Part one: Money matters Today’s touring corps learn how to support big business

by Mike Ferlazzo, DCW staff

Money may not make the world go round, but it ultimately makes the wheels of the bus go round for touring drum corps. And as touring has become more extensive, shows more elaborate, and equipment needs and instrumentation more sophisticated, it takes more money than ever before to keep those busses rolling.

Most of today’s largest touring corps have budgets around a half-million dollars annually. A cash flow shortage could make a corps the next “statistic” — the latest to go inactive for financial reasons like Capital Regiment, East Coast Jazz and The Magic, all missing from the scene for the upcoming season.

While a big budget and strong financial base may not guarantee success, it’s imperative for survival in today’s drum corps activity.

“Our operating budget for just the drum corps is more than 10 times what it was when we started in 1990,” said Kevin Smith, director of Carolina Crown. “It’s about 150 percent of what if was four years ago, before we entered the ‘cream’ [uniform] years.

“A lot of the [Carolina Crown] organization is involved in things other than just the drum corps, and its total budget is over $1 million — with more than $500,000 of that being related to the drum corps.”

Smith laughs when he recalls the corps’ first budget in 1990 was $58,000. “That was when we did a dozen shows and the entire staff volunteered their time that year,” he said. “We operated out of my house at the start.”

Once Carolina Crown became a serious player on the Drum Corps International Division I touring circuit, it needed some serious cash just to “play the game.” When the corps’ management and membership decided to “up the ante” competitively four years ago, money was a big part of that equation.

“There’s no doubt about it. When we kind of reinvented the corps four years ago, that’s what we did — we changed the uniform look, hired all new staff and bought new instruments,” said Smith. “A lot of that commitment was to put money into certain faculty to enhance the experience for the performers.

“There’s been a real commitment to be excellent across the board, and that has kind of taken its toll from a financial sense.”

Capital Regiment seemed to have a similar plan last summer. After steadily climbing the division I ranks to finish 14th and 15th at the DCI World Championships in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the corps and its management decided that they could do better.

So 2006 saw an influx of new, high-profile staff, along with the purchase of new uniforms. But the plan ultimately failed on tour, although the corps managed to finish the season — placing 16th at championships. Two months later, Capital Regiment went inactive for the 2007 season in order to reorganize.

“During last summer’s tour, and since, the corps faced several challenges that need to be addressed,” read the news release, announcing Capital Regiment’s decision to go inactive. “Events during that tour have caused the organization to step back and re-evaluate all operations, from fund-raising to day-to-day operations.

“The organization’s goal is the same as it has always been: to provide its members with the best possible drum corps experience. Over the next year, Capital Regiment will take necessary steps to ensure its return to active status in 2008,” concluded the release.

The alternative touring model

There’s no question that the demands of a full-touring DCI corps can be financially taxing — and possibly destructive in the end. That’s why Pacific Crest and Director Stuart Pompel chose to take a different route to organizational success — one that initially resisted the temptation of participating in the DCI Championships.

Instead, it opted to build the corps’ base through regional West Coast shows, helping to give its membership a taste of the drum corps experience without having to commit the time and money to a full tour.

“We started with a philosophy that was pretty foreign in the activity, that we weren’t going to go to championships,” said Pompel. “You can have a successful drum corps without ever stepping foot on a championship field.

“People looked at us like we were nuts. They said, ‘How can you possibly do that when the game is to go to championships?’

“Our response was that the model of touring seems to be a pretty failed model when you look at the number of groups that can’t support it. So why would we try and replicate something that we know we don’t have the resources to do, right off the bat. That would be sort of silly.

“So, we never really experienced any pressure because we were pretty straight ahead with the kids and the staff and the parents and DCI all along saying, ‘Hey, this is what we do. If you don’t want to do this, don’t show up,’ ” he said.

“We said the same to DCI. But throughout, the executives there at DCI and other division I leaders in the activity have been supportive all the way along because they wanted to find a place for us. They wanted to do what they could to help this renegade organization, so to speak, fit in and still allow Pacific Crest to participate.”

According to Pompel, a key element of its organizational plan was that it was never going to buy anything it couldn’t afford, or travel farther that its budget would take it.

After 11 years and several successful competitive seasons out West, the Pacific Crest management team felt secure to take the corps on the cross-country trek to the 2003 DCI World Championships in Orlando — making DCI Division I Semifinals in its first try. While the event proved historic for a corps that kind of “broke the mold,” Pompel knew the trip opened a “Pandora’s box” for the organization’s future.

“One thing we knew from the very beginning was that, once you start going to championships, you can never stop,” he said. “And so, after we made the decision following the 2002 season to go to championships, we knew at that point we were never not going to go. It was always going to be an issue.

“So we had to know that we had enough auditionees in the pool that we could find the right number of kids who could make the commitment to the corps and afford the tuition. The tuition, of course, would have to go up because we don’t have bingo and the other auxiliary services.”

While Crest continues to only do a partial tour, part of that tour now annually includes the DCI World Championships. And while the three-week touring schedule keeps some costs down, PC’s annual budget is still $350,000.

The PC model gets traction

Pacific Crest’s initial competitive success out West caused a buzz in the drum corps activity. It caught the attention of Mark Richardson, who was working with a team to start a musical youth program in the Phoenix, AZ, area at that time. Richardson liked how Pacific Crest’s model allowed the organization to ease into the competitive touring experience without the heavy financial burden.

He eventually adopted something similar when he created The Academy — last year’s DCI Division II champions — making Pompel one of his mentors.

“We understood that Pacific Crest had set a model for sustainable growth that worked for its organization,” said Richardson. “From what we could tell, PC had never needed to scale back or recover from previous year’s mistakes because they [the organizers] planned for success. Stuart [Pompel] has been a very helpful mentor to us and is always able to keep us in perspective when we have asked for help with some of our biggest decisions.”

