Dealing with new concerns from record fuel, food prices

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

This article was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Drum Corps World (Volume 37, Number 7).

The hottest topic on Drum Corps International’s 2008 summer tour had little to do with the competition, or new uniforms, or even The Cadets’ further exploration of amplified narration. There were more important things for corps to discuss, like how to afford making it home.

A weakened economy, coupled with record high fuel and food prices, not only pushed corps’ touring budgets to the brink, they broke the bank for some. More than one Open Class corps had to trim their tour schedule and pull out of some shows just to make it through the summer financially.

“We had to make the decision to fold the corps and not march — not come out at all this year — which was really hard for us to decide after we won the DCI Division III Championship last year,” said Memphis Sound Executive Director Pam Opie. “So I had promised the kids that we would be on the road and that we would come out. That’s what we did, but we had to cut back on the tour twice before we got out on the road.”

“Well, sometimes you’ve got to make decisions through the season that are difficult, but are best for the organization’s long-term success,” said Revolution Executive Director John Rodriguez. “We had to make some of those decisions this year. They probably weren’t the most popular decisions, but moving forward we knew that it was the best situation for the organization for our longevity’s sake.”

Opie called her corps’ debt “astronomical”. Rodriguez said his corps’ was “manageable”. But Memphis Sound and Revolution — which both went on to make DCI’s Open Class Finals — were hardly alone when it came to red ledgers this summer.

“We’re a little scared, but we have a whole band operation that keeps our organization together. But if you don’t have another source of income and you’re running a drum corps right now, I think as you’re driving home, you’ve got to be petrified,” said George Hopkins, director of The Cadets. “And I’m sure these guys [management from other corps] — in fact I know because we’ve talked — have huge credit card bills. I don’t know what they’re going to do. And we don’t know.

“We, the directors, never meet in the summer, and we’ve met three times, but they haven’t gone very well,” he said. “We’re very opinionated people and we tend to not agree on much. We haven’t come on an answer yet.”

Fans were also feeling the gas crunch in their decision to drive to shows, which now are more than 100 miles away, on average, according to DCI’s marketing data from last season. That may have contributed to some smaller-than-projected attendance at some of the early-season shows.

The ones who did attend weren’t just talking about the corps and their shows. They were also concerned about what the future holds for their beloved activity. Some wondered aloud which corps we may lose after this expensive summer from an already shrinking roster of corps. They even talked about the financial future of DCI, which had to deal with a projected $250,000 shortfall back in May before the tour even began.

“There’s a lot of distress out there and we’re all going to go home and assess where we’re at,” said DCI Executive Director Dan Acheson following World Class Finals. “And the Board of Directors of Drum Corps International have already been engaged throughout the summer looking at the business model, looking at the touring model and trying to make some decisions that can continue to provide these great nights for the performers, as well as for the audience.

“Our challenges are ahead of us,” he said. “But you know what? With the kind of desire that fans have to keep this activity going, and the passion that the performers have, there’s no   question it’s going to be around for a long time.”

According to Acheson, DCI’s ticket sales picked up significantly over the final three weeks of the season, with large crowds at the San Antonio, Atlanta and Allentown regionals, and 17,000 in paid attendance at DCI World Class Finals. That may have helped the governing organization’s bottom line.

“That hasn’t taken us out of the woods, but it’s taken a significant amount of pressure off,” Acheson said. “So I think we can go assess where we are and try and make some healthy decisions for the organization so we can be there to be the cradle for the corps.”

Assessing what’s broken in the drum corps model

While DCI may have circumvented its financial hardships, the same can’t be said about all touring drum corps after this summer. And because of that, changes may be coming to the touring model next summer to help ease the financial burden.

But at least one member of the DCI Board believes it’s more than the touring model that’s broken.

“Drum corps is broken,” said Hopkins, after World Class finals. “DCI needs money. The corps need money. Sponsors can’t pay any more. Ticket prices are, I think, inappropriate. The avid fans are going to pay $125 like they did tonight, but most people won’t. So we know we have a serious problem unless we’re willing to charge the kids $5,000 to be in the corps. We’re going to raise our tour fees $500, I think. That’s something off the top of my head just to get back to something reasonable.

“But, we’re in a dilemma and it’s bigger than a tour model,” he said. “It’s the number of corps that are left and the fact that we’ve lost a number of corps. And it’s not because of electronics in my opinion. It’s money. It’s management. It’s a lot of things that people don’t realize how much it takes to run a non-profit. If we were dance troups, it would be the same thing. It’s happening everywhere across the country.”

