For bands on a tour, playing at colleges can be a godsend. Not because you're connecting with a new fan base, not for groupies 20 years younger than you, and not to play for enthusiastic audiences. It's the money. College shows pay great and they pay for your tour.
Oregon College Gigs
Posted by Charlie Recksieck
Student Activities Boards have big budgets subsidized by every students tuition whether the students go to campus events or not. Which is a good thing because very frequently, your band show is not going to be well attended - or even well thought out.
There's an expression in music, "A blues guitarist plays 3 chords in front of thousands of people, and a jazz guitarist plays thousands of chords in front of 3 people." I can supply a similar statement: "Bands play college shows to 20 people for $1000 while they can play for 100 people in clubs for $200."
Anyway, I like writing about certain gigs here on the blog from time to time to give everybody a glimpse of all of the incredibly varied playing situations a musician can find oneself in. Today I'm writing about two college shows in Oregon about 10 years ago.
Our Northwest Connections
The Bigfellas has always been a San Diego band but when Shay moved to Portland, then we because a two-city band and went from playing 30-40 times a year to about 5-10 times - either in San Diego or the Pacific Northwest.
Not only did Shay establish a beachhead for the band up north, but my mother lived north of Seattle for a couple of decades. So a trip up north meant visiting friends along the way, a band "tour" (3-5 shows) for a week, and a few days visiting Mom on Whidbey Island.
It let to some of our most memorable shows on Guemes Island - where we returned every year and somehow were the most beloved music act on this hidden island of 600 residents near Anacortes.
Those shows are another story. These two Oregon college shows should involve the opposite of "beloved."
We had a blast on that tour, playing as a trio with a Portland bass player Dmitri. And as I mentioned before, we were able to play a killer show at a crowded pizza place in Seattle for figurative peanuts and literal pizza because we cashed a nice check from Pacific University about an hour west of Portand.
We were the entertainment at the freshmen orientation and ice cream social - two days before there were other students on campus besides some very confused and quiet 17- and 18-year olds. I think the ice cream social should tell you everything you need to know - it brings to mind Spinal Tap at the fair lamenting that the marquis was supposed to say "Spinal Tap THEN Puppet Show". Or this photo above should capture the non-spirit of the event.
That said, as always with college shows - the student activities organizers couldn't have been more friendly, more eager to help load gear in and out, and more prompt in handing over the check.
University of Oregon - Cafeteria
This show was at a much larger school - the University of Oregon the following spring. A Pac-12 school! We were ready to blow the doors off for this one. That tour we had Andy Machin come up for guitar and vocals for the tour and our local friend Jaime May on bass. Fun-as-hell shows at a small Portland theater, our Guemes Island home away from home and a nutty hybrid Chinese restaurant and rock venue called Benny Huie's. Again, the college show was not the highlight.
(We didn’t take photos of this show and we’re happy about that. But this Andy & Shay photo was from that tour.)
Two weeks prior we played at Cal State San Marcos and two weeks after at University of Redlands here we had lively nice crowd college shows - so they're not always poorly attended.
But this U of Oregon one was bananas. They set us up in the cafeteria. We couldn't have been more than 15 yards away from the cashier and the desserts. And we were L-O-U-D. Yet we got no reaction from the students during or between songs. I'm not saying nobody liked us; I'm saying that nobody reacted to us - like we were on a Twilight Zone episode where we were completely invisible and unhearable to the people around us.
Again, the FIVE volunteer students carried all of our gear; I didn't lift a thing once. And it got us from a weekend show down in Ashland back up towards Portland on a Tuesday night in Eugene. That's another beauty of college shows - if you can schedule on a Tuesday or Wednesday then it's a great paying placeholder between weekend club dates. But this audience reaction was such a gut punch - as soon as we packed up I hustled us over for emergency BBQ dinner across the street from Sam Bond's Garage (a better Eugene venue for us).
Why Do It?
Colleges are still an important part of the music diet. But as somebody who usually does the booking for the bands he's in - you really need to commit to play colleges. It takes a lot of focus on playing student booker conventions like NACA to make serious money.
But who cares if the crowds aren't huge, or are even catatonic. You're playing your music and getting paid. And even stories of bad gigs are great stories when you're in a band. Though I've had some bad solo gigs and those do not make good stories - they just suck when you're there by yourself without your bandmates.