DCI Executive Director has mixed outlook after DCI’s 35th anniversary

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff
E-mail: mferlazzo@yahoo.com

This article was originally published in the December 2007 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 36, Number 15), mailed to subscribers on November 21, 2007.

Drum Corps International threw one heck of a 35th birthday party last summer, culminating in their world championship events in Pasadena’s famed Rose Bowl. Now that the excitement has long since faded from the          celebration, where does DCI and the North American junior corps activity stand?

On one hand, last summer was arguably DCI’s most balanced and competitive Division I (now World Class) season.

DCI officials estimated that more than 400,000 people attended its 136 sanctioned events in 40 states. That included 50,000 tickets sold for 2007 championship week events, including more than 30,000 people attending Saturday night’s finals. According to Kristy Holst, ticketing manager for DCI, the 2007 finals night crowd surpassed any at the event since 1990 in Buffalo, NY.

But at the same time, a record-low 22 corps competed in the division II and III competition, meaning that just 44 corps competed in Pasadena.

The 2007 junior corps census, published last month in Drum Corps World, reported that only 53 North American junior corps made it to the field in 2007, an overall decline of six from the previous year. Only 48 actually competed, marking the first time in the DCI era that fewer than 50 junior corps made it to field competition.   Since that census, Southwind announced that it will go inactive for the 2008 season.

And now this news. DCI announced that it will suspend the national television broadcast of its world championship event on ESPN2. Acheson said in a news release that the difficult business decision “was one that was necessary in light of the sizable economic challenges facing DCI and its member corps.”

Acheson sees the state of the junior corps activity as healthy, but facing some real challenges.

“A lot of times, people will judge the health of the activity based on the number of corps that are still available to perform in the course of the summer. That’s one way to measure it,” he said. “The real true way to measure it is whether the corps that are in existence are being able to deliver a quality experience for their performers.

“If we have 100 groups and 50 of them don’t get it right, well then that doesn’t serve anybody. But if we have 50 corps that are humming at a good pace and behaving like good non-profit organizations, and they’re giving a great experience for their young people, then the stability and the health of the   activity isn’t what perception might lead you to believe.

“The point of all that is to say that the activity today is as good as it can be,” he continued. “And while that sounds like the political answer, it’s a fair answer in that every corps is struggling — just like if you ask any non-profit in your own community or beyond, they would probably tell you that they were struggling to raise enough money to present the programs that they want to present.

“Drum Corps International, in its own right, is a non-profit and is having its own challenges with being able to sustain the operation. Our expenses keep going up and revenue stays the same. So we have those challenges that we all meet on an annual basis.”

Personally aware of the problems

Acheson admits that the shrinking number of corps is a sobering fact, but he sees more young people engaged in competitive marching music today than there were back in DCI’s inaugural year, 1972. He says that the evidence can be found by the larger number of high school marching bands achieving competitive excellence than there were 35 years ago.

He would also like to see more drum corps.

“But I don’t want to see drum corps for the sake of seeing drum corps. It’s important that they be healthy, stable organizations,” Acheson said. “And if a drum corps has faded away, it isn’t just because Drum Corps International didn’t help them, or other corps didn’t come to their aid, or all the things that people like to respond to. It’s not because Drum Corps International doesn’t care. We’re doing more now to encourage corps to be stable, solid organizations than we ever have.

“The fact is, that if you’re what was formerly known as a division III corps, you can no longer operate as a ‘mom and pop’, part-time organization,” he continued. “The activity has evolved. The regulations of the road, the tour, the demand for the kids and from the kids that there would be a better experience have all changed. As a result, corps that can’t keep up with that demand have faded away.

“Is that bad for the activity? In fact, it’s probably good for the activity because if they’re not able to deliver at the appropriate level — or at the minimum levels to deliver a reasonable experience — then they shouldn’t be operating.”

Acheson says that he takes the attrition of corps personally, but he is hopeful that with the decisions that have been made in the last five to 10 years at the board of directors’ level in Drum Corps International, there will be a day when that trend will reverse.

“There will never be 400 drums corps again,” said Acheson. “But if we can have 30 solid world class and 30 solid open class corps delivering a great experience, I would paint that picture as the perfect world.”

Since there aren’t as many corps, the talent of the participants may be more evenly dispersed among them. Acheson is proud that competitive parity is becoming more of a reality in DCI’s World Class level. He sees last year’s tight competition — particularly in Pasadena — as a reflection of health within the competitive activity.

