An interview with Drum Corps International Executive Director Dan Acheson

by Steve Vickers, DCW Publisher

Publisher’s note: This interview was originally published in the October 2005 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 34, Number 13), mailed to subscribers on Sepember 29.

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This has been a particularly successful year for Drum Corps International and Dan Acheson has been busy making changes, adding programs and leading the continuously stronger organization that fronts the junior drum corps side of this activity. He has always stressed to me his willingness to speak candidly about the issues that affect the corps, the fans and the movement as a whole.

Doing an interview with Dan each fall is becoming a “tradition,” and I know readers of DCW appreciate learning a bit more information about what goes on behind the scenes with the DCI organization than what normally appears in DCI Today or on the DCI Web site.

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Steve Vickers: Thanks, Dan, for again agreeing to discuss a number of topics in greater detail so our readers can learn more about the DCI operation.

Dan Acheson: Thanks for the interview opportunity once again, Steve. There are so many issues that surround the overall effort behind the drum corps experience, it is impossible to provide insight to everything we do, but it is important to Drum Corps International that we communicate to all of those concerned whenever we have the opportunity.

SV: I’d like to start out by asking you to give me some background on a few of the new programs you’ve set up to not only fund DCI, but to help the member corps financially. It was recently announced that DCI has distributed $2.5 million to the corps for the 2005 season.

Not all of that income was derived solely from appearance fees. One of the big projects of 2005 had to be the transition from PBS to ESPN2. Didn’t talks with the network begin a number of years ago? What finally made it come to fruition?

DA: First, let me address the $2.5M that you mention. This amount marks the highest return to corps for the purpose of offsetting travel expenses in DCI history. The $2.5M represents a 20% increase from 2004 to 2005. This, along with a new revenue distribution allocation process which would take at least two issues of DCW to explain, has aligned fund distribution to be much more equitable among corps, while recognizing groups that have contributed to the tour for a long time.

I am very proud of the fact that Drum Corps International is in a financial position to channel more revenue to the corps. However, among the division I corps, this DCI distribution represents an average of less than 20% of the corps’ annual budgets, which is not nearly enough to take the pressure off of fund-raising efforts.

The cost of operating a corps continues to rise rapidly and, despite the extraordinary volunteer effort that surrounds each organization, they struggle to keep up with even the minimal demands of getting a corps down the road. The effort to move the television program to a commercial network is just one in a series of efforts focused on trying to find more potential revenue through broader exposure.

Having a national television presence has been important to Drum Corps International since 1975. In fact, there was a push in the early 1990s to place the program on ESPN. The efforts failed because of issues related to the ownership of the copyrights, the ability to sell videos and the overall control of the program. DCI very wisely walked away and kept the program with PBS stations in order to maintain its ownership of this very valuable asset.

With all of the changes in television over the years, including the influx of multiple cable channels, the timing has proven to be a little better to explore options such as the ESPN2 opportunity.

The ability to place the Drum Corps International program on PBS since 1975 has provided DCI with several advantages over the years, but its limitations caused our focus to shift toward a commercial network. The inability to promote when the show would air on PBS and in what market has been a bit of a barrier. Also, we are interested in reaching a broader demographic than PBS provides.

With the support of the Drum Corps International Board of Directors, I accelerated the effort to find a commercial broadcast venue for the program. We quickly determined that we wanted the show on a sports network in prime time. Some might ask, “What about arts channels, Discovery or Bravo,” but ultimately we saw the best fit on a sports network, given their current range of programming. After a few months, ESPN2 became the choice.

The simple answer to how it came to fruition, quite frankly is, “cold, hard cash.” ESPN offered the September 6 slot, agreed to most of our terms, and we went to work on securing sponsors.

The cost of the production for ESPN2 is approximately 10% higher than the cost for PBS. The airtime, broadcast licensing, consultant and promotions expenses are all added costs beyond what is necessary for a PBS broadcast. We covered about a third of the added expense through commercial spots and /or sponsorship sales. The rest came from the general fund as an investment in the stronger positioning of the broadcast before a broader audience.

As an added bonus, those who already support the drum corps activity were able to come together on the same night to join in the celebration of the drum corps experience across the United States.

