DCI executive director looks ahead to 2010 season following the recent divide

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

May 29, 2010 – Indianapolis, IN — These have truly been tumultuous times for Drum Corps International.

DCI’s Indianapolis office is normally a hub of activity this time of year, as the staff prepares for the summer tour ahead. But this spring’s philosophical division among the leadership of member corps has added even more pressing demands to the already full plates of DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson and his staff.

Acheson’s charge now is to bring the two deeply-divided sides — fractured, in part, by the now well-documented G7 presentation made at the May board of directors meeting — back together as DCI moves forward with the 2010 summer schedule.

Acheson took time out to discuss the challenges that lie ahead during an interview we conducted while visiting the Blue Stars’ training camp at the Indiana School for the Deaf on Memorial Day weekend.

MF: You said in your recent statement that some of the actions taken in the last several weeks could be interpreted as either detrimental to the future of the organization or perhaps a necessary discourse to lead the drum corps experience in a positive direction. So where do we stand in that assessment a little over two weeks since all this started and after the first work session with the interim board of directors on May 26?

DA: Clearly there is still a philosophical difference between a group of corps and the rest of the member corps that needs to be addressed. It is likely that there are even differences of opinion on various subjects within each of the two groups. It’s human nature that’s not going to go away. It’s something where all the members have to come together and really get through the issues, hopefully coming to a positive end result.

MF: What’s the mood been like in the DCI office and among the membership — as reflected in that interim board session — while all this division has been swirling around, with some decisions that could ultimately affect jobs at your office?

DA: It’s really an amazing staff that we have assembled there. They understand [the discourse] and it’s very real to them. But at the end of the day, they have work to do. We’ve got a season coming up fast and they’re focused on executing the season at the highest level of professionalism.

MF: Based on a recent news release from DCI, the work session found the board members reviewing plans for the start of the 2010 season and world championships, also assessing progress on that 2010-2014 strategic plan, while discussing other items of interest to the rest of the voting membership. How much of the meeting was simply deemed a kind of retreat to get these new board members together, provide an orientation session and get them focused at the task at hand?

DA: There were four board members who had not been a part of the ongoing discussion for a few years, although they had previously represented member corps and /or were advisors in the board room prior to this. They really needed to understand where we were financially and review the business plan to see how we’re doing from a performance standpoint. Frankly, the business plan is being executed very well, but not at 100 percent — not perfectly. I would question any company that says they’re perfectly executing their business plan. It’s a fluid thing, and we’re very pleased with the progress so far, although we’re certainly not content with the status quo.

We have a lot of work to do and getting them [interim board members] up to speed is our first priority.

MF: In the discussion were a number of items of interest to the voting members, as we said. How much of that dealt with DCI’s financial statements and the fact that the organization appears to be financially solvent, even increasing the annual payouts to members?

DA: Fortunately, we are in a lot better financial shape now than we were a couple of years ago. But we’re far from where we want to be as a board, as a staff and far from where I want to be as the CEO. We’ve got a lot of work to do to pour a little bit more stability and to improve what it is we’re doing here. We’re certainly headed in the right direction.

MF: How proud are you to be in that position, particularly given these difficult economic times?

DA: Well, it’s a pretty decent position to be in, but it was by no individual effort whatsoever. It was the group — the finance committee’s support of this over the past year, as well as the board of directors and certainly a hard-working staff that’s been willing to work under some tough conditions to make this work. The combination of all that has us in the position we’re in right now.

MF: I know two members who were part of the previous board before the recall — Jeff Fiedler of the Santa Clara Vanguard and Rick Valenzuela of the Phantom Regiment — were initially included among the interim board, but subsequently resigned. Obviously, they represent two of the G7 corps that were part of this now-famous presentation. How challenging does that make this task for the new leadership group to move forward without representation from those groups?

DA: Certainly I would love to see everybody be represented in this particular discussion. Each individual has to make a decision about what’s in their best interest and what’s in their organization’s best interest, despite the fact that they’re part of a much larger collective.

What I can tell you is that there are a lot of people stepping up and volunteering for committees and volunteering to serve on the board, should they be asked to do so. So hopefully, again, we’ll bring this all back together and come to some reasonable consideration as we move forward.

MF: I know authors of the G7 proposal have declined comment to Drum Corps World about the events of those five days in mid-May. How difficult has communication with them been for you and the members of this interim board, and how have you gone about attempting to ensure that their voice is heard for the collective membership as it moves forward?

DA: The key issue here is that they submitted a proposal that has been way over-discussed and there’s an opportunity to hear a part of that proposal that was forwarded on by the previous board. The interim board is interested in hearing more and understanding the issues being presented by their colleagues.

MF: I know all their corps are in camp and preparing their 2010 shows for the summer ahead. How confident are you that the summer season will move forward without disruption?

