Who Stopped The Music?

Who Stopped The Music?

By: Lucas Pollack

January 31st, 2021

This article is from our Winter 2022 Magazine Issue. Read the full magazine here.

Drake. U2. Tupac. Dolly Parton. Elton John. Sun Ra. Pearl Jam. Ludacris. Cher. Bruce Springsteen. Chance the Rapper. The Backstreet Boys. The Rolling Stones. The White Stripes. The Smashing Pumpkins. The Beach Boys. Doughboyz Cashout. Hootie and the Blowfish. Red Hot Chili Peppers. Wilco. Aerosmith. Lil Uzi Vert.

Believe it or not, they’ve all graced a stage in East Lansing at one point or another. Per the Lansing State Journal, The Boss himself was in fact refused a show at The Brewery, a fabled rock ‘70s club once located just a stone’s throw from Michigan State University’s Brody neighborhood. That’s right: a local concert venue too good for Bruce Springsteen.

Before it was Harper’s on Albert Avenue, it was Dooley’s. There, you might catch a band like The Ramones on a given night, or U2, who played once there and once at Spartan Stadium. The club met its demise when the East Lansing City Council refused to renew their liquor license in 1996, citing safety and underage drinking concerns. 

MSU students and Lansing-area residents benefited from a healthy concert scene all the way from the ‘70s into the 2000s. Beloved off-campus venues over the years included Grand River disco club, The Bus Stop; early aughts rock venue Small Planets on M.A.C; Lansing’s The Temple Club and Mac’s Bar; and the still-standing Rick’s American Cafe.  

The MSU Auditorium hosted Pearl Jam on the tour of their cultural landmark album, “Ten. And, The Backstreet Boys, at the height of their powers, played the Breslin Center in 2000. Plus, The White Stripes dropped by “right as they were getting big,” said the general manager of Impact 89FM, Jeremy Whiting, who attended the concert.

But somewhere down the line, that lively concert culture all but disappeared.

Through his position at Impact 89FM, Whitingcurrently works to put on concerts at MSU alongside three other MSU organizations: Associated Students of Michigan State University, the Residence Hall Association, and the University Activities Board. He and Erik Maillard, an advisor to ASMSU and assistant director of student life at MSU, are aiming to revive concert culture.

“I know a lot of ‘80s bands and ‘70s bands would come through those venues and they packed the places, which was really cool. It’s too bad we don’t see that as often anymore because it seems like Detroit and Grand Rapids are kind of the big spots for bands to come in, perform, and Lansing just gets lost in the shuffle sometimes,” said Whiting. 

Negotiating with promoters and performers, Whiting was behind the scenes of MSU’s last major concert, the Impact’s 30th Birthday Bash in 2019. That’s when the Breslin hosted The Front Bottoms, Beach Bunny and hometown heroes Grey Matter. 

In many ways, Whiting and company are fighting an uphill battle in organizing concerts at MSU. For one, there’s a deep, if unsung, tradition of live shows to live up to. And, over the past decade, their ability to attract starpower has waned.

While there have been some bright spots in the time since, U2’s Spartan Stadium show seemed to mark the end of an era for superstar concerts in East Lansing. Late-career acts such as Kesha, We The Kings, All Time Low, and Panic! At The Disco have visited MSU in recent years.

“Just seeing where we used to be and where we are now, it’s really kind of shifted a lot,” said Maillard. He came to East Lansing in 2014.

That shift is the outcome of a combination of factors, ranging from budgets and funding to event coordination. Whiting cited contractual agreements within the concert market.

“I think a lot of the struggle with getting some of the top tier artists in town has to do with non-compete clauses and making sure that the bands aren’t performing in a certain proximity to a major market like Detroit or Grand Rapids within a certain time frame of performing in Lansing.”

East Lansing ranks as a “third-tier market” concert destination, said Maillard. “There’s your highest one: Detroit, the Chicago’s, New York’s. Then you got your secondary ones like the Grand Rapids, and you got your third ones, which are kind of like, you know, East Lansing, Lansing Area Capital Area.”

He continued to explain that MSU, lacking proximity to major metropolitan areas or common tour routes, is at a further disadvantage.

“Lansing is [in] a mitten surrounded by water. So if you’re in Michigan, you have to intend to be here, versus other places that might be more centrally located. I’m thinking about, you know, some of our SEC schools, right, where they’re kind of in the middle of an existing tour and they can kind of get involved.”