Hopkins says there are other non-profits he knows of that have done great things in people’s lives, and many of them are gone, too, because they couldn’t sustain themselves financially.

Yet some have survived — even others in the arts. And one director says there may be some answers there.

“The thing I think would be interesting, and I would kind of challenge all drum corps people, that when you age out of your drum corps, find $100 a year,” said Blue Stars Director Eric Sabach. “That’s $100 a year to give to your drum corps as long as you can, if not the rest of your life, and our activity would absolutely blossom and bloom.

Just from the experience that we give our performers, we would hope that that memory is worth $100 and that grows and grows and grows, and we’re really able to take care of ourselves like a lot of other arts-based organizations do with the gift back to them.”

Fund-raising, and lots of it, is even more critical to corps today, requiring even more financial commitment from fans and corps alumni. If corps haven’t had sophisticated fund-raising plans in place, they’re getting them — fast.

“We have a lot of programs that are going to be put in place at the conclusion of this season to make sure that our tenth year goes off with a much better financial situation than before,” Rodriguez said. “We need to get back to our basics of fund-raising, which we kind of lost over the last two years.”

Alumni become a more critical
part of financial future

In many respects, drum corps has become more like a more visible non-profit — higher education. Anyone who’s graduated from college knows how many solicitations they now get annually from their institutions — whether it be for the annual fund, a new capital campaign, or just a special need — as schools try and cope with their rising costs and strategic plans.

Many drum corps today, particularly those with long and successful histories, have similar alumni programs in place. Whether it be this summer’s fuel fund, the uniform fund, or the capital campaign for new equipment, corps are increasingly expanding their alumni databases and trying to tap that most important resource.

“We’ve really kind of leaned on alumni to help out and really try and incorporate them more for not only that side of it, but to be part of the corps more,” said Madison Scouts Executive Director Jeff Spanos. “We started this ‘Join the Corps’ campaign. We re-vamped the alumni booster program and call it ‘The Madison Corps’ and started re-branding that. So we’ve been trying to rebuild our connection with our alumni and our fans through these programs. It’s been successful.”

“The Madison Corps” initiative grew out of the Madison Scouts Alumni Reunion Project, which came together to perform at the 2006 DCI World Championships. Many organizations have put together alumni corps through the years — some more successfully than others — and that may be a first step in building a better alumni base and getting them to “buy in” to the current corps. It was for the Scouts.

“I was honored to be a part of that group and I think that was the catalyst that kind of brought a lot of the corps from all different eras back together,” Spanos said. “And we were able to use that momentum to start making some positive momentum with how we communicate and serve our association.”

The Troopers have incorporated their alumni into much of what they’ve done since returning from financial problems two years ago, particularly this year during their 50th anniversary season. According to Director Fred Morris, the corps conducted alumni “Troop Whoops” all over the country this summer, including some in Cheyenne and Denver where alumni got to play with the corps.

The corps also rallied the alumni troops through the debut of the film “America’s Core”, a documentary about the 2007 Troopers and the corps’ rebirth after the year of inactivity, produced by alumnus and the former drum major, Michael Gough.

“The alumni came out and we rented a movie theater at the mall in Cheyenne,” Gough said. “We had 100 people there and projected it on one of those expensive projectors and they [Trooper alumni] cried and they were laughing and they had a good time. It just kind of brought everyone back to being in the old days, I guess.

“So what it does for those alumni, I think, is that it reminds them of who they are and why they are members of the ‘Long Blue Line’,” he said. “I think it may have kind of re-inspired a lot of people who hadn’t been involved in a long time. It can be used as a great recruiting tool and as a great fund-raising tool. It has the potential to be used by the corps from now and for a long time, I think.”

The documentary DVD sold for $25 at the Troopers’ souvenir stand this summer and continues to be available for purchase on the corps’ Web site.

But while alumni are increasingly being asked by their old corps to buy something or contribute to the cause, there are other ways that they can help that don’t necessarily require a check or credit card.

“Our alumni have really supported us along the way, from finding donations and local sponsors in Wisconsin, to helping us find financing and really setting up the organization from a good, strong fiscal standpoint,” said the Blue Stars’ Sabach.

“So it’s [alumni support] something we’re trying to build on,” he said. “For many years we were not 128 or 135 members. But now we’re 150, so we have some catching up to do in some of our fund-raising. I think with a year like this, we’ll do quite well.”

All corps probably have some catching up to do financially after this summer’s expenses. And that has them all looking for more financial solutions — both for themselves and the long-term health of the activity.