculous upturn in weather went stale. Kingston’s delivery of his hit singles “Me Love” and “Beautiful Girls” fell flat. In many ways, Kingston’s performance sparked a chain of events that redefined the approach of Yale’s student government toward the annual concert. His performance — and the 2007 performance of rapper T.I. — drew criticism from the student body, prompting questions from Spring Fling organizers about how the acts were selected.

Out of these concerns grew the idea for this year’s Spring Fling Talent Search committee.

Over the course of five months, what began as a glorified focus group rose became an authoritative body, ultimately taking responsibility for the entire concert and ushering out five years of the Yale Student Activities Committee.

In the process, concert organizers ditched booking and production agent Pretty Polly, gathered corporate sponsorships and sketched a new philosophy for the concert. But whether those changes represent an improvement is an open question. Cost-cutting measures ultimately demanded countless hours of organizing time from committee members and kept Spring Fling’s lineup uncertain as the day of the concert drew near. In a recent interview, YCC President Rich Tao ’10 said it was time well-spent; but others are not so sure.

KINGSTON’S FALLOUT

It was only days after Kingston’s performance that Tao, just elected president of YCC, began to picture a new kind of Spring Fling.

“With the show, lineups should have better live acts, the day should be longer, and most importantly it should have the feel of a music festival as opposed to a conventional college show,” Tao said.

In that idea, Tao had an ally in Colin Leatherbury ’09.

Leatherbury had just come off a successful campaign for Yale Student Activities Committee Chair, one in which he promised greater transparency and a wider breadth of student opinion in the Spring Fling process. Leatherbury said he wanted to improve upon the 2007-’08 process, when he and then-Spring Fling co-chair Bobby Gibbs ’10 narrowed a field of 400 artists to about 20 names, which they then gave to YSAC for consideration.

Upon their return to Yale, Tao and Leatherbury put Spring Fling on the back burner, focusing instead on projects such as the Fall Show and the Student Search Committee for Yale College Dean. After all, Spring Fling planning had always been a second-semester affair.

But by September, a different kind of Spring Fling was on the horizon. Critical student reviews of 2008’s Spring Fling showed Leatherbury that other undergraduates, more plugged into Yale’s music scene than its student government, might have creative ways to impact the process.

Tao, too, was in the process of incorporating students-at-large into student government work, albeit through a different platform. In September, the YCC convened the Student Search Committee for Yale College Dean, intended to help find a replacement to now-Provost Peter Salovey. That experience, he said, showed him that incorporating the ideas of students from the undergraduate population could bring fresh perspective to student government.

But Tao said he understood that student government representatives might not be the best people to set Yale’s music agenda. So he branched out, recruiting students from campus bands, Volume Magazine and WYBC Radio to form the talent search committee.

“I’ll be the first to say that people elected to student government aren’t necessarily going to be the best concert planners,” Tao said.

The YCC brokered a deal with two graduate student organizations that September: the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and the Graduate Student Association. About one-in-four students who attend Spring Fling are usually graduate or professional students, Tao said, but those schools were only contributing $2,000 to the concert’s overall budget of about $160,000.

So YCC offered representatives of GPSS and GSA a seat at the table, and the two organizations agreed to chip in a combined $10,000 to help throw the concert.

WORK BEGINS

Before the committee’s first meeting in January, YCC released a Spring Fling survey, the first of three, to the student body. The January poll was a preliminary gauge of student opinion, asking respondents to rank music by genre.

The results broke with recent history: Students opted for a indie/alternative act — rather than a hip-hop act — as their top choice for headliner.

Balancing those surveys with the views of the talent search committee, which was supposed to act as a music-savvy third party, happened largely through trial-and-error. Committee members were not to pick acts based on their personal music tastes, nor were they to blindly follow student opinion.

“It’s much more of an art than a science, so we’re not going to say that we have some sort of algorithm,” said YCC Secretary Jasper Wang ’10, who also participated in the committee’s proceedings. “A lot of it came down to more nuanced touch and feel for what we believed could be a good lineup.”