Greater balance also pays dividends to everyone in the activity, from the corps, to the fans, to the show sponsors.
“Obviously, when we schedule, tour event partners have an expectation that they have headliners in their show,” Acheson said. “Well, I’d like to look at a tour event partner and say, ‘If you have a world class corps, you have a headliner. Now what else can I do for you?’

“Painting that perfect picture in an ideal world that if I could snap my fingers and it would be that way, then everyone would be able to have a chance to win. We know the realities in our world of money, of resources, of just evolution — all those things that take place in our activity — that that’s just not real. But it’s becoming more and more real each year, if you just watch the activity evolve, particularly at that top level.”
The fan-friendly experience

While Acheson considers the state of the activity to be first and foremost about the experience of the participants, the fans’ experience is part of that equation, too. Few can dispute that DCI has upgraded that experience over its 35 years, from its increasingly interactive Web site, which now includes digital downloads and live web casts, to the ever-expanding number of vendors in the World Championship Marketplace, to holding more shows in popular tourist destinations at bigger and better venues.

Yet those improvements have also come at a cost, particularly the price of tickets to DCI’s major events. It’s not uncommon now for fans to spend upwards of $50 or more for some of the top seats at DCI’s biggest shows. Prices for Saturday’s World Championship finals now rival those at other major sporting events and professional concerts.
But that’s because much has changed since the first DCI Championship event and today’s championships are designed to be like those events.

“What Drum Corps International has contributed is that we’ve professionalized the activity,” he said. “Lord knows, not in terms of the young people who participate, since they don’t get paid. But we’ve presented it more as a professional event, as opposed to the event in 1972.”

And like any professional event, fans need to see entertainment value to justify their expense. Acheson says that DCI will continue to make that a priority.

“Now, we’re in the situation where fans have more needs than they did back in 1972,” he said. “They want there to be a destination where they can have a good place to go get a dinner and have a good place to rest their head at night, and all those things. So without question, for 36 years the attention to the fan experience has changed. And to be honest with you, we can’t do enough for our fans.

“We need to be better at what we do for our fans,” he continued. “And not trying to make the case for Indianapolis, but it’s important for us to have the fans in mind when we choose our championship location, or our other locations, as much as we’re concerned that it’s the absolute best place of convenience for the participants.

“Back in 1972, it was all about the participants. Now it’s about the participants. It’s about the fans. It’s about the sponsors. It’s about the community where we put this big event on in. So it’s gotten a little bit more sophisticated. Our founding fathers had some pretty good vision, but I don’t know that they thought it would be what it is today.”

And yet, what the activity is today is still largely anonymous to those outside of the marching musical circles. The ESPN2 telecasts — and those previously on PBS for 25 years — were attempts to reach more of the public mainstream. But financial contraints have gotten in the way of that challenging objective.

“We can only do as much as our resources will allow us to do, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “There are just some incredible challenges to come up with the funding to be any more mainstream than we are now. But what we have done well is, we have touched a significant part of what I’ll consider to be our niche audience, between band students and directors, long time fans and so forth.”

Economics was at the root of the ESPN2 decision and it’s on the mind of Acheson and corps management each and every day. That hasn’t really changed over DCI’s first 35 years. But in today’s higher-priced society, it’s become the focus for the future of the activity.

“I think that the word that I probably use way too much is stability,” Acheson said. “I think that while we want to set the world on fire and jump as high as we can go, at the same time I am so concerned about making sure the foundation is solid so that whatever decisions we make that are going to set us up for success 10 years from now, are being done with a solid foundation underneath.

“Drum Corps International has had a little bit of a roller-coaster ride for a couple of years financially, and it’s not because of any one thing. It’s a combination of factors that continue to be challenges for us. And one of the reasons we decided on the move to Indianapolis was that we see it as an opportunity to gain some stability on our primary event (World Championships) — our biggest fund-raiser, if you will.”

And what’s his goal over the next five years by the time DCI turns 40?

“I hope that every corps that participates is in reasonably good health for a non-profit organization,” said Acheson. “Being the realist I am, that’s how I think of that. If they’re in reasonably decent shape for a non-profit organization, the rest will take care of itself.

“They’re going to hire people who are going to come up with great designs and they’re going to challenge their students and they’re going to keep challenging themselves better if there are solid foundations underneath those organizations.

“Drum Corps International has to provide the same kind of a foundation. So what we hope to see is an organization that continues to deliver each year — from now and moving forward — a better experience for the students, for the fans, the judges, for anybody who touches the activity so that they’re better this year than last year and so on.”