Phoenix says planning was a real big problem

Posted on December 03, 2012 in News
By Nathan Mooney

The Portland Phoenix has recently put the Student Activities Committee –– a nonexistent group at USM –– on their list of “who’s done Maine wrong this year” in a recent issue.
The paper calls the column part of their “first-ever turkeys issue, calling out Maine people and institutions who committed acts most fowl.”

The headline pinpoints the Student Activities Committee for failing to react appropriately to some of the issues that arose in planning the event. The article also blames the senate in part for the circumstances surrounding September’s Reel Big Fish show, calling Reel Big Fish “obviously washed up” and citing a student op-ed letter published in The Free Press to characterize the public sentiment as increasingly opposed to a large-scale show. The letter, in an issue last April, suggested an alternative use of the money to pay local acts for shows at USM throughout the school year. However, at the point when his letter was published, the funds had already been allocated for one large, national concert. In reality, the student senate had very little involvement in the concert planning process after they allocated the funds for a spring concert. The planning for the concert began as a result of a student activity fund surplus of $80,000 and a vocal student interest in hosting a spring concert.

“We very rarely turn down students for funds,” said student senator Andrew Kalloch. “Nobody else was using the money.” The initial request for funding was primarily sponsored by the Gorham Events Board and co-sponsored by multiple student groups like the Portland Events Board and Greek Life –– though the GEB was the only group that ended up contributing to the planning and execution of the show after the initial funding approval.

Kalloch thought the Phoenix’s choice to include a student group in a list otherwise populated by businesses and public figures was “inappropriate and unprofessional.”
Both Governor Paul LePage and Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald made the list for their gaffes this year, along with companies like TD Bank for their recent loss of confidential data that affected many Maine customers. Kalloch took particular issue with a portion of the Phoenix column that warned against the possibility of “education reform reactionaries” who might view the event as a chance to move toward private, for-profit universities.
“That implies that the administration had anything to do with this process,” said Kalloch. “It was the students.” Kalloch recognizes that the turnout for the concert was less than ideal, but notes the “huge learning curve” in planning a concert, especially as a student group. The Phoenix did not immediately respond to a request for comment made by the Free Press.

Delaney Kenny is a sophomore business administration major who took on much of the work in planning the concert as a member of the GEB. Although student interest had initiated the process, Kenny found that it was lacking as the real work started moving forward.
“We weren’t getting enough feedback,” she said of the decision making process. “Our committee of students should’ve been at least 30.”

The 14 students involved in the planning were in charge of choosing an act as well as the marketing for the concert. The final decision of what act to choose was ultimately made by two students during the summer, after the concert was pushed back from its original April date. By that time, the options were few. Band availability and budgeting realities narrowed the final selection of possibilities to four groups. Reel Big Fish was chosen because of the amount of positive feedback that the GEB had received on the quality of their act from other schools. Kenny said they wanted the group that would “bring the best energy, who would focus on giving a great performance.”

Dan Welter, staff advisor to the GEB and Coordinator of Student Activities, oversaw the students’ efforts in planning the concert. Since the bulk of concert planning ended up happening over the summer, he witnessed first hand the difficulty of coordinating a big event outside of the school year. Once the contract was signed with Reel Big Fish on August 8, the GEB had little more than a month to market the concert and make physical preparations for a show. Welter knew that his group would need to make a very visible effort right out of the gate once classes resumed in September to ensure a strong turnout for the show. However the first week of classes saw little exposure for the event on either USM campus.
“I’ll take some ownership,” said Welter of the marketing delays. “I did not follow up adequately with my students.”

That follow-up happened at the first meeting of the GEB, after classes resumed this fall. At that point, Welter said, the marketing efforts really started in full force. “We ran the printer until it was bowlegged.” Due to an issue with the first run of tickets printed, tickets for the event were unavailable until seven days before the show, and only five days before in Portland. At the end of the day, 213 tickets were sold and an additional 53 were given away by WMPG and other student organizations. That number is well below the attendance estimates of 600 to 1,000 made before the concert. Welter is aware of the factors that contributed to low ticket sales but makes sure to note that the concert was “never a profit making venture.”

Student senator Sam Harmon, senior engineering major and current senate treasurer, can confirm that profit was not initially a part of the equation. “They wanted to do it for free,” Harmon said of the first request for funding. He said that it was last year’s student senate that advocated for a ticketed show in an effort to start an economically sustainable concert model at USM. After requesting that change, the student senate was uninvolved in the process until the fall when they assisted with word of mouth marketing efforts and the physical setup of the show. The use of student labor to set up the stage and equipment ended up cutting several thousand dollars off the final cost, according to Welter. Harmon took care to point out the high quality of the show that Reel Big Fish put on, despite low attendance. “I had a great time,” he said.
Patrick May is the president of Portland Music Foundation, a non-profit, volunteer organization that, according to their website, “exists to organize, nurture and promote the unique and emerging music industry of Portland.” The group serves as a sort of yellow pages for Portland’s burgeoning music scene by connecting local groups and musicians in the area. May personally has a passion for bringing people together to support local music. “We want people to think of Portland like they think of Seattle,” he said – because it is a city with a very identifiable and successful music scene.

May was disappointed that he did not hear about the Reel Big Fish concert before the event happened. His organization is particularly well-suited to helping out organizations like the GEB, a relative newcomer to the concert-planning business, navigate the often confusing waters of the music business. “We’re here for free,” said May, who could help with things like marketing ideas and looking over contracts in order to “make sure we’re not getting screwed over.” He knows that things like renting a stage, coordinating marketing and dealing with contractual negotiations would seem like an intimidating list to a group new to the process, “I wouldn’t expect kids to know everything.”