Volunteers struggle to fill The Whole

Christina Schmitt

Down two flights of stairs from the Coffman Memorial Union lobby, past the bowling alley, the pool tables and the video games is a dimly lit space: the University’s music club The Whole.
Since the early ’60s, The Whole has featured nationally renowned acts such as the Replacements, Soul Asylum, HÅsker DÅ, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Jim Carroll. A campus myth maintains that Bob Dylan once played there.
Yet despite The Whole’s rich history, problems continually challenge the club. Potential changes to The Whole’s layout, as part of Coffman remodeling projects, have occasionally threatened the facility for the past 25 years. University funding and security procedures, along with policies, such as University bans on alcohol and smoking in Coffman, have placed inhibitions on what The Whole can offer. And lack of widespread student interest makes it difficult for The Whole to compete with other Twin Cities’ clubs as a popular music venue.
A fixture in Coffman
The Whole has been one of the few constants in an ever-evolving Coffman Union. During the early ’70s, when Coffman Union underwent renovation, The Whole’s layout was originally threatened, but according to Director of Student Unions Maggie Towle, it ultimately was left alone while other parts of Coffman were revamped.
Student protests might have been a factor in the remodeling decisions. “They put in lots of walls and barriers to keep — I’m not sure if this is the real reason or not — but they didn’t want to have the big, open lounge for students to come in and gather because things got rough.
“During the Vietnam War, students would gather outside and protest. Students actually took over the building and did a sit-in for a couple of nights,” Towle said. However, in spite of campus turbulence, The Whole, as a student gathering place, remained unchanged by renovation.
In the next few years, Coffman will again undergo renovation, though the exact details are yet to be worked out. Changes to The Whole have been a part of remodeling discussions; however, Towle said she wants to keep The Whole in its current condition.
“I’ve been telling every architect that we talk to not to change The Whole. We may put in a better sound system and new furniture, but I want to maintain The Whole the way it is now,” said Towle. “It’s an important part of our history, period.”
Bureaucratic challenges
The Whole’s operating costs are covered entirely by Student Service Fees. Currently, The Whole receives $2,200.50 a month for its programming; the allocation of this money and the group’s programming is decided by The Whole’s student committee, a group open to any University student.
Except for the committee’s two coordinators, who each receive a stipend of $225 per quarter, The Whole’s staff is entirely volunteer. “The biggest part of The Whole is the kids that show up and volunteer every weekend. We need more volunteers all the time,” said Krista Olson, a group coordinator.
Although The Whole committee must work within its budget and cover show costs, it can ask for additional money from Coffman’s Board of Governors if necessary. But this can be a difficult process. First, the student committee must ask its supervisors, who in turn must ask permission from the Board of Governors.
“The students that run The Whole have an adviser so they don’t go over budget, but there are also reserve dollars. Last spring we almost brought Porno for Pyros in. We got approval from our board to take money out of our resources to bring the concert in. There are options to ask for more money,” Towle said.
Even so, the committee is limited in the amount of money it can pay bands. “We’re generally limited to paying a single band $500,” said Olson.
A University-wide policy stating that a police officer must be present at every dance or music event adds to the strain on The Whole’s budget, adding a $200 expense to every show. “It’s now University policy that anyone having a dance on campus must have metal detectors and a police officer present,” Towle said.
This policy was implemented after previous incidents at The Whole, most notably when a man broke his neck and was paralyzed after he dove off the stage at a Die Kreuzen concert in 1986.
University security policy, combined with no-alcohol and no-smoking policies, make it difficult for The Whole to effectively compete with other area clubs.
“We’ve been doing well despite the policies, but most of the students would like to have alcohol,” Towle said. “That’s a larger campus issue that the regents would have to decide.”
“There’s a lot of red tape — we can’t run The Whole like a normal music club because, well, for one, we’re in Coffman and we have to abide by all their policies,” Olson said. “And a lot of times we can’t do shows during the weekdays. It’s not encouraged. The building isn’t open as late, and the volunteers want to do their schoolwork during the week.”
Steve McClellan, the head booking agent at First Avenue, has worked with Whole staff members to set up shows. McClellan said University rules can get in the way of providing quality entertainment.
“(The Whole) is not set up to work with the outside; there’s too much bureaucracy. Shows are tough enough to set up by themselves, but then you have to go through all those committees over there just for the honor of working with them,” McClellan said.
Student apathy
The Whole brings many free shows to Coffman, including weekly jazz shows and various folk shows throughout the quarter. And in the past year, the space hosted the successful “University of the Blues” series and also brought the Brainiac/Sleater Kinney show to campus last April.
However, many evenings, The Whole stands empty. One possible way for the space to fill their music schedule — hosting spill-over shows from First Avenue — is discouraged by current Whole policy, drawing criticism from the campus community.
Simon Peter Groebner, a former Whole volunteer and Radio K disc jockey, said The Whole should be taking First Avenue’s spill-over.
“I am a former Coffman rat. I wanted The Whole to be a cool scene when I was a volunteer there. The people working there now should want the same.
“First Avenue gives spill-over shows to many other venues: Fine Line, Cedar Cultural Center and Bryant Lake Bowl. They’re an unusually resourceful venue. It shouldn’t matter where The Whole gets its help from if it would help campus culture, which is getting more dead every year,” Groebner said.
Olson defended The Whole’s current policy. “First Avenue just wanted to use the room and all our volunteers to do the show. We want to be a separate venue. I felt like they were giving us their leftovers — I’m sure that’s not what they’re doing, but I felt like that,” Olson said.
McClellan expressed frustration with working with The Whole. “Asking if I want to help The Whole is like asking if I want to help President Clinton reduce the deficit. Sure, I’d love to help President Clinton with his problems, and I’d love to help The Whole, but the University has way too many problems for me to fix.
“I had talked to them in the last year. We’ve made attempts over the years, mostly at the urging of Radio K, who we work with very well.”
The Whole is also drawing criticism for the types of shows it currently hosts.
“When I started at Radio K in September ’93, the music featured at The Whole was a lot different,” said Radio K Assistant Marketing Director Amy Pogue. “There was more local music back then. It’s more spotty than it used to be. It’s hard to do promotions when we don’t play that kind of music. I just wish the bands they got to play reflected our playlist.”
The lack of volunteers to publicize shows also keeps The Whole from drawing crowds.
“I just remember you would see entirely brand-new posters for shows every week,” Pogue said. “You could walk down Washington Avenue, and you would know who was playing at The Whole every weekend.”
The future shape of The Whole
Free series, publicity in Channel Z and other campus media, a commitment to offering diverse musical acts to all ages and its campus location all help The Whole serve the University community. Increased traffic in Coffman — a goal of facility remodeling — might help The Whole experience a revival in interest in the future.
Other options for The Whole’s improvement could include finding better ways to attract bands. “The way they got to start booking shows is through other agents … that offer rosters of bands that could potentially be at college campuses,” Groebner said.
Regardless of what changes are or are not made, The Whole remains unique as the University’s only music club. And in Olson’s opinion, comparisons with other clubs might not be completely appropriate.
“I feel like we’re out there for a different purpose — to provide cheap, nice entertainment for the University,” Olson said.