An interview with DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson

by Steve Vickers, DCW publisher

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 9).

The activity and Drum Corps International have gone through quite a few changes over the last year and I thought it would be informative to sit down and cover some pertinent topics on the “state of the activity” and the “state of DCI” with Dan Acheson as we head into very challenging economic times.

During the last year, DCI moved their operations to Indianapolis, IN, joining Music For All/Bands of America and the Percussive Arts Society as the city becomes known for hosting organizations and events centered on youth and music.

As part of the agreement with the city of Indianapolis to relocate their headquarters, DCI had planned to inaugurate the brand-new Lucas Oil Stadium as their new semi-permanent championship venue in 2008. Unfortunately, the timing of construction being completed didn’t line up with the August dates for this year’s series of competitions.

I’d like to begin with that topic . . .

Steve Vickers: Can you discuss a little about how the proposal came about to move to Indianapolis and where things stand with your current office location?

Dan Acheson: Drum Corps International has considered the concept of staging the world championships in one location for more than a decade; first in Orlando, then Madison, then Indianapolis. Establishing roots for the championship events creates enormous opportunities to widen our reach in the community on an ongoing basis.

We felt that by having the DCI staff living in the community where we stage our most prestigious series of events, we could gain significant traction in developing the many projects necessary to support it.

While Drum Corps International came to Indianapolis to take advantage of an excellent offer that will serve our interests for years to come, we are also looking forward to what we can do to increase the focus on the arts and education in the community at large. This stems from the very simple philosophy that, if you help enough people get what they want, you will get what you want.

So when the proposal came to us to stage the world championships in Indianapolis and move the office operation, it was a concept we had already considered. We just needed the opportunities to align before we made the leap.

We’ve been in downtown Indianapolis since March 1, 2008. Our current office location is temporary and will likely remain so until the first couple of weeks of this coming May. That’s when we expect to move into our permanent home, which is also in the downtown area.

SV: The shift of the championship event to Bloomington proved very popular with fans and corps, despite the distance for many spectators who stayed in Indianapolis. From your perspective, how did the site and success of your contests compare with other recent cities like Foxboro, Madison and Pasadena in terms of stadium, ticket sales and logistics?

DA: The 2008 DCI World Championships were a stunning success on many levels. The cooperation from the Bloomington Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Indiana University Athletic Department, together with amazing weather, made for a great stage for the event.

The local people who worked on our behalf were exceptional.

The entire staff and volunteer force were deeply concerned, as you can imagine, with the change in location and the potential challenges that move could create. Because of the work of those people, however, the logistics were a relative “piece of cake.”

Unfortunately, ticket sales were the lowest we have seen for a championship series since we were in Buffalo, NY, in 2001. We attribute much of that to the confusion surrounding the late spring change, as well as $4.00 a gallon gasoline. Also, even with unprecedented generosity by the Indiana University Athletics Department with regards to rental charges for us, the expenses were quite high to operate the event in Memorial Stadium.

SV: Now that Lucas Oil Stadium has been finished and has hosted a number of sports and music events in the last few months, how are your plans coming along to finally be in the long-term site?

DA: Plans are coming along well. I must say, knowing where we are is going to make a huge difference and frankly, it is exciting. We’ve already established a strong relationship with the stadium management during our years at the RCA Dome and those people are among many reasons why we were attracted to a long-term deal.

While we were disappointed not to be the first event in the new stadium last August, we are taking every advantage of being one of the last in the building’s annual cycle of events.

We have been in the stadium several times since it opened. Four members of the DCI staff volunteered for a Bands of America event held there in September. This not only helped out a strategic partner, but also allowed for an opportunity to get familiar with the venue.

The building offers many new opportunities for us; our challenge will be to narrow-down the possibilities. With the price tag on this state-of-the-art facility surpassing $700 million, fans can expect many pleasing “creature comforts.”

SV: The Internet had a rash of comments and questions about the acoustics at the new facility. I understand you’ve attended a major concert and a marching band competition recently. Were you able to experience the venue with the roof opened or closed and how are the acoustics?

