What killed campus concerts?
One day after performing for over 20,000 at the Gorge Amphitheater in Quincy, Washington, Bob Dylan announced a surprise performance at the 976 capacity EMU Ballroom on the University of Oregon’s campus for an intimate 16-song concert.
The June 14, 1999 show sold out before anyone could print posters to advertise the event, and it’s rumored that some who were unable to grab tickets cried outside the ballroom.
As surprising as Bob Dylan’s drop-by may seem, the EMU Ballroom used to be the prime destination for music in Eugene, and as a noted college town, some may argue it was the destination for touring bands to play in Oregon. Artists including The Grateful Dead, The Ramones, Talking Heads, B.B. King, R.E.M., Iggy Pop, Public Enemy, Tom Waits, Dave Brubeck and many more have performed at the venue.
But throughout the years, the Ballroom has been downsized from a capacity of 1400 to 976. Concert venues downtown now offer to pay performers more, and the idea of “college rock” has largely vanished. Logistical issues such as parking have driven national touring acts to move their concerts to established venues such as WOW Hall, the McDonald Theater and Hult Center, or even Portland.
Aside from a 2015 Homecoming concert by “Animal House” band Otis Day and The Knights, the majority of events the EMU Ballroom hosts today are student group performances, speeches, community-oriented gatherings or job fairs. Many of these feature music, but seeing a touring band in the EMU Ballroom today is about as rare as Dylan’s surprise show on campus.
“Finding a concert is a bit like finding a unicorn sometimes,” said Mandy Chong, the Center for Student Involvement program director. “There’s a lot in town that has opened up and changed the landscape for where students are going to get their music. It also means that there is a lot of competition to get people to come to this space.”
Today, some of the loudest music in the EMU beckons from Mike Kraiman’s third floor office near the storage closets for EMU Ballroom lighting, sound and stage equipment. Although Mike Kraiman calls himself “historian of the EMU,” he is officially known as the campus scheduling technical administrator and most senior employee of the EMU.
His interest in stage lighting began when he joined his high school’s theater department as a light operator. Later, he applied for the student lighting manager position. In his 39 years at the EMU, Kraiman has provided lighting for concerts in the Ballroom and at Macarthur Court. Three years after graduating with a telecommunications and film degree, he joined the building’s professional staff during the 1985-86 school year.
“Back then there were fewer professional staff, so facilitation of events and support fell to student crews,” Kraiman said.
As the technical services manager, Kraiman was in charge of ensuring that the contractual specifications were met. Often the Ballroom could not fill all the accommodations bands demanded and Kraiman would have to compromise with road managers on specifications that worked for the groups.
Despite having technical limitations, the Ballroom was still a prime destination when college rock was a thriving genre in the ’80s and early ’90s as many campus radio stations played music that the major stations would not. Bands like R.E.M., The Replacements, Husker Du and the Pixies, all of whom performed at the Ballroom, found receptive audiences on the national college circuit.
“If a band was going to come to Eugene, it was pretty much the Ballroom or Mac Court,” Kraiman said. “Once the Hult Center opened up, they took a lot of that business. We still did do a fair amount of programming, but that was part of the equation, not necessarily the whole thing.”
The Cultural Forum, today known as the Center for Student Involvement, had a general idea of which performers could draw a sizeable enough crowd to justify booking a show. The forum served as an active force in drawing bands onto campus.
“There’s a lot of factors playing out right now that have been changing the landscape of music generally,” Chong said. “For the last 15-20 years, music has kind of changed, especially here in Eugene.”
With evolving tastes and musical genres, promoters are faced with the challenge of anticipating what shows will draw a sizable enough audience.
“When concert promoters are looking for dollar signs and things they can sell, the ballroom now doesn’t seem as attractive because you can’t put as many people in there,” Kraiman said.
Access to parking is another major factor preventing large-scale events in the ballroom. Campus has become more bike and pedestrian friendly through the years, but there are only 60 parking spaces available at the EMU with more metered parking available on campus.
The ballroom was remodeled in 1986, four years after the Hult Center opened. Once the EMU Ballroom reopened,
conscious efforts to preserve the newly remodeled ballroom took priority over landing a known band. When the potential cleanup of a rock show versus a speech was taken into account, the speech would likely win the booking battle.
This led to fewer available days for concerts. As promoters were unable to lock in dates, they took their acts elsewhere.
“There were more people looking in on things going, ‘If you bring this group, this is a high risk and more money that has to be spent for insurance,’” Kraiman said. “There were more hoops to jump through and apparently it wasn’t worth people’s time, or they said, ‘We can go over here and there’s less of a concern.’”
Legendary bassist of the Minutemen and The Stooges, Mike Watt spent many of his years with the Minutemen on the college circuit as a leader of the DIY punk rock scene. He questions why schools are cutting back on the arts and increasing spending elsewhere on campuses.
“You’d think on a campus where there’s experimenting in the chemistry lab, there’s experimenting in the physics lab, the business people are talking about different kinds of ways of trying things out, why can’t it be there in the expression things too?” Watt asked. “That means you’ve got to bring on some wild-ass music that maybe is kind of out there.”
Watt recalled how the Minutemen used to perform on campuses across the country, sometimes on quads at lunchtime. Years later, fans have approached him at concerts and told him they first discovered his music at a campus concert.
“There’s something about some wild music at college,” he said. “When people are at college, a lot of them, their pumps are prime. Expose them to stuff. They might come up with the solution we need — the next shift.”
Ultimately, the EMU Ballroom might not remain dormant as a concert venue. Both Kraiman and Chong said that if students want to experience music in the EMU Ballroom, it us up to them to bring bands back to campus.
“Those were good times. Some of it was a little bit crazy,” Kraiman said. “People went away happy and they were exposed to music and it was a good thing. I think I’m not the only one who would like to see more [concerts] come back in here if we can do it.”
Do you appreciate independent student journalism? Emerald Media Group is a non-profit organization. Please consider a donation to support our mission.