MONDAY, MAY 27, 2013
Jeremy Shpizner is halfway to tipsy before noon on Memorial Day. Outside, the temperature climbs to around 60 degrees, there’s no class and work can wait until tomorrow.
The senior performance studies major is the co-chair for Mayfest, the student-run organization that plans and produces Dillo Day, Northwestern’s annual music festival. With Dillo Day only five days away, Shpizner is about to start the busiest week of his school year. But for now, in his girlfriend’s apartment on the last day of his last long weekend in college, he sips margaritas with friends.
The tequila intake and small talk stop when his phone buzzes. An email pops on the screen at 11:42 a.m. from the manager of Dillo Day’s nighttime headliner. Holding his margarita in one hand and phone in the other, Shpizner reads that the nighttime headliner no longer plans to come to Dillo Day. They committed to perform weeks ago, but the artist has decided against signing the actual contract.
Five days before Dillo Day, Mayfest does not have a headliner.
Formed in 1974, Mayfest comprises seven standing committees. The heads of each committee and two co-chairs—Shpizner and senior economics major Wil Heintz—make up the group’s executive board. Dillo Day is a yearlong effort that takes up the majority of this roughly 70-person organization’s time and budget.
In order to bring artists like Lupe Fiasco, Steve Aoki and Nelly to Northwestern, Mayfest regularly works with some of the music industry’s largest agencies. “I am well aware of Dillo Day as one of the premier college events, even back from when I was in school,” explained Peter Schwartz of The Agency Group in an email several months after Dillo Day. He represents artists like Big Boi and Macklemore.
During interviews with current and former members of Mayfest, the organization asked to keep the original headliner and details of artist contracts off the record because of the included confidentiality clauses.
Mayfest never announces an artist to the student body before both Northwestern and the artist have signed a final contract. At any point before a signature legally binds the two parties, the artist can cancel. Last winter, Macklemore canceled a show at Williams College in Massachusetts before the contract was completed—but after an announcement was made to the student body. In the apartment on this holiday, the nighttime headliner’s cancelation is a prime example of why Mayfest maintains this policy.
Shpizner doesn’t want to spread panic throughout the organization. Mayfest members who don’t deal directly with booking or contracts usually don’t find out an artist is coming until the contract is signed. Shpizner wants members of Mayfest to focus on their specific jobs for the week instead of worrying about booking and planning for a new artist. He decides to tell only the members of the organization who absolutely need to know.
Xander Shepherd surfs the web and occasionally checks his email inside the Mayfest office. The junior political science major is picking up flyers, but otherwise he has no real reason to be in the office, which is tucked in a back corner on the third floor of Norris University Center. As Mayfest’s concerts chair, his job is nearly done.
Five months ago, Shepherd’s committee created a Google Spreadsheet, titled “Xertz,” listing hundreds of bands and artists. That was the time to dream and the time to strategize: Dillo Day had no lineup and Shepherd wanted his committee to understand that in this early phase, any artist could potentially come to the Lakefill. European tours eventually deleted some names from the spreadsheet, as did conflicting late spring music festivals. But as Fall Quarter sped toward final exams, names in spreadsheet cells turned into inquiring emails to agents, which turned into official offers, which turned into contracts.
Walk the Moon, Danny Brown, Smash Mouth and Lunice have already filled the lineup by this afternoon. The nighttime headliner still hasn’t signed a contract—which is a bit unusual—but as far as Shepherd is concerned, the lineup is an all-but-done deal that hinges on a pen sliding across the bottom of a sheet of paper.
At around 2 p.m. Jeremy Shpizner arrives and shuts the office door. He pulls a chair across the room, facing Shepherd. They are the only two in the office.
“I have to tell you something and I don’t want you to freak out,” Shpizner says. He doesn’t mince words. The artist booked as the nighttime headliner isn’t coming.
For 10 seconds Shepherd’s heartbeat elevates. His first thought: “Let’s fix this.” His second: “I need to pee.” He walks out of the room.
In the bathroom, the gravity of the situation sinks in. It’s Memorial Day, so no agents will be in their office to respond to urgent emails. And five days before the concerts are set to begin, he has no idea who will close out Dillo Day.
