The economics behind WILD
Like with every past WILD artist, the decision to bring Jason Derulo to campus has been met with resistance, excitement and frustration. Since fall of 2014, the artists that have come to Washington University for our largest concert have been acts with significant mainstream appeal but with little genre or racial diversity. (Derulo is the first African-American artist since Childish Gambino, who came in spring 2014.) This time around, with a huge budget increase, Social Programming Board had a fantastic opportunity to do something different and appeal to a larger majority of Wash. U. students.
But, to the surprise of few, SPB did not capitalize on the opportunity to book a rap artist like Big Sean or A$AP Rocky, choosing the safe route by booking Derulo. Unfortunately, we can’t change SPB’s decision to bring another “bar mitzvah banger” to the WILD stage. The conversation for change, racial diversity and music variety must come in the next cycle of SPB’s work—when they are most likely to listen to student concerns—as opposed to now, when an artist has already been selected. Until then, it’s important to examine why Derulo made sense for this WILD and why he might have been chosen (taking survey results out of consideration, since rumors about who placed where in rankings are purely speculative).
Foremost, since WILD is paid for by students, it should be a concert that provides the most economic value to its constituents. If you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single event, you probably the want the majority of students to leave happy (or to at least marginally pleased with the concert they just went to).
From that perspective, I find it hard to argue against Derulo. The simple fact is that among the frontrunners for spring 2017 WILD, he had the best value proposition for SPB.
Think of WILD this way. We do not spend enough money to pay for an artist that has a set list that people can appreciate front to back (excluding people who are extreme fans of the group or artist). Therefore, we effectively pay for a WILD artist per hit song, which I am defining as a song that either has the distinction as an Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified gold or platinum single (see the criteria here). The RIAA takes digital streaming and purchased downloads of a song into account, making it the most objective criteria of a song’s popularity.
Icona Pop, which cost us roughly $40,000, had two certified songs at the time; Mac Miller, worth about double that, had four songs that met the criteria; Kygo also cost $80,000 and was popular for “Firestone,” “Stole the Show” and a remix of “Sexual Healing” (he did not play “Here For You” or “Often,” which qualify as popular songs). So, in the past, we have paid roughly $20,000 for a popular song. With Derulo, who has 11 platinum hits and three new singles quickly climbing their way towards RIAA gold status (“If It Ain’t Love,” “Swalla” and “Kiss the Sky”), you could make the argument that we paid less than $15,000 per hit—and certainly less than $20,000.
With a larger budget, you might think this argument is weak. But if you look more closely, the premium for A$AP Rocky and Big Sean is more extreme than you might think. Though rap artists have the advantage of popular features (Big Sean kills it on Kanye West’s “Mercy.1,” and A$AP Rocky stands out on the A$AP Ferg song, “Shabba”), they simply have fewer songs that match the criteria for a hit. The number for Rocky is four, plus three features that have gone platinum, and for Sean, it’s eight songs. I’ll be the first person to say that I would have tremendously enjoyed a Big Sean concert—and even to an extent an A$AP Rocky concert—but Derulo appears to have come at a nice discount, given his history for producing concert-ready music.
The argument I have made for Derulo is within the context of SPB’s decision to bring one headliner to WILD with double the budget. They chose to try and upgrade the quality of the headlining act. Ultimately, an agreement won’t be reached on whether or not they achieved their goal, but the economics behind Derulo make sense, more so than would have for Big Sean or A$AP.
Still, even if I can rationalize Derulo for WILD, I think the group’s tried-and-true strategy of “one artist, one opener” has proven itself a failure. Even on a larger budget, SPB’s artist announcement won the student group even more enemies. They could have easily booked two artists from different genres (with fewer total hits than Derulo, but a larger interested audience combined) and created a new kind of WILD, with more of a festival feel. It would have been an opportunity to show that students who aren’t interested in music targeted at white audiences (admittedly, a reality of the pop genre) that their activities fee dollars matter. Unfortunately, SPB didn’t go that route. While some students will come around to relive their middle school years for the second year in a row, we should not let SPB rest on its laurels in the coming school year.