SV: The overnight ratings indicate nearly half a million people saw the ESPN2 broadcast. Do you think that number is potentially more conservative than the actual number who viewed the program?

DA: I am yet a novice in understanding the commercial television world, but all of the experts tell me these ratings are very respectable. The process they use to gather the data actually equates to close to 450,000 households. Combine that with at least two people watching in each household and you have a pretty good number.

However, what the ratings system will not capture is the many groups that gathered to watch in band rooms, sports bars and the like. For those who have to have measurable results, they can focus on the success of a .49 rating, but I do not think it to be an embellishment to say that well over a million people saw the program on September 6.

SV: You had a small number of companies and organizations support the telecast through advertising, including Drum Corps World, and your presenting sponsor, NAMM, the                international music products association. Do you anticipate expanding the scope of the commercials outside the music business in the future?

DA: Yes, we fully intend to expand our sponsorship base. We simply ran out of time this year to do more. One of the motivating factors for DCI to pursue commercial television was to attract additional sponsors from the music industry who are not already connected with us, as well as new sponsors from outside of the music industry.

There are plenty of companies, associations and institutions within the music industry that may find our program as valuable a property as NAMM has to promote music, education and young people achieving high degrees of success.

We couldn’t be more pleased with the support for the television program from NAMM, Yamaha, Pearl, Zildjian and Bands of America, but the representation of support from outside the music industry from the likes of A.J. Wright and Travelink is huge as well.

Steve, I think your readers need to know that Drum Corps World not only supported the program, but that yours was the first company to step up to the plate. Thank you!

SV: Thanks. I was very pleased to be part of the support network for the program. The APDs have been a great innovation for fans who didn’t have a chance to purchase the five-volume sets of CDs you offered for a number of years for 1972 through 1987. This has       extended the “life” of the historical recordings that DCI has in its’ archives. How successful has this been so far and do you anticipate adding perhaps the next eight corps from each               championships and even making the Ken Kobold collection available one day?

DA: To date we have come close to meeting all of our revenue expectations with the DCI Season Pass and the APDs. The DCI Season Pass has become a place for the on-line drum corps community to gather and enjoy both historical and current events. We fully expect the sale of APDs to follow the current trends in on-line music sales.

When people become more comfortable with downloading music, we’ll likely realize steady increases. At least that is our hope for this project. We had some bumps along the way with delivering content on the DCI Season Pass, but I am confident we will continue to get better as we move forward.

We have had a good amount of requests to deliver more corps from the various years, as well as some of the Ken Kobold material. Like any business, we have to evaluate the return on investment for any project we pursue. Although there is enthusiasm for the content you mention, the volume of demand in dollars and cents, based on past and even current projects, is quite low.

The scope of adding more goes beyond just adding files to an existing database. Each file needs to be converted, checked for quality, mechanical licenses secured and royalties paid on a quarterly basis. I’m not suggesting we will not add more corps to each of the years                represented, I am merely pointing out that it will not happen as quickly as some may like it       to happen.

SV: The DCI Championships at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, this past August presented some interesting challenges and difficulties once the event got underway on Thursday, August 11. I know you had all the logistics worked out with stadium officials well ahead of time, but security personnel changed much of what you pinned down once things got underway.

The in-and-out policy was a problem, the souvenir area wasn’t in the most accessible place, which affected corps sales, and the cost of parking was an issue. What happened?

DA: After several visits and meetings with the various entities at Gillette Stadium in advance of championships week, I knew we were going to have a few challenges, but I did not foresee anything beyond what I encountered in Denver, Orlando or Madison. With all that goes into setting up the world championships, you expect certain challenges and each venue presents a different situation. We have encountered issues with security at other venues, but the folks at Gillette Stadium were extremely inflexible.

Despite the amount of money we pay for venues for a given event, the stadium management controls the stadium and, to a large degree, the event. The DCI staff, through meetings and establishing relationships with stadium management, is usually successful in breaking down many of the potential barriers that occur with regulations that are designed for rock concerts or football games, but there was little compromise on behalf of the Gillette Stadium folks.