The committee’s e-mail list began buzzing with discussion of potential acts hours after its first meeting adjourned. Committee members and YSAC representatives began exchanging links to YouTube clips. Silliman YSAC Representative Mathilde Williams ’11 said she ultimately spent “hundreds of hours” watching the videos to assess potential acts.

“Oftentimes my inbox was overwhelmed,” committee member Zack Fuhrer ’12 said. (Fuhrer is a staff reporter for the News.)

The videos helped detect potential “Sean Kingstons,” Williams said, artists who sound good in studio and have strong name recognition, but flop onstage. Through that initial screening process, the committee wrote off MGMT, T-Pain and Pitbull, among others.

The committee was looking for headliners and opening acts they felt would mesh well with student tastes, as revealed by the results of the poll. More than half of artists discussed at that stage of the process were either unavailable or too expensive, Leatherbury said. The committee devised a shortlist for a second poll, which would ask students to rank specific bands.

As conversations about potential acts proceeded, the committee started to question traditional methods of organizing the concert, such as the need for a booking agent.

The committee also brought organizations like Dwight Hall and the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership into the planning process. This year’s Spring Fling will feature free non-alcoholic beverages in exchange for students’ recyclables. Commemorative T-shirts will also be sold at the event, and the proceeds from the sales will go toward arts programs at a local school.

By this time, the division between the committee and YSAC was no longer clear. As talent search committee members took on more organizing work, they grew out of their narrow role as mere advisers to YSAC. YSAC members were initially invited to participate in the committee’s deliberations, Leatherbury said, but the committee gradually took on more authority.

“If YSAC is deferring its power to a Spring Fling committee, then its kind of like, what’s YSAC doing?” Committee member and WYBC radio president Sean Owczarek ’11 said.

GOING IT ALONE

In February the News reported that YSAC was not likely to rehire Pretty Polly Productions, the middle agent who since 2005 has dealt with booking acts, securing production companies and handling day-of-show logistics for Yale’s Spring Fling.

There were two reasons for the break, Tao said at the time: Committee members thought they could do Pretty Polly’s job for less than the agency would have charged Yale. If they could reduce administrative costs, committee members said, that would mean more dollars for what students really cared about: music. Based on Tao’s calculations, YCC booked the lineup for $20,000 to $32,000 less than what he asserts Pretty Polly would have charged YCC.

Howard Cusack, president of Pretty Polly and Yale’s on-site manager for Spring Flings 2005-2008, said he strongly doubts the accuracy of Tao’s statement. Cusack said he had heard YCC is paying $43,000 for the Decemberists and claimed he could have brought the band to Yale for $40,000 or even less. And regardless of the savings, Cusack said, Yale is missing out on the professional production services that his company provides.

After approaching artists and agents independently, Tao said concert organizers became convinced YCC could book the show for cheaper than Pretty Polly. Those alleged savings — plus the funding from graduate students and corporate sponsorships — helped patch holes in the Spring Fling budget left by the Yale College Dean’s Office’s decision to cut $3,000 from YCC’s annual budget.

The other reason for the change was simple, committee members said: Organizing the whole concert looked like it would be a learning experience for students to take on. (Plus it was fun, they said, albeit a bit hectic at times.)

In place of Pretty Polly, students became Yale’s agents: approaching artists, pitching Spring Fling as a venue for up-and-coming acts and haggling prices. Committee members also contacted production companies, looking for high-quality equipment at low cost. Tao said that they talked up the benefits of coming to Yale, pitching it as a musically progressive campus.

“Ultimately,” Tao said, “Yale students are going to be much better advocates for a Yale concert than some middle agent.”

But the break with Pretty Polly was contentious, YSAC representative and Spring Fling co-chair Natasha Sarin ’11 said. Weeks passed as committee members called artists across the country. The decision to break with the agency was never “really made,” Sarin said, describing students’ attempts to contact artists independently as “an experiment” that quickly gained momentum. Still, the committee was not willing to cut Pretty Polly out entirely until they had selected a lineup and assured themselves that they could secure lower prices.