Shepherd sends a Gchat message to Shpizner with a random assortment of letters in all caps. Something like “DJKLLKJDKLDJ.”
Sitting on the floor in the Mayfest office during an executive meeting, they must pretend nothing is wrong.
The rest of the executive board gives updates about details for the upcoming week. Dillo Day preparation can’t stop. Safety protocols with University Police still need finalizing. Promotional materials still need distributing. The second stage—a new addition to the festival—still needs booking.
Shpizner doesn’t want to distract the organization with the stress of a canceled headliner, so only four of the 12 members present know about the situation. Production co-chair Demetrios Cokinos, a junior RTVF major, and the other Mayfest co-chair, Wil Heintz, were alerted earlier in the day.
Promotions Co-Chair Bri Hightower gushes over The Underground Dillo, a booklet of information on the day’s artist and events. She tells the rest of exec that distribution will happen on Wednesday.
The glossy, stapled booklet full of geometric patterns and vibrant colors took months to design. On the cover, a translucent armadillo covers a purple-hued shot of a starry sky. In the centerfold, a short bio above a quarter-page photograph introduces the evening’s headliner—a headliner that’s no longer coming.
The meeting adjourns and exec members trickle out of the office.
On a worn black leather couch against the back wall of the office, Patrick Leonard stays behind. Leonard, a junior mechanical engineering major, is the productions co-chair, working alongside Cokinos.
With the other members aware of the cancellation by their sides, Shpizner and Heintz initiate the fifth member into the situation.
“We can still have the show, right?” Leonard asks after hearing the news.
Under normal circumstances, the production committee’s work peaks the week before Dillo Day. It ensures the logistics of the event run without a hitch. From overseeing the stage’s construction to picking up artists from the airport to installing security fences, every physical aspect of the show runs through production.
That process starts months in advance with contract negotiations. In a contract, if an artist asks for specific lighting and sound equipment, production makes it happen. If an artist wants a bottle of champagne, production must go back to the agent and say that the university can’t supply liquor, tobacco or energy drinks. According to Mayfest, when one artist asked for some bubbly in his contract in 2012, they had to compromise and contractually guarantee him a bottle of non-alcoholic champagne.
In the Mayfest office after Leonard processes the news, someone suggests taking a cigarette break. The five head to the porch in the back of Norris, where a few of them enjoy a smoke.
TUESDAY, MAY 28
Behind a wooden door with a thin, eye-level window-slit on the second floor of Norris, the five members of Mayfest responsible for booking a headliner wait. They have four days until the show.
They wait for agents in Los Angeles and New York to arrive at the office and respond to an email with a subject line that starts with “Urgent.” “I apologize for sending this to you so last minute but…” the email begins. The agents will scan the message and find a list of artists they represent. The email will ask whether any of these artists are available in four days.
Three hours earlier, after the facilities staff unlocked the front doors of Norris, Shepherd, Shpizner, Cokinos, Leonard and Heintz plotted out the rest of their day. While enjoying iced coffees and Einstein’s everything bagels in the Mayfest office, they came up with two options: Start from scratch and book a new artist, or try to renegotiate the contract with the original artist who dropped out.
Shpizner takes charge of renegotiating with the original artist. In correspondence with the apologetic agent, Shpizner probes for a way to get them to reconsider signing.
Shepherd takes charge of looking for a replacement. Sitting in a circle with a shared Google Doc open on everyone’s computer, the five of them throw out names like 50 Cent and Wiz Khalifa as Shepherd sends emails to agencies across the country.
The waiting begins. By 11 a.m., as other members of Mayfest file into the third-floor Norris office, the five have booked the Northwestern Room on the second floor for the rest of the day. They name it the “Situation Room.”
Shepherd gets a response from Wiz Khalifa’s agent, Peter Schwartz. The rapper is free that weekend, but the availability of his band is unknown. Having so few leads on new artists only increases the urgency of negotiations with the original headliner, who wants more money. This amount is confidential because a contract was never signed, but it is 27 percent more than the starting offer. It’s an impossible amount for Mayfest to front.