I really did negotiate the parking fees, from which DCI receives no revenue. For a Patriots game, the cost of parking is $35, so we were left to believe that we should be grateful that it was only $25 for our fans, until I saw that the stadium only charged $15 for the major league soccer game on Wednesday evening.

It was not until the Tuesday of championships week that I was informed how security was going to manage the souvenir area. This was a disaster for all the corps because our fans did not flow past the souvenir area.

The in-and-out policy is something we encounter at every venue. As the fans know, some venues are flexible and work with us, and some are not. We are at the mercy of stadium regulations everywhere we go.

Why didn’t I know all these items would be issues in advance? Well, I knew the parking fee was going to be an issue, but continued to hope they would come down in price to at least $15.

The lack of flexibility from security; I had never encountered such before. And without going into detail, I had no idea the stadium was going to be cleared during the Blue Knights’ performance Saturday night at finals. Weather management is always a difficult challenge, but in this case, stadium management controlled the event.

I will say, the Foxboro city fire chief was magnificent to work with throughout the delay on finals night. He was making the call as to delays, watching the radar with me and was extremely reasonable. I know fans are frustrated when there is a delay and not a drop of rain or lightning is in sight, but the threat was there and the safety of the performers as well as the fans is, without question, my first priority.

Just 20 miles north, the Red Sox game was cancelled due to severe weather that evening.

SV: At your recent full board of directors meeting in Chicago on the weekend of September 23-25, the Blue Stars were admitted to division I membership and the Troopers’ membership was terminated. Can you comment about these two major developments?

DA: The Blue Stars petitioned over a year ago to be considered as a division I touring corps. The participation review process which Drum Corps International now has in place to evaluate corps wishing to compete in division I was executed by the committee members, including significant communication between all parties involved.

The committee looks at financial stability, organizational stability, programming stability and all of the details that go into “making a corps happen.” After several months of working with the director of the Blue Stars and their board, the committee forwarded a recommendation to the DCI Board at the September meeting. We are pleased to welcome the Blue Stars back to the division I tour.

As your readers likely know by now, the Troopers have decided it is in their best interest to go inactive for 2006. This came as a result of a DCI board action to terminate their membership due to issues they needed to address in order to be a member corps of DCI.

I’ll leave the rest of the explanation as to what and why to the Troopers. What I will tell you is that I am extremely impressed with their reaction to the termination and the actions they have taken to date for the hopeful return to the field in 2007.

The Troopers will have to pass an evaluation similar to that of the Blue Stars before they can return to the division I schedule in 2007, but all indications are that they are on the right track thus far.

It was the goal of the DCI board of directors to affect a positive change in how the Troopers operate, to ensure their long-term success as a touring division I corps. We all look forward to the return of a much healthier Troopers organization in 2007.

SV: I understand DCI will be further expanding the criteria for corps to participate at the division I level. Already you’ve instituted requirements for safe transportation, insurance, sufficient on-the-road volunteer support and other items that ensure the viability of these corps traveling highways for up to six weeks each summer.

Obviously, the financial ability to tour isn’t the only important aspect of fielding a corps. What other things do you anticipate happening that will more specifically define what a corps must do to acquire full access to the DCI touring schedule?

DA: The participation review process was by far the most significant policy set forth by the DCI board of directors in its history. What is almost 100% taken out of the equation to         establish a group as a division I touring corps is competitive success.

Up until a couple of years ago, all a corps had to do is place in the top 21 at championships in order to be considered division I. Unfortunately, there is a long list of corps that had achieved this competitive benchmark with little or no organizational foundation and thus, they are no longer in existence.

It is Drum Corps International’s priority to make sure that the corps today have a stable foundation and that they function as a responsible non-profit business. We have countless inquiries from people wanting to start a drum corps and they already have a logo and a uniform design, but not anything close to a business plan.

We do not want to squelch anyone’s dream to start a drum corps; however, we do want the dream to become a reality for the long term, thus our focus on the off-field issues.

The participation review policy does have its flaws. There are several subjective measures that have to be dealt with as to what makes a corps worthy to tour.

Jeff Fiedler, DCI Board Chairman and director of The Cavaliers, has established a new committee to further define the requirements for corps to participate. We’ll hear more at the annual board of directors meeting in January.

