Drum corps leaders have ideas on how best to fix activity’s unsustainable touring model

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

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As readers learn in Nic Waerzeggers’ new book, Drum Corps International: The First Decade 1972-1981, drum corps have been struggling with how to afford touring since the birth of DCI in 1972. And those costs ultimately led to some corps’ financial demise.

So it shouldn’t be a real surprise that new concerns over soaring touring costs have prompted some contentious debate among leaders of DCI member corps this year. But while there are very diverse ideas on the best way to secure the financial future of the competitive junior drum corps activity, most leaders agree that the drum corps touring model, as it currently exists, appears to be unsustainable over time.

“Well, it depends on what level you look at — and we have all kinds of conversations about this, that and the other thing — but if you want to play this game, it’s a million dollar ante, more or less, rounding to the nearest $200,000,” said Greg Orwoll, executive director of the Colts. “So from a financial standpoint, it’s nuts. The financial model called touring World Class drum corps hasn’t worked for years.

“Imagine if you have a symphony orchestra, but you can’t have a concert unless you have five other symphony orchestras come to your town,” he continued. “I mean, it’s crazy. Fundamentally, it’s not sustainable long-term.”

Little did DCI’s founding fathers know that they had created a touring monster back in 1972 — one that’s appears to be eating more and more money now, nearly 40 years later.

“We’ve created this monster — the major leagues — and I think that it’s a good thing,” said George Hopkins, director of The Cadets. “I think it’s good that there are 20,000 bands in the world that have this model to look at and say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at what you can do if you put your mind to it.’ But, there’s no solution that I’ve seen for how we can show all the income we need to be able to generate with all the drum corps in — even though there’s not that many anymore.

“And basically, I think because we don’t have a solution right now, we just kind of keep moving on and we lose a couple of soldiers along the way,” Hopkins added.

While there were just 39 corps that competed at this year’s DCI World Championships, all 23 World Class corps appeared relatively healthy in size as they produced strong shows and some of the most balanced competition in history. Everyone scored well over 70, with a record 18 corps surpassing the 80 mark — eight topping 90.

But the higher scores may have been a product, in part, of a longer touring season by one week. That means corps had to squeeze even more money out of their operating budgets. And the price is scheduled to grow even bigger next summer.

“They added on a week this year and it costs $35,000 for each corps,” Hopkins said. “I laid it out for everyone.

When you take the extra performance fees and cut in the t-shirt sales, it’s still $35,000 bucks. Next year they want to add on another week to the front of the tour down in Texas, so that’s another $35,000. So it’s tough.

“And I know from talking to my colleagues that some guys right now are struggling — big time,” he continued. “And if it wasn’t for their own personal insanity or dedication, I guess — it depends on your outlook — there might be another one or two going. But guys like me who have done it for 30 years; they’re not going to walk away until the very last second. But it’s [touring drum corps] pretty fragile.”

Just how to strengthen that fragility has been the rub. It was very much at the root of the now well-documented G7 plan. And it will continue to be the question that dominates the DCI off-season, starting with the upcoming September board of directors meeting.

“We know we’re going to have to work hard this fall,” said DCI Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Dan Acheson.

“Drum Corps International has to be a business because it takes funding to do what we do here. So that’s the practical side,” he said. “But you know what? Everybody on every side of every issue that we have to deal with is very passionate and they believe in these young people. They believe in what we are doing for these young people. So you know, we’re going to get there.”

But to do that, DCI leaders may have to come up with a new plan. Hopkins says the one the board approved at DCI’s January meeting may not fulfill the financial needs of today’s touring corps.

“What DCI’s doing — what their plan is and I’m a part of that — is to build the activity, basically at a grassroots level, to generate more kids into the drum corps and more moms and dads and grandparents, and over time, more attachments,” Hopkins said. “And I would agree that has been a part of the fall-off — less corps, less people, less participation, less moms and dads.

“So, that’s pretty much what Dan’s [Acheson] trying to generate from a mandate or a challenge of each show — well, 50 percent of them are run by corps these days — to pull 250 more people for DCI; to pull their attendance up by 10 percent per show. And in terms of his four- to five-year plan, that’s what he’s looking at to pull things forward.

“Is that a change? No. Is there anything that could be argued against that? I don’t think so,” Hopkins noted. “It’s solid and feels good and everyone voted for it. But I don’t know that that’s enough. I do think they need something dramatic. I think we have to find a different population in order to do this.”

Time to go back
to a more regional future

Rather than look for new people and revenue, some corps directors suggest it would be better to cut touring costs instead. They say it might be time to go back to a regional first tour before leaving on a longer national second tour.

“I don’t know if this would be the right fix, but I think it would be interesting to bring back some of the regional competition to let people kind of develop their shows in their region where it’s a little less costly to tour,” said Chris Komnick, executive director of the Madison Scouts.

“It would even kind of develop that here’s the group out of the Central Division and here’s the group from the Western or Eastern Division, and then bring those groups back together starting around that early-July time frame. That could help a lot.”

“Possibly a regional thing [would be an idea to fix the touring model],” said Fred Morris, director of the Troopers. “I mean, as you break the thing down, the East is a little light, but coming out of the Southeast, you’ve got to bring up Carolina [Crown]. The Midwest still has a pretty good contingent. The West has the lion’s share of groups.

