Preatching to the choir

What’s missing from the USU’s band night?

If you searched for a popular band to see at OWeek on Facebook, you’d retrieve just one result: the band night, which sees one or two popular acts perform each year. One year ago, University of Sydney students were singing their hearts out to Shannon Noll. The Preatures, with opening act Ngaiire, will take the stage this year. These acts are successful performers. They’ve charted on Triple J’s Hottest 100 and have a combined fanbase of approximately 100,000 people on Facebook. The rock band-meets-future-soul fusion should be a hit, at least for the 950 people that get to see both acts perform. So why is there only one pop gig at this year’s O-Week, and is it really the best it could be?

Let’s not forget that OWeek does showcase our wonderful student talent, like SoulXPress, SUDS and SURG on the Grass. Yet it is strange that the USU has not chosen to present more student acts in popular music genres. USyd is home to the Conservatorium of Music and a huge depth of student talent in the performing arts, after all.

There is also a comparison to be drawn between our OWeek line-up and other universities this year, who’ve booked multiple big names as well as student artists.

The first thing to consider when organising an event like The Preatures’ performance is the budget. University of Sydney Union (USU) President Michael Rees, whose organisation runs O-Week, said that he could not “discuss [the budget] due to the constraints of commercial contracts”, but that the “event does not make money for the USU”.

If this is the most expensive ticketed event of the week, why won’t it generate profit? The question is important, particularly because all profits generated by the USU are reinvested into students’ activities. In simple terms, higher USU profit equates to more drinks at your society of choice, for example.

Other universities, like the Australian National University (ANU), booked multiple big name acts this year. ANU’s O-Week music festival, Cloud Nine — with a Field Day-esque line-up — was held on a large grassy field with no apparent ticketing limitation. When you work out the maths of over 2,500 attendees at $35-$65 a ticket, that’s a lot of money – likely enough to turn a profit. It’s impossible to know exactly how much the ANU made, given the costs of staging, security, and performers’ transport — but like the USU, any money made by the ANU Students’ Association (ANUSA) is reinvested into student life.

So how does ANUSA turn a profit while the USU does not? Part of the story is that tickets are cheaper at Sydney. Entry to The Preatures is  $25 for union members and $45.40 for non-members, a feat the USU should be lauded for.

However, Rees also said that  OWeek Festival band night has historically been hosted at Manning Bar  … [it’s a] tradition we are very happy to keep.” Sure, Manning Bar has seen its fair share of music run through the joint. And yes, we’re happy to have a great (if fading) venue on campus.

But year after year, lines run around the block to squeeze into the bar. Some students end up missing the main act for all the waiting they are made to do. Why do we honour this tradition if it is hampering the experience we could be offering students? Live performance is shifting towards large, open space venues. Profit and accessibility — in terms of the number of students who get to see an act — are maximised when a venue accommodates for more students as per ANUSA’s model.

Perhaps it was artist availability that affected the USU’s line-up pick. Let’s explore the line-ups of other university orientation weeks. The Preatures, Ball Park Music, and Tkay Maidza all played at the ANU. At the University of Technology Sydney, SummerFest promises five popular student acts plus The Potbelleez, Uberjak’d, Dylan Joel and Thandi Phoenix. At the University of New South Wales, well, they had a comedy night.

Nonetheless, if other universities can book bigger names and more student acts than the USU, there is room for improvement. The USU could do much more with the talent it has booked, for a start. Ngaiire, a woman of colour with a rapidly rising profile in Australian music, has her name in small font on promotional material and is missing entirely from the event name on Facebook.
Free watermelon slices for Access card holders are a cute perk, but during O-Week what many students are truly looking forward to are the gigs and the unique things they offer: the atmosphere of live music, meeting new students, and good vibes. It’s a time to meet fresh faces without the pressures of a clipboard and a signup sheet, or the piercing stare of a [insert political faction here] member on the prowl. The USU runs a good OWeek, but there’s no room for complacency.