Having amply documented the chaos that unfolded outside Beckham Hall on Saturday night, I undertook to learn what happened inside the venue.
What might have been a short article became somewhat longer as I found myself investigating Wesleyan’s troubled history of large concerts.
First: an account of the Cam’ron concert’s genesis.
The first week of the spring semester, Thomas Klepacz ’16 brought the Concert Committee a request to book Cam’ron for $10,000, which was substantially less than the other rappers the Committee had considered. Chelsie Green ’14, Concert Committee chair, said in an interview that the Concert Committee had been looking since September for a big rap show. They had spoken with Chief Keef or Juicy J, but both were too expensive: the Committee was set on offering a show that appealed to everyone, with $5 tickets that everyone could afford. Cam’ron was a good fit.
Klepacz has been a fan of Cam’ron since the age of nine, and he believed the show would please the campus at large. Though Klepacz, who is a sophomore transfer, had never booked a show before, he was determined to bring more rap to campus. He said, “I thought, ‘I want a rap act, and if it’s not going to happen, I’ll do it.’ I’ve been to all the rap shows on campus this year, but I thought I’d try myself to get a rapper.”
The first sign of trouble arose weeks ago when Klepacz and his co-organizers first sold tickets in Usdan. “It’s very hard to know how the Wesleyan community will react to an artist coming,” he said. “Up until that day, no one—me, Chelsie, the Concert Committee, the school—had any idea how crazy this event would be.” The organizers planned to sell their tickets over a three-day span; instead they sold 500 tickets in 45 minutes and created a pedestrian traffic jam.
The organizers confess to errors, most of which sprung from the show’s sheer size. The first occurred here. Green advised Klepacz to use a ticketless, name-only system by which buyers gave the organizers a name for ticket groups of up to four tickets. The organizers asked concertgoers to arrive at the venue in these groups, where Event Staff would admit the entire group at once. Green said that she and Klepacz hoped this method would prevent fake tickets, which in her experience proliferate whenever a popular campus event uses physical tickets.
However, the scarce supply and high demand for tickets quickly drove up resale prices (the highest I heard was $70 for one ticket), which induced enterprising students to sell their tickets—or, more precisely, to scalp them—which flurry of back-and-forth and on-and-off sales meant that Klepacz spent the next two weeks fielding dozens of emailed requests about switching and unswitching tickets.
On the evening in question, chaos reigned.
“When 9:30 came around,” Green said, “I knew it was going to be a mess. People started trying to enter Beckham and we didn’t have a table set up. And Thomas had to reprint the list of ticket-holders because he had printed it with some of the last names cut off because the margins weren’t wide enough.”
“I told people to arrive early,” Klepacz said. “The event was supposed to start at 10, so I meant get there at 10, not 10:30, but people took it as 9:30. By 9:45 the mob had formed. We were trying to figure out how to do crowd control. At 9:50, Gabe Sunshine ’17 (a member of the Concert Committee) opened the door to let people in four at a time. People started prying the door open, pulling Gabe out. I called security and they stopped it. Everyone outside was yelling and swearing. We were just trying to communicate with the crowd.”
The organizers originally hoped to admit students through the East, Usdan-facing door, but the mob pressed against the door, which opens outwards, and prevented anyone from entering.
“The biggest problem,” Klepacz said, “was people arriving without groups.”
Green agreed. “Some people didn’t understand even though we said this a million times: arrive with your group.”
As might have been predicted, between the innumerable subsequent resellings of tickets and the entropic decay of Saturday night, many people entered without the others in their ticket group. The organizers had to turn away many people who had no means of proving that they truly had purchased tickets.
However, depending on whom you ask, another problem may have been the organizers overselling the show. The venue holds 550, but Klepacz and SALD had different ideas of the number of concertgoers the venue is permitted to hold when the stage and sound system are in place. SALD said 400; Klepacz sold 500 and didn’t recall hearing that number. Only 383 people ultimately entered, but Klepacz notes that the 200 who didn’t attend might well be a circumstance of the madness at the entrance, which, in turn, possibly arose from the overselling.
On the orders of Public Safety, the organizers and Event Staff switched the entrance to the Andrus-facing southern doors of Beckham. Even amid this great disorder, doors opened at 10:05, and Skizzy Mars began performing at 10:45, when many people had entered. By 11:15, all concertgoers were in the building.
