When you picture someone booking bands, you think of a hardened pro, wheeling and dealing and probably smoking a cigar.
But the people booking one of the state's busiest music venues are in their teens and early 20s, with little to no business experience.
The student union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosts more than 160 music programs, 35 weeks a year. At both Union South and the Memorial Union, students handle the nuts and bolts of concert promotion through the music committee of the Wisconsin Union Directorate (WUD). It's a do-it-yourself operation on a massive scale.
This school year, the committee has already booked such acts as Dethklok, Brother Ali, Dillinger Four, Black Lips, Murder by Death and Tea Leaf Green. In March, they're bringing in the Kyle Mann Combo, El Guante and the Felice Brothers (see sidebar).
It's rare to find a student union that operates this way. "I know of no other union in the world that books the quantity and/or variety of musical acts," says Ralph Russo, director of the Wisconsin Union's theater and cultural arts. "Most [other unions] have student activities boards that may book four or five acts a year for events like homecoming, end-of-school bashes, etc., and that's it."
Just as rare is the level of professionalism WUD requires. At other schools, Russo says, "Most of these groups are provided significant resources to book bands and have little need or concern for being fiscally responsible. The WUD music committee is held to a high standard for both artistic selection and fiscal accountability. No other schools, to my knowledge, even come close."
From rap and rock to jazz and bluegrass, the work of finding bands looks like controlled chaos.
"You walk into our meetings and someone's laughing in a corner," says Amy Sawyers, a Union staffer who serves as the music committee's paid adviser. "Someone else is debating whether metal or hardcore is the genre where people get along better in a crowd. It's a creative, nonlinear committee; people of all different personality types.
"At times it's disorganized. But everyone comes together in their passion for music."
While the university is in session, the committee books several acts a week at eight campus venues, including Union South's Club 770 and the Memorial Union's Rathskeller, Great Hall and, in the summer, Terrace. The committee sometimes books the UW's Music Hall, the Union Theater and the private Majestic Theatre.
Regular performance series include Behind the Beat, Cork 'n' Bottle and Hot Summer Nights. From time to time there are also music festivals. Most performances are free. Until recently the music committee handled open-mike performances, which continue under the Union Directorate's Performance Committee.
There are about 30 active music committee members. They individually seek out acts and then serve as advocates before the full committee. If you have a favorite group, you can argue for it. In fact, some join the music committee to do just that.
"Anyone can join our committee," says Sawyers. "You don't have to be a student, but you do at least have to be a Union member. And don't be shy. The thing people don't realize is, if you want to see certain bands, we have all the resources to train you."
Programming may start as self-interest. "But we also have to cater to the broader Madison public," says Quoctrung Bui, the committee's student director, an economics major from the Milwaukee area. He's helped program acts like David Bazan, Bishop Allen, Jose Gonzalez and Girl Talk.
"It's not easy," says Russo. "They are charged with providing music that is of interest to a very large and diverse community."
'We can be unpleasant too'
If the committee is interested in a proposed act, they make contact with an agent through a band's webpage or via Pollstar, a magazine and website that serves as a sort of central clearing office for performers.
"A lot of these agents we know by first name, for better or for worse," says Bui. "Some of them aren't always nice."
Good agents try to get the most money for their acts. And most agents see student programmers, at least at first, as untrained suckers.
"That's because we're affiliated with a college," says Bui. "They assume that we have more money and that we function differently from the average promoter. Most of the time that's not true."
As new committee members work with agents, a relationship develops. That doesn't mean the adversarial atmosphere disappears, however.
"Sometimes we can be unpleasant too," says Bui. "It's a two-way street. Everyone's looking out for their own interests and trying to make the most money for themselves, or in our case, save the most money. So that's where unpleasantness can occur."
After the details are worked out, an "avail" is submitted to the committee, and they vote on it. An "avail" is the date of a band's availability - just one example of an entire vocabulary of showbiz terms that members have to master in order to wheel and deal with agents.
"If the avail passes, we'll go back to the agent to confirm the date," says committee member Khoa Le, an undergraduate in the art department who's helped book Broken Social Scene, Freezepop, Juiceboxxx and Terrior Bute. The committee operates by majority rule, and the student director has veto power.
"And then people come to the shows," Le says.
Well, it's not quite as simple as that. The original committee advocate continues to help oversee the performance process, including payment, sound checks, introduction, setting up and taking down equipment: "loading in" and "loading out."
Even on the freewheeling Terrace, attendance is tallied. Afterward, the committee reviews the acts. Part of the evaluation is an imperfect calculus that takes into account audience numbers, artistic value and revenue - which might sound odd, given that most performances are free.
"It shouldn't be the sole reason the music committee exists, but there's no denying that the Terrace over the summer generates a lot of revenue," says Sawyers.
The dollars come from sales of food and beverages. But the true bottom line isn't about the profit margin for the buildings housing the venues. The band's fee, fame and the number of people who come are all factors.
"We're trying to find value," says Bui. "One gauge of how good a show is is not how much it costs but what kind of draw it brings. Typically we feel around $5 a head is high." Around $3 a head is preferred.
The music committee shares some of the proceeds from food and beverage sales. It also receives grants from friendly corporations, particularly beverage distributors. The balance of its annual capital comes from Union memberships, which for students is included in their semester segregated fees. Annual music committee expenditures roughly total $100,000, including publicity and office expenses. That figure can wax and wane depending on the programming desires of the ever-changing committee makeup.
"This committee in particular wants to book bigger-name bands," says Sawyers. And those are more expensive.
Relief and ecstasy
One of the directorate's goals is to teach professional skills, including leadership.
"The WUD music committee provides UW students a unique opportunity to work inside the actual music business," says Russo. "The experience is often an entry point into the music business as a career, and many have gone into the field."
Bui has considered it. "I would like to, but it's hard to get your foot in the door," he says, already evidencing a worldly outlook. He's planning on graduate school instead.
Bui is paid a nominal amount as the committee's student director. The rest are volunteers. It's all so much work, going nose to nose with agents and arguing with fellow committee members. Then there are all the less-than-glamorous details of readying and closing up a venue. Is it worth it?
"It verges on relief and ecstasy when you see people come to the shows," says Bui. "You're really surprised to see the number of people who show up, or you're surprised that people show up at all. It is such an abstract thing when you're doing the work and you're communicating with the agent. It doesn't become concrete until you actually sit down and see the musicians play and see the crowds all enraptured. They're there because of all the effort that you put in."
They've got the power
"Students become professionals when treated like professionals," says Michael Goldberg about the Wisconsin Union Directorate.
Goldberg served for many years as the director of the Wisconsin Union Theater and is now the executive director of the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford, Ill. He credits the Wisconsin Union's founding director, Porter Butts, with investing students with responsibility and authority. "That is in fact the Wisconsin Union Idea," he says.
Goldberg knows of many former students at the WUD's Music Committee who went on to work professionally in arts and entertainment. They include:
Janice Mayer, who worked for Columbia Artists Management. She later ran her own agency for opera singers and was instrumental in the development of the New York Festival of Song.
Miriam Boegel, who ran the artist series at Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University.
Renee Logee, general manager of he Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Robert Jacobson, for many years editor of Opera News Magazine.