Cover Story •
Using Rock, Hip-Hop, and Rap to Attract Teens
by Jeff Katz
It is always a tense moment when the doors of a program room are opened and the results of all the hard promotional work are hanging in the balance. In the case of our All-Ages Music Extravaganza on May 14, 1999, we were all extraordinarily nervous on the night of the first show, but also somewhat reassured by the knowledge that we had organized it all as well as we felt we possibly could. The decent-looking (though not terribly cool) publicity had been generated and distributed in a timely fashion. The sound system in the auditorium was functioning well, all of the microphones had been hooked up, and I had an adequate understanding of how to make the system run. (I was designated to be the event's "sound person," in spite of the fact that my own musical experience up until then had been confined to playing rather than production and engineering.) Emily and I had brought a fine assortment of CDs to play before the rock show began, in between sets, and after the last live note was sounded at about 11 p.m.
We knew that all of the performers had confirmed in the days before the show, re-expressing their enthusiasm. We'd received a fair amount of telephone and e-mail inquiries about the program, leading us to believe that we would wind up with at least a respectable crowd (although we were all not-so-secretly hoping for a bursting-at-the-seams house, with mad pogoing and moshing exploding everywhere in the wood-paneled, weirdly carpeted hall).
But, when the doors did open at 7:30, we were not greeted by throngs of teens with leather jackets, flared pants, and brightly dyed hair. Instead, we were greeted by just a few members of this sort of crew. But then there were a few more and a few more, until, when the clock said it was time for the first band to begin, we were about 10 to 15 strong. Not exactly a massive, throbbing crowd, to be sure; but then again, it wasn't a total wash-out. And then, amazingly enough, as the time grew closer to 8 p.m. and, even more so, 8:30 p.m., something magical seemed to happen: The crowd grew—actually grew! Yes, just like at real music shows in real clubs (with these same real bands), real kids and real non-kids alike began arriving in greater and greater numbers as the minutes advanced. Cars driven by parents deposited sons and daughters (with instructions about being picked up later on). Refugees from other, earlier all-ages shows walked over from other clubs, and bus-riding music lovers popped in after eating dinner and changing into their "club clothes." The free refreshments were being eaten! Library cards were being issued! People were dancing! Books were being looked at and, in some cases, checked out! And, perhaps most exciting of all, audience members and performers alike were making a point to say thank you and how cool they thought all of this was! Singer Chris Ballew himself, in fact, announced over the microphone that he was so thrilled by the whole experience that he wanted to make a record in the library. Go figure.
Altogether, about 75 to 100 people wound up attending this groundbreaking show (about 50 percent were teens). For all intents and purposes, it was a success: Everyone had a great time, we reached new people of all ages, enhanced the image of the library, helped support youth services and all-ages music in a substantial way, and proved that an "after-hours" music event designed specifically for teens could take place without incident in the library. Yet, we also concluded that, in order to be a true success, the Seattle Public Library would need to offer such a program continuously. Teens would need to know that they could count on the fact that this kind of program was going to be happening again and again, that the library was an institution that would be offering cool events like this one on an ongoing basis. Building a "following" and getting the word out in a major way, after all, take time to achieve. And, without any doubt whatsoever, an event such as this had the potential to grow and expand exponentially and to reach countless numbers of young people throughout the city.
At the same time, we all realized that there were a great many things
that we would need to do differently in order to achieve maximum
success. It's difficult for us to admit that we made major mistakes when
we were planning and executing this very first show (this was a new experience
for all of us, after all), but it was clear that improvements were needed.
And we all learned some very important lessons, which would become vital
as we carried out the continuing (bimonthly and, ultimately, monthly) All-Ages
Music Series that would soon be named "Shake the Stacks!"
What We Learned from the First Show
First and foremost, one of our biggest lessons was that an ongoing series did need a fabulous, recognizable name. It would be awkward and impersonal for kids to keep saying that they were going to "the all-ages shows at the library." We wanted them to be talking about the series in a totally familiar way. Therefore, we knew that we needed to come up with something special. All of the Young Adult librarians in the Seattle Public Library System were polled, but the answer wound up coming, once again, from Emily Dagg, the Young Adult librarian who had been so instrumental in getting this program off the ground. Emily took the name of a popular local radio music show called "Shake the Shack" and modified it to reflect the scope and setting of the youth music shows at the library. In effect, "Shake the Shack" became "Shake the Stacks!," calling to mind the amusing image of bouncing books and boogieing librarians.
After we worked on the name, we turned to the sound system. While the library's somewhat antiquated public-address system (PA) performed nobly, it was blatantly apparent that there were deficiencies. (Specifically, the sound board overheated and momentarily shut down as a result of one band's high-intensity vocals.) Accordingly, we agreed that, in order to make this a worry-free and satisfying event for all, we would need to recruit a professional sound person who could bring along his or her own sound system to be used at each show. The library's PA would be fine for the incidental CD tunes in between sets, but the bands and performers would need something a bit more reliable, lest we at the library wish to earn the reputation of being "the friendly place to play that turns your music into slime." (This would force us to add $100 per show in order to cover the cost of a sound engineer, but, again, this is a very minimal added expense and well worth the cost!)
