Stars are born 

Rock n' roll major gives grads a boost

UM Productions alumni find themselves coveted by industry execs

Surrounded by concert posters spanning 30 years of Missoula entertainment and phones that never stop ringing, Jeff Kicklighter has come home.

The new staff advisor to University of Montana Productions, Kicklighter has returned to where he began his rock-n-roll career in 1992 as a security grunt working his way toward a degree in anthropology.

Kicklighter is an example of the success of what amounts to an unofficial university major of rock n' roll promotion. He rose from the security detail to "punk-rock music coordinator" in 1993. After graduating in 1994, he hit the road for two years, promoting country music acts out of Nashville before returning to the Big Sky.

Now he leads a small crew of heroically underpaid student coordinators who arrange every detail of the university's major arts productions -- from ZZ Top to Joshua Redman to the Chinese Folk Dance Ensemble.

He is proof of what people in the music industry have known for years: UM Productions is also a fecund training ground for the next generation of promoters, managers and industry executives.

While students iron out the catering, security, ticketing, advertising, and every other detail associated with arts production, they are learning skills probably more marketable than those they pick up in class.

"There are not very many places anywhere in the country where you're going to give some kid who's 22 years old control of a $200,000 production," says Truxton Rolfe, UM Productions' student director and a senior in broadcast journalism. "And it happens here in Missoula and they trust the students to do it. And the reason they trust us to do it is because we've been doing it for 30 years, and we do a damn good job."

Concert coordinator Ellie Danch handles shows from start to finish, from booking the band months in advance to overseeing the backstage catering to making sure somebody sweeps up the field house. She works at least 30 hours a week and gets paid poorly for 15. On the day of a concert, she can expect to work from 8 a.m. till 2 a.m. with barely enough time to grab a snack or even enjoy the concert.

For big-time field house shows, for example, Danch's duties include hiring about 150 security guards, stage hands and technical crew. She must coordinate with local law enforcement, the UM Physical Plant, and UM Dining Services, worrying about details down to whether or not the artists' backstage snacks include appropriate condiments.

"No one understands what goes into it," says Kicklighter. "And we're doing it with a student staff and student funds. And that's why so many people in the music industry start out in Missoula, Montana."

Tom Webster, the new director of the University Theatre, held Kicklighter's job until this year and also parlayed his UM Productions experience into a career in the music industry. By the time Webster left his student career at UM behind in 1989, he had received three unsolicited job offers to do promotions work in the music industry.

"It's really a well thought-of program in the industry," Webster says, noting that such industry giants as celebrated tour accountant Mike McGinley (a.k.a "the goon") and three vice presidents at the William Morris Agency, one of the world's largest talent agencies, all got their start in Missoula at UM Productions. "It's a great training ground for students in that they get hands-on experience."

Jeff Kicklighter, a 1992 alumni, returns this fall to head up UM Productions, the program that gave him a head start in the music industry. Students Truxton Rolfe and Ellie Danch say the hands-on experience is invaluable. Photo by Jeff Powers.

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