9 Things You Didn’t Know About The College Music Market

Ari Herstand Playing the College Music Circuit
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A lot of musicians want to play at colleges, but most don’t really know what that means.  As someone who has played over 100 official university sponsored shows around the country, it’s a field I know quite intimately.  From the schools surrounded by a hundred miles of corn to the those with 40,000 students located in the center of densely populated metropolises, I’ve done them all.  But these kinds of shows aren’t quite what you’d think. If you know and understand club and festival touring, prepare for your world to be turned upside down.

Here are 9 things that you probably didn’t know about the college entertainment market:

1) There Is Very Little Overlap Between the Music Industry and the College Industry

The college industry is not the music industry.  You cannot approach college shows like you approach club shows.  You cannot approach college booking like you approach club booking.  You cannot approach advancing college shows like you approach advancing club shows.  You cannot approach sleeping arrangements for college shows the same way you approach sleeping arrangements for club shows (unless you want to get arrested or sued by daddy).

These are completely different industries.  Building a fan base for your career is quite different than building a career within the college circuit.  Some acts who make $100,000 a year in college bookings, can’t bring 20 people out to a club show in their home town.

It’s a different scene.  A different approach.

2) You Don’t Need A Fanbase To Get High Paying Bookings

Colleges book talent to entertain their students. Whether you are a comedian, singer/songwriter, band, hypnotist, magician or juggler, you serve the same purpose: entertainment.  The entertainment committees at these schools don’t care if you bring 1,000 people to your clubs shows or 10.  They care that you will entertain their students.  Of course if you are a famous act to the school’s students you can demand more money, but in general, colleges will book high quality talent regardless of their draw, sales numbers, radio plays or Facebook Likes.

Whether 5 or 500 come to your show you get paid the same.  Unlike splitting the door with a club, colleges hand you a check after your show for the job you performed.  It’s the school’s sole responsibility to get people to their “event.”  You just need to show up and play.

3) College Shows Pay An Average Of $1,200 + Expenses For a 70 Minute Set

I’ve been paid upwards of $3,200 for a 70 minute set of mostly original music (where exactly no one on campus had ever heard of me), but on average, most unknown bands and singer/songwriters make about $1,200 plus all expenses, including plane tickets, rental car, sound, lights, hotel and food.

4) The People Who Book You For The Big Money Shows Are On The Campus Activities Board

Of course you could get “booked” by the chess club to play their spring dance for $100 or the college radio station for their fundraising event for $250 and lots of spins, but the big money comes from the university’s entertainment budget.  Nearly all 4,000 schools in the US have an annual entertainment budget, ranging from about $10,000 – $300,000 (depending on the size and wealth of the school).  And most midsize-large schools have a Campus Activities Board (CAB) (it’s called something different at every school) with various subcommittees that organize events throughout the year.  The smaller schools, however, may just have one employee in charge of scheduling all events and booking all talent.

The members of the CAB aren’t typically into the same kind of music as the college radio station DJs.  Whereas the DJs are playing the hottest new indie-electro-dream-spaz act out of Portland, the CABs are booking acts that sound like top 40.  As much as they’d like to bring diverse kinds of music to campus, singers/songwriters and pop/rock bands get booked the most in this scene.  If you’re an instrumental jazz combo, hardcore rap act, screamo band or experimental project, the college world isn’t for you.

5) There Are Set Dates Colleges Need To Fill With Entertainment

Unlike booking a club tour, colleges typically set dates before the academic year begins with events that they need to fill with entertainers.  These range from freshman orientation, welcome week, homecoming, coffee house night, Spring Jam, big concerts, and so on.  You don’t approach CABs with a date that works best for you, they come to you with a few dates that work best for them.  You either accept a date or don’t.  There is very little wiggle room when it comes to these dates.  Oftentimes the dates they have set coincide with other events happening on campus and cannot be moved to fit your touring schedule.  They’ll just find another act.

