A History of the Frost Music and Arts Festival
Stanford’s Frost Amphitheater has had a good long life, and in its nearly 80 years as a part of the student campus, it has been the host for many student events. Students at Admit Weekend begin their journeys at Frost, and in some years, they end it there with an a cappella concert. If you were a student of the 1980s, you got to see Palo Alto’s own Grateful Dead play for you— most likely several times over the course of your undergraduate years. If you’re here over the summer, you can attend a jazz/classical concert, complete with fireworks to ring in the Fourth of July. But only in the last couple of years has the Frost Amphitheater become known for the Frost Music and Arts Festival, an annual concert featuring some respectable names in popular music. What a lot of students don’t know about the Frost Festival, however, is that it is a revival of Stanford’s musical scene from nearly a half-century ago.
In the late 60s, the San Francisco Bay Area was a fertile musical scene, home to some of the greatest bands of the era. In fact, the bands in its ranks rivaled those of even New York and London. The Frost Amphitheater had been used for concerts before, but it was at this time that Stanford opened its doors to rock bands to play for their students. The list of musicians who came to play shows read like the chart of an oldies radio station: The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, along with other, arguably even bigger names, such as Eric Clapton and Miles Davis.
But as with some concerts, especially those in that era, the audiences were rowdy and quick to cause destruction. After a 1971 concert got particularly out of hand, Stanford paid attention to how much violence and substance abuse usually came with these concerts, and the university decided to put an end to rock concerts on campus. The following year, concerns over security led Stanford to shut down concerts at Frost for good.
In the mid 70s, a student-run group named Special Events took it upon itself to bring music back to Frost. With the University’s permission, they booked on-campus gigs with big names such as Joan Baez and Frank Zappa. However, these big names didn’t come cheap, and there was no guarantee as to how many students would pay to see the acts. Sometimes, Special Events would have a show pay off, only to lose those profits the next time around. Ultimately, ASSU decided that they weren’t willing to gamble with their finances, and in 1980 they shut down Special Events. Just two years later, another organization devoted to bringing musicians to campus came to a disastrous end when Stanford placed a two-year ban on concerts. For a while, it seemed as though Frost— and maybe even Stanford University— would remain silent.
Fortunately, that was not to be. Stanford Concert Network formed in 1984, wasting no time after the ban ended, and came up strong by staging The Grateful Dead’s proud return to campus. Unlike its predecessor Special Events, SCN exists under a tighter budget and is subject to more oversight than ASSU. Nevertheless, SCN continued to put on shows for the next three decades, albeit with a few on the same scale as those in the past.
Perhaps that’s why they waited so long to accept the torch from Special Events; in 2012, SCN announced the Frost Revival Concert, taking as much from those halcyon days as from contemporary music festivals like Coachella. The first Frost Revival Concert was headlined by Modest Mouse, who were kind enough to take time out of recording their long-awaited Strangers to Ourselves and play for the students. The show was a massive hit and a financial success, and SCN was given the green light to repeat Frost— now christened the Frost Music and Arts Festival— the next year. This time, MGMT took the stage and was met with a warm reception.
I had heard plenty about Frost before I came to Stanford, and I was very excited to hear which acts they would have during my freshman year. I was pleased to recognize the two main acts; Dispatch was one of my friend’s favorite bands in high school, and I had heard good things about Yeasayer. I think that I was one of the first people to buy my ticket for Frost, and I had high hopes for the show.
In retrospect, it was a pretty good one— Stanford’s own Paper Void sounded amazing in their last on-campus gig, Yeasayer overcame a few embarrassments to put on a solid performance, and Dispatch whipped everyone within earshot into a frenzy with their smooth guitar jams. But unlike 2013’s Frost Festival, this one hadn’t sold out of tickets, and though the concert was a success, I heard some reservations both from people who had gone to the show and from people who hadn’t. One of the most common sentiments regarding last year’s Frost Festival was that it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a stripped-down, relaxed show or an all-out concert for the masses.
The latter seems to be the route that SCN took this year, calling in a trio of EDM acts, most notably Flume, who seems to be on the playlist at every campus party these days. Students reacted overwhelmingly positively to the big reveal, with tickets selling out in days. Booking Flume was a pretty smart move on SCN’s part; it certainly looks as though the concert will pay for itself.
That gives rise to another potential problem that SCN faces with Frost; as said above, SCN is placed under tighter regulation through ASSU, and that equates to a smaller budget. True to the old adage “spend money to make money,” SCN has less purchasing power and thus less of an ability to book acts that would draw larger crowds. While Dispatch has quite the fan base, even at Stanford, previous headliners Modest Mouse and MGMT dwarf them. Fortunately for SCN, students can vote for them to receive more funding on their ballots— and they usually do.
SCN returns the favor for its constituents by polling the students, asking who they want to see most at Frost. This year’s poll had something for everyone, from neo-hippies (Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros) to synthpop wizards (Passion Pit) to rappers both old (Nas) and new (The Weeknd)— and yes, electronic musicians (James Blake). Curiously, none of the acts on the list made Frost this year, and none of this year’s headliners were in the poll to begin with. Then again, the poll primarily served to gauge student interest, rather than make guarantees. Purely from this year’s ticket sales, I’d say SCN has done a great job thus far, and I can only hope that the show delivers.
What about next year? I’d personally love to see The War on Drugs or The National take the stage, but a lot of students want to see more diversity in the acts, featuring more women or musicians of color. In the case of the former, someone like St. Vincent or Sleater-Kinney would put on a great show, while Chance the Rapper or D’Angelo would satisfy the latter and be just plain awesome to boot. SCN could even kill two birds with one stone by hosting FKA twigs or Janelle Monáe. As long as Frost continues to be successful, we could see these acts and more right here at Stanford.
The Frost Music and Arts Festival celebrates its fourth anniversary this year, and it looks to be its biggest (and hopefully its best) one yet. Every music fan at Stanford is excited to see what’s next for Frost, but it’s also important that a good time is had by all in attendance. So, ladies and gentlemen, pick out your finest tie-dye shirt, lay out your beach towel in the sun, and maybe even enjoy a nice picnic while the band warms up. Kick back, relax, and enjoy the show. Oh, and one last thing— leave the selfie stick at home.