But within the budget of ASG’s Student Activities Finance Committee—which finances Mayfest and other campus organizations—is a little known pool of money called the “emergency fund.”
According to Siddiq Ather, the financial vice president of ASG and chair of the SAFC, the $65,000 emergency fund exists to help student groups survive debilitating financial woes. If, for example, a group damages equipment or receives a fine after an accident, the emergency fund acts as a safety net. The fund is almost never used.
On Tuesday afternoon in the Situation Room, the five members of Mayfest learn that they can potentially take advantage of the emergency fund to pay the original headliner more money. But there is one major catch: Mayfest would need to replenish the fund using future budgets over the course of several years.
The co-chairs, Shpizner and Heintz, decide to approach SAFC to discuss how the emergency fund can be used. It’s a risky bet. The upcoming Dillo Day would have a headliner, but Mayfest would be saddled with a smaller budget for several years as the organization paid off this loan.
Torrential rain pounds the windows of Swift Hall as all of Mayfest waits for the pre-production meeting to start.
At the annual all-organization “Pre-Pro” meeting, the Mayfest co-chairs pass the reins to the co-production chairs—Leonard and Cokinos. The meeting marks the shift from planning to execution. In the next few days, a stage will arrive in a massive black semi-truck on the Lakefill. Artists will touch down on runways at airports around Chicago. Vendors will arrive to install lighting and sound systems, a beer garden and a security fence. The Pre-Pro meeting ensures everyone knows where to be and when.
As 9 p.m. turns into 9:05, half of Mayfest’s executive board is not there. Leonard and Cokinos finish up a Keynote presentation they should have started presenting five minutes ago. They’ve been too busy dealing with the headliner situation.
Shepherd hits send on a polished email to Peter Schwartz of The Agency Group with an official offer for Wiz Khalifa attached. He joins Bri Hightower for the trek to Swift Hall in the storm. Lightning strikes uncomfortably close to the path leading to the building.
“Well if we die at least we’ll die together,” Hightower, who learned the situation earlier in the afternoon, yells at Shepherd over the pouring rain. “We’ve been through this much already.”
Cokinos and Leonard transfer their slideshow to a thumb drive and sprint in the rain from Norris to Swift. They arrive 10 minutes late. Heintz and Shpizner exit the stage, leaving the soaking wet pair to take charge.
Leonard rips off his dripping jacket and speaks first. “Alright, let’s hop to it,” he says. “Here is what you can expect this weekend.”
WEDNESDAY, MAY 29
Four baby ducks scramble across rocks in a manmade bowl that drains water into Lake Michigan from an inlet on Northwestern’s campus. Water rushes down the edge of the bowl, then runs between the cracks of the rocks under a bridge into the lake. The mother duck rests above, waiting for her young to make the treacherous climb. One baby duck falls though the cracks between the rocks. Then a second. Then a third. Only one makes it safely.
Watching from above, Shepherd thinks he is going to snap. Leonard starts taking his shoes off, ready to climb over the edge for a rescue. Cokinos, Heintz and Shpizner yell at the mother to help, to change direction, to do anything that will save her young.
Out loud, Shepherd imagines the headline if a member of campus media happened to walk by: “’Mayfest exec loses it screaming at ducks.’”
Earlier that morning, Wiz Khalifa’s agent responded to the previous evening’s offer. One by one the agent needs to contact Wiz’s band members. But as late morning arrives, many members are not yet awake to answer the call on the West Coast.
The original headliner also emails the group, but with an ultimatum: The artist needs to know if Mayfest can produce the extra money by 2 p.m. today.
On a rolling whiteboard in the corner of the new Situation Room—the Big Ten Room on the second floor of Norris—the five write down pros and cons for each scenario.
The old headliner would hedge the monetary future of Mayfest on a guaranteed act—one that needs to have an answer in the next few hours. But booking Wiz Khalifa depends on whether sleepy bandmates can make a trip to Chicago in three days.
They need a break to forget about headliners, agents and contracts. The five leave Norris for a walk on the path toward the Lakefill. At the bridge on the southern edge of their walk, they watch three baby ducks fall through the cracks.