Meanwhile, calls and e-mails from Pretty Polly went unanswered by the committee. If YCC had told Pretty Polly they were considering booking independently, Cusack said, Pretty Polly would have been open to renegotiating rates.

“If these people had called us and said look, we’re thinking we want to try and save some money and we want to bring you into the equation because we’re thinking of not using you, that would have been 100 percent welcome by us,” Cusack said.

Cusack said he had no “axe to grind” with the committee, but called their actions “unconsciously duplicitous.” He also disagreed with Tao that a middle agent had no vested interest in pitching Yale, saying they viewed their work with Yale as a long-standing “partnership.”

“It’s just an illustration to me of them thinking that they might be bigger than the process,” Cusack said.

Ultimately, Pretty Polly learned of YCC’s intentions from production companies that usually contract with Pretty Polly.

“To attempt to go behind my back to our vendors — and you don’t think these people are going to call me?” Cusack said.

SPRING FLING SHAKES OUT

This year’s concert will cost YCC between $150,000 and $160,000, roughly what YCC spent on last year’s Spring Fling. Tao claims the committee’s decision to book without a middleman saved money, but declined to say exactly how much the committee saved per act. Contracts with artists are confidential, Tao said.

Cusack maintains that Yale only landed the Decemberists because of Pretty Polly. The agency booked three shows for the band at New England colleges on April 24, 25 and 26, Cusack said.

“The reason you’re getting the Decemberists is because I’m the one that brought them into the area,” Cusack said. “They wouldn’t have come for just one show.”

Singer-songwriter Colin Munroe, a relative unknown on the music scene, joined the lineup much later than the other four acts. Leatherbury said Wale’s agent offered to bring Munroe along for no charge in an effort to promote the up-and-coming artist.

And with two weeks to go before the concert, even the finer details have been sorted out. YCC has hired a production manager, who will coordinate all technical aspects of the production, including the erection and removal of the set from Old Campus. Members of YCC, YSAC and the committee will help set up equipment and lighting the day before the show.

Tao said he does not anticipate any kinks. That said, he is still nervous about the upcoming show.

“The anxiety, though, doesn’t stem from the fact that I think something will go wrong on the day of,” he said. “It really stems from excitement, the fact that this has taken so many hours and so much time and so much energy, that it’s finally coming together.”

Beyond the production of the event, there is the music itself to be nervous about. Fling organizers are crossing their fingers that the five-band lineup will satisfy the music tastes of most, if not all, students. Tao said he is hoping students will know “two or three” of the acts and will “really like one.”

ONE YEAR FROM NOW?

Whether this year’s Spring Fling will lay the foundation for planning 2010’s concert is uncertain. Planning will likely begin earlier next year, committee members said. Tao explained that this year’s late start forced committee members to put in hundreds of hours in the two months leading up to the concert.

Next year, the YCC Concert Committee will fully replace YSAC, rather than working alongside it. All of YSAC’s traditional duties not associated with Spring Fling will be absorbed by the YCC. The new concert committee will be overseen by the YCC executive board and will take sole responsibility for Spring Fling.

This change to the YCC constitution, Leatherbury said, was largely a result of the success of the Spring Fling Talent Search Committee — which had unintentionally eliminated the body it was conceived to advise.

The new committee, comprised of a still-undetermined number of YCC representatives and students-at-large, will begin planning Spring Fling in September. Leatherbury said he hopes the committee establishes clear lines of communication among Yale, artists and student organizers. This year, Leatherbury said, some artists’ agents were contacted five or six times by different committee members, leaving artists confused about which to call back.

Leatherbury noted that when he found himself in the position of Spring Fling Chair last year — during his first year on YSAC — he realized there were no guidelines for Spring Fling. This year, he and Tao have tried to overhaul the system, hoping their changes become institutionalized.

But neither Tao nor Leatherbury will be present on next year’s executive board, so the decision to follow this year’s template rests in other hands. That is precisely why Tao is so anxious for Spring Fling: Student opinion of this year’s concert will play a large role in determining the committee’s future. If initial student reaction to the 2009 lineup is any indication, however, there are clear skies ahead.

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