Vattica performs at a High School Nation event at Arcadia High School. (Photo courtesy of the High School Nation Twitter account.)
Arcadia High School

Opinion: High School Nation is a gilded marketing gimmick

High School Nation, a national music and arts festival “dedicated to helping public schools advance in music, arts, and sports” visited my school, Arcadia High, on March 28, interrupting our normally-scheduled school day for the sake of promoting their program. But was inspiring kids to pursue the performing arts what they were really promoting?

Let’s begin with what High School Nation is, as the HSN website doesn’t explain much, instead using photos of teenagers rocking out to music to do so. The “enter” button on the front page of the website that visitors must click to access the site’s contents insinuates an entrance to another world, one where jamming out to your favorite band is just within reach. Throughout, the site uses photos of teenagers, clearly having fun, to advertise the success of their event. They’re also not shy about advertising their sponsors; brands like Hollister, Takis, Hubert’s Lemonade and something called a “Maschine MK3” by Native Instruments, parade the screen.

To me, at least, the website seems like more of a catalog than an organization aimed at promoting the performing arts. But besides a good time, that is exactly what the organization promises. The program initially started as an activities program that took place during school lunchtimes, but according to the event’s founder, Jimmy Cantillon, HSN has since evolved into a program that aims to strengthen arts curriculum in schools. After experiencing HSN, however, I question that claim.

First, let’s discuss how the event went down at my school. To preface, the festival was obligatory and spanned two hours during the school day. All 3,424 students that attend Arcadia High were directed to one of our fields to participate in the event. Most of my peers, myself included, were confused about what exactly High School Nation was; beforehand, we’d only caught glimpses of blow-up stages and had heard occasional traces of music throughout the day. Yet, somehow, despite not knowing anything about the event, I was totally underwhelmed.

As I surveyed the entire festival, I remember noticing that the activity, merch and snack stands, all sponsored, seemed like they were supposed to be the main event, while the music apparently took a backseat. No one was forming crowds around these musicians like it is suggested in so many of the photos on the HSN social media and website, not at my school, at least; rather, audiences were ridiculing the performers or avoiding them completely, preferring to stand in long lines for the “free stuff” instead. Everything, from the free merchandise to the complimentary snacks (there were two snack options, Takis and Hubert’s Lemonade, and both came with disastrously long lines) were miniature ads of the brands that provided them. Hollister, for example, was providing free t-shirts with their logo splashed across the front of them, drawstrings that were also branded and redeemable coupons that encouraged students to go their stores. Almost every booth and every game that was featured required students to follow them on their social media. Notably, one booth did not even allow entrance unless you followed the company on Snapchat.

To me, the event was really just evidence of our digital culture, where likes and follows mean the world for the success of a company or organization.

The fact that this event takes place at high schools is also no coincidence. Teenagers are, after all, the most lucrative group when it comes to marketing merchandise and music. According to ReverbNation, a blog dedicated to helping musical artists promote themselves, 51 percent of teens purchased some kind of music last year and 54 percent purchased some kind of merchandise; these numbers are higher than any other demographic. In an interview with the blog, when asked about the benefits of the event for the up-and-coming artists who participate, Cantillon asserted that “with HSN, you play in front of thou sands of teenagers… Those are thousands of trendsetters; thousands of social media mavens; thousands of consumers. They will purchase your album.” Cantillon goes on to explain that HSN focuses on high school students because “[they] think [they] can have the largest impact at this level.”

But what is this impact? In reality, are they just leaving a deeper footprint of consumerism on students? By making this a mandatory event for students of participating schools, is the company technically exploiting teenagers to forced marketing and even advertising through their social media?

This leads me to my next concern. If the HSN tour is trying to inspire students to pursue the performing arts, isn’t there a better way than a festival, where the primary thing that is being promoted are the brands that are sponsoring the event? How is the tour any different, or any better, for that matter, than a normal music festival in its ability to inspire students to follow through with a career in the performing or fine arts?

The truth is, there are better ways. After watching my school’s exceptional production of “Les Miserables,” for example, I recall yearning to participate in a similar activity and even somewhat regretting not doing so at some point during my career as a student. I was genuinely excited for the bright futures of the performers, who according to the play’s director, were heading to New York the following week for experience.

I actually think the idea of an event that centers on encouraging students to pursue the performing and fine arts is really great, even necessary and I think it would be even better if parents could also participate in the event. A lot of students dream of having a career as an actor, a musician or a designer, but due to their worries (which are mostly derived from their parents’ worries) about job viability and availability, as well as low median salaries, many neglect to pursue this dream.

Society deems careers in science, law and economics, for example, as more respectable and valuable than ones in the arts. An article by The Atlantic titled “What Can You Really Do With a Degree in the Arts?” asserts that majors in this field are useless. According to the article, about 90 percent of America’s two million graduates with art degrees don’t earn most of their income from artistic work. What’s more, many who did not earn degrees in the arts are becoming artists thanks to our digital world. Social media, for example, is giving artists the platform and the exposure that they had to work so hard to gain before.

This is not to say that there aren’t fine arts jobs that aren’t incredibly reliable. Careers as architects, animators, filmmakers and editors, and many other jobs are in high demand.

So, all in all, though the supposed incentive behind the HSN tour is sound and almost needed, there are better ways to achieve it. Admittedly, the finale performance by the Plain White T’s was a highlight; I just wasn’t inspired to get up on the stage with them.

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