While Crest began as a drum corps, The Academy’s first three years came as a non-competitive, non-touring, summer brass and percussion ensemble — one that was founded out of an initial commitment to host a drum corps show in Arizona.

Richardson reports that there had been an absence of the activity for several years until The Academy’s organizers and a group of band directors and booster organizations came together to produce the first “Southwest Corps Connection.”

“The object was to begin raising money and start building awareness and excitement for the activity,” he said. “We started to promote the future of drum corps in Arizona and hosted benefits and programmed small, inexpensive ensembles. We met with band directors and other leaders in the music education community to build support from that side of things.”

While borrowing equipment from several schools, the organization came up with the “Be Instrumental” campaign in its second year — allowing individuals the opportunity to sponsor a brass instrument. The unit also took just a single weekend tour in its second and third year as a non-competitive unit to show parents, members and staff what the activity was about.

“Again, the plan was to get our feet under us well before we took the corps on the road,” said Richardson.

“Not committing to huge expenditures right away allowed our organization to take time to build community support, strengthen fund-raising programs, encourage parent involvement and find out what our strengths and weaknesses were as an organization,” he said. “While developing over these three years, we committed to a baby steps approach. Our goal was to take the program a little step further each year and never commit to anything we were not positive we could attain.”

One thing The Academy did differently than PC was bring in more high profile educators initially to help train its own local staff and provide world class education to its early participants. “We wanted it right away,” said Richardson, “but we didn’t know instructionally how to take our kids there — providing some world-class education locally.”

“They [The Academy] took it one step farther and they brought in name clinicians like Ralph Hardiman and Glen Crosby — people in the drum corps activity who meant something,” said Pompel. “That’s how they were able to do recruiting to have kids say, ‘I don’t know much about The Academy, but if Ralph Hardiman’s there, I’m going to check it out.’ They did something that, in retrospect, would build the enrollment faster. So it was a good thing.”

By choosing to keep its expenditures relatively modest while building both the numbers and skill of its membership, The Academy hit the competition trail running — going undefeated over its first three years in DCI Division II, culminating with last year’s championship. Like PC, The Academy competed only in regional shows through much of its first three years before making the trip to Madison last August.

But the corps and the organization will now make the jump to also become a partial-touring division I member this year. And, like Pacific Crest, that’s still no small chunk of change. Richardson reports that the corps’ budget is at $336,000 — and only about $200,000 is covered by the membership. The rest is raised by events and outside donations.

“This is a high percentage of the budget covered by the membership compared to other top division I corps,” said Richardson. “Our goal is to continue to find new ways to raise funds in order to give our corps the opportunity to tour more.

“Nothing changes [by the move to division I]. We can afford to be on the road for 29 days,” he said. “We are scheduled for competitions that are in our region that enable us to compete around this limited amount of days. Other division I corps will travel 50 to 60 days and compete in twice as many shows as we will.

“Again, our goal is to get to that point some day and offer our kids this kind of performance experience.”

But until then, Richardson and The Academy are perfectly content to “keep it real” in order to put money in the bank for the organization’s financial future.

The YEA cooperative model

Of course, the Pacific Crest model isn’t the first attempt to get creative with financing the high cost of touring drum corps. Youth Education in the Arts (YEA!) was initially created, in part, to allow several Eastern drum corps to find benefits from sharing in their tour costs at a time when many were struggling to do it on their own.

Today, just The Cadets and the Crossmen remain as the drum corps under the umbrella organization — and that will soon change with the Crossmen moving to San Antonio and having a goal of eventually becoming financially independent.

At one time, Carolina Crown was part of the YEA! initiative (as were the Boston Crusaders, Magic of Orlando and the Sunrisers). While it ended its association in the early part of this decade, Smith still believes the idea, in theory, makes sense. In fact, drum corps’ governing body is now putting some of its principles to use.

“Basically, the concept of YEA! we’re actually starting to look at some of this at the DCI level — finally after all these years,” said Smith. “That concept was to allow multiple units to get the cost benefits of bulk buying and that kind of stuff.

“We did realize some cost benefits, from a financial standpoint, in terms of leasing busses, bulk food-buying and things of that nature. The other thing we got out of it, at the time, was that our corps was growing competitively faster than our backroom operations could keep up with it. We were kind of making that transition from my living room to where we are now — with an office, three full-time employees and things like that . . . so, it was like outsourcing in the corporate world, basically.”

Smith theorizes that YEA’s changing — at least in terms of the number of corps — is because each corps is different and the “one size fits all” approach doesn’t always work.

“Some of the same challenges that DCI’s had in the past of trying to do some of that stuff   [buying in bulk to defray costs], and will have as we try and do it in the future, is that the corps had a lot of things going already a certain way,” he said. “For example, not everybody charters busses. Some already own them. Some charter busses with drivers, some have their own drivers. Some charter busses with fuel, some purchase their own fuel. So there’s so many different variations on just one topic — whether it be food, fuel, busses, whatever.”

And, unfortunately, for each corps, those are all variables that cost big money during a summer tour. Figuring out “Who’s going to pay for all this stuff?” is ultimately the name of the game and that’s literally become the million-dollar question within the activity.

“The biggest financial concern is budgeting for expenses that you have not already raised,” said The Academy’s Richardson. “Non-profits get into trouble when they start spending based on what they expect to collect and the income does not come through. This is why we want to get to the position where we are one year ahead of ourselves.”

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Next month: part two will explore some of the more creative ways corps have developed to raise money to pay their touring expenses, and directors will also provide survival tips to fledgling corps.