Wiz’s agent, Peter Schwartz, responds to Shepherd. The band can come, but Wiz wants two of his friends, Tuki Carter and Chevy Woods, to perform as well.
After last night’s Pre-Pro meeting, Shepherd met with the rest of his committee. He didn’t explain the situation to them, but simply asked them to continue booking artists for the second stage.
Now Shepherd tells his team to stop booking the second stage. He then sends offers to Schwartz for Wiz, Carter and Woods.
The original headliner’s ultimatum passes and Shepherd hears nothing. Not wanting to wait any longer, he calls Schwartz’s assistant.
Wiz Khalifa is willing to come to Dillo Day. The assistant says a contract will be sent over.
Shepherd hangs up the phone and buries his face in his hands.
After three days with little sleep, largely fueled by delivered wings and pad thai, the five members of exec pose for a photo in front of the whiteboard in the corner of the room. Each smiles through differing phases of facial hair, showing off their preparations for Mayfest’s annual mustache competition. They don’t need to borrow money from the emergency fund in SAFC’s budget. A contract isn’t signed yet, but Dillo Day has taken a giant step toward having a nighttime headliner.
THURSDAY, MAY 30
The phone in Cokinos’ right jeans pocket buzzes. He shifts his gaze from the group presentation in front of him toward his lap as an unread email pops across the top of the screen.
From: Xander Shepherd
Subject: Fwd: WizKhalifaOffer_June1_DilloDay
Content: Go go go go go
Shpizner, who is in the same Language Evolution class, sits next to Cokinos. Ten percent of their grade is based on the notes they take on other people’s presentations, but Cokinos turns to Shpizner and mouths, “We need to go.” When the group on stage finishes, they both approach the back of the classroom where the professor sits.
“We are producing Dillo Day and there is a huge emergency,” Cokinos tells the professor. They leave.
Under normal circumstances, an artist’s contract takes three weeks to process. It passes from Mayfest to Assistant Director for Student Involvement Jude Cooper to Northwestern’s Office of General Counsel to Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin. Then it goes back to legal, back to Cooper, back to the students and back to the agency.
The contract is reviewed and edited every step of the way. Clauses are deleted by striking out text with a ruler for neatness. Addendums are suggested in the margins. The students and Cooper use black ink, Northwestern’s legal counsel uses red ink and the agency uses blue ink. If there are more changes, Cooper uses purple ink on the final pass.
As the co-production chair in charge of the nighttime headliner, Cokinos escorts the contract through the negotiation and editing process. When he enters the Lake Room in Norris with a printed copy of the contract, he sees a black semi truck in the distance to the left of a grassy field. The main stage has arrived.
Cokinos puts on black Bose headphones and spreads the 20-page contract out on a table. Talent agencies tend to draft similar contracts for all their representatives. By referencing a previous contract from another artist at Wiz’s agency, Cokinos is able to more quickly make edits and add phrases with a black pen.
In 45 minutes, he finishes making standard edits and scans the document for Jude Cooper’s approval. She okays the edits, so Cokinos walks the document to the Rebecca Crown Center for the legal counsel to review. On the front of the contract, which is stuffed inside a manila envelope, a cover sheet says, “Date Received: May 30, Date Needed: May 30.”
The contract then goes to Vice President of Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin, who signs it in the afternoon. Finally, it’s scanned and emailed off to the agency for another review. The agency, Cooper and Northwestern’s legal counsel negotiate clause changes over email rather than by marking up and scanning the physical document—and unconventional but time-saving method. At 10:07 p.m., Cooper sends another round of changes, but she won’t hear from the agency until morning.
Mayfest doesn’t have a signed contract and the student body wants to know why.
The headline of an article posted by The Daily Northwestern earlier in the day reads, “More transparency, variety needed in Mayfest’s selection process for Dillo Day.”
Hours earlier, Shepherd’s classmates pestered him with questions. “Is there going to be an artist? Why hasn’t Mayfest announced anything?”
Earlier in the week, a student reporter called Hightower at 2 a.m., and during the day, campus media wait outside the Mayfest office to ask her questions. While sitting on the floor in the Armadillo Room in Norris on Thursday night, the Mayfest executive board decides to write a press release.
