Cambridge May Balls (1 of 2): A performer’s perspective

 

In early June, most colleges in Cambridge hold an annual ‘May Ball’ to celebrate the end of the academic year. This article highlights some of my experiences as a performer and band leader during Cambridge May Week with the goal of helping future Cambridge May Ball performers more aware of what they are getting into.

May Balls & Committees: Budget & Targeting Audience

At the end of the academic year, most of the colleges at the University of Cambridge hold a massive ticketed party in which students dress in tuxedos and ball gowns. Prices are often around £100 per ticket. To be confusing, the May Balls occur in June and are nearly identical to parties called June events. For the purpose of this article, I will say that the two key differences between a May Ball and a June Event relate to budget and the end time.  June Events typically have less of a budget and finish at 3am, whereas May Balls typically have a larger budget and finish at sunrise. Those few extra hours until dawn matter because they are perhaps the least-coveted and underpaid performance slots.

 

May Balls are planned by a committee primarily formed of students that begin planning a year in advance. Each ball has a theme and specific decorations to match. It is a lot of work with very little reward. It is important to understand that each college is different in terms of their committeeorganisationfriendliness and pay rates. For most colleges, the committees are comprised of undergraduate students (age 18-21). A few colleges, such as Darwin, Hughes Hall & Clare Hall are for graduate and/or mature students and thus have a slightly older committee and target audience. This matters to performers because while most of the colleges have 18-21 year-olds spending money on entertainment for other 18-21 year olds (think lots of money to buy lots of simultaneous performances), the smaller graduate/mature colleges tend to have smaller budgets and target an audience aged 25+. The event committees change nearly every year, so a poorly-organised 2016 committee may be replaced by a great one in 2017 or vice versa.

 

OJB music Christ's

The OJB played under beautiful lights and strings of origami cranes at Christ’s College

Organisation

May Balls are enormous tasks involving hundreds of people to prepare, including entertainers, caterers and animal handlers. A strong committee that works together throughout the year produce a much better organised event than those whose committees are filled with in-fighting. Here’s a true horror story to illustrate what I mean. I once arrived to play at the opening of a 2015 May Ball to find that there were two tents for music set up side by side in the same courtyard. The second stage where I was to perform later had boxes of sound equipment on the stage with no one to set them up. We asked about the piles of equipment and rolled-up cables and found out from one committee member (whom was happy to carry her feud to anyone that would listen) that she and the other entertainment officer couldn’t agree about what bands to hire. They resolved the issue by each taking control of a stage and having them play side-by-side. They hired a sound company to provide piles of unnecessary equipment but due to budget constraints, the committee only hired one sound engineer (because the engineer was contractually required by the bigger-named bands, not because the committee thought it was a good idea to hire one). The entertainment officer concluded by saying, “You’re musicians. I’m sure you can figure out where the wires go. I hope you don’t mind.”

 

I was reminded of this incident when I was playing at Newnham College a few months ago. Newnham did everything right and had a great sound engineer. I told the engineer about our horror story and he said something worth repeating, “In these situations, if you have a good engineer following the band throughout the set, you don’t need to spend thousands on hiring equipment.” He was absolutely right.

 

Green Rooms 

 

Newnham's Green Room

Newnham College offered their beautiful MCR as a green room

 

Another important part of organisation is the performers’ access to the venue and the green room. In my experience, very few May Balls are good at telling bands exactly where they need to arrive and what they should do when they get there. There is a lot of event security and the usual college entrances are locked. In most cases, I have been met by a committee member that ensures we get a proper security wrist band and escorts us to the green room. Some green rooms are well-stocked with water, juice, soft drinks and snacks. Others are an empty conference room. One college, Christ’s, stands out to me for not having a green room or a safe place to leave instruments. Their system was to corral performers into a disused porter’s lodge with no chairs until it was their time to perform. Then someone escorted the performers directly to and from the stage (it’s best not to bring anything more than you can carry in one trip).

 

The Christ-College-system seemed like an over-reaction to a problem that all the committees do have. Many performers try to use their performance as a way to attend a May Ball without paying. Honestly, it is really nice to be able to wander around the grounds of a MayBall and take in the spectacle for a little while before or after you perform. Unfortunately, many performers (particularly student bands) abuse this by trying to blend in with the crowd so that they can raid the champagne and stay all night. Most entertainment committee officers that I have spoken with have told me that if our band wants to get a drink, a burger and stroll around a little, then we are welcome to but don’t abuse it. I’ll say the same thing here with one extra sentence:

“Please don’t screw it up for the rest of us!”

 

 

Pay Rates

This was the big question, “What should we charge?” Here’s a tip: If you are a student or alumnus of a Cambridge college, ask to see the budget of your college’s May Ball from previous year. You can see exactly how much different performers were paid. Sadly, it’s not much. The UK Musician’s Union would not be happy. Having looked at the records of several college May Ball committees, I can say that in general there are about three tiers of payment.

 

  • Bottom Tier: Usually a discount on May Ball tickets is offered. For example, if you get invited to play at X College May Ball, they might offer to sell each member of your band a ticket to the event for £40 instead of the usual £85.
  • Middle Tier: Up to £700 is offered. Most good and/or well-known local or student bands get offers in this range. I talked to DJs making £500, rock bands with a small university reputation making £300 and a well-know “Mayball Favourite” brass ensemble making £700. The catch is that if you are a jazz big band with 20 people or just two guys with guitars, you will be roughly in the same pay bracket.
  • Top Tier: There is a big jump in salary here. Some colleges bring in a headliner (i.e. a band one that maybe of your friends has heard of). In the top tier, the headlining act has a professional booking agency that ensures they get exactly what they want in terms of money, catering, space and equipment.

 

Final thoughts:

I absolutely love playing at May Balls and give them all that I’ve got. There have been some events that I will remember for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, there have been a few that were poorly-managed disasters that were equally memorable for the wrong reasons.

 

  • My personal favourite May Balls to perform at are at smaller colleges, particularly those with mature-students. They tend to have a smaller space that gets extra care. As performers, the smaller colleges tend to maintain better contact, offer more assistance, better sound, and treat the performers like welcome guests.

 

  • Entertainment is announced after the tickets are sold making it more challenging to bargain for your worth. For example, Homerton College had a brilliant theme in 2016: ‘The Great Unknown’. I think this was ingenious because they sold all of their tickets within minutes of being released and never published a list of who or what the entertainment would be until the guests arrived at the actual event. This prompts the question: “Why should a college spend thousands on a somewhat famous headliner when that band is not announced prior to tickets going on sale and therefore not a draw to the event?” Honestly, I can’t see the headliner tradition lasting  except at the colleges whose reputations are entwined with a lavish display of expense.

 

OJB Newnham College

The OJB playing at a very wet Cambridge college garden party .

 

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