Additionally, we learned two things from teens: 1) the shows should begin a bit later than 7:30 p.m., and 2) our publicity needed to be much more hip in terms of both design and format. The time issue was easily solved: Start at 8 p.m., in the manner of many popular clubs. Regarding publicity, someone suggested that we bring in either a professional artist, a college art student, or an artistically minded teen to create the actual publicity designs. And the ideas for designs themselves could come from teens or from simply interpreting the content of the music being featured at a given show. In terms of format, we were told that the 8 1/2 x 11-inch fliers that we used for the first show had to go, and should be replaced by small (approximately 4 x 5-inch) "club cards," as well as fliers that were half the size of those used for the May 14 show.
It was also strikingly evident that teens needed to be involved in bigger and more integral ways with carrying out the shows. Not only did we need to invite more kids to be "liaisons" to their schools and throughout the community, but also we needed to utilize more teens as volunteers at the shows and as sources of recommendations for those music artists who were approached and signed on as Shake the Stacks! performers. Indeed, at the very first show, a whole host of teens (and non-teens) provided us with the names of a wide range of recommended performers. Some of the show's attendees, in fact, told us about their own bands and a few even handed us personally produced CDs and tapes for consideration. This really reinforced the feeling that they were seeing this event as cool and legitimate.
Furthermore, we recognized that the nature of the program truly provided us with the freedom to respond to all facets of the youth population in Seattle. For, while many different styles of music appeal to many different groups of young people all over the city, the common denominator, surely, is music itself. Music was/is the universal and, by keeping ourselves open and unfettered style-wise, we could and can reach all populations, regardless of economic status, race, religion, sexual orientation, living situation, height, weight, social status, political affiliation, choice of shoes, hairstyle, etc.
Finally (and, perhaps, most emphatically), we understood beautifully just how limitless the potential of this program happened to be. This program, we could see, could be used to connect with and help support a wide variety of youth services agencies and institutions—information tables could be set up at our events, agencies could send their clients to attend, joint programs could be produced, etc. Correspondingly, the program could be used as a vehicle to strengthen our connections with city schools and city officials. (An unsolicited message of praise from one Seattle City Council member, who happened to head the City's Youth and Music Task Force, drove this point home.)
In short, we realized that this was a program filled with power—the
power to unite, to respond positively, to give voice, to allow us all to
move forward in some way.
How Far We've Come; How Far We Plan on Going
Happily, we at the library did persevere and, as a result of following our plans carefully and as a result of hard work by staff members like Darlene Nordyke (a Young Adult librarian who has taken this program to phenomenal new levels in the neighborhood libraries), we've realized many of our lofty goals. Since May of 1999, we have produced a new show at least every 2 months and, during the spring and summer of 2001 (from April through August), we have scheduled a show each month. Now Shake the Stacks! attracts regular audiences of 100 to 150, almost 90 percent of whom are teens. Groups and performers from every part of the musical spectrum are contacting us with requests to appear on stage (and all still perform pro bono). Teens are assisting at all levels, agencies are setting up tables, people are distributing free comic books and paperbacks, the media is covering us frequently, and we're reaching new populations (including many of Seattle's numerous homeless teens). We're also presenting an increasingly wider range of musical styles—a DJ dance party, live hip-hop and rap, alternative, punk, gothic, and death metal. And, to note how this kind of program can be expanded to other library systems, we were responsible for giving the Timberland (Washington) Library System the idea for organizing a series of library performances that featured one of our favorite, most library-supportive and loudest bands, BloodHag.
With this kind of success and inspiration to build upon, we see a very bright future, indeed. OK, it's true, a lot of librarians, library administrators, and library patrons out there would probably gasp and shudder at the suggestion that rock 'n' roll, hip-hop, and rap (to say nothing of death metal) could blend harmoniously with the goals and missions of a public library. Certainly, there are still many here at Seattle Public Library who will never completely accept Shake the Stacks! as a comfortable fit. Nevertheless, if a library system wishes to respond to attract teens in an effective, respectful way and, at the same time, thoroughly enhance its image and reputation within the community, such a program serves the purpose magnificently. Although we haven't kept hard-core statistics, I can tell you that an average of seven to 10 new library cards is issued at every show, and that we have seen many of our concert-goers coming back in to use the library. We call that success.
So yes, you can sponsor rock, hip-hop, and rap shows for teens
in the library and not only live to tell about it, but also feel completely
confident that you are upholding the most fundamental tenets of public
librarianship. And the kids and parents and care givers and leaders of
the community will love you for it all the more!
Jeff Katz is young adult services coordinator at the Seattle Public
Library in Washington. Previously, he worked in the YA departments at New
York and Queens Borough public libraries. He has an M.L.S. from the University
of British Columbia in Vancouver. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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