Management takes Memphis Sound deep into the heart of Texas

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This feature article was published originally in the May 2009 issue of Drum Corps World (Volume 38, Number 2)

Memphis Sound did a little Texas two-step in an effort to ensure the long-term health of the corps. In March, the Mid-South Youth Performing Arts Association — the umbrella organization for Memphis Sound — officially announced the organization’s move to the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas.

The corps had already been conducting winter rehearsal camps at its new Grand Prairie, TX, home. New Corps Director Chris Green says the move made logistical sense because the state has increasingly become fertile recruiting ground.

“The biggest thing has just been that the last couple of years, most of the staff have come from Texas. And probably our two biggest areas of membership have been Mississippi and Texas, with Tennessee being a distance third,” said Green, a middle school choir director in the Dallas Independent School District and founder of the Frontier Performing Arts Association.

“The organization started looking in 2006 and realized that their area of Tennessee was not going to be real supportive for what the corps needed to grow the organization and sustain what it’s been,” he said. “They actually looked pretty heavily at Florida in 2007, but it just wasn’t the right time and there were very few members and staff coming from that area. We just kind of felt that with an area where the members and staff were already coming from would make for a smoother transition for the current membership.”

The 2007 Drum Corps International Division III World Champions, Memphis Sound has been plagued in recent years by large debt, few sponsors and limited housing options near its headquarters. Executive Director Pam Opie reported last year at the DCI World Championships that management had to make the decision on whether to fold the corps prior to the 2008 tour or compete in an abbreviated schedule. The corps chose the latter and managed to make Open Class finals, placing 11th.

Opie called the corps’ debt “astronomical” at the time. But Green says she’s improved upon that condition.

“In the past, the corps has had a significant debt up through about the 2007 season. When Pam took over as both executive director and corps director last year, one of her big goals was to make sure we didn’t create any new debt,” Green indicated. “So what we actually did was re-envision the entire business plan and really started going pretty heavily after people who owed or committed money — corporate sponsors, partnerships, community things — and establish new and different fund-raising programs.”

The new business plan contains some big plans for Memphis Sound’s Texas future.

“We actually submitted a business plan to DCI in November, or after I first came on, covering how we are re-envisioning the organization and addressing the debt,” Green said. “That was first. We cannot accrue new debt and grow the organization. We also can’t rely strictly on member fees and performances from the summer to make that happen. So we put together a three-year plan to get us to where we can successfully move into World Class if everything happens the way we plan for it to happen.”

The strategy will keep Memphis Sound in Open Class this season while the corps tries to solidify its new organizational base. Next year, Green says the corps will remain in Open Class, but apply for World Class status in order to learn what it needs to do to successfully make that transition by 2011.

Raising support for a new name

Given the corps’ troubled financial past and ambitious future, fund-raising has become a big part of its reorganizational efforts. One of its new fund-raisers was a contest in March to determine a new name to accompany the Texas move. The new identity was expected to be announced in April so the corps could transition to it for the 2010 season. Instead this season, the group will be known as Memphis Sound of Memphis, TN, and Grand Prairie, TX.

And that may continue to be the name. According to two Tennessee members attending the corps’ March camp — 17-year-old drum major CJ McCrory of Collierville and 19-year-old tenor drummer Wesley Hotzseld of Nashville — Memphis Sound was among the leading choices in the contest, particularly with alumni. Other popular choices included Dallas Sound, the Sound and Midnight Sound.

Memphis Sound is also the preference of both McCrory and Hotzseld, who had their drum corps plans altered by the corps’ departure for Texas.

In his first year of drum corps, McCrory auditioned at a December camp in Memphis. He was invited back for the January camp, but was told that was going to be in Dallas.

“At first I was kind of iffy about it. I didn’t know whether I wanted to drive down to Dallas every single month and stay down there for a whole summer,” he said. “But I started going and I gave it a shot. I was thinking, if I don’t make drum major, then I’ll just do something else for the next year. And surprisingly, I did make drum major and I met so many great people. I enjoy the music so much, it seems really worth coming down here for it.”