Cam’ron, however, was not. The previous night, he had performed in Michigan, and that afternoon he flew to New York, where he rented a car and drove North to Connecticut with his wife and his manager. Green said that the organizers asked Cam’ron to arrive at 8:30 p.m. but the rapper insisted he would arrive at 9:30. At 10:30, Eric Lopez ’15, another organizer, received a text message to the effect that Cam’ron was in Los Angeles. Klepacz recalled being terrified. “We thought we were being trolled, catfished,” he said. The organizers quickly determined that Cam’ron was en route, but at 11:30, his planned start time, Cam’ron was still not in the building.
“It’s so much easier when performers show up on time,” Green said. “People don’t listen. Next year the Concert Committee will likely add a stipulation subtracting a percentage from the performer’s fee if the performer shows up late.”
Klepacz said that when Cam’ron arrived at 11:40, he was ready to perform right away. “All he asked for was a soda so he could take some medicine,” Klepacz said.
Unfortunately the microphone was missing. The details remain unclear: apparently Skizzy Mars took the mic when leaving stage; he gave it to someone who said they gave it to someone, which third someone said they never received it. “We lost another six or seven minutes that way,” Green said.
The event had to end at 12:15 because the Event Staff and outside security had to leave at 12:30, which was a final point of confusion: Klepacz had reserved the space until 2:00 a.m. and only learned on Saturday night that security would not stay that late.
Cam’ron took the stage at 11:45 and performed for 24 minutes, ending at 12:09. Green said this was also a point of tension. While booking the show, the organizers negotiated at length with the rapper, who wanted to perform for only 35 minutes. The organizers pushed for 45 and thought they had won, but Cam’ron’s early endtime and late arrival suggested he was not committed to this agreement.
“That really got me mad,” Green said.
Thus at 12:09 we the concertgoers exited Beckham and dispersed, having attended a $10,000 concert only slightly longer than an episode of The Simpsons.
Saturday’s Cam’ron confusion was not without precedent. Wesleyan has a history of large concerts with commensurately large troubles, though the four-year student turnover and a lack of institutional memory keeps these cautionary tales from doing much cautioning.
So. In 2011, Wesleyan’s Hockey Rink was host to a double bill of Matisyahu and Chiddy Bang. The fiscal trials and travails of this concert have been discussed extensively and are outside the purview of this article, excepting the approximate price tag, which was over $55,000, the cost of that year’s Spring Fling.
But by all accounts this concert also suffered from sheer size. To maintain order, the Event Staff kept the lights on throughout the concert and refused to let many people onto the rink. And, as was true of Hockey Rink Spring Flings 2012 and 2013, the sound in the Hockey Rink was of poor quality unless one stood directly in front of the stage. And as usual, most concertgoers were very intoxicated.
A member of the class of 2013 (who wished to remain anonymous) recalled the event:
“The lights were really bright, and I was drunk, and I was with my girlfriend who was way less drunk than me. And then Matisyahu went on, and the sound was really bad and you couldn’t hear the words and the ice rink and bleachers were too empty. I just kept staring at the three or four Hasidic guys in traditional 19th-Century Polish dress who were part of his entourage, who were swaying like they do during prayer services, and my girlfriend kept saying, ‘Don’t stare at those men like that, it’s embarrassing me.'”
I spoke with Donovan Arthen ’11, who booked this concert, and who said that large concerts are very difficult to execute well.
“Wesleyan doesn’t lend itself physically to large-scale shows,” he said. “That leads you to looking at spaces and thinking, what’s best for what you’re trying to accomplish? You make choices. If you want high-quality acoustics, don’t do what I did and hold the show in the gym. If you’re looking for the maximum number of people, that’s a different ball game.”
Three years earlier, Girl Talk performed in the Bacon Field House, which is ordinarily home to the indoor track and occasionally host to the Academic Forum where freshmen mill about and talk to faculty from various majors. I don’t know who organized this concert (an Argus article from that era names Dean Mike Whaley and “a group of students”), but by all accounts the concert was unenjoyable.
Ben Firke ’12 recalled a crowd of drunk and unruly students made to wait outside because of setup issues; an small sound system that coupled with terrible acoustics for a largely inaudible concert; and an Event Staff shortage that resulted in several DKE members volunteering to stand in front of the stage.
“And then,” Firke wrote via Facebook chat, “nobody told the security dudes that the main event of any Girl Talk show is everyone bum rushes the stage and dances around him while he does whatever it is he does with his laptops. So the security guys are shoving people left and right. I don’t necessarily blame them since it must’ve been scary to have a few hundred drunk college kids charge at them like it was Antietam, but still, they were kinda rough. I remember one dude took his Mag-Lite, held it at either end, and then ran into a crowd of girls to force them back.”
