Success in the making

After seven years and several near misses, Juice Jam sells out once again.

At noon, a buzzing mob of 80 students, some sharing headphones, some giddily squealing for Passion Pit and Lupe Fiasco, crowded onto two well-worn yellow school buses at the College Place bus stop. The most aggressive ones pushed and shoved their way into seats – the rest were left behind in the early afternoon drizzle, wondering if the semester’s biggest campus concert was about to start without them.

Photo: Alex Pines
The Juice Jam crowd enjoys a day full of musical acts at Skytop field on South Campus.

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Juice Jam, Syracuse University’s annual back-to-school concert, sold out this year for only the second time since the event started in 2004. While that resulted in longer lines at College Place and the food tent, it also marked a major success for University Union, which curates the event. Selling out such a large show is a delicate science and there are no clear answers as to why this one has so much appeal.

But UU representatives, local music industry experts and the performers themselves suspect that promotion techniques and headliner popularity had something to do with it.

“As we were giving out fliers with the lineup, I saw people get individually excited for Lupe, super-excited for Super Mash Bros and super-excited for Passion Pit separately,” UU president Andrew Beyda said.

After UU announced that the show had sold out on Sept. 8, the first question on many students’ minds was how a field could “sell out” at all.

Juice Jam is currently staged at Skytop Field on South Campus and has a cap of 4,999 people. The Safety Department determined the 4,999-body cap by taking the event’s history and New York State regulations into account, said Health and Safety Inspector Brian O’Hara. The event’s location in an open field had little to do with that number.

This is, however, the first time that Juice Jam has sold out since moving to Skytop from the Lawrinson Hall parking lot in 2008. Juice Jam sold out in that location in 2004, its inaugural year, said former UU Concerts Director Adam Gorode.

The 2004 sell-out may be easier to understand: Method Man headlined the show, the Safety Department set the cap at 3,000 and tickets were free.

Bigger acts, better crowds

These days, UU is the best-funded student organization on campus and received about $140,000 this year from Student Association to set aside for Juice Jam artists, Beyda said. That money paid for Grammy-winner Lupe Fiasco, synth-pop buzz-band Passion Pit and mash-up DJs Super Mash Bros. Student hip-hop duo Mouth’s Cradle played for free.

Beyda believes that the quality of this year’s lineup contributed to the concert’s popularity. Lupe Fiasco’s second album The Cool debuted at  No. 15 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and his lead single “Superstar” peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Crossover-indie darlings Passion Pit have been featured on Gossip Girl and HBO’s Big Love; at several points in Sunday’s show, they stirred the adoring crowd into a moshing, screaming frenzy. UU's concerts board brought them to SU in part because of results from UU’s summer concert survey.

Concerts Director Harry Roberts manages a board of eight, who, along with UU’s larger board of directors, decide on the performers at Juice Jam and Block Party. They send a survey out at the beginning of the summer, and have done so for the past two years, said Roberts.

UU bases their survey on which artists they can feasibly bring to campus with the money allotted them by Student Association. From there, UU sends the survey out to an e-mail listserv and puts it on their Facebook page, where students can pick who they want from a list of available options. The survey’s open-ended section also allows people to choose in whatever artist they want, free jazz or heavy metal – regardless of pricing, availability or what it would take to bring them to campus – just to get a feel of what people are listening to, Roberts said.

That focus on mainstream student taste is a good one, said David Rezak, the director of the Bandier Program in SU’s School of Visual and Performing Arts.

“That’s the secret sauce,” Rezak said, referring to UU’s selection and marketing of crossover artists like Passion Pit. “It’s almost a sustainability mindset.”

The crossovers at Sunday’s show certainly appeared to be the most popular. Aside from the hysteria that greeted Passion Pit and their soft-spoken frontman Michael Angelakos, the crowd also gravitated toward the Top 40 mash-ups of Super Mash Bros.

Juice Jam’s success also depends on manpower, though, based on a dedicated membership’s willingness to promote. The Juice Jam promotional campaign started two days ahead of its typical schedule this year, hitting freshmen while they were still in orientation, Beyda said. Fifty members consistently contribute to UU events, assisting with poster and promotional distribution, the organization’s campus visibility and Web presence, plus staffing events like Juice Jam.

That focus on freshmen targeting, as well as the size of this year’s freshmen class, may have contributed to Juice Jam’s success. And if other Central New York universities are any indication, then UU and Juice Jam still have a lot of room to grow in future years.

The future of UU Concerts

Booking progressively more popular acts has certainly worked for fellow CNY show coordinators in Ithaca. The Cornell Concert Commission, currently helmed by Executive Director Douglas DuRant, sold out a Ludacris concert and a Girl Talk concert in Spring 2009. Cornell also will host international superstar M.I.A. and French indie pop gods Phoenix this fall. DuRant expects both shows to sell out.

“When we sell out concerts, we start to make money back that we can throw to other concerts,” DuRant said. “The bigger names you get, the more likely they’ll sell out. ... We’re on a roll right now.”

Promotion and student accessibility are the two most important aspects of bringing more lucrative concerts to campus, he said, a lesson that UU learned this year. Cornell has also seen the size of its concert board grow with the popularity of its shows: the Concert Commission’s general membership is now 250-strong.

“Our general body has grown so much in recent years that we have a good sampling of the Cornell community,” he said.

That may never be a realistic goal for UU, whose current contributing membership maxes out around 50.

Still, Beyda thinks that student attendance at shows could and should keep growing, regardless of other factors. He said that his staff plans to discuss the 4,999-person cap with public safety officials before next year in the hopes that Juice Jam 2011 will be even bigger.

“If we had a choice, we would say, ‘Whatever SU student wants to come, come!’”

(Photos: Anthony Gairto & Alex Pines)

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