October 22, 2013

MAB: Give us a Chance

Major Activities Board aims to bring high-quality music to campus while navigating limited process and budget.

The Major Activities Board (MAB) has had a prominent role on campus for over 30 years, and our large budget gives us the responsibility to put on not only quality, but popular and accessible events. Summer Breeze, our signature event, is attended by about half of UChicago’s undergraduate population each spring, and our fall and winter shows are their own campus institutions. We recognize that many students are eager to see a contemporary, relevant roster of talent. In addition to announcing a fall show that we believe meets this standard, we want to explain why and how MAB makes its bookings. This is less a justification of our decisions than a clarification of our process; we’re committed to being more accessible and visible to the students who care about our presence on campus.

MAB’s primary duty is to put on good shows, but it’s worth noting that “good” can mean anything to anyone. What the 14 of us on the board look for are not only musicians and comedians who are proven live performers, but who represent strains of interest within popular music that can appeal to the most people on campus. That requires serious judgment on our part: We have to approve of not only the performer’s quality, but also appeal. Our goal is to sell out every show.

This is only the first phase of our work. We have to consider artist costs, negotiate dates, and then organize backstage requirements with booking agents. Our group works tirelessly on and takes great pride in these arrangements, but they rarely proceed as either party imagines or hopes. We would love to be able to send Frank Ocean a personal e-mail with a date and an offer on our terms, but there are a considerable number of obstacles that prevent us from maneuvering the nuances of the music industry and its booking process that effortlessly.

What we do end up with is an extremely limited and conditional list of artists—narrowed down from an original list of hundreds—who fit both our interests and our price range, timing, and musical standards. While the board tries to maintain a keen awareness of the music world’s shifts and trends, it’s always a challenge to reconcile these with what students want, and any booking will likely make a significant section of campus unhappy. We want every show to be tailored to our audience’s interests, but as an independent group we also have to take responsibility for introducing the campus to what we think is the best and most forward-thinking new music. We’ve failed to do this in some of our bookings, and because of the nature of the system, we might fall short of our own expectations in the future. But we’re working harder than ever this year to meet our standards.

In addition to this process, MAB needs to clarify the preferences that shape our choices. There are two genres that we feel compelled to defend as the central focus of our booking process: hip-hop and electronic music. Every board member has distinct music tastes, and many don’t listen to rap or electronic music regularly. But all of us recognize the place of these genres in modern pop music and in the interests of students: They’re no longer niche-oriented subcategories of the mainstream—they are the new mainstream. Artists like Drake and Kendrick Lamar are as essential to radio now as Lady Gaga was just a few years ago. Because of the Internet’s ability to give voice to so many new artists and genres in so many different ways, the term “popular music” can no longer be restricted to older record label–driven notions of what that signifies.

Electronic music is the fabric of these newer and more accessible hip-hop sounds, and its energy is the perfect partner to hip-hop’s new party-oriented tones. This new center of gravity within popular music is the organizing principle of this show. What MAB looks to do with these genres now is not just highlight them, but use them to create a new dynamic for our shows—a consistent and exciting environment that sustains itself through the entire concert.

Our fall show this year, which features Chance the Rapper and Bondax, is exactly that kind of concert. It highlights emerging talent from hip-hop and electronic music, and an assortment of sounds indicative of what we feel is quality, popular, and accessible in music today. Most importantly, Chance and Bondax are terrific live performers. The Major Activities Board is just the 14 of us, and we are always looking to hear from music fans whose interests diverge from our own. We hope that with a better understanding of our challenges that our bookings will make more sense, and that MAB will be able to successfully expose students to this new era in popular music.

Fourth-year Jack Friedman is chair of the Major Activities Board.

Third-year Katie Kirkland is MAB's public relations chair.