Northrop looks to mass-appeal concerts for financial stability

by Sam Kean

Northrop Auditorium might lack the blowout-rock potential of New York’s Madison Square Garden or even downtown’s First Avenue. Most promoters probably don’t put the 72-year-old building high on their list of must-book venues.

But as contract negotiations to bring in more profitable acts get underway, the old dog’s about to get some help.

With Northrop running a deficit of roughly $570,000 per year, the University is negotiating a promotion contract with Jam Productions Limited to “drive the profitable side of the business more,” said Eric Kruse, vice president for University services.

Chicago-based Jam could help boost the number of money-making acts coming through Northrop from a dozen or so per year to around 30 by 2005.

The other two types of programming housed by Northrop – approximately 25 University ceremonial events and 30 cultural events – either do not turn a profit or lose a slight amount due to lack of demand.

But more mass-appeal shows should help the University sell more tickets and concessions and increase sponsorship for events, said Philip McDonald, associate to the vice president for University services, who handled the negotiations with Jam productions.

Under the new contract, Jam productions would bring in the bulk of the popular acts, McDonald said, instead of Northrop working with different contractors for every act. A partnership with Jam should also help spread out any financial risks.

Such an arrangement was necessary for the University to compete with large national concert promoters, said Dale Schatzlein, departmental director for University
concerts and lectures.

Northrop hosts around 70 events per year; in comparison, Clear Channel Communications promoted 25,000 events and shows in 2000 alone.

“Single promoters can’t compete with that,” Schatzlein said. “It’s a fact of the marketplace.”

The practical difficulties of promoting without a contract explain why the University has not emphasized profitable acts in the past, Schatzlein said.

Although there’s still an audience that enjoys much of the jazz, dance and pomp Northrop offers, the decades that brought pop music and hip hop also brought new financial realities.

Shrinking the more than half-million-dollar debt is important because the University plans to ask the Legislature for funds to renovate Northrop, which had a chunk of its ceiling crumble Sept. 3.

The University must pay one-third of these renovation costs, and Kruse said eliminating Northrop’s subsidy will help generate funds.

When Jam starts bringing in popular acts, it will have to pick around dates already selected by University ceremonies and cultural programming such as the University’s jazz and dance series.

“The University has set very clear priorities” for Northrop to continue serving the University and cultural communities, Kruse said.

Forcing Jam and high-profile acts to work around other events, he said, should ensure less-profitable acts are not pushed out by large promoters.


Sam Kean welcomes comments at [email protected]