A new kind of show review

by Andrew Wheeler, DCW staff

Kilties (Racine, WI)
Photo by Ron Walloch

This summer Andrew Wheeler will be reviewing the “overall experience” at shows he attends. Here’s his explanation of how the system works…

We’ve all been there. Finally that friend whom we’ve cajoled forever has agreed to come to a drum corps show and check it out. We get the tickets, pick up the friend and drive off to the show, eagerly anticipating not only a great time for ourselves, but also for our friend. We spend the trip telling our friend all about the corps who will be performing and the shows they will see. We arrive at the stadium, park and head inside and then things start to go downhill. The lines at the concession stand are long and the port-a-johns are woefully insufficient for the number of people in the stadium. The seating is crowded. The concession stand runs out of food. All of this, typically unnoticed by us, makes a significant impression on our friend. We react with surprise when the friend does not want to go to another show.

The die-hard drum corps fan is a hardy lot. He’ll put up with nearly anything to see a show — including long drives to hard-to-find places, late nights in the middle of the week, various venue problems — and hardly notice in the excitement of the show. But what about the new fan? Is she going to be OK with standing in a 20-minute line to get a port-a-john and missing two corps in the process? Will he be philosophical about sitting on a hard bench in about half the space he really needs?

As Drum Corps International moves into an age of expending more and more effort to attract the new fan, it makes sense to pay serious attention to the fan’s experience at the stadium. The new fan is going to be paying less attention to the details of each show than to the overall experience, which goes much further than what is happening on the field. Will he want to come back? Will she eventually become hooked on drum corps? Much of that depends on the experience at that first show.

In light of this, I’m going to be adding a new section to my show reviews this year: a review of the show itself — not of the corps who compete, but of the venue, the organization, the overall show experience. The objective will be to try to examine the show from a new fan’s standpoint — the point of view of a person who is not necessarily enchanted (yet) by the performances on the field and who will be most impacted by glitches in the overall experience.

I do this with some trepidation; there are some great venues out there that deserve high praise and there are some that, frankly, need work. It should be noted here that there are often unseen factors at work in the choice of venue. The high school band sponsoring a show, naturally, uses their own stadium, though it may be too small and ill-equipped to handle the crowd. They do this because of finances — the whole purpose of the show, from their point of view, is to raise money for the band; to rent out a larger stadium would largely defeat the purpose. In pointing out less-than-ideal circumstances at some venues, the idea is not to criticize the show or to discourage people from attending; rather, it is to try to analyze the show from the point of view of the new fan, whom DCI is hoping will become a regular fan. It is to try to get show promoters and sponsors to think in terms of the overall experience, and it is especially to highlight those shows that have done a particularly good job with show promotion, venue, etc.

My plan is to “score” a show on a scale of 0-100, like a corps is judged. And, like corps judging, the scoring is going to be somewhat subjective. A “perfect” score in a given category does not necessarily mean “perfection” per se, but more “all that a fan could reasonably expect or want.” The point is not to compare one venue with another, but to comment on the overall experience at each venue individually. I’ll give more details on this as I explain the various “categories” of scoring.

It should also be noted that this scoring system will be somewhat arbitrary. Although the idea will be to try to summarize the show from the new fan’s point of view as objectively as possible, inevitably my own biases will creep into the weight I give each category, etc. I welcome responses to this system of evaluating shows; perhaps you the reader can help refine the system into one that will truly be useful in helping to determine venues and make each show experience the best it can be.

To the categories, then. I propose to score shows in three major categories, each of which will have subcategories. The three major categories are show promotion (20 points) show venue (60 points) and show lineup (20 points). Some might already object that the lineup is not being given enough weight; but remember, the new fan is not as concerned with what particular corps are performing as many of the more seasoned fans are.

Show promotion (20 points) — Show promotion, as discussed here, primarily consists of making it easy for people to find out about a show, buy tickets and get there. Admittedly, this is a category aimed more at the “veteran” fan as opposed to the new fan; the new fan is more likely to come with a “veteran” friend than he is to find the show on his own and decide to go.

Does the show have a Web site? If so, does the Web site have a map and directions for getting to the show? If there are no directions, is there at least an exact street address that can be keyed into Mapquest? Is there a phone number for buying tickets? Better yet, is there an option to order tickets on the Web? When you call for tickets, how is the ticket-buying experience? Are there any “extras” that the show does in terms of promotion? Note that I’m not including local promotion in terms of advertising in local papers in this category; admittedly, this is a shortcoming of the evaluation, but I won’t have access to sources to be able to evaluate that aspect well.

An example from last year might help. The “Drums Along the Red Cedar” show in Menomonie, WI, was one of the best-promoted shows I’ve seen in my brief two years of following drum corps. The Web site was robust — easily the best show Web site that I saw all year. Directions to the show were easy to follow, and a map was also provided. Ticket ordering was easy, and the show even had special shirts made up. All this from a “first annual” show! This show truly demonstrated the best in show promotion.

Show Lineup (20 points) — This category is perhaps the most subjective of the three. What constitutes a “good” lineup? Is there such a thing as a “perfect” lineup? One person’s idea of a great lineup may not agree with someone else’s. Obviously, a championship-level show is going to get 20 points on this one. But most new fans probably won’t attend a championship-level show as their first show, so consideration needs to be given to the smaller, local shows. Points will be awarded based on the number of top-level corps competing. To get a good score (say, 16-20 points), a local show should typically have at least two or three top-level division I corps; however, a division II/III championship-level show would score 20 points for attracting a significant number of top-level II/III corps. As mentioned above, this scoring is going to be pretty subjective and open to debate, which I will happily entertain.

