What ever happened to Day on the Hill?

Friday, May 2, 2003

For the past several years, Kansas University students could be heard complaining that "Day on the Hill isn't what it used to be." Now students are simply complaining it "isn't."

The annual music showcase elected to fold its tent this week, breaking a semester-ending tradition that dated to 1988. This year there will be no songs heard cascading over West Campanille Hill; no bands will be imported; no stages will be set up; and no monumental dent need be made in the Student Union Activities budget.

"It's a lot of work and money to put into an event that people aren't coming to," says Dawn Shew, program adviser for SUA.

Case in point: last year's Day on the Hill.

SUA estimates about 2,500 folks showed up for the day-long affair, which occurred a year ago Saturday and featured artists such as The Anniversary, The Hardaways, No Lessons and Hotsauce.

"It was weak," Shew says. "But it was also moved because the weekend it was supposed to happen we had a tornado warning. I'm not sure how much that had to do with it. I'm not sure how great attendance would have been, even if everything had gone perfectly."

SUA live music coordinator Meghan McClain expounds, "Last year's Day on the Hill was unsuccessful because they wanted to turn it into a Lawrence local music festival. But you can go out any night of the week at any bar and see every band that was playing there. It's hard for us to compete with bars, to be honest with you."

Unfortunately, it's in SUA's bi-laws that it can't do anything alcohol related. So even though former KU athletic director Al Bohl's most successful feat involved reintroducing beer on campus so fans could better "enjoy" college football games, that still has no bearing on those wanting to imbibe while listening to indie rock.

Of course, the lack of Bud Light is not a problem if the bands are ones that people REALLY WANT to hear. Until it tapered off in the '00s, Day on the Hill was renowned for attracting hefty national headliners to Lawrence -- without charging admission, no less.

Pearl Jam, Urge Overkill, The Gin Blossoms and They Might Be Giants all made appearances at the event.

"The main factor is money," explains Shew. "Day on the Hill has not been what the KU students want to see, as far as wanting to see a big-name headliner like Pearl Jam. Back in the day, a headliner had a good reason to come to a college campus. But bands just don't take those lowball offers to get popular at colleges anymore."

Indeed, the SUA staff claims that when recently trying to lure a medium-level act like Ben Folds or Weezer, for example, price ranges skyrocket to between $40,000 and $50,000. That's just for the band alone, not counting other groups on the bill or stage setup expenses.

"People like Dave Matthews are upwards of $150,000, and that's just acoustic and solo," says McClain, a KU junior. "It's very hard to get a big band. The best thing we can do is to sign an emerging band and hope that they get big, which is what happened with Pearl Jam (in 1992). Let's face it, that was a fluke."

Lightning rarely strikes the same place twice -- and thankfully so for last year's SUA live music coordinator, Traci Pillard, who was actually wounded by lightning while on campus last summer. The chances of landing another Pearl Jam are slim to none, especially when considering how SUA's funding is arranged.

Contrary to popular belief, SUA's budget doesn't come from university funding, it comes from student fees. And it's allocated all at once at the beginning of the year.

"It's like a big bucket of money," Shew gives an analogy. "SUA's budget has to last them all year. It's for every event we do all year long."

Early on, SUA realized it didn't have the capital for nabbing a premier band to headline the gathering, so it sought alternative methods to pay for it.

"We made the decision pretty early on in the year that we weren't going to pursue Day on the Hill per se," she recalls. "We tried to do some other things instead. We tried to get into the stadium, because if we could charge we could afford the level of talent that people want to see -- even if it's just $5 a person."

That plan was scrapped when the athletics department refused to allow Memorial Stadium to be used for a concert.

Curse that Al Bohl.

"We know that we can't pay for Day on the Hill," Shew adds. "We can supplement Day on the Hill; we can fund-raise for Day on the Hill; but we cannot afford a $50,000 concert. That would be half the budget for the whole year."

Whether the event takes the form of a concert or simply evolves into more of a festival (McClain brought up the idea of an all-day carnival) remains to be seen. But the likelihood of drawing 10,000 people to the Campanille for an entertainment-based occasion is increasingly becoming a faded memory.

"There have been other traditions like Wheatstock that have been a part of SUA's history that have gone away," Shew says. "This year is our 65th anniversary, and it might be time to start a new tradition."

Let's hope that tradition will include live music.