While DJs Amp Up, Live Music Turns Down

Though many students are familiar with popular 5C live music events such as Pitzer College’s Kohoutek Music and Arts Festival or Pomona College’s No-Chella, recent years have seen a waning interest in live music across the campuses, a scarcity of student musicians, and a growing popularity of electronic DJs. 

Jennifer Renick PZ ’15, who has been Live Music Director at KSPC for three semesters, created a survey to determine where student interest lies in the wake of under-attended shows. Renick sent the survey out over winter break and asked students which live music events they attend, their reasons for attending or not attending, and what might make them attend more shows in the future. 

Renick, who coordinates KSPC-sponsored live shows, including music at Pomona College Museum of Art’s Art After Hours, said that although the survey received modest responses, she was able to get an idea about the draw of the live music scene for the average 5C student. She cited student apathy and desensitization toward music as a main reason for under-attendance at live shows.  

“It’s funny, because with KSPC shows, I feel like community members come with such a different intent,” she said. “They’re like, ‘It’s so cool you’re doing a free show. You have free food. This is awesome.’”

Students, on the other hand, experience “over-stimulation” and “just go to things that their friends are already going to,” she said. “It’s crazy to me that people pay $30 to go to Wedding Party, but I can’t get people to come to a free show with food also.”  

She added that people have suggested that she book more diverse shows, but she does not think all artists will provide the “party, fun vibe” that often proves more popular among students. 

Despite frustration with under-attendance, Renick pointed to shifting trends in the live music scene at the 5Cs. Notably, the past few years have seen the graduation and dissolution of many student bands across the colleges. 

For Jack Higgins PZ ’14, who acts as events staff manager, treasurer, and coordinator for Kohoutek, the lack of student bands has served a major blow to the 5C live music scene. During Higgins’ first years at Pitzer, there were many student bands who generated substantial fan followings and always drew a crowd. 

“My freshman year it was all about live bands—a lot of on campus-bands, big on campus-bands. There was this band called Sleepy Feet that had a huge following,” he said. “Since then, there haven’t been as many live music student bands at Pitzer.”

For Higgins and other students, such as singer-songwriter Olivia Buntaine SC ’14, student musicians represent a major draw for live music shows on the campuses, as they give students a chance to see their peers perform. 

“The people who go to shows the most are people who have friends performing in them,” said Buntaine, who has performed at events across the campuses. “Generally, live music shows attract a less super-party-driven audience—people who are more interested in having a low-key night.”

Buntaine’s observation echoes Renick: Based on under-attendance at more mellow live music shows, students are increasingly seeking out more party-like atmospheres. While live music shows struggle to attract an audience, electronic shows mixed by guest and student DJs are routinely packed. Events that traditionally catered to student groups, like Pitzer’s Groove at the Grove, more often feature electronic music, fostering the “party, fun vibe” that Renick noted. 

Higgins raised concerns about this transition. Not only does electronic music hardly replace a band, it deters students from attending live shows, he said. 

“Electronic music is awesome, but it’s not a guitarist and a drummer and a bassist,” Higgins said. “A lot of times electronic bands will incorporate live instruments into their set and I consider that live music, but a DJ show is not live music in my opinion.”   

“There’s definitely a difference between a party with live music and just a live music event,” he added. “People are more motivated to go to those parties.” 

However, other student music organizers said that they consider electronic sets as live music. 

“I totally see it as live music,” said Edie Adams SC ’14, co-leader of Scripps Live Arts, which brings live music events to Scripps College. “I think that it’s just as valid as any other musical art form, and the process that goes behind it, even if it’s not all done completely live—even if some of it is prerecorded, to me that’s still doing live music.” 

Eric Markovits PO ’14, co-chair of the Live Music Committee for the Pomona Events Committee, also contends that electronic music performances are indeed live music performances. For Markovits, a live music experience lies in the social experience of a performance.  

“I guess I’d throw it all under the same banner,” he said. “Even just DJing counts. You’re there listening to music that someone is either playing playing or [they’re] just spinning the tunes, but they’re doing it live in front of you. And I think part of live music is the communal aspect. Whenever you’re listening to music with a group of people, it becomes more live music than if you’re listening to it on your headphones.”

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