Majoring In Cooperation: Agents, Middle Buyers and Festivals Bring The Music To College

Playboi Carti
Katie Reahl / Syracuse University Union
– Playboi Carti
BACK TO SCHOOL: Playboi Carti co-headlined the 10,000-capacity Juice Jam Sept. 16 at Syracuse University in New York, whose University Union programming board provides hands-on concert promotion and marketing experience for students.

The college market is ripe for the pickings. With its coveted 18- to 24-year-old demographic already on campus, multiple suitable concert venues and long-established university activities and events boards overseeing substantial budgets baked into tuition fees, the quad has a lot to offer. 
“The reach of students that you hit on a college show is a great building block for artists as well,” ICM Partners’ Brandon Zmigrocki, who books colleges and clubs in the Northeast U.S., told Pollstar. “It’s one of the reasons that everyone here at ICM really loves to get as many college shows for our artists as we can.”
But it’s not quite that simple. Challenges include working directly with students and programming boards rather than seasoned concert promoters – shows are often either a soft ticket or free entry altogether – and university budgets frequently are determined or funds awarded at the last minute, forcing things to come together quickly and making it difficult to route shows in multiple markets. 
However, the trouble is clearly worth it, as the major booking agencies continue to invest resources, time and effort into college shows very specifically. Today there are dedicated college booking departments rather than high- turnover agent training grounds.
“The main difference is that the club business is propelled largely by the artist, where the artist routes out a tour and says, ‘Venues, give up these holds,” Paradigm’s Taylor Schultz, who heads up the agency’s college department, told Pollstar. “In the college market,  it’s more that the buyer rules the marketplace – they have a set amount of money, and the kids or the school gets to spend it how they choose.
“So it’s a little more of a passive process,” added Schultz, who acts as a conduit between the artist and college for Paradigm’s entire roster. “We definitely try and have our acts prioritize and keep strong relationships where the schools, kids and middle buyers all trust our expertise and what we’re telling them about our artists, but they’re the ones telling us what they’re willing to spend and buy.”
Deal structures are also different, with flat guarantees the norm.
“I’d say 90 percent of the deals are flat guarantees, versus when you’re at a club or theatre you have a lot more control over the deal structure – ticket price, back-end,  expenses,” said CAA’s Meredith Jones, who oversees the agency’s college division. “Obviously with a flat deal there’s no control with those. They have a fixed budget and oftentimes the event is free to members of the university or their alumni, so they’re subsidized by university funds.” Jones oversees two agents, Sabrina Butera and Katie Germano, who split up the country by territory. 
But it can be hard to connect the dots between artist and the dozens of universities and programs, which may only do a show or two per year.  

