Behind the Scenes: How Bookers Bring Musicians to Campus


Photo courtesy of Solarity

Students at Solarity last semester dancing while opener Kota the Kid performs.

A few weeks ago at the 2020 Grammy Awards, pop legend, self-love queen, and all-around icon Lizzo opened the show with her back turned to the audience, arms waving as she conducted the full band in front of her while the celebrity audience cheered. Lizzo won three Grammys in this ceremony. Just over a year earlier, Lizzo headlined Oberlin College’s free rave-style concert, Solarity, in the Heisman Club Field House.

This isn’t the only case in which Oberlin has booked musicians just before they go mainstream. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Junglepussy and Noname have all performed at Oberlin; in addition to R&B artists such as SZA and Jamila Woods, and alt-indie darlings including Mitski, Snail Mail, and Miya Folick. This list of illustrious performers is impressive for a small institution in a small Ohio town.

How do such well-respected musicians miraculously perform for such a small student body? The credit goes to student bookers, who work with a variety of student organizations to bring artists to Oberlin.

The first step in the booking process is choosing an artist. Larger organizations like the Student Union Planning Committee (SUPC), Concert Board, and the Cat in the Cream focus on booking a wide variety of musicians across a range of genres.

“[At] SUPC, we’re trying to create a very broad spectrum of programming in terms of music genre, and also, in general, bodies on campus that would be represented,” said College fourth-year Matt Grimm, who has been a booker with SUPC for three years. “The ’Sco is programming for 3,000 people, ideally.”

At the Cat in the Cream, the process of finding and choosing artists is highly collaborative, explained Shivani Singh, third-year College student and concert booker.

“We have meetings at the beginning of the semester,” said Singh. “Everyone comes up with people who they are into. … We all bring our top picks and we play the songs for everyone. And then [we all say], ‘I like this person’ or ‘I don’t like this person’ or ‘Would it even be possible to get this person?’ and then we … email their managers.”

It’s advantageous that Oberlin students enjoy many artists that have yet to go mainstream. Since these performers have lower profiles, their rates don’t break the ’Sco’s budget, which is funded by the Student Finance Committee.

“I remember when Japanese Breakfast played our [first] year,” Grimm said. “She was relatively big, but she was playing venues roughly the same size as the ’Sco for less money than she was being paid by the ’Sco. If another college booked [her] at a similar-size venue, [she] wouldn’t have done as well. … She had a lot of specific Oberlin fans.”

Student bookers also benefit from having a strong music network. Grimm said that SUPC promoters are familiar with many agents, who will sometimes reach out to SUPC with artist recommendations. Additionally, the musicians themselves often know Oberlin through social ties.

“Bands that tend to have younger members often actually knew people who went to Oberlin,” said College third-year Bridget Conway, who books for SUPC and Femme Artists Breaking Boundaries. “Oberlin is kind of famous or infamous, depending on how you look at it, especially when it comes to its music scene.”

This musical notoriety doesn’t just come from the Conservatory. Grimm, who books experimental and punk artists, noted that several artists have booked concerts on campus because the owner of Hanson Records in downtown Oberlin, Aaron Dilloway, is one of the most famous experimental musicians of the past twenty years.

“I basically booked my all-time favorite band, which is a punk band from Denmark called Ice Age,” said Grimm. “And the reason that they came, they’re like, ‘We wanted to meet Aaron Dilloway.’”

Once these artists are booked, the student organizers have to promote the show and provide hospitality for the artists while they are on campus. Sometimes, visiting musicians end up at Oberlin house parties or enjoying dinner at a local bar later at night.

“I remember Palm … they were obsessed with [The Feve’s] wings,” recalled Conway. “They were like, ‘Where are the wings?’ because they had played here before and they’re like, ‘There was one restaurant that had really good wings, where is it?’”

In the fall of 2018, students didn’t just spot headliner Lizzo at a party or a bar; flute players and hip-hop group And What!? had the chance to perform with her on stage.

This once-in-a-lifetime show was, ironically, a second-choice for the Solarity board. SFC told Solarity to send a survey of artists to the student body, and Charlie XCX was the winner.

“Lizzo was on the short-list that we sent to the student body, but she wasn’t the top [artist], so we tried to book somebody else,” explained College second-year Sarah Voit, who is now Solarity’s head booker.

The Solarity team believed that they could book Charlie XCX, but she stopped communicating during the booking process. Luckily, the Solarity team and Cat in the Cream booker Hanne Williams-Barron, OC ’19, had been in contact with Lizzo’s management, and Solarity booker Daniel Markus, OC ’19, signed a contract with Lizzo’s team about two weeks before the Solarity date.

Whatever the concert, there’s a team of students behind the scenes bringing laudable artists to campus, and the thriving live music scene is rewarding for both the bookers themselves and the student body.

“[When] I got this job it was like, ‘I can get this person whose album I love to just come and play it,’” Singh enthused. “Of course that’s amazing.”