Yardfest, Unfenced

When the College Events Board and the Harvard Concert Commission announced that Ratatat and Sarah Bareilles would be performing for
By Alexander J. Ratner

When the College Events Board and the Harvard Concert Commission announced that Ratatat and Sarah Bareilles would be performing for this year’s Yardfest, an annual debate immediately took over House email lists and dining hall chatter. Some agreed with the picks, and some paid no attention, but naysayers held up the announcement as the most recent example of the CEB’s ineptitude. It seems crazy, the argument goes, that if Brown can get Nas and Of Montreal for their Spring Weekend, Harvard must settle for Third Eye Blind and Gavin DeGraw (and when given the opportunity to host Girl Talk, the Yard was left with little music and a near-riot). However, the CEB and the HCC, which are, together, in charge of selecting the Yardfest artists, say that such frustrated sentiments are built upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the selection process. Most importantly, while Brown will charge as much as $50 for their Spring Weekend, Yardfest is free and open only to undergraduates.

Jason B. McCoy ’08, the Campus Life Fellow, or “fun czar”, explains that it is a matter of Harvard’s core values. “The reason for [Yardfest] is to provide an opportunity for all Harvard students to come and enjoy the events, regardless of socioeconomic status or any other limiting factors,” he said.

As James A. McFadden ’10, Vice President of the CEB, explained, it’s an issue of integrity as well. “The CEB and the University are here to serve the students, not to put on a concert that makes money,” he said.

Despite these limitations, the selection process is straightforward. The fun czar, in conjunction with the CEB, submits a budget and list of possible dates to a booking company, Pretty Polly Productions, which then sends back a list of possible artists. With the list in hand, the CEB and the HCC work in conjunction to choose and book the artists; though the CEB controls the budget and thus technically has the last word, there is usually little friction between the two organizations.

But narrowing down this list is still a tough process. Artists tend to significantly raise their prices if they know that they are the student’s choice, so direct polling is usually avoided. Instead, the CEB and the HCC have to ask for preferences in genre.

“[The polling] helped us mainly just to see that, clearly, there was no one artist or one genre that Harvard wanted,” McFadden said, who’s also a Crimson editorial editor.

The administration has made things easier by giving the CEB and the HCC more autonomy. According to Kevin M. Mee ’10, the president of the CEB, the administration had already picked Gavin DeGraw for last year’s Yardfest without student input.

“We had to work very hard after that to get the Wu Tang Clan,” Mee said. “This year, there was no artist selected beforehand—the CEB had a lot more control.”

And, given this context, the CEB and the HCC believe that they’ve really succeeded this time. McFadden explains that Ratatat, a New York City duo that mixes rock and electronica to create catchy, driven and lyric-less songs, was an especially fortunate catch. They were not originally labeled as available, but after persistent communication directly between the CEB and their manager, Ratatat finally agreed to come.

However, Harvard is a diverse place with high expectations, and no artist choice will ever satisfy everyone.

Christa M. Hartsock ’10, the president of WHRB, looked forward to seeing the show. “People I’ve talked to were excited about Sarah Bareilles,” she said. “I’m not sure about how Ratatat will be received—there are no lyrics to their songs, and I don’t know about how that fits in. And I’m interested to see how they transition from the small venue they normally play in, to a huge yard.”

Joseph C. Higgins ’11, a member of Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, was not so positive. “Sara Bareilles, to be quite honest, is one of the lamest human beings I have ever heard of,” Higgins said. “Ratatat I’d never heard of, but I listened to their stuff, and it could work. It was interesting. But I just think Sara Bareilles is really lame.”

This kind of backlash does cause the members of the CEB to feel like scapegoats. “We have to put up with a lot,” said McFadden, whose dream Yardfest would consist of Kanye West, Jimmy Eat World, and The Decemberists. He recalled being spit on during last fall’s pep rally with Girl Talk as well as hearing people say in the dining halls, “The CEB is so retarded.”

“There’s the misconception that CEB lives under a rock—‘does CEB have an affinity for washed-up ’90s bands?’ We’re in the same boat as you guys,” he said.

Yet McFadden maintained that they learn from the criticism and that he doesn’t take the flak personally. “That’s sort of what’s fun about the CEB—working our hardest, trying to prove people wrong about Harvard not being a fun place,” McFadden said.

Mee, who somewhat damningly chose the resurrected Blink-182 as hisdream Yardfest artist, agreed that they were always hoping to improve on previous years. “The CEB is very young—we still have a ways to go to become properly institutionalized,” he said.

So is there hope for a Rihanna-led Yardfest? McCoy is defiant both about the event (“Third Eye Blind was Junior High for me,” he said. “I loved it!”) and about the possibility of other options. He said that for student organizations willing to raise capital and charge for tickets, the sky is the limit. The Browns of the world may soon be losing out; Rihanna just might ditch them for Harvard.