While you giggled at Sarah Silverman’s jokes, rocked out to Wilco, or spurned your friends who managed to get Girl Talk tickets, you might have stopped to wonder how such distinguished guests ended up at the fingertips of a lowly Northwestern student. The answer is A&O Productions, a student group at Northwestern that has been in the business of bringing big acts to campus for more than 20 years. I asked Alex White, the chairman of A&O, some of the questions you might have about your Friday nights on campus.
Why couldn’t I get tickets for Girl Talk?
It’s a question any Northwestern student who didn’t camp outside Norris at 6 a.m. has been forced to ask himself when he’s staring at his lint-covered dorm room floor on Friday night, while practically the whole student body is having a great time.
“This winter was an insane quarter for ticket sales,” White said. “Even popular acts like Jeremy Piven or Sarah Silverman took several days to sell out. It’s funny because everyone has just assumed Counting Crows has sold out, and they’re surprised to see us selling tickets at the Rock.”
As of Wednesday, more than 1,300 tickets had been sold. Forrest Wickman, the director of A&O’s concert committee, said just as many people moved through the box office the day Counting Crows tickets went on sale than when Flight of the Conchords went on sale, and more than when Girl Talk went on sale.
Wickman said part of the reason is simply because the Riviera Theatre, where Counting Crows is playing, is a big venue. All of NU’s venues have problems: Welsh-Ryan Arena is prohibitively expensive, Patten Gymnasium doesn’t have the best acoustics, and both Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and Cahn Auditorium don’t seat many people. A&O and other student groups have been pushing for a 2,000-seat, multi-purpose venue on campus, but White said a new venue isn’t Northwestern’s No. 1 priority when so many other departments want money and new buildings.
The other reason Counting Crows haven’t sold out is, of course, that for the Counting Crows show only two tickets were allowed per WildCARD. White said the number of tickets per WildCARD is decided on a concert-by-concert basis. A bad estimate might mean an early sellout.
How much of my tuition paid for the Counting Crows?
Shows like Girl Talk, Wilco and OK Go make ruminating on the disappearance of a $45,840 tuition a little less painful. But how much does it actually cost to book an act like the Counting Crows?
White wouldn’t say exactly how much one of the top-selling bands in the country costs, but he said production alone (sound, lights, crew, etc.) runs over $20,000. The Riviera Theatre charges a flat fee of $4,500, but security and labor means the number could be much higher than that, according to Theresa Altgilbers, director of sales at the theatre.
White said bus transportation to and from the Riviera Theatre in Uptown costs over $5,000, and A&O only gets 10 to 30 percent of merchandise sales. To do publicity for a show, A&O gets $160, which doesn’t give them enough money to do more than print a couple of fliers and draw chalk crows on the ground.
Tickets for Counting Crows cost $15, but A&O isn’t receiving $15 from 2,000 people. Seventy-five percent of ticket sales go back to the Student Activities Fund (that’s the $44 on your bill every term) to be distributed to all of Northwestern’s student groups. Ticket profits never come close to covering the $70,000 to $90,000 it can take to book a higher-tier act.
So where does the money come from? ASG allocates A&O a budget for each term. According to the Student Activities Finance Board’s Web site, a typical allocation for the A&O Ball, which featured Wilco last year, is about $83,000. That’s enough to buy yourself roughly 5,900 copies of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
How did Northwestern get OK Go to come to Evanston?
Booking a band is a complicated dance between money, venue availability, legal issues and student preferences. White said A&O searches Facebook and surveys students to find out what bands are popular at NU, but unless a band is on tour in the area and fits into A&O’s price range, it won’t work. A&O subscribes to a service called PollStar, which gives approximate costs and contact information for bands.
White said A&O’s dream list would be the headliners of Lollapalooza — bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead — “but then reality strikes, and we par it down based on cost.”
Intangible factors occasionally affect a band’s decision to play for NU. White said when OK Go came to Patten last December, A&O told them how they were working with Dance Marathon by donating their portion of ticket sales to Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation.
“OK Go thought it was really cool, and that helped persuade them to accept our offer initially,” White said.
When A&O finds a potential band, negotiations begin to work out details. Both parties have to figure out everything from the time doors open to ticket prices. Then A&O makes an initial offer, and if the band is interested they send a contract. Northwestern’s legal department and the band’s have to work out contract details before anyone signs. Once the legal hurdles are over, A&O announces the act and you can wait in line for tickets.
If I join A&O, do I get to meet celebrities?
Yes. But you’ll meet them in a professional capacity, not as a fan, White explained.
“You can’t be in A&O and freak out around celebrities,” White said. “You have to pick them up from the airport, you have to get them food or whatever they need. I’ve met every person that’s come here, which has been incredible, but my main concern is bringing acts to Northwestern students.”