SAO gets creative in wake of low ticket sales


Timothy Stephens

Although September’s Bleachers show drew a large crowd, its ticket sales did not meet expectations

Despite bringing big-name acts like Bleachers, Julia Jacklin, Bad Bad Hats and Dante Elephante to campus, Calvin’s Student Activities Office has faced low ticket sales all semester.

According to SAO Director Jack Droppers, virtually every show this semester has undersold –– although student attendance, which hovers around one-fifth of ticket sales, has always been relatively low. To cope with low overall sales, spring programming will be “minimal,” Droppers said. SAO is also trying out some new strategies, including low-risk pop culture engagement events and a collaboration with the January Series.

Figuring out what people will show up to –– and if people will show up at all –– has been a challenge for SAO. “What shows sell really well –– and what don’t –– feels more confusing than ever,” Droppers said. “We have undersold, I think, at every show this fall.” Droppers attributed this phenomenon to the lingering effects of COVID-19, difficulties with ticketing services and expectations that were simply too high. 

Senior Amy Miller, who frequents SAO shows, enjoyed September’s concert with Bad Bad Hats, Wildermiss and Phabies but described the attendance as “disappointing.” “There were [approximately] 18 people there,” she said. “The show was really good. All the bands had really good songs that would’ve been even more fun if more people were there.” 

Australian singer Julia Jacklin sold out a 1,000+ seat theater in Toronto the night before she performed at Calvin, but “she did not sell that well here,” said Droppers. “We’re not expected to sell equal to those [large cities], but we didn’t necessarily get where I thought we would.”

The Bleachers concert was a similar story, according to Droppers. It was SAO’s first arena show in almost a decade. 

“It was going to be a big gamble, because it was an arena show,” said Timothy Stephens, a senior who has worked at SAO since their first year at Calvin. “Those are very high-production-cost shows, so you’re going to have to sell a lot of tickets to even break even.” According to Stephens, SAO sold over 1,000 tickets for the Bleachers show, but it still didn’t break even. 

Breaking even is always SAO’s goal, Droppers told Chimes. Doing better than that is almost unthinkable. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had a year of shows that have made a net profit,” Droppers said. 

SAO has a programming budget of $90,000 per year, $60,000 of which must be made back. “So, essentially, it’s $30,000,” Droppers said. The budget includes the cost of showing movies; showing between 10 and 15 movies a year costs about $10,000. 

“Essentially, we have $20,000 to lose on concerts every year,” Droppers said. This budget renews every academic year, so the previous year’s losses –– or gains –– do not roll over. “Hypothetically, we have a clean slate,” Droppers said. 

This semester’s low ticket sales do not threaten the existence of SAO, according to Droppers. “I don’t think that there’s a future in which we get cut,” he said. 

The SAO’s purpose goes far beyond finances, according to Stephens. “We’re an office of conversation,” they said. “We want to do that by challenging cultural norms. That was always expressed through bringing in LGBTQ+ artists, Black artists and various people of color and artists from varying economic backgrounds.”

This work involves “presenting people with faces and stories that they would not have heard otherwise,” Stephens continued. “And that is to be Christ’s agents of renewal.” 

But while SAO will persist, realistic budget constraints do necessitate a smaller spring. 

Droppers and his staff are working on creative new ways to engage students on a tight budget.

“We’re trying out a few different regular events that are aimed at pop culture engagement with minimal financial risk,” said Droppers. Recently, SAO hosted a listening party for Taylor Swift’s “Midnights,” and Droppers said there will likely be a similar event in the spring. 

SAO has also started a monthly open-mic night for Calvin students. “That’s exciting for me, to have a space for students to try out their stuff,” Droppers said. 

Looking ahead, SAO is working with the January Series to bring artists to campus. This January, for instance, Canadian artist Kaia Kater will come to Calvin. 

“Kaia is an artist that the SAO has been trying to bring in for three years now,” Droppers said. “So, to partner with the January Series on that is exciting. And there’s no financial risk for us.” 

Ultimately, Droppers hopes to encourage Calvin students to attend SAO shows, even if they’re not familiar with the artist. 

“With most bands, the experience is seeing them live. That’s what’s going to make you a fan,” Droppers said. “Taking a chance might be your introduction to the artist that you’re going to love for the next generation.”