Take a walk through Columbia’s campus, and chances are that the latest scandal you’ll hear students groaning/shouting/writing angry op-eds about is this year’s spring concert, Bacchanal. Specifically, how no one is able to go to it. If you have no idea what we’re talking about, Columbia student and concerned citizen Haylin Belay’s got your back with a primer on who, what, why, and how to get angry.
What is Bacchanal?
Ever obsessed with antiquity, Columbia University holds an annual spring concert called Bacchanal. The event, held on Low Steps, the center of campus, is free, unticketed, and open to all students, alumni, and any guests that they wish to bring. Every year, the concert theme consists of a horrible pun involving a reference to the performing artist combined with the word “Bacchanal.” This year, in honor of headliner Big Sean, the theme is “I Don’t Bacch With You.” (I don’t know what this means, either.)
Historically, Bacchanal has been referred to as “the one day that Columbia students get to be happy.” Coming at the tail end of a brutal New York winter, the April concert brings thousands of Columbia students into the main quad, where they drink, dance, and wear crop tops for the first time in six months. Like many outdoor concerts, public intoxication and drug experimentation are key features of the event. This year, Bacchanal will be held on April 4th.
What is everyone freaking out about?
All those great features of Bacchanal that were listed above have suddenly disappeared this year, thanks to a cluster of poor financial planning and draconian administrative requirements. The concert is no longer free. There weren’t enough tickets sold for even 50% of undergraduates to attend. Some students won’t be able to attend for religious reasons. Low-income students felt disrespected. Students expressed concern that they’d been conned by the Bacchanal board.
Looming over all these specific issues is the fear that Bacchanal just won’t be fun anymore. The artists aren’t as good, according to some. The presence of an administration-mandated group of peer safety monitors, the Lion Tamers, is another unwelcome change. According to campus gossip, frats have been explicitly banned from holding pregames on the day of the concert. Fenced-off areas and limited ticketing means that students are fragmented, not connected. And by moving the date to early April, there’s a serious risk of the concert being too damn cold to be enjoyable, anyway.
Why is this happening?
In 2011, Das Racist opened for Snoop Dogg. According to some, this was the beginning of the end. The concert, appropriately called “Abacchalypse,” was apocalyptically bad. Enormous amounts of damage, overcrowding, injuries, and alcohol and drug-related violations abounded. This marked the beginning of the so-called “War on Fun,” an alleged shadow war between the administration and the fun-loving, repressed student body.
In 2013, the administration attempted to crack down on non-Columbia students attending the concert. But that year’s Macklemore concert (themed “Bacchan90s,” which makes sense, because Macklemore is everyone’s favorite 90s artist) had similar issues with safety, including a record number of alcohol related hospitalizations and staggering amounts of vandalism on campus. Also, Fountain Girl.
Finger-wagging didn’t work, so in 2014, Columbia administration fenced off Low Steps, with Public Safety checking student IDs and refusing entry to anyone carrying a bag, no matter how small. Opaque water bottles were also forbidden. But even those efforts didn’t make for a non-controversial event: after last year’s concert, multiple op-eds and articles expressed outrage at the sexual harassment that occurred throughout the day, and students continued to get carted off in ambulances for Bacchanalian levels of drunkenness. These concerns, combined with Columbia’s current climate of sexual assault reform, meant that administrators were hesitant to let the concert go on in the first place, and only allowed Bacchanal to be held under the strictest of regulations in the name of safety.
In the fall of 2014, the administration also abruptly cancelled the first ever fall Bacchanal (before many students knew that there was going to be a fall Bacchanal in the first place) and placed the spring concert “under review,” citing safety concerns in a move that student activists later characterized as an effort to dodge responsibility. The last-minute cancellation put Bacchanal’s budget deep in the red, and the committee has been scrambling for funds since.
What’s happening now?
Because of the enforced 4,000 ticket limit, Bacchanal sold out ridiculously quickly, which meant that many students were denied entry into what was supposed to be a guaranteed free concert. After some rabble over the Bacchanal committee’s book-keeping, ABC (the Activities Board at Columbia) begrudgingly offered a compromise: refund the tickets that were sold at $7 each, and the undergraduate student councils would help offset Bacchanal’s rapidly rising debt. Bacchanal fired back with a counter-compromise: They’d refund the tickets, and offer 2,000 more, but only if the undergraduate student councils agreed to find an additional $35,000 to pay for security and space costs. $25,000 of that cost comes from the price of opening up the lawns to accommodate 2,000 more students. And a lot of the money is for the new security measures Columbia required – the wristbands needed for entry and the visors that the Lion Tamers will wear alone add up to thousands.
So far, the only student council to respond is the Engineering Student Council, who tossed in $8,000 (but didn’t sound particularly happy about it). Basically, Bacchanal needs a lot more money – far more than it’s ever needed before.
What’s going to happen next?
No one’s entirely sure, and everyone is unsure of who to blame more: Bacchanal’s board or Columbia’s administration. The student councils for the other two undergraduate schools, Columbia College and General Studies, have yet to announce whether or not they’ll meet the Bacchanal committee’s budgetary needs. The pressure is on them to say yes; if they refuse to pitch in, that means a 4,000 person concert and a deeply indebted concert committee. The show must go on, but even a vote to fund the most recent compromise is bound to be unpopular.