Last Rock the Bluff, lights dimmed on The Bleachers’ final song on a setlist of heart thumping anthems. The tired feet of students, pre-frosh and faculty marched out of the Chiles Center and back home.
Their night was over.
But for current Campus Program Director (CPB) Jacque Nelson, along with several other CPB volunteers, the night was just getting started.
The only things left in the quiet arena that had been buzzing with cheers and music just minutes prior were muddy foot tracks, amps and wires intertwined on the stage. The CPB team, led by Sammy van den Berg at the time, stayed working and restoring Chiles to its pre-RTB state until 2 o’clock in the morning.
They took a few hours of reprieve, then the team for next year, including Nelson and Rock the Bluff coordinators Connor Burke (junior) and Kaity Sullivan (sophomore), got back to work, already brainstorming for the next year’s event.
“We meet about what went well, what didn’t go well, what about that can we keep in mind moving forward and then it’s artist time,” Nelson said. “We go straight into preparing that process.”
Artist Time: finding an act
Springtime, every year on campus there is chatter and debate over who will be the next artist. Everyone has their guesses or their inside sources.
“I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows another guy and he said it’s ____.” “Will Smash Mouth make an appearance?” “I put Lil Yachty on the survey.”
It’s a mystery, though the truth often makes its rounds, as a leak of the real artist expands from friend group to friend group. But even this premature information dangles in an air of uncertainty. We’re all in the dark until a Pilot House release party or a Facebook announcement pops up in mid-February or March.
Very few on campus know the real process of choosing an artist for Rock the Bluff. An image might come to mind of University President Fr Mark Poorman and Provost Tom Greene in a big fancy office, leaning back in their chairs, legs crossed, deliberating.
“Ah, Macklemore?” Poorman might say. “Yes, I’ve heard he’s very hot right now. Let’s go with Macklemore.”
But that’s not how it happens. In reality, the process is long and nearly completely student-run. Nelson says that the team, comprised mainly of herself, Burke and Sullivan, but also of CPB volunteers and board members, starts coming up with possible artists during the summer, once the student survey has been posted.
“I think our worst fear is us being really excited about something that the student body isn’t on board with,” Nelson said of why the survey is so important.
Burke says that this year, CPB received over 1,000 survey responses. Most students voted for alternative or pop genres, which is consistent with previous years. After the polls are closed, Nelson, Burke and Sullivan begin work on compiling a list of reasonably priced artists within the most popular genres.
But you can’t give a survey to college students and expect entirely serious answers. Most years, there’s a running joke for suggesting artists. This year it was Smash Mouth.
Nelson says they had dozens of requests for Smash Mouth on the survey. The fervor of demand for the “All Star”- singing, sunglasses wearing, Shrek cult classic was so strong, that Nelson and Burke began to wonder if it was ever really a joke or more of a rally cry.
“It was weird because it turned into a lot of people seriously interested in them,” Nelson said. “We were like, we have to at least see how much they cost because the outpour for this is ridiculous, but they ended up being really expensive.”
Burke says the asking price to have Smash Mouth play the Chiles Center is around $200,000, while the yearly Rock the Bluff budget for a headliner generally caps at $90,000.
Here’s a breakdown of this year’s Rock the Bluff budget:
Once they’ve formulated a list of artists, the team begins drafting proposals that will eventually go out to Student Activities Director Jeromy Koffler and Program Coordinator Tyler Zimmerman.
“It’s an interesting process because you would think that the administrative level is only concerned about ‘are they offensive?’” Nelson said. “But really they also want to know like, ‘are you bringing somebody relevant?’”
Nelson and the RTB squad then send a list of names in order of preference to Ari Nisman and Evan Shaefer, middle-agents the school partners with from Degy Entertainment.
Nisman and Shaefer check to see if the artists are available and how much money it would cost to have them play.
In years past, CPB coordinators have simply had to go down the list until they find the right artist for the right price, but Nelson says that this year has been very different.
The Mystery: this year’s artist
Most years, Rock the Bluff artists are officially chosen around December. But this year, the team has been anxiously sitting on the information since Fall Break.
And they’re dying to tell you.
“The scale of these two bands, they’re much much more in the media, in the now, than any band we’ve ever had before,” Nelson said. “People are going to recognize them, you’ve definitely heard one of their songs. It’s a big deal.”
CPB has had a band in mind since the start of the school year. At the time, they knew the band was about to put out an album and wanted to try and get them before their level of fame rose.
“We went through months of work in two weeks so we could send this proposal,” Nelson said.
Their hard work paid off. According to Nelson, the band agreed to play for around $85,000, a quarter of what they would cost if she inquired today.
The End of the Road: prepping for the night of
Believe it or not, UP doesn’t have a hotel room for rowdy rock bands to trash the night of their show. The school doesn’t have barricades in storage or special security on call. And the basketball court doesn’t magically transform into a music arena.
It takes a lot of work — work that often goes unnoticed — to make campus rock-star-ready. Once an artist has been finalized, RTB coordinators begin sifting through an artist contract that could ask them to do any number of things.
“We can’t go over what they request because it’s in the contract that we can’t tell anyone, but they can request very strange things and very specific things,” Burke said.
Nelson says contracts can include anything from a half a can of coke to a light up mirror in the dressing room. All of the expenses are budgeted into the overall asking price for the artist.
Crowd control is also a big topic for the day of the concert.
This year, the RTB team has a few plans to mediate the crowd. Nelson says they’re working on opening up both sides of Chiles’ upper mezzanine. In years past, half of the upper level has been open as a beer garden for students and faculty of age.
“We’re thinking instead of having just the mezzanine be the beer garden, maybe open up a nonalcoholic side as well for the people who maybe are less into the crowd thing but still want to be there,” Nelson said.
Rock the Bluff is hard work for a team of around 20 students — dragging couches into locker rooms, setting up the stage, designing tickets and posters, contracting out security and ticket salesmen. But the success of the event and the variety of personalities in the artists they get to work with make it worth it for Nelson, Burke and Sullivan.
Nelson remembers a swell of pride as she scrolled through Instagram last year and saw Alunageorge’s post. She was decked out in the Pilot gear CPB had left in her dressing room the night of the concert.
Burke and Nelson are stoked to start working more closely with the bands for this year, and they’re stoked to make the big reveal. Nelson has the early designs for this year’s stickers and logos taped up on the wall of her office, and just the mention of this year’s event has her grinning with excitement.
“We’re going to shake it up a little bit,” Nelson said.
So keep your eyes peeled. The time is ripe for a Rock the Bluff announcement.
We’ll give you one hint: It’s not Lil Yachty.