Will Miller ’12 said of the concert, “It was easily the worst concert I’ve ever been to.” He confirmed Firke’s account and added, “I believe the concert was cancelled because the stage had partially collapsed, though it may have been that the general unruliness reached too great of a level.”
Another member of the class of 2012 confirmed that “everyone was shitfaced.”
Historians will note that the Girl Talk concert took in $30,000 for Financial Aid: $7,500 from ticket sales, matched by $7,500 from the WSA, which total was matched by a $15,000 anonymous donation.
But was this terrible concert the right way to execute that donation drive? And, speaking generally, are big indoor concerts possible at a school as (relatively) small as Wesleyan?
The organizers of such concerts varied in opinion.
Green said that the size of the school shouldn’t limit the size of concerts. She pointed to a 2011 Dr. Dog concert, also in Beckham, as an example of a successful large concert. To this I would add a 2009 Yeasayer show and a 2010 Soulive show, both in Beckham Hall and both successfully executed.
Arthen wasn’t sure whether big concerts are a good idea. “Until the school builds a large-scale performance space,” he said, “I don’t think the school can support a frequency of large shows. But they’re awesome sometimes because they add a lot of energy to campus.” He also noted that at any concert, the organizer can only control so much, and that such problems are more difficult on a bigger scale. “People will always sneak into shows,” he said, “and other people with always help them. Artists will always have weird extenuating circumstances.”
Klepacz suggested, “Large concerts are possible, but only under absolutely right circumstances, which are hard to come across in perfect unison. The Cam’ron concert might have been possible with a different ticketing system.”
Zach Schonfeld ’13, who booked the 2011 Wild Flag and 2012 No Age concerts at Eclectic, and who was a member of the Concert Committee for the 2012-2013 academic year, said he felt that big shows are possible to execute in Beckham, but not in very large spaces like the Field House or the Ice Rink. He suggested that this is simply a function of who’s running the show.
“There’s a small number of students at Wesleyan who have significant experience booking shows,” he said, “but for the most part, college kids are not professionals, they are distracted by schoolwork and social lives, and they will never communicate with SALD or the Sound Coop or with the artist to the extent that’s necessary to make these shows run smoothly. In the case of small, 150-person gigs at Eclectic, the resulting glitches are minor and all part of the fun (like when the sound kept blowing out and an Eclectic member inadvertently snatched half the ticket proceeds during my No Age show). But in the case of really big shows, the consequences of fairly minor problems are also really big for everyone.”
To any prospective bookers of large concerts, Arthen advised, “Every I needs to be dotted and every T needs to be crossed. Make sure you understand the entire rider and that you see everything in print that’s expected of you before anything happens. Work closely with SALD when dealing with a show of this scale.” He also recommended that organizers of large concerts work with Wesleyan’s box office: “When you’re dealing with a concert of that scale, it’s worth the extra fifty cents on the dollar, or the twelve dollars a student might pay instead of $40 or $80 you’d pay to see the artists elsewhere.”
“The organizer should be someone who’s put on a few shows,” Green said. She suggested that organizers of future concerts meet early to plan the event and divide up responsibilities, and that the Cam’ron concert would have gone better with physical tickets. And in the event that another large Beckham concert happens, she said, the organizers learned a lot about managing the space. “We understand how to set up the tables and entrances,” she said. “This was a seemingly small issue that became a huge problem.”
Klepacz advised future organizers of large concerts to know their audience; to work closely with the Concert Committee; and to keep in contact with the artist as much as possible. “Also,” he said, “know that you can’t cater to everyone. When there are 500 people trying to do something, there have to be rules and sacrifices, and you have to stick with them. No big event, no matter how well it goes, is going to make everyone happy.”
However, he added, “If you sacrifice the ambition to get big shows, even though the big shows can be crazy, people might not like having only small acts either. If you care enough about an artist and you think people care too, do it, but know what you’re in for.”
And to future attendees of large concerts, Klepacz suggested: “When you get a ticket, know that it’s going to be crazy.”
• • •
For more on large campus concerts and their mostly fraught history, see:
— this contemporary writeup of the 2008 Girl Talk debacle
— this positive review of the 2009 Yeasayer show in Beckham
— this contemporary analogy between the 2011 Matisyahu concert and the Girl Talk show
— this troubling account of 2013’s Spring Fling