6) There Are College Booking Agents Who Don’t Book Anything BUT Colleges

Most of the top college booking agents represent comedians, hypnotists, speakers, a cappella groups, bands, singer/songwriters and have ways to provide inflatable moon bounces, cotton candy machines or light sticks for whatever event the college needs. The agencies like to be one-stop-shops for all campus entertainment needs.  These agents won’t book you a club or festival tour, but they will help you route a college tour.

7) You Don’t Need To Be A Member Of NACA To Showcase

If you’ve done any research on the college market, you’ve probably heard NACA (and APCA) pop up.  These are annual conferences where hundreds of schools (send thousands of campus representatives) to scout out talent for the coming year.  I’ve showcased at 4 NACA conferences and 3 APCA conferences (and Nationals for both).  I’m not a member of NACA, but my agent is.  There are a bunch of fees that go along with becoming members of these organizations, but if you team up with an agency, they will handle most of the fees for you.

8) Cold Calls To Colleges Are Extremely Difficult And Rarely Work

When I was in between agents, after I had played nearly 50 colleges, I tried to go at it on my own.  As someone who has booked hundreds of club shows and festivals around the country, I figured “how hard could this be.”  Turns out extremely hard.  Most of the people who brought me to campus the previous year were no longer on the campus activities board (they graduated or found another club to be a part of).  So I no longer had the connections.

Not only do most committees completely turn over every couple years, many schools like to go to NACA and/or APCA first to find the hot new talent, and then fill the holes with talent from the agencies they already have relationships with (that they made from booking their acts from NACA).  The reason colleges like booking through agents and NACA is because these organizations vet the talent.  Colleges want to book acts that are easy to work with and who won’t tarnish the school’s reputation.  Most agency contracts contain stipulations stating that you won’t sleep with any of the students, you won’t drink or do drugs while on campus, you won’t party with the students and you won’t act like a d**k in general.  You are a direct representation of the agency.  If you mess up, the agency messed up.

If the Campus Activities Board books you directly and brings you to campus and you throw an underage drinking rager and impregnate half the women on campus, the full weight of the university will come down on the Campus Activities Board and they will be held personally responsible for not doing their due diligence in vetting the talent.

9) Most Of The Shows Aren’t That Glamorous

Yeah, I’ve opened for superstars in giant arenas on campus, but the very next day I played a cafeteria at 11 in the morning to the backs of hungover college kids on a sound system built into the ceiling with only 2 inputs on a stage that fell apart halfway through my set.  And I got paid the exact same for each!  The shows are all over the place.  You’ll never really know what kind of show it’s going to be until you arrive on campus.

10 Responses

  1. Vail, CO

    Awesomely insightful as usual Ari. I know many top comedians don’t play colleges anymore because of the extreme PC, trigger word alerts and sensitivity lawsuits and the like that really make it hard to say anything anymore. Is this affecting musicians at all?

    • Ari Herstand

      Right, yeah. Colleges won’t book anything that is deemed “offensive” by anyone. Edgy, yes, offensive no. That’s why genre restrictions are so cut and dry and very few hardcore rap, screamo, metal, political or other kinds of acts that could be considered offensive aren’t booked. I’ve actually been asked by a school not to play one of my more politically charged songs. I’ve worked out a 70 minute PG-13 set. It’s like any show, you have to play to the room. Play to the crowd and the venue. But with colleges, you have to keep it safe (ish).

  2. DC

    In my situation we (performers) are lucky to get what a normal band in the non college student circuit would get. Bars will hardly pay 100-200 for a 2-3 set gig. And its not much different with my school (it can be circumstantial). But at the same time, we making a decent attempt to get our performers more into the mainstream than most college-music performance platforms do. We have a venue for indie music, touring acts, and etc… in the heart of the city, and another venue in the suburbs for the Jazz oriented music program.