DA: Well, you know, “disruption” is relative. I think the most important thing that all corps have in mind — and all corps directors have in mind — is that the members have an incredible season. They’re working very, very hard to deliver that for them through their staffs, through how they travel and feed them, and through their business and finances. The root of the philosophical differences is that there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed so that we can continue to sustain this [activity] for a long, long time.

Our main focus is to create a stage on which these performers can perform. That’s our number one priority over the next 12 weeks — that it be the best it can possibly be, not only for the performers, but for the fans and our partners as well.

MF: We learned that discussion on the G7 presentation was actually moved to further review at the July mid-season meeting of the board of directors. How does that work and what’s going to happen in that July meeting?

DA: I think they’re [the board of directors] going to hear what further work is involved because it’s specific to the schedule for 2011. I know that I’m personally interested to see what the board wants to do so that I can react with staff to make sure we prepare for what the entire group wants to do for 2011.

MF: You wrote in the news release about the work session that the 2010-2014 business plan, approved by an 8-1 vote of the previous board in September 2009, calls for an additional across-the-board increase in corps appearance fees for all World Class corps. It sounds like you’ve got a great way to approach increasing revenue by growing attendance through a planned multiple-year national tour scheduling strategy beginning this year, with a focus on consistency in order to balance opportunities for drum corps fans in all regions of the United States. I understand that means you’re essentially trying to put almost as much emphasis on the big regional shows as your World Championships to drive overall attendance, possibly even offering a DCI season ticket package in the future. What can you tell me about this touring plan?

DA: The whole thing has to come together first for that to make sense as it relates to the touring plan. There are a lot of moving parts — a lot of components to create any kind of package. First, we typically start the schedule with the end in mind, which is the World Championships, of course. All the components that lead up to that are going to have to be put in place before some of the variables can be addressed to get where we want to get to do all that.

MF: The business plan also calls for a 100 percent increase in generation of year-round revenue through new and expanded entrepreneurial ventures, cooperatively leveraging the vast resources, core competencies and intellectual property of Drum Corps International and its member organizations by 2014. That’s pretty ambitious. How do you go about that?

DA: We have a great opportunity in the Fan Network itself, as just one example. We’ve already put the Fan Network out there for other organizations like Winter Guard International and Music for All (BOA), and other organizations with interests similar to our own. There’s more interest out there. That’s one aspect of how we can generate more revenue.

We also have a ticketing service that many of our Tour Event Partners utilize and it has actually done pretty well for us again this year. We hope to continue to offer that kind of service to other like entities. This is another example of taking some of our core competencies and expanding them to create win/win relationships for the organization and its partners.

MF: It also seems as if you are tweaking the adjudication process [in the business plan] a bit to reward what excites both the participants and the fans in the stands as much as “effect.” How will that work and how much does that reaffirm DCI’s commitment to generate even more fan-friendly, exciting shows?

DA: The interesting thing is that it’s something that was approved at the Jannual — the meeting this past January with all the voting members — to have Michael Cesario perform an audit of the adjudication system and events — the shows and how we present all that. We’re talking about a gentleman [Cesario] here who not only has a tremendous background in drum corps and marching music, but also a design, education and Broadway background. There’s a lot of wherewithall there and I’m looking forward — as I know the voting members are – to hearing from Michael at the end of the season when they [the board of directors] reconvene in September to consider and discuss the ideas and proposals he makes about moving that all forward. The voting members will have the final say as to whether or not the current process is altered in any way.

MF: These are challenging times and I know in reading statements by great leaders through history that they accepted their challenges as the defining moments of their tenures. How much have you accepted the current division as your defining moment as executive director?

DA: I think the key thing to consider is that this is not about me. It’s about the performing members and about giving as many young people access to the drum corps experience as possible; and making that experience a special one. I hope we can get through these philosophical differences so that we can stay focused on making sure they have an incredible experience, and that as many young people who wish to be a part of this great thing we do are able to participate at whatever level they may aspire to.

MF: How excited are you to have six new Open Class corps participating this season? That was a pretty exciting announcement.

DA: Yes, we’re very fortunate to have some dedicated people out there who are really trying, from a grassroots level, to offer the drum corps experience to more young people. So you bet that’s an exciting thing. We’re going to do everything we can [to assist them]. We have very limited resources among the collective — as has been made very clear — but we’re going to do everything we can to offer them as much support as we can. If groups are committed to figuring some things out for themselves, along with the assistance of their colleagues, we’re going to be ok.

MF: Do you have anything else you’d like to share for the good of the order?

DA: I hope everybody comes out this season and supports every one of the corps, no matter who they are, and cheers loudly and positively for every one of them. The performers deserve nothing less.

Editor’s Note: Drum Corps World offered the same Q&A opportunity to the authors of the G7 proposal, but they declined to participate.