The story was a little different for Hotzseld, who marched with the corps last year. The freshman music composition major at Belmont University in Nashville had always planned to return, but he admits to questioning those plans after learning that Memphis Sound was taking its show to Texas.

“It was kind of a weird thing,” he said. “It started out where there were going to be a couple of camps in Texas. Then I found out that all the camps were going to be in Texas. I was still OK with it, because I thought we’ll just operate in Tennessee. Then I found out that everydays were going to be in Texas and I was still OK, but I thought, OK, when are they going to call us the Texas Sound?’ . . . kind of jokingly, but that was still my reaction. I said, OK, I guess we’re not officially in Memphis anymore.

“To be honest, I’m not really opposed to moving to Texas. I think it’s really a great opportunity for the corps,” Hotzseld said. “I think there’s a lot more opportunity for recruiting and sponsorships down here, so I’m pretty excited about that.”

That’s not to say that progress hasn’t come at a cost of some Tennessee members.

“We actually lost a few people because of financial issues — just because they either have to drive down here and spend so much gas money or buy plane tickets,” said Hotzseld, who has flown to his first two Texas camps. “It became almost too much because you can get sponsorships to march in the drum corps, but you can’t get    sponsorships to buy gas or get a plane ride and    all that stuff. So we lost a couple of people because of that.”

But McCrory says the corps is ready to help those members who may not be able to afford the $2,600 summer touring fee through fund-raising.

A high rate of return

According to Green, the corps has returned 90 percent of the drum line, all but two eligible guard members and a good number of brass members are back, too. That may be surprising, given the corps’ tumultuous 2008 season and subsequent move. But Hotzseld believes that has just brought the veterans closer together.

“Even though I didn’t have anything to compare it to, I could tell that we had gone through a lot more [last year] than we were supposed to have gone through,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, we went through a major staff change and that’s when we lost a lot of people because many of them lost faith in the corps. But every single person who stuck with the corps aided it in its success last year.”

Green reports the corps has plans to field nearly 100 members this summer. That would be a bigger unit than the corps has fielded in either of the last two years.

And the organizational move hasn’t slowed down the corps’ preparation on its 2009 show, “Celebrations . . . Rebirth of a Planet,” either.

“The corps’ actually much further along on the design aspect,” Green said. “Last year, we didn’t actually have a cohesive show until July when we were ready to go on tour. Now our show’s been announced for several months. Over half the book is in the members’ hands. We’re starting to learn drill pretty soon. So we’re really well ahead of the design process of where we’ve been in past years.”

Memphis Sound’s move to Texas means the state is now home to five corps — with San Antonio’s Revolution and World Class Crossmen also among the juniors, while Frontier and Gulf Coast Sound are the state’s senior corps. But with Texas being the nation’s second-largest state and possessing some of its largest and most successful high school marching bands, Green says there is plenty of talent to go around.

“A lot of the bands here have between 200 and 500 members,” he said. “If we get even one or two kids from some of the programs, there are still tons who are available for all kinds of corps.

“We’ve seen Open Class and World Class come down here and pull huge numbers in recruiting and then they’re not able to march all of those kids,” he continued. “But with the DCA and the Open Class corps in the area, we’re starting to see more of those kids stay involved — there are more options now. It’s not just that you go to your Cavaliers or Phantom or Bluecoats camp in Texas, and if you don’t make the first cut you’re done for the year. Now, it’s if you march Open Class or DCA, you have more experience to go back and march one of those other corps.”

Memphis Sound also has plans to go back to its original home. According to a news release about its Texas move, the corps will continue to hold a banquet open to all alumni, fans and supporters in Memphis. They will also make time in the summer schedule to perform in parades, community events and exhibitions in Tennessee.

And while the corps may get new Stanbury uniforms for the 2010 season, the traditional purple color will still be featured. The corps song will also continue to be Can’t Help Fallin’ in Love with You, which was also the song of the city’s earlier DCI corps, Memphis Blues Brass Band.

“We want to make sure there’s a presence in Memphis,” Green said. “We want people to know those traditions are still alive. We’ve just come to the realization that the organization itself cannot be fully run in Memphis and get the support that we need.”