“If you take the Continental Divide as the breaking point and then see who’s within range of the Rockies, we still have a pretty good section for the Troopers particularly,” he continued. “I mean, we can go either direction. We can either go to the Midwest or we can go over the hill to the West. So we kind of have the best of both worlds. The Blue Knights have the same situation. The Crossmen have that same luxury also. So, we can just kind of go either direction with this thing.”

The regional touring concept has worked for corps like Jersey Surf, which is also one of five World Class corps — joining The Academy, Cascades, Mandarins and Pacific Crest — that opt to participate in only a partial summer tour.

“What has worked for us is to try and keep a regional focus for the first half of the season and then look at a more national focus, or at least a trans-regional focus, for the second half of the year,” said Jersey Surf Director Bob Jacobs.

“Whether or not Jersey Surf will ever be a full, national touring corps, I’m not sure. But what we do hope to be able to do is expand our region a little wider out so that San Antonio becomes a possibility for us. That might mean we have to fly to San Antonio and then charter from there or have our busses meet us there just to save the time that it would take to get that far west and still hold true to our formula of providing the members and the staff the chance to do other things in the summer, besides the six- or seven-week tour.

“I think in general, whether we go back in time to where we have a true regional first tour, followed by a national second tour, I’m not sure if that will ever happen the way it was happening before,” Jacobs said. “But certainly, something that has more of a regional focus early for the individual corps to thrive in their own area, build market share, build an awareness in their community or in the whole region that they’re in and then grow to the national scale is something that will probably work well for everyone.”

But Hopkins isn’t sure a regional tour would work now, not with a shortage of corps in certain regions.

“I think we’d run back to that [a regional tour] in a second right now — whether right, wrong or indifferent,” he said. “But the only people who could think about sustaining something like that right now, ironically, is the West Coast.”

So if you can’t go back to regional touring, what can you do? Plenty, says Orwoll, starting with simply shortening the season.

“Maybe we start a little later. Maybe we stop a little sooner,” he said. “Particularly with the corps more and more chartering everything, the days of having a 12-month anything called a drum corps are over. So many of the corps are from wherever their post office box is and they don’t own all of the equipment anymore.

“Most of us are chartering busses now, so what is that per week for all of the corps to have four busses each, at least, for another week? It’s got to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, at least, that the activity would save if we went a little less.”

Bringing new ideas to the table

But if that’s not feasible and corps must come back to the current DCI plan to generate more revenue from new audiences, Hopkins says that may require some new thinking.

“Can we figure out how to become what Dave Gibbs [executive director of the Blue Devils] would call ‘relevant?’ Can we figure out how to be relevant again to a large enough community that they’ll be willing to support us?” he said. “Is it enough to go out there and do the shows that we do now or do we have to have a corps be more interesting? Do we have to have something in the pre-show? Do we have to have a post-show or special encores that are fun?

“And do we have to mandate that the corps are entertaining — I mean, really entertaining, like audience-wise?” he continued. “Do we have to stop with the artistry and force-feed the fact that those corps that get a standing ovation are going to win this thing — if that’s what it’s going to take — instead of perhaps those corps that take an artistic route, that we’re not maintaining an audience because people aren’t that interested in the classical, creative, avant-garde approach.

“I’ve been a part of all of that and I’ve been a part of it for a long time. The question for me, at least, is ‘Are we able to do that?’ ”

Hopkins isn’t sure that’s happening right now, enough for people to part with $25 or $30.
“And that’s when you have to acknowledge   the model’s broken,” he said. “You don’t even want to pay $25 for a local show. The corps are losing money to be at that show. We’re being paid less than it costs for us to be on the road. So if the sponsors don’t want to pay any more for us and tickets don’t want to pay anymore for us and we’re not getting paid enough, it’s a problem.”

What would get them to pay that money? Komnick agrees that it might be time to mix things up a little when it comes to the traditional show.

“I don’t think anybody has any real issue with changes that could be incorporated into the shows,” he said. “Personally, I would like to see maybe Monday through Thursday shows, change the lineups to make the show — from top to bottom — a more interesting event. And also give us an opportunity to bring in some of the smaller corps and give them a 9:00 PM start time.

“Why don’t we start a show with a bang, where you start with a great corps, a mid-level corps, great corps, lower level corps and all of that,” Komnick continued. “Make it a very interesting show and reach it up to a peak and finish on a strong note. And I think we all have to make some of those concessions to make that happen.”

But just how many concessions would corps really be willing to make in order to fix the broken touring drum corps model?

“Ultimately, do we want to start a youth program that by definition excludes roughly half of the members who play wind instruments in a school — that being woodwind players?” Orwoll said. “Now that leads to the other conversation. Should we open up to truly be the major leagues of marching band? Maybe that’s what we are some day. That would allow us to actually be from schools, potentially, because we can’t afford our own overhead.

“But then again, there were some records set at some other venues — over-the-top ticket sales where people want to come out to see drum corps,” he continued. “So it’s not broken to the point that people don’t want to support it. So we need to be careful that we truly understand what it is that we are before we go changing it.”

And therein lies the dilemma that has created a lot of ideas, but no easy solutions.

“I don’t know if I have an answer,” said Blue Stars Director Brad Furlano. “I don’t know that it’s [the touring drum corps model] fine the way it is, but I don’t know that I have a good answer right now on how to fix it. That’s the discussion.”