Because of this hindrance, many recent shows on campus have been “stand-alone concerts,” not part of a larger tour. The extra effort required to put on stand-alone concerts requires them to be more costly. 

Another shift that Maillard noticed was within student government. When he began his current role, concerts were a top priority for ASMSU. There once was the Pop Entertainment department, which was “essentially an entertainment arm of ASMSU.” They worked closely with other organizations to bring concerts to East Lansing. 

“Over time, as everything else has gone up in cost, you know, the organization has kind of had to readjust itself in the sense that they have other priorities, right? And they want to provide things like safe ride, legal services for students, you know, government advocacy,” Maillard said.

Furthermore, planning an event in coordination with multiple organizations first requires that those organizations are able to coordinate.

“RHA and ASMSU are both political organizations in the sense that they have to approve a budget. So, we can’t be planning all year, all summer, typically, with ASMSU, because they would have to be in session and approve a budget. And the same with RHA. So that’s usually why you see a spring show, very few fall shows.”

MSU’s concert planning brigade also must compete for available space at the university’s number of venues. Of course, they’ll have to work around basketball at the Breslin Center. And although it’s got ample seating, the Breslin’s capacity can be an obstacle as well as an asset.

“The Breslin is great, but it’s a huge venue, so you really have to take some steps to make it seem a little smaller and more intimate most of the time, unless you’re having someone like U2 perform there,” said Whiting.

“The Breslin has really kind of adapted over the years, and we saw that in 2019,” said Maillard. “I was really excited and enthusiastic, the way that they were able to shrink down the arena to make it more of a 3- to 4,000-student venue versus a 15,000, 16,000 venue.”

He likened the Auditorium, on the other hand, to “an old fashioned rock show venue.” It’s an apt comparison, especially considering the longstanding building’s ventilation—or lack thereof.

“It’s a cool, old building, but it kind of knocks out some of the later spring concerts because there’s no air conditioning there. So, it can be difficult to realistically host a show there if everyone is already going into a building that is kind of warm and then you pack thousands of people in there next to each other,” said Whiting of the Auditorium.

Then, there’s the holy grail of MSU’s concert venues: Spartan Stadium. Just two concerts have been previously executed there, U2 in 2011 and the Rolling Stones on their Voodoo Lounge tour in 1994. As one could imagine, it’s no easy feat.

The first issue is Spartan Stadium’s natural turf. The field had to be resodded after the U2 show because tarps, tons of equipment and thousands of attendees rendered the existing turf unusable. Plus, the field was resodded once again in 2019. Perhaps the athletic department is not so eager to tear it up very soon. What’s more, the “turnover,” or process of cleaning up the stadium after an event, is expensive and takes days. 

Outdoor shows introduce an additional number of hurdles compared to their indoor counterparts. Generators and wifi have to be taken under consideration. Infrastructure such as seating must be transported into the space. And, that’s not to mention Michigan weather.

“It’s fun to plan out a great outdoor concert, and you hope that everything works out great. But hey, just your luck: It’s storming that day, or it decided to snow in July. You never know [laughs]. So that’s always a risk,” said Whiting.

While it might not be a good idea to hold your breath for a Spartan Stadium concert, students do have a show to look forward to, potentially.

“As of right now, we are planning to do an in-person concert in the spring,” said Maillard. “There’s no dates, there’s no artists. So don’t ask me that [laughs]. We’re in the preliminary conversations with our partners to do something and bring something really cool.” 

In Jan. 2021, Whiting, Maillard and company put on a virtual concert for Minnesotan indie rock group Hippo Campus, who originally had a live show slated for 2020. 

“The virtual show, I thought, was a big hit, overall.” said Maillard. “I think we had over 500 students attend. They all learned that they were fans of the same band and they started doing, like, a Group Me.”

“But this year, we’re really hoping to be able to do things in person,” said Whiting.

COVID remains a concern for the concert planners and the rest of the nation, but they speak with optimism. After all, the touring industry has gotten back on its feet in the latter half of the year, with many artists and venues requiring masks and vaccinations.

“Of course, right now we’re using masks indoors and we’re still going through that. Myself, I’m not expecting that to change in the short term, but I think even if that’s still the case, we’d try to do something,” said Whiting.

“Places like the Breslin would be ideal for that, so we can have a lot of open air, open space,” said Maillard. “And, you know—even if we had to limit capacity, let’s say—we would still be able to accommodate probably everybody who wants to go to the show.”

The demand and desire for live music is not lost on Whiting.