DA: I would imagine there has not been, nor will there ever be, a sports facility constructed with so much concern regarding acoustics. Because of this attention and the importance of marching bands and drum corps to the city of Indianapolis and the Lucas Oil Stadium management, much has been considered and implemented in the design and construction of the building.

There is a goal line-to-goal line, 70-foot-high curtain that can be hung backfield; there are what they refer to as “downsizing curtains” that can be lowered to close off the upper deck on the back sidelines; they have the north end windows and the retractable roof; and there are other design elements contributing to the overall acoustic experience.

All this with one fact to keep in mind: the primary tenant of the building is the Indianapolis Colts and they like it to be loud in there . . . especially when the opponent is trying to move the ball on third down! But, they also need to generate revenue when the Colts are not in the stadium, so it is in their best interest to make sure concerts sound good, as well as the marching bands and drum corps performing in this venue.

When the concept of having championship events in an indoor stadium was proposed, there was legitimate concern regarding how such an environment might change the nature of the drum corps performance experience.

The corps are staffed with incredibly talented musicians and design experts. There is no question that they will find a way to “wow us” with the same combination of excellence in design and performance they always have in the past, regardless of the environmental considerations.

Many folks have already provided constructive input on the Lucas Oil Stadium acoustics, as quite a few of them work with the bands here in Indiana. Ultimately, we are confident the expectations of the fans and the corps regarding the championship stage will be met.

SV: Because of the downturn in the economy worldwide, what types of changes are you making relative to the season and the DCI Championships that will counter budgeting constraints for 2009? Is the season going to be shortened or the number of shows reduced?

DA: We have indeed been challenged, first in 2007 and 2008 with fuel prices and now with economic times that are making it increasingly difficult to operate a non-profit organization.
Our first concern is, of course, for the fiscal health and financial stability of each of the corps.

The fans who so graciously support the drum corps activity are feeling the pinch as well. Our overall cost to operate the annual summer tour and the world championships keep going up, yet we are hesitant to charge more at the gate.

We projected in early May that Drum Corps International was headed toward shortfalls well into the hundreds of thousands by fiscal year-end in 2008. Thanks to the tremendous cooperative efforts of our board members and our staff working together, we have a shot at breaking even by the end of the year.

The planning and budgeting processes have been ongoing in an attempt to be in a position to react to those things over which we have no control. We are trimming costs as much as we can without compromising the experience of the corps members and our loyal fans.

The schedule drives much of what we do in the planning process. We have been working to maximize stops along the tour with a few exciting changes we will be announcing soon; but fundamentally, the tour will still fall within the customary seven-week framework.

SV: Now that Jersey Surf has moved into the World Class realm, have you received any indication about any of the corps that have taken a year off planning a return next summer, like Southwind, Capital Regiment or Cascades?

DA: We have heard from Southwind that they will remain inactive for 2009. Both the Cascades and the Capital Regiment are currently undergoing an evaluation that will determine their status within Drum Corps International for the 2009 season.

SV: You’ve had great success with the spring theater presentation and the DCI Quarterfinals broadcast in movie theaters the last few years. You also introduced the popular “Fan Network” this past season and have offered the same opportunity for band fans this fall. Do you have any new projects coming up that will further expand DCI’s reach?

DA: Fans will see the return of “The Countdown” in April 2009 in a similar format as it was last spring — featuring recent corps performances as chosen by the fans, with reports from a few corps’ 2009 rehearsal camps.

Our fifth edition of the “Big, Loud, Live” quarterfinals event drew a record 34,000 attendees. The positive feedback from that has been overwhelming. We keep working to expand both theatrical events into international markets and we are hopeful we’ll make it happen soon.

The “Fan Network” has been a tremendous success. We are quite proud of what the corps have been able to deliver to fans using this exciting technological platform. We are even more proud that what we have created has opened up the opportunity for high school marching bands to be seen and heard on a much broader stage.

While we do not have “new projects” planned for 2009, the “Fan Network” itself will continue to evolve to provide an even higher level of fan experience. Stay tuned.