“We want to take a moment to address the concerns about our delayed announcement of the 2013 Dillo Day nighttime headliner,” the document begins. For more than an hour, members of the executive board write, trying to explain their lack of transparency.
“Rest assured, we are doing absolutely everything in our power to announce our headliner and finalize contracts as soon as we possibly can,” the press release reads. “This year’s contract process has been uniquely demanding; please know that we would not be waiting this long to announce unless we had absolutely no other choice.”
FRIDAY, MAY 31
Inside a white tent with three walls and a pointed roof are two cardboard boxes and a metal trashcan with chipping purple paint. Inside the two boxes are 2,000 Underground Dillo programs. The old headliner’s name still graces the centerfold in white bold letters and red trim. The name also appears two pages before, on the day’s schedule.
While seven members of the promotions committee file into the entrance of the small white enclosure, Hightower kicks a second trashcan repeatedly 100 feet toward the tent.
The Underground Dillo is made of spreads—glossy sheets of paper that span the width of the open program. A spread holds four pages: two on the front and two on the back. The two mentions of the old headliner appear on the same spread, and removing just one spread could salvage the document.
On Wednesday night, the lead designer of the program, Shelly Tan, launched Adobe InDesign on her computer, highlighted the old headliner’s name with her cursor and pressed delete.
On Thursday afternoon in the Mayfest office, Hightower discovered the best way to swap the pages. Pinching the top of the center spread in the middle along the crease, she pulled, letting the page pop off the two staples. The only vital information missing from the rest of the intact document was the day’s schedule.
On Friday morning, Quartet Copies in Evanston printed 1,000 individual pamphlets with an updated schedule on one side and a map of the Lakefill on the other.
On Friday afternoon, the promotions committee forms two assembly lines. One person holds the open Underground Dillo. A second tears out the center spread and throws it into one of the two purple metal trashcans. A third stuffs the document with the one-page insert. A fourth files the finished product into the original cardboard box.
Wiz’s agent, Schwartz, still hasn’t returned a signed contract. The agency needs to review a few more details, and Cokinos checks his phone obsessively as he helps Shepherd, Leonard and other members of Mayfest set up security fences. Wiz Khalifa’s team has already reached out to plan the details of the stage and get an address to use to ship merchandise.
While the rest of her committee expunges the old headliner from The Underground Dillo, Hightower heads to Norris with Heintz, Leonard, Shepherd and Shpizner to tell the press that Dillo Day has a headliner.
Hightower opens the press conference by addressing reporters from The Daily, North by Northwestern and Pulse. Next to her, members of the Mayfest executive board sit behind tables, facing the reporters.
“The information we are about to tell you is embargoed because we are waiting to announce it at a certain time,” Hightower says. “That time is conditional upon Residential Housing Association reaching a certain number of likes on Facebook. They will post their own announcement. Once that happens you are free to publish.”
Residential Housing Association has sponsored the Dillo Day headliner for a number of years. The student -run organization, which oversees on-campus housing, partners with Mayfest and uses the co-branding opportunities to spread the RHA name. In the weeks before Dillo Day, Hightower worked with RHA President Ariel Malloy to craft a headliner announcement strategy that would boost Facebook likes for the organization.
As the show drew closer, however, RHA still couldn’t announce anything to the student body. Each time Malloy asked Hightower why RHA couldn’t announce, Hightower’s response was the same: “We are still working on the contract.”
The press conference ends with questions from the three reporters. Then Hightower and the other members of the Mayfest executive board move rooms to meet with RHA.
The meeting starts out tense. On RHA’s Facebook page, students have been complaining that the organization is withholding the information, but now Shpizner reveals that Wiz Khalifa will headline the stage. RHA can officially ask for likes on Facebook, and once it breaks a certain threshold, it will reveal the artist. As Hightower exits the meeting, the mood seems to change. RHA looks excited.
Cokinos shouts after he reads an email on his phone. A signed contract is attached. Around him members of Mayfest set up the beer garden on the grass in front of the stage.
