For years, Bacchanal has drawn thousands of students to the center of campus, filling the lawns and College Walk with a rare, lively energy. The annual spring concert has become a hallmark of community on a campus that often struggles to cultivate it.
“Bacchanal is the one Columbia school-wide event that’s organized by the school that I’m actually really excited and down for,” Amanda Ba, CC ’20, said. “[It’s] the one day where everyone feels really free and fun, and the campus turns into a totally different space.”
Every year, the Bacchanal committee aims to bring popular headliners to campus for a concert open to the entire undergraduate body. However, in recent years, the show’s existence has been threatened by increased administrative oversight and high security costs. These expenses, coupled with the prices of booking quality headliners to satisfy student complaints, have compelled the committee to appeal for increased funding to operate the event.
This year, Bacchanal will not transform campus as it has in years past. Citing efforts to reduce expenses, the Bacchanal Committee announced in December that the main event will be hosted in the evening at Terminal 5, a venue in Hell’s Kitchen, with unspecified programming on campus during the daytime. Headliners have yet to be publicized.
While some students praised the move on social media, others expressed concerns about a diminished sense of campus culture. In the past, students have attributed this lack of campus community and prevalent stress culture to many causes, including a limited number of common spaces in which they can congregate.
In light of these concerns, students have pointed to Bacchanal as an important space for community building. Though the annual spring concert provides an opportunity to hear high-quality music, many highlight a more important purpose: to provide undergraduates with the unique opportunity to gather as a unified body within Columbia’s gates.
According to students gearing up to attend the show this spring, the move may disrupt a tradition that allows students to derive relaxation and community from a campus known for its stress culture.
Gabriella Kaspi, BC ’21, emphasized that Bacchanal is traditionally a day of release from the daily stresses of campus life.
“It’s no secret that we have a very intense stress culture on campus,” Kaspi said. “It’s kind of this day of catharsis. ... The community aspect of Bacchanal really makes it. My friends feel that the community aspect is the most central part of Bacchanal.”
For Kaspi, this sense of relief from the stress culture on campus is the result of students deriving joy from that same space.
“[The new setup] creates a dislocation between ‘fun’ and ‘campus,’” Kaspi said. “It’s going to be more a concert than a community event.”
According to Bacchanal co-presidents Emma Schechter, SEAS ’20, and Joy Barrett, BC ’20, the committee made the decision based on a survey answered by 736 students at the end of last semester’s finals, which indicated that students would prefer an off-campus concert with higher-profile headliners. They also presented their plans for the move to the members of the Bacchanal Governing Board—a coalition of the four undergraduate student council presidents and vice presidents of finance—at the annual Funding at Columbia University meeting.
“The [BGB members] were an added benefit to be plugged into the student community and the student voice,” Barrett said in regard to the committee’s collaboration with student representatives. “So it was nice to have feedback from that perspective too.”
Though the meeting resulted in the allocation of $242,031.33 to the Bacchanal committee, the co-presidents agreed that the mounting cost of hosting Bacchanal on campus and the desire to bring in higher-profile artists necessitated the move. Schechter and Barrett cited costs associated with Public Safety, barricades, and facilities as the largest expenses when hosting the concert on campus. In bringing the event off campus, additional costs tied to stage construction, sound system setup, and hiring sound engineers can also be avoided.
The exact budget breakdown was not disclosed to Spectator.
Though the concert at Terminal 5 might free up funds to book more prominent headliners, some students say the move will turn Bacchanal into just another concert.
“If I wanted to go to a concert, I would just go to a concert,” Ba said. “I wouldn’t go to a concert with my entire school and musicians I don’t know that well.”
Additional concerns include that only 3,000 students will be able to attend the concert at Terminal 5, according to the Bacchanal committee’s announcement. In the past, over 4,000 tickets have been distributed for the show. Historically, students without tickets have also been able to listen to the headliners and soak up the sun on the lawns.
Furthermore, Mado Watts, CC ’22, expressed concerns about student safety getting from campus to the venue, since Bacchanal has historically been marked by copious usage of alcohol.
Though the student community appears divided on the decision to move Bacchanal to Terminal 5, Schechter and Barrett said that they made the decision in order to appeal to as many people as possible and addressed students’ criticisms.
“People like to be outside during the day—I think that’s the biggest thing being said by the people who have responded negatively,” Schechter said. “But we’re still doing that; we’re still having music outside, and people will be able to hang out on the lawn if they want to. … We wanted to appeal to everything the student body wants from Bacchanal.”
However, for students like Watts, Bacchanal has become much more than the concert; it has become both a music festival and a shared campus tradition.
“I think it was the idea that we were all enjoying an awesome performance together and also the fact that it was a tradition that was happening on campus,” Watts said. “I feel like it won’t be as spirited an event as it was last year.”