Juice Jam
Katie Reahl / Syracuse University Union
– Juice Jam 2018
Enter the “middle agent” or “middle buyer.” The interchangeable term is a testament to the service they provide – a little bit of both.
“Some like middle agencies more than others,” said Adam Tobey, president of Woodstock, N.Y.-based Concert Ideas. Asked why the major agencies elect to use an intermediary, Tobey said, “One of the simplest explanations is they’re not keen on spending two hours on the phone discussing posters and contract rules with a 19-year-old student. 
“We’re there to deal with the student and university piece of it and move them through the process, and sometimes that involves a lot of hand holding – not that that’s bad, these are students and staff who don’t do this every day,” Tobey said. “All of the stuff the agents do for their clients, we’re doing for the schools.
“Some schools just use us for our leverage and our buying power. They’ll do one show, we’ll do hundreds,” Tobey added.
Schultz, as well as other agents, agreed that the middle buyers provide a valuable role. “Schools can sometimes be distrustful of agents and agencies, thinking we’re going to hoodwink them or give them a bad deal or upsell them,” Schultz said. “So the middle buyers are their buffer, a best-practices catch-all for the schools since they know the drill and have done this many, many times over.”
Some college programs, however, are so established that they work directly with the primary agents, such as Syracuse University, whose University Union has been its official programming board going back to the ‘60s. 
“The organization has been working with college agents like Taylor (Schultz) for years now, where they come to expect our emails,” said Syracuse University Union concerts director Noah Rosenberg, 20, a junior in the Bandier Program for recording and entertainment industries. “A bunch of colleges do it differently. I have friends that run other programming boards and I consider us very fortunate to work with direct lines through agents.”
While maybe not as intense as the for-profit club and festival booking done every day, it can still be a crash course for students learning the talent buying side of the concert business. 
“A lot of agents tend to think that schools like Syracuse, with a prestigious history, have these barrels and barrels of money,” Rosenberg added. “For almost every artist there is some back and forth. We do our best to accommodate what the agencies want and try to make things go as smoothly as possible.”  However, as a student, Rosenberg at a certain point in the negotiations has to hand it over to an adviser to seal the deal. 
Syracuse’s UU just hosted the annual Juice Jam event, a 10,000-capacity festival, which this year brought A$AP Ferg, Playboi Carti, Anne-Marie, Omar Apollo, and Loud Luxury Sept. 16.  
College shows are instrumental in growing an artist’s career, with now-arena headliners like Travis Scott and Twenty One Pilots hitting the circuit hard in recent years. 
“Colleges are especially great for developing artists,” added ICM’s Zmigrocki, who also represents rock band The Buttertones.
“It’s a stepping stone for them to grow careers and, just as important, the live show. The fact is the college audience is just more forgiving. Artists can have an opportunity to hone in more on a  show that is music-centric, and not deal with the criticism that they might have on a hard-ticket date where there might be a lot of expectations around the production.”
While a stepping stone for some careers, the college circuit is the bread and butter for others, including this week’s Hotstar artist Jesse McCartney, whom Schultz says is Paradigm’s No. 1 college client by show volume, followed by T-Pain and Waka Flocka Flame. CAA counts Cheat Codes, Dan + Shay, and  Judah & The Lion among its active college clients. 
It’s a clear payoff as the major agencies have dedicated multiple agents, assistants and departments to the college market.
“It seems like historically and maybe at other places it was more like an agent training program, where they churn them out after they’ve done their time in college agent prison,” Schultz said, laughing. “But I actually like my job and I’m not going anywhere.”
While a “college show” is defined by  the talent budget coming from university or college funds, there are plenty who operate in the college market privately,  such as Columbus, Ohio-based Prime Social Group, whose second-year, multi-market Prime festivals focus primarily on college towns and actively target college students, who aren’t exactly known for their disposable income.
“The biggest expense at any festival is your talent,” said Prime Social Group managing partner Zach Ruben, who started promoting shows while as an undergrad at Wisconsin. “We’ve been lucky enough that a lot of the agents and agencies we’ve developed relationships with understand the markets we’re in and they relay that to their clients.  

Adam Lynn and Zach Ruben
– Adam Lynn and Zach Ruben
Prime Social Group managing partners
“They say you should go do this show in Lansing for maybe 25 percent or 30 percent less than you normally play in the market for, because it’s Lansing – it’s not Detroit, or Grand Rapids, and definitely not Chicago. “First and foremost we have to negotiate and partner with these artists and agents to book them at an affordable price so our ticket prices can stay relatively affordable.”  Prime festivals in Lansing, Mich., and Urbana, Il, just took place Sept. 14-15 with Russ, Diplo and Tyga among the headliners and tickets averaging at about $50 per day.
PSG is also taking the United States college market abroad, with Abroad Fest events in Barcelona, Florence, and Prague. The concept is to bring American students on spring break or vacation to events that aren’t completely foreign, rather than trying to set up shop in the very mature (and volatile) European festival business. 
“The Europe model is cool because there’s a lot of culture paired with the events,” Ruben said, adding that the company also does a Spring Break event in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. 
“We provide referrals, tour guides, sightseeing and culture, and in the evenings we’ll have our big concert events. It’s a cool experience to bring kids together for a weekend in a foreign place, when most haven’t been out of the country or to these cities before.”
Noah Rosenberg and A$AP Ferg
Layne Lindroth / Syracuse University Union
– Noah Rosenberg and A$AP Ferg
Syracuse University Union concerts director




The Syllabus

As the official programming board of Syracuse, we have to serve the students so we send out surveys to the student body and other supplemental materials – through direct email to students, social media, just to get as much feedback from the students as possible.

The Kendrick Problem

On these surveys we also leave a comments section. The amount of “Bring Drake! Bring Future! Bring Kendrick”  – it’s laughable, really, when you know what’s going on. Juice Jam is our marquee event. At 10,000-capacity, that’s two-thirds of our undergrad body, so people want to see a Kendrick Lamar on that stage. What I have to do when I can’t get a Kendrick Lamar is build out a lineup that can hit as many students as possible in terms of caliber of artist, genre and reach.

If A Band Plays In A Forest . . .

Part of our programming board is a dedicated marketing board that deals with the marketing of all our events. We have not only a financial responsibility but a responsibility to these students to make sure everybody is aware of our event as possible.

It’s harder than it looks. It’s really a part not a lot of people focus on. Booking the show is the easy part. Getting everyone to come is where the real elbow grease comes in.