Leonard sees Cokinos and walks over. “Project executed?” Leonard asks.
“Fully executed,” Cokinos says
In the Starbucks on Sherman Avenue, Gabe Bergado, the editor-in-chief of North by Northwestern, watches the loading bar on his browser window inch slowly along the top of his screen.
Bergado is prepared for the impending announcement of the headliner from RHA. The story submitted by his reporter is on the content management system, and he just has to hit “publish” for the story to go live.
On his Facebook feed, a post pops up linking to a tweet from the independent sports blog Inside NU. “Confirmed: Wiz Khalifa is performing at Dillo Day,” the tweet says.
Bergado believes Inside NU is a student publication with access to the embargoed information. Thinking the embargo must be over, he hits publish and North by Northwestern’s story appears on the website’s home page.
Inside NU co-founder Kevin Trahan explained later that an Inside NU contributor received a tip about the upcoming performance from a staff member working for Wiz Khalifa. Trahan, who was a sophomore at the time, didn’t release the name of the staff member. He says he didn’t know about Mayfest’s embargo, and that he knew little of the partnership between RHA and Mayfest in general.
Hightower’s phone rings while she sells Dillo Day apparel by the front entrance of Norris with Co-Promotions Chair Louise Hunter. Heintz is on the other end of the line. North by Northwestern just tweeted the article about the headliner. He tells her to “get on that.”
Hunter calls Bergado, who apologizes and removes the story and accompanying tweet. By then, The Daily has gone live with its own announcement story.
“Once an embargo is broken by anyone, it’s broken,” says Michele Corriston, editor-in-chief of The Daily. “The Daily’s policy is to not take down anything unless it is factually inaccurate.”
Around campus, thousands of students browsing social media read the news. Hightower hears the same words spreading around campus through statuses, tweets and excited mouths. “Wiz Khalifa is coming to Dillo Day.”
Ariel Malloy, the RHA president, is in disbelief when she finds out the news has broken. “We had been to so many meetings and gone through so much paperwork with Mayfest that it seemed that all of our time, effort and funding had been in vain,” she wrote later in an email.
The publications knew the headliner before RHA, and even with the embargo, she says that Mayfest “did not follow good business practices.”
“Let It Die” by Feist is a slow song with consistent, deep bass notes and crooning female vocals. The combination of sounds is perfect for testing audio levels on large speakers.
As the sun begins to set behind the stage, Patrick Leonard listens to an alto voice hit high notes. “The saddest part of a broken heart isn’t the ending, so much as the start,” Feist wails. At full volume, the song reverberates around the grassy field.
Before every show, Leonard experiences a moment of peace when he knows the concert is going to happen.
He feels that moment today on a rock under an overhanging tree facing the lake. Sitting next to him, Cokinos and the rest of their committee watch the ripples of water disappear into the horizon.
The contract is signed and Dillo Day has a headliner. The foundation of the stage is in place. The beer garden is set up. Leonard knows now that after months of preparation and days without a headliner, the concert is going to happen.
The sun sets behind campus buildings as Leonard and the rest of the productions committee pose for a photo in front of the water. Cokinos is in the back, wearing a backwards red baseball cap, an open-mouthed grin on his face between black scruff. Leonard hunches in the front row at the edge of the group, peering through the top of his black-framed glasses.
“This is so beautiful,” Leonard thinks to himself. “It’s perfect.”
They don’t know that tomorrow, rain will cancel one artist’s whole set. They don’t know that police will force Wiz offstage because Evanston has a 10:30 p.m. noise curfew.
Leonard, Cokinos and their team know only one thing as they smile for the photo: Tomorrow, on the grassy field in front of them, thousands of students will wave their arms and jump in unison to live music. Live music played by a band. A band represented by an agency. An agency that signed a contract and sent it to a university.
A university attended by students who plan and produce an all-day music festival for their peers.
Full disclosure: Ben Oreskes, who first pitched this story to NBN, is roommates with Xander Shepherd. The editorial staff felt Oreskes’ reporting was integral to the story, and it also placed Senior Editor Kit Fox as the lead writer. Fox alone interviewed Shepherd.