The precarious world of booking SAO concerts


Adrian Van Stee

Behind every SAO concert is a small office pulling the strings necessary to bring artists to campus, including singer-songwriter Matt Costa (pictured above).

In 2018, Phoebe Bridgers performed for the Student Activities Office concert series. Just three years later, she’s a globally touring artist with four Grammy nominations. As a small Christian college in the Midwest with no alcohol sales to speak of, Calvin may not be the most obvious venue for ascending artists. But SAO staff continues to bring a varied group of artists to campus every year, including some with Bridgers-like promise. How do they do it?

“It’s different for almost every artist,” said Jack Droppers, director of SAO. There are several ways an artist can be booked. Sometimes, Student Activities Board members will tell Droppers about artists they’re listening to and he’ll reach out. “If we’re able to book that artist, it’s usually pretty rare.” 

Sometimes, agents reach out to Droppers instead. He receives about forty emails from agents a week and about one or two of those will be national touring artists. Many of the acts that come to campus are booked through long-standing relationships with agents built by former director Ken Heffner

A group of SAO staff also attend the Pitchfork Music Festival each summer to recruit talent. While attending shows, staff keep their eyes out for acts that might perform well at Calvin. 

When searching for artists, SAO considers a few questions in addition to logistics: How does the artist speak to the cultural moment? How do they interact with faith? How do they deal with controversial issues? 

Then there’s the issue of a fair price. How much should newer artists be offered? “With artists that are up and coming, it’s a very hard thing to ask,” said Droppers. 

Calvin’s limitations make it both a tough sell and a unique experience for artists. On the one hand, the school’s constraints can be a challenge. SAO doesn’t have a budget like student life divisions at bigger schools, so it can’t offer as much up front. And it can’t serve alcohol like other venues, which can add profit to money made back through ticket sales. 

“We can only promise so much money knowing we’re going to get only so much back,” Droppers said. 

On the other hand, Calvin is a different kind of venue than many artists normally play, with Droppers noting Calvin’s attentive audiences. Some artists enjoy performing at Calvin so much they end up wanting to return. According to Droppers, the vibe suits certain genres well, like folk. 

The promise of future notoriety is only kind of a factor in choosing artists. While it can be a point of pride to book someone before they get famous, it’s unsurprisingly hard to predict future success. Established artists with tours under their belt can be more dependable acts than more inexperienced artists who have breakout potential.

“It’s almost more important that the concert is good than that the artist has name recognition two years later,” Droppers said. 

He compared booking to horse racing — you can study all you want, but at the end of the day, success is up in the air. Once, Droppers tried to book rapper Tobe Nwigwe with an offer of $20,000 before Nwigwe had an agent. He didn’t get an initial response. By the time Nwigwe had an agent and responded, he was charging $40,000 for a livestream and had appeared on playlists by both Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. “The music industry is so unpredictable right now,” Droppers said. 

But whether an artist is primed for global fame or simply puts on a good show, SAO concerts are still five dollars for students. Upcoming is retro rock band Major Murphy on Nov. 5. Tickets can be purchased on the SAO box office website.