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Ben Folds Goes Back to College

May 10, 2006

There’s an undisputed champion of the campus concert circuit this spring. Ben Folds seems to be everywhere college students are, and even though he is nearing 40, he still looks like one of them – with his hipster specs, shaggy hair and stage attire consisting of jeans and a crew shirt.  

That might explain some of his popularity among the concert-going college set. Folds is familiar with college towns and college audiences: He grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., home of Wake Forest University, and got his career off the ground by playing gigs with his former band at small venues in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

Marsha Vlasic, owner of MVO Ltd., the company that books Folds, says the singer/pianist receives 20 to 30 offers per semester to play at colleges. “Each semester, that amount grows,” she said. “He has been tied up this spring, so I had to pass on so many dates. It was a heartbreaker. He would have loved to do it all.”

In the past three months, Folds has still managed to make more campus visits than even the most thorough prospective student. Consider this concert itinerary (all since March): University of Idaho, University of Northern Iowa, Bucknell University, Louisiana Tech University, Miami University of Ohio and Yale University, to name a few. He received rave reviews for a recent performance at Harvard University, and followed up the concert with a headlining show at Cornell’s spring festival, Slope Day

Folds has become synonymous with the college end-of-year music festival, held across the country in various forms to celebrate the coming of spring -- and often the temporary suspension of drinking rules.

What exactly is Folds’s appeal for these shows? Matt Jones, a junior business major at Washington University in St. Louis, says it is the artist's dependability and name recognition. It was a soggy day in St. Louis on April 29, when Folds played at the university’s bi-annual musical festival called W.I.L.D (Short for: Walk In, Lay Down)

“The tour manager went on stage, and said [to Folds], whenever you are done, the show is over. That was about 20 minutes into it,” said Jones, co-chair of Team 31 Productions, the student group that organizes the event. “He played for an hour and forty minutes. The guy loves to perform.”

Folds earlier had passed Jones’s test to determine whether a band or performer is worthy of a top concert billing: “Can you put on your [instant messaging] away message, 'Ben Folds Tonight'? Jones said. “In this case, the answer was absolutely.”

Students say it’s important not to underestimate the sing-along factor, either. When Folds taps the first notes of his melodic, mega-hit anthem “Brick” on the piano, crowds immediately recognize the tune and provide the chorus. “His songs are geared toward college kids and a live audience,” Vlasic said.

Recognizable music is a must for performers looking to make it big on the campus circuit, said Steven Klinger, who manages Uptown, a campus night club at Bucknell University that has hosted Folds. “We steer away from underground bands,” he said.

Jones said it is important to select a performer who isn’t just serving a niche audience. His production team determines who has mass appeal by monitoring its own Web site, where hundreds of students suggest artists for future concerts. Steve Janowiak, director of student activities and leadership at the University of Idaho, said he looks for a certain “coolness factor” and for bands that aren’t considered sellouts.

College concerts can be a springboard for up-and-coming artists, and often are a chance for bands to promote new albums to a population that downloads music more religiously than any other age group. Among artists who were requested by numerous college groups to play campus concerts this year: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Switchfoot, Jason Mraz, Wilco, Death Cab for Cutie, Robert Randolph & The Family Band and Jurassic 5.

Students often make initial contact with some of the lesser known bands through social interaction Web sites such as MySpace, where many bands maintain home pages. In other cases, a band's agent might contact a university, which was the case when the company that books Switchfoot called Josh Gudmundson, a junior at South Dakota State who coordinates concerts.

Those who book shows say knowing your audience is important. Big budget shows, such as the Virgin College Mega Tour (featuring Yellowcard this spring), often make stops at the larger state universities -- and this year also at Towson University, in Maryland. At Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt., blue grass and reggae are the most popular genres, said Bryan McGrath, director of student involvement and leadership. “We’re kind of an earthy crowd, so upbeat music suits us best,” he said.

Spring concerts can be about more than just debauchery. Southwestern University in Texas raised more than $5,000 for displaced Hurricane Katrina victims with a concert by New Found Glory. Guster’s Campus Consciousness Tour was designed to raise awareness for an environmental nonprofit group the band supports.

At some colleges, students welcome any concert whatsoever. At Salisbury State University, in Maryland, the spring Field Day concert has been canceled because of rowdy parties last year. When a concert does goes go on, some organizers say it’s never a bad bet to stick with an old standby. Say, George Clinton -- often a popular choice, says Mike Bobeldyk, adviser to a student production group at the University of Northern Iowa. “For him to still resonate with the kids is unbelievable,” he said of the aging founder of the Funkadelic and Parliament.

 

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