Life after Under Canvas: the trouble with events

Illustration: Nicole Slyusareva

Most events fail quietly. Be they sparsely attended or poorly reviewed, there are certain institutions that are unable to justify another year, and so they unobtrusively slide into the ether of forgotten balls or Vic nights. In a town crammed with committees, every event cannot be expected to succeed; however, many annual occurrences typically have the fanbase necessary to be considered genuine staples of the school year. DONT WALK, May Ball and the Rugby 7s Afterparty, for example, are all both expected and anticipated, sure to sell out and be generally enjoyed.

Until recently, Under Canvas could be included amongst these giants. Although not as conspicuous as a fashion show or Kate Kennedy affair, the small-scale festival had found its niche as our premier purveyor of live music, presenting itself as the opportunity to dance to something other than throwbacks and house for five hours. Last year, despite being held on the same day as the sold-out Charity Polo Tournament, Under Canvas attracted a sizeable audience, most already tipsy from a day of pitch-side drinking. Decently reviewed, the 2015 iteration of the event showed no signs of imminent collapse.

As Under Canvas 2016 approached, the UC committee made an unprecedented move: They released a video admitting that, just days before the festival, they were unable to pay their deposits due to inordinately low ticket sales. With fewer than 200 tickets sold, the show simply could not go on, and Under Canvas was officially cancelled following another day of middling sales.

In the wake of such a public defeat, the question of why inevitably presents itself. Many would-be guests cited the £35 price tag, but this excuse falls flat when considering the average price of a Lower College Lawn event. September’s £35 Opening Ball sold out, as did this year’s £30 Masquerade Ball. Providing two free drinks to the first 400 arrivals and hosting a wide range of musical acts, Under Canvas did not lack incentives for ticket-buyers. Additionally, the committee could point to past years as evidence of a successful night out, unlike the fledgling Masquerade Ball. Further insult to injury was added when, hardly a day after UC’s cancellation, May Ball tickets (respectively priced at £45 and £70 for Classic and VIP) sold out.

Under Canvas is not the first large-scale event of 2015-2016 to suffer at the hands of wary ticket buyers. First semester’s 602 Ball boasted a massive advertising campaign, monopolising our newsfeeds for weeks leading up to the event. Come mid-November, it would be difficult to find an individual who had not heard of 602. And yet, the Fellowship was forced to significantly reduce the size of the venue when faced with a depressingly low attendance rate, essentially cutting the cavernous marquee in half. In 602’s case, word on the street attributed the event’s lacklustre name and timing as the primary reasons for its disappointing turnout. Framed by Christmas Ball and Advent Ball, 602 was criticised as being little more than yet another black tie gathering, an attempt by the Fellowship to reconstruct the success of the 600th Anniversary Ball.

Here, we may potentially identify the crux of the problem: event-induced apathy. Our wardrobes are bursting with floor-length dresses, and we have been featured in enough Lightbox photos to last a lifetime. To put on a tuxedo and enjoy a three course dinner in a beautifully-decorated marquee is no longer a novelty to many students; we do not jump at the chance to participate in what many people would consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As stated by St Andrews student Laurence Cardwell in World’s Toughest Jobs: “If you want to, you could go to a ball every weekend!”

Being so spoiled for choice requires decisions to be made. When Rugby 7s, Polo, May Ball, Sitara*, the Bull & Bear Ball, Afterski and Under Canvas all occur within a matter of weeks, it would take very deep pockets (and very few deadlines) to manage an appearance at each event. In a way, our abundance of balls ensures that committees will strive to give us the most bang for our buck, or else face the cold indifference of natural selection.

It is a sad thing, however, to witness the occasional failure of such grand affairs. In London, a ticket to the Order of Malta’s White Knights ball costs £140 for dinner and £50 for the afterparty. In St Andrews, a ticket to Welly Ball costs £60 for dinner and £20 for the afterparty. The events may not quite compare in terms of scale, but there is something to be said for the ability to enjoy a spectacularly posh night on a student’s budget. Naturally, no one could possibly attend every single event. But we are fortunate to have such choices at our disposal; fielding off invitations to black tie balls is not likely an issue that will follow us after university.

We may look at 602 and Under Canvas as warnings to future committees, evidence that no one is too big to fail, and that our bank accounts can only handle so much strain. As magnificent as our town may be, it is ultimately home to students who lack sizeable incomes. Rather than £30+ events for 800+ people, perhaps we ought to look towards planning smaller scale parties, affordable evenings in alternative venues. This past year has been proof that St Andrews may be reaching a point of social supersaturation.

All that said: May Ball will sell out every year, as will Christmas and Welly Ball. The FS and Oktoberfest table ballots will continue to be oversubscribed. The events industry will beat on.


  1. I think it is a bit unfair to pair 602 with UC. I loved the Fellowship ball, and I thought they did well considering the fact they went against arguably the largest ball in the same weekend. The free gin and tonics were a great inclusion in the price. Under Canvas did not sell enough tickets to even put on the event, but 602 had a decent turn out. I think it’s apples and oranges.


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