“I think at fall welcome, we saw that students are just clamoring for something to do in-person. They were looking for that connection. So, I’ve been to concerts in the last few months, and it just seemed like everyone’s just so excited to be there. And that’s really cool to see.”

Surely, it’s a success in and of itself to have a performance on campus after the prolonged absence of live shows. But Whiting and Maillard aren’t interested in booking more established veterans or putting on any hum-drum concert.

While MSU may not be able to attract the superstar performers it once could, that wasn’t the only aspect that contributed to East Lansing’s concert heydays. The first time U2 came into town was in 1981—years before their breakthrough and eventual takeover. And, as Whiting bore witness to, The White Stripes graced the Union ballroom when they were the hottest new band in indie rock.

It’s that magic Whiting and Maillard are trying to revive in East Lansing: getting up-and-coming artists that are beginning to catch fire to stop by campus.

“​​What we’ve tried to do is identify those acts that are about to get big,” said Whiting. “So, ones that maybe students are just starting to hear about. They’re still not commanding like packed theaters in the Detroit area, but maybe in a year or so, or even if we’re lucky a few months from now, that’s what they’re doing.”

It’s a target that’s been hit priorly with performances from the now-darling indie act Beach Bunny, Lil Uzi coasting off “Bad and Boujee” and newfound mega-stardom and Chance the Rapper when he wasn’t on streaming services.

For Maillard, it’s a matter of nabbing these acts when they’re at this stage of their ascent. He checks anticipated album releases and ticket sales in college markets as well as others to keep an eye out for them.

“None of us are fortune tellers. And unfortunately, you know, we’ll probably start the booking process in November, December … for something that’ll be in March or April. Again I don’t know the date, but you know, that’s kind of the hard part too is trying to look ahead.”

Though he was unable to offer any specifics on dates or performers, Maillard complimented those tasked with organizing this year’s concert. They’re heavily weighing input to exact a concert that is fiscally feasible and wide in appeal.

“I think, to the students’ credit, they’re just trying to be really intentional because they know that they only get one big chance at it every year or so. So I like that. They’re not just rushing to coalesce around one genre or one artist, they’re really looking at the market and figuring out what makes the most sense.”

“The up-and-coming artist is really kind of the sweet spot, if you will, right?” said Whiting. “Because the cost is a little bit lower, but the interest is high.”

While cost is certainly a deciding factor when the committee is allocating funds, Maillard is also mindful of the cost of a ticket to the average student, who might not have major concert money lying around.

“Could we bring a big name act? You know, we could, but the cost is going to go on to the student. The one thing I never want to hear is, like, ‘I really want to go, but I can’t afford it.’ As an advisor and somebody who works in student affairs, that’s kind of a bummer to me.”

“I think that we’re probably best serving our students by making sure we’re giving them a good variety of acts, but also not breaking the bank and making sure that we’re able to keep ticket prices down to give them something that is really great to see and hear on campus,” said Whiting.

Whiting and Maillard agree that, at the end of the day, everything comes down to funding for student activities. 

“I just hate to say that because there’s a lot of great people trying really hard, but it really does come back to money,” Maillard said.

Again, semester-long services provided to students leave little to spend on one night of music, one concert experience. But he sees an alternative option.

“A student activity fee, let’s say it’s $25 or $30 per year per student. Think about the impact that that would give you in buying power, right? And I know students are like, ‘Oh, another fee,’” said Maillard.

“But if you were to be able to offer maybe one or two shows per semester, [one] small scale, one large scale and do it on a regular basis, I mean, then you could start planning ahead. You would know that that income is going to be there to do it.”

Student activity fee or not, Maillard knows there’s work that needs to be done in MSU’s concert community. Shows won’t magically pop up; there needs to be a determined effort and collective push to bring them back.

“Back when Pop Entertainment was going and all those shows… My thought is that that didn’t happen by chance.”

There’s a rich history behind concerts in East Lansing, from retired dive bars and venue gems to worldwide headliners visiting Spartan Stadium. While COVID set live music across the nation quite a few steps back, many are itching for artists’ return to the stage. And if all goes well, that return is on the horizon. 

If a lively concert culture happened once in East Lansing, it can happen again. All it takes is a good old college try.

Lucas Polack is a senior studying professional and public writing. He also works as a production assistant for Michigan Radio’s Stateside program. When he’s not staring at a blank Google doc, Lucas can be found walking his dog, Lizzy, and listening to his favorite band, Prince Daddy & The Hyena.