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the power behind the throne

Interview with Brown Concert Agency’s Brock Lownes

According to rumors passed down through generations of agency members, Brown’s tradition of Spring Weekend started in the sixties with Ira Magaziner, the founder of the open curriculum. He and his friends brought Ray Charles to campus. After Magaziner left Brown, a group of students kept the concerts going, booking performers like Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald.

“I don’t know how official this is,” adds current Brown Concert Agency member Brock Lownes, “but they used to do it with their own money. Artists used to tour colleges a lot more because there was no Internet and it was a concentrated area of music fans. I think professional artists were much more used to playing in smaller venues.”

Nowadays, for Spring Weekend, the Brown Concert Agency sets up a festival-size concert stage in the Main Green, which is paid for through ticket sales. Brown University also grants the agency a large annual budget for hiring musicians and handling the weekend’s logistics: “We get the artists to come here, we figure out what vendors are going to serve food, we work with ticketing. We’re just the middlemen between the professionals who are performing and the professionals who are running the event.”

The BCA board starts planning Spring Weekend’s line-up over the summer, discussing which up-and-coming artists will be popular come April and tracking the ones who may be cheapest to book. Their once-a-week meetings are strictly private, limited to the fourteen board members. “We do have a heavy vetting process,” says Brock, “And it may seem exclusive, but it’s just a more efficient model.”

“The booking process is like a game,” he says, “It’s a year-long process of putting out bids, waiting, and it’s very slow. It’s not like we just pick five people and they say yes, it’s a lot of hit or miss.” To hire an artist, the board must first pitch a name to their booking agent, Jack Reich, a long-time booker for Lupo’s in Providence. Jack then contacts the artist’s agent, who responds with a quote—this sum varies sharply depending on the artist, and the BCA tries to book the highest-paid acts first. After some deliberation, the board members submit a bid to the artist’s agent. They wait for an acceptance or another offer. Back and forth happens. Eventually, two parties agree and sign a contract.

“It’s just a push and pull, working with professionals and trying to get them to come to Brown,” Brock says, noting that this year’s acts are “semi-pop-heavy”. The board members have vastly different musical tastes, and that appreciation of diversity reflects in their genre choices—Brock points to recent years’ lineups, which have included a mix of EDM acts, indie bands, rock acts, and other less known genres. The board also prioritizes female artists and performers from other underrepresented groups.

But regardless of their genre or popularity, the BCA wants a line-up of artists who can put on a good show. Many board members attend concerts year-round, collecting notes on performers with outstanding stage presence. “Like Dan Deacon—and before [my] time, the rapper Big Freedia—they were totally random names for lots of Brown students but people ended up loving them because they were such great performers.” (Dan Deacon and Big Freedia performed at Brown University in 2014 and 2013, respectively.)

Brock sees this emphasis on the audience’s felt experience as one of the reasons Brown’s Spring Weekend stands out from other college concerts, like Columbia’s spring concert, headlined by Big Sean, and Penn’s Spring Fling, featuring Kesha. These concerts last a day and feature more conventionally selected artists. “I think we’re really the most relevant concert,” he says, citing the BCA’s ability to blend the unconventional with the established and the upcoming.

In the past few years, Brock says, artists have relied more on touring for their revenue, so ticket prices have become “astronomically higher.” Although Brown has increased the BCA’s budget to follow these trends, booking famous names and Spotify A-listers can be a challenge financially. “People sometimes complain that we don’t get pop acts, but really, if artists are on the radio, we probably can’t afford them.”

“I think the music industry today is very much in flux,” says Brock. “But that flux is also great for creative expression. To be successful, you used to have to get a record deal, and the record companies were like the gatekeepers—and I mean now, look at Lorde, she just posted her shit on tumblr and now she’s a pop star. So that flux, yeah, Internet pirating sucks, but also I think music is more dynamic than it’s ever been.”

The concept of live music, too, has evolved over the decades. Brock notes that modern-day acts like Disclosure and Diplo have a “very different feel” from, say, the Rolling Stones. With advanced technology and easier access to music, the average concertgoer today has a very different notion of what a good live show should sound and feel like. “It’s very different from sixty years ago, when this started and we had Ray Charles.”

The night before Spring Weekend, Brock and other BCA members will be in the Stephen Roberts Campus Center, turning the conference rooms there into private dressing rooms for artists. Will he meet any of the performers? “No, because this is a very formal process. The artists are focusing—they’re like, the creative, and they’re sheltered for a reason.” He emphasizes the highly professional aspect of what they do. The music industry, like other entertainment industries, is based on formalities and interpersonal respect.

That said, Brock admits he gets to meet some performers, briefly. And of course, on the night of Spring Weekend, he gets to enjoy the show that he and fellow members have worked hard to produce, along with thousands of thrilled, drunk, hyped-like-there’s-no-tomorrow Brown students. “This is a real-world experience of booking artists,” he offers as one of his reasons for working with the BCA. “It’s just a really special opportunity that any music fan would like to do.”