As an example, take the first show of the season in Middleton, WI (which I reviewed for the June 27 issue of Drum Corps World). The lineup consists of Madison Scouts, Colts, Capital Sound, Blue Stars, Americanos and Kingsmen. I’d give that lineup about a 15 — no top-five or -six corps from last year, but two solid division I corps, two top-level division III corps and a good division II corps (based on last year’s scores; these corps happen to be some of my favorites, but I’ll try to keep the personal bias out of this). Oswego, with a lineup of Cavaliers, Glassmen, Pioneer, Capital Sound, Americanos, Kingsmen, and Royal Aires, will probably get around an 18, the difference being a third division I corps and two top-level division I corps. Please note that this scoring will not be a commentary on the corps themselves or on their performances (though some will inevitably take it that way); the idea is just to have a way to assess the overall lineup that the show attracted.

Show Venue (60 points) — I gave this category the most weight for two reasons: First, it is the category that most significantly impacts the experience for the new fan; second, it the most complex category in terms of what comprises it. This is the only category in which specific point values will be assigned to subcategories. I repeat a caveat here: there will be some shows that may not score highly in this category but that really don’t have much choice regarding their venue, for various reasons. Although this part of the review may seem critical at times, it’s really aimed simply at gauging the most significant factor in a new fan’s experience and possibly suggesting areas for improving that experience and/or ways for the fan to maximize his experience given the circumstances. Here are the subcategories:

* Seating: 30 points — From the comfortable bench-back and chair seating at De Kalb and the nearly luxurious seating at Menomonie to the almost-torturous stands at Madison, this is the single factor that most impacts a fan’s experience. A fan will spend anywhere from two to three hours sitting in the stands at most shows — far more time than will be spent in any other pursuit (except, perhaps, driving there!). Is the seating comfortable? Are the rows spaced far enough apart, front to back, so that one row’s knees are not in the next row’s backs? Is there enough room side-to-side? Are the stands high enough for good viewing? Is there enough seating to accommodate the crowd? Note that high-school stadiums will be at a disadvantage in many cases here; not only are they smaller, but the seating is marked for high-school students; most adults will find it uncomfortably close. One innovative solution to this last year was at Sun Prairie, where the show organizers re-marked the reserved seats with chalk before the show, providing more space for those seated in the reserved section. In really crowded shows, it’s often better to buy general admission tickets than it is to buy reserved tickets if the seats are marked too close together. In general admission, you simply take up the room you take up, whereas in reserved seating, you may need to buy more tickets than you have people in order to have enough room.

* Concessions: 10 points — Lots of factors fit into these 10 points. Is there some form of hot food for those who did not have a chance to eat dinner before the show (at a weekday show that would probably be most of us). Is the hot food limited to hot dogs, or is there more of a choice? Are there a sufficient variety of snacks and drinks? Is there enough quantity to handle the crowd? How quickly do the lines move? Is it possible to run down to the concession stand, grab something and get back to your seat between corps? Or are you going to have to miss a corps or wait for intermission?

* Restrooms: 10 points — I was tempted to give this category more points (and someday I may) for a couple of reasons: the availability and cleanliness of the restrooms is very important to many people; and there is simply no excuse for not having sufficient restrooms. It is predictable what percentage of people at a typical drum corps show will need a restroom sometime during the show, based on the length and time of the show. Given the number of tickets sold, it is possible to know in advance how many restrooms are needed, factoring in average length of time of use, etc. The best-planned shows will supplement stadium restrooms with port-a-johns if they need to. There’s nothing more aggravating than missing a corps perform while standing in a restroom line. Here are some questions that feed into this category: Are there sufficient restrooms? Are they kept clean? Are they well lit? Are they located in an easily accessible place, or do you have to walk halfway around the field just to get to them?

* Parking: 5 points — Parking can be a real nuisance at some shows, but I gave it only five points because, unlike other aspects of the experience (seating, for example), parking has a limited impact on the overall experience; you park once, then you’re done. Questions to be answered here are the following: Is there sufficient parking? Is it close enough to the stadium that a fan could get to their car and back during the intermission if needed? Is it easy to find?

* Extras: 5 points — Extras include things like souvenir stands– how many are there and are they placed well, traffic flow, timing of opening of the gates (is there time to browse the souvenir stands and get something from the concession stand before the show starts or do they keep the gates closed until too close to the show for that like in Madison for finals last year); etc. This is a bit of an “intangible” category to some extent.

A final note about scoring is in order. I’d expect the average local show, using a high-school stadium, to score anywhere in the 60-80 range overall. It’s possible for a small show to score more highly, but a score of 70 or so should not be interpreted as a “bad” score for such a show. That’s about what the average will probably be, and it is not in any way a bad reflection on a show. (Now a 50, on the other hand…) As with judging corps, some room at the top needs to be left for the truly extraordinary shows (De Kalb and Menomonie, for example). Also, although the scores could be used to compare one venue to another, that is not their primary purpose. In contrast to the scoring of corps, where later scores are often based on what the earlier corps have scored, etc., there is no direct comparison in this scoring system. Each show will be evaluated separately on its own merits.

So, that’s the system. I hope it will be useful in helping to quantify the overall experience at shows this year, and I invite your comments and suggestions in the process.

The Cavaliers (Rosemont, IL)
Photo by Ron Walloch