  3. Ashley

    This is awesome, Ari. I spent my senior year as Concert Director at the largest university in the country & saw almost all of these scenarios play out, even at one school. I had the chance to book Taylor Swift in 2008, but I only had one date for the venue we could use & she was booked that night, so she had to pass. Don’t think that doesn’t haunt me. :/

    A few stray observations:

    – We actually did pay a lot of attention to online presence (MySpace at the time,) album sales & if they were currently active with a new album, big single, etc. That way, we had a lot of content to work with. It was very hard to promote an artist in a vacuum & it can be incredibly hard to get bodies there. We had a ton of students, but they had a ton of options, including a big city to spend their time in. If you’re playing in Nowhere, Washington, you ARE the event. That said, even if you have moderate traction, you’ll still get so much more than a club show.

    – We had an sizable insurance policy clause ($1MM) for any artist we paid even $1. Have you found that to be common? I always wondered because it was a no-go for a lot of acts we wanted to book.

    – I know you mentioned getting paid the guarantee + expenses, but at least for us, it was all-in. We couldn’t book travel or anything & production was separate from all of that.

    – Prepare for your rider to have all the fun stuff nixed 🙂 We weren’t allowed to drop booze in the green room, even as a public school.

    – You are 100% right about the kinds of genres that work. You’re never gonna please everyone (in my case, 70K students,) but if you could get an artist that sounded familiar – in sound or style – the kids would come. They loved being able to say they heard them when. I wanted to break out of the mold a bit, but it was hard to swing. I wanted the aforementioned TSwift show to feature a hip-hop act as well, but it just never came together.

    – A big point about NACA is that they are regionalized & are designed to help route artists in a practical way that saves everyone time & money.

    Again, this is great. I’ve had countless conversations with friends in bands who have wanted to get involved & this is an excellent guide!

    • Ari Herstand

      Thanks Ashley! I will incorporate your notes into my webinar.

      I’ve never seen the insurance policy stipulation, but I’ve only negotiated about 10 contracts myself – the other 90 or so were done by my agents. So they must have an insurance policy.

      What was your school’s annual budget? Always curious to find how they differ.

  4. Rip Off

    Hang on a second. TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS to participate in your ‘webinar’ Ari? You consistently write about huge companies scamming money from musicians and here you are trying to get 200 bucks off desperate musicians with the chance of playing ‘huge stadiums’ like you have apparently played.
    If you were a successful musician you wouldn’t be on here scraping the dollars off people selling the dream. You would be getting $3000 a night like you apparently are.
    Good luck with the webinar Ari. Looks like you’ll need a hair transplant pretty soon so i’m hoping there are enough idiots out there for you.

    • Ari Herstand

      I set the price at what it is because the college market is an investment and not for everyone. If someone books one college show from this, it will have paid for it. And, I’m not selling dreams. I’m very realistic about this process and am very clear up front (in all the descriptions of what this is). Not sure how you missed #9 about the cafeteria’s at 11 in the morning.

      Considering this webinar sold out (and I offer a money back guarantee), not sure how this is a rip off. My time is worth money. This is very valuable information and it’s a tiny college market. University music business programs charge 1,000x this amount and you don’t leave with this specific information or know-how. I only want those to attend and get this information who are very serious about it. That’s why I set it at $200. And I am only doing this because it’s the #1 question I get asked – how to break into the college market.

      I’m spending 3 hours divulging information I have learned over 8 years and 100+ college shows in a real-time setting where people can ask questions.

      If someone isn’t serious enough to pay $200 for a workshop, they aren’t serious enough for the college market. If they attend and learn nothing, they get their money back. Plain and simple.

      • Flomulous

        I can’t believe you even replied to that idiot. H/S obviously hasn’t a clue.

    • Yer Granny

      Typical bozo who thinks being cheap all his life will get him anywhere. Keep trying to get everything for nothing loser, and you will end up with nothing. That’s the way it works. People pay what the market will bear. If they can’t afford it, then they’ll do something else. $200 is not nothing, but for information that could save you more than 5-6 hours of your life, (and instruction usually puts people on entire new paths they would have NEVER found otherwise) if your own rate is $30/hr, it’s fair.

  5. Anjali Kumar

    Thanks for the article! I am right now debating paying for the NACA or teaming up with a booking agency as you suggest. I’m assuming an agency takes a cut of the cost and such? How do you find such agencies..I’m googling them right now haha.