SV: After 37 years having DCI on PBS and then ESPN2, 2008 was the first time without the broadcast. Has that had any impact on your organization and what do you think are the chances of bringing it back in some form in the future?

DA: Our very first PBS broadcast aired in 1975 and I have been a champion of the project through the years. I was always frustrated when opponents of the expense complained there was no way to measure if the money it took to produce the program was well spent.

Until we placed the program on ESPN2, we did not have ratings. The success of the ESPN2 plan was based on how many advertising dollars we could raise to offset costs. The ratings, while strong by ESPN2 standards for such a program, dropped dramatically in 2007 and we could only raise half of the funds required to offset the cost of airtime. So the two success measures in this case, advertising dollars and ratings, indicated we needed to suspend the program.

We may never know the impact of not having a broadcast on cable or network television, but we are pleased with the other outlets available like the movie theaters and the “Fan Network.” For the future, if we can fully fund the return of the broadcast with sponsorship dollars, we will make it happen.

SV: Last year the governing structure of DCI was changed so more of the decisions that used to be handled by the full board of directors is now in the hands of a smaller group of corps directors and non-corps directors. Can you briefly describe how this has differed from the previous method and has it become easier to function?

DA: First, the volunteer effort behind the governance change and its ongoing implementation has been significant. The voting directors, which are the directors of the participating World Class corps, voted for this change last January.

The nine people elected to represent them are: Mark Arnold, director of the Blue Knights; George Hopkins, director of The Cadets; Rick Valenzuela, director of the Phantom Regiment; Greg Orwoll, director of the Colts; David Glasgow, director of the Bluecoats; and David Gibbs, director of the Blue Devils. The three at-large members or non-director representatives have been a part of our governance for several years now and include: Mike Kehoss from Minnesota, Brian Setzer from Tennessee and Tom French from California.

They have all been focused on amending and updating the by-laws, and setting up sound non-profit governance procedures, including detailed documentation and processes. They have been working with me and the DCI staff on areas including budgeting and strategic planning, and they have been engaged in frequent board and committee meetings discussing current challenges.

I have been a part of the DCI board room for 20 years now and, while it may take a few years to judge whether or not the structure change was effective, this current collective has never worked as hard on behalf of the drum corps activity than what I have seen since January.

SV: Your development director, John DeNovi, has brought a number of new corporate sponsors on-board over the last year or so. What type of “pitch” has caught these outside company’s and organization’s attention to be drawn into supporting the activity?

DA: John has performed his responsibilities admirably, but he will tell you that securing the support we have has been a total team effort by all of the DCI staff members. They have developed a consistent message for a few years now and they have delivered on promises.
We are blessed to have so many sponsors that not only look at their association with Drum Corps International as a strategic business move, but are also emotionally engaged in what the drum corps experience provides young people.

SV: You’ve decided to not stage a seminar this winter. The yearly “convention” has brought together show sponsors, instructors, designers and corps directors for a very long time. How do you think this might impact the overall operation of DCI, the corps and the schedule of competitions this year?

DA: It was a tough decision not to bring the entire “family” together this January, but a practical move nonetheless. We’ll have to use the technology available to us to stay connected. I am confident while we will miss the face-to-face interaction, we will not miss a beat with the   planning and ultimately the execution of another successful season in 2009.

SV: Anything else you would like to cover today?

DA: One thing if I may. Everyone who reads your paper is an avid fan of the drum corps activity. Each of them is no doubt affected by the current economic situation in a very personal manner. I rarely make a plea in such a direct manner, but if you believe in the principles the drum corps experience brings to young people in changing their lives, please find a way to come to an event in 2009 or several events should you have the means.

Our activity, along with countless others, will likely face challenges we have yet to realize. The support of the drum corps fan has always been the foundation that enables corps to do what they do. Please stay with us . . . and thank you!

SV: Once again, I very much appreciate the opportunity to chat with you about DCI and the activity. I want to wish you a very successful 2009 season as you move into the new stadium and become more established in your new location.

DA: Thank you, Steve, for your continued support of the outstanding young people who fill the ranks of Marching Music’s Major League.