SV: The January 2006 DCI Board of Directors meeting is scheduled to be held in Pasadena, CA. Has a decision been confirmed to go to the Rose Bowl for the 2007 DCI Championships?

DA: We are a few details short of being able to make the formal announcement, but all          indications are that Drum Corps International will be celebrating its’ 35th anniversary in Pasadena, CA.

SV: In addition to the Blue Stars seeking and ultimately receiving division I status, I’ve heard that other division II corps have sought the same elevation of their programs. Did the DCI Board receive any official requests from other corps?

DA: The DCI board received a total of five requests in 2005. Those that were not offered consideration for the 2006 season were denied for a variety of reasons.

SV: As Brian Tolzmann reported in the October issue of DCW, the number of junior drum and bugle corps has continued to slide downward over the years. I know the major reason for corps failing is lack of strong management in a majority of the cases, but does this concern you and the DCI organization and do you have any plans to try to reverse the trend?

DA: First, I think we need to look at the evolution of the drum corps experience with a more practical eye than just counting corps. Our society is a lot different than it was in the 1970s, yet we insist on using the number of corps in existence today as a measure of success against the number in the 1970s without all the other considerations.

The most important consideration is the evolution of the competitive high school marching band. Drum corps has had a profound influence over the years on the values and overall experience a young person enjoys in their high school band.

I’m not suggesting this replaces the drum corps experience, but I am proud of the fact that the drum corps experience touches the lives of millions of young people involved in music today. I don’t think drum corps could make that claim in the 1970s.

Also, this falls right in line with the efforts the DCI Board has given to the participation review process and the resulting policies during the past few years. If the trend is to be reversed, it first has to come from the organizations being honest with themselves.

Do they have the human resources, finances and capacity to operate a sophisticated non-profit youth organization? What is the defined purpose of the organization? A reality that is all too      common in many organizations is that, if one key person leaves or diminishes their             involvement, the corps vanishes.

Drum Corps International has dedicated significant resources on consulting with corps, training, providing information and developing policies that will assist in organizations behaving as they should to become stronger operations. DCI, as an association, will continue to explore methods of operation to “reverse the trend.” Ultimately, it is up to each independent organization to get the job done.

SV: On the television broadcast for the last few years, it has been consistently noted that aging out of junior corps at the age of 22 is the “end of the road” for marching. Why does DCI not “embrace” the fact that there are opportunities in many areas of the United States and Canada to continue marching in a senior or an alumni corps, or that there are additional ways of participating in the junior corps activity through division II and III organizations?

DA: The last time I answered a question that included senior and alumni corps for a DCW interview, I got in trouble. So, no comment . . . just kidding.

It is worth mentioning that I and the DCI team are committed to the youth we serve with Drum Corps International. This intense focus is what drives our decision-making process in everything we do. We do recognize the value of the participation of senior and alumni corps, but our primary mission to shine the spotlight on the participating youth is paramount.

Having said that, I had a meeting with Drum Corps Associates President Gil Silva recently and we addressed some of the issues related to how DCI can “embrace” what drum corps experiences exist beyond DCI.

We both offered a couple of ideas that I think, when executed, will be productive. Also, I had the opportunity to discuss all-age corps involvement in what we do with various all-age corps representatives at the September DCI meetings. They were there as a part of the Pacific, Central and Atlantic Division meetings.   I think significant progress is being made on the part of DCI in how we interact with all-age corps.

Every participating corps in the drum corps experience deserves recognition for what they do. Promoting the drum corps activity through the television broadcast enhances the possibility of all corps receiving such recognition, regardless of whether or not they are seen or mentioned on the program. We are challenged with serving all the constituencies, while maintaining a message that is relatively simple for first-time viewers to follow.

SV: Thanks, Dan, for again taking the time to respond to my questions. I hope we can do this again before the 2006 season gets here, to help bring our readers up to speed on DCI and its’ varying programs and plans for the future. Have a great off-season preparing for next       summer!

DA: Thanks again, Steve. I continue to be humbled by the countless thousands of fans and volunteers who step up each year to keep the drum corps experience moving forward. Each season takes on its on identity due to the dynamic nature of the activity.

Thank you all for being a huge part in making it happen.