Corps Survival Skills

If you’ve ever heard the oft-used statistic “DCI had 442 corps in 1972 and last year fielded just 53,” you might worry that drum corps is going the way of the dodo. Those 53 remaining junior corps would beg to differ. But the question remains: “Where did all the corps go?” That answer could fill volumes, but perhaps it would be easier to ask, “How can a corps survive today?”

After 70 years of proud history, the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps has found itself searching for an identity in a changing drum corps environment. “In many ways, we’re at a place where we’re trying to dig ourselves out of a hole,” says Jeff Spanos, the Madison Scouts executive director. “In essence, we’re a 70-year-old infant. We’re starting from scratch on a lot of things. Dealing with a lot of change very quickly has hurt the organization. We’re trying to get stable.”

When the Scouts began in 1937, drum corps revolved mostly around community groups, and the corps emerged from a local Boy Scout troop in Madison, Wis. Today, running a drum corps requires full-time commitment and deep pockets. In recent years, rising costs and problems within the organization have brought about major staff and organizational changes in an effort to keep the corps afloat.

“I walked in about 20 months ago to a sinking ship,” says Spanos, who was hired as executive director in the fall of 2006. “For me it’s about retention and growth … building our organizational structure and health.”

The corps went through several years of instability and is now working to “right the ship” as Spanos and his staff bolster the organizational structure and poise the Scouts for success. Spanos began with the Madison Scouts Junior Corps as a snare drummer in 1989, where he marched one season before joining the senior corps for six seasons. He worked on staff with the corps from 1999 until 2003 before he was hired as executive director in the fall of 2006.

“We’re kind of going through a branding stage,” Spanos says. “We’re trying to establish a new brand and image. We’re getting new uniforms, and we’re trying to parallel that in our merchandising.”

Just like the Scouts, many other corps are working to keep up with the changes in today’s drum corps environment. With rising costs and a nation increasingly unable to funnel money to the arts, drum corps are forced to find new ways to cope.

In Distress

The primary reason for drum corps to fold is obvious … a lack of funds. The majority of corps that don’t survive go under when their spending outpaces their income. Most often, though, the cause isn’t a lack of fundraising efforts. In recent years, the costs of travel have skyrocketed at the same time that corps have expanded their tours.

“You’re not talking about $100,000 nowadays; you’re talking about several hundred thousand,” says Dan Acheson, DCI executive director and CEO. Corps aren’t just paying extra at the pump, either. The financial squeeze reflects the general state of the economy. Businesses across the nation are encountering tough times, and drum corps are no exception. With such a shaky national economy, people are less likely to donate to drum corps, and musicians are increasingly reluctant to shell out $2,000 to go on tour for the summer.

Even a second-place finish at World Championships won’t guarantee a corps’ success. Fever Drum and Bugle Corps finished the 2007 season in second place in Division III by just one-tenth of a point. But financial woes eventually led to the corps’ decision to not take the field in 2008. The corps was unreachable for comment, and the organization’s website is no longer in service. Many in the drum corps world remain hopeful that Fever will return at some point in the future, but no updates are available.

Long-Term Planning

If money woes are the biggest destroyer of drum corps, poor planning may be the leading cause. Drum corps qualify as non-profit organizations under tax laws, which provide major benefits in terms of donations and tax breaks, but running a corps still requires efficiency, creativity and savvy like any other business. Without those things, even the most dedicated and passionate organizations can’t survive.

For new corps and corps looking to revitalize their programs, it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. “If you’re starting a drum corps, I don’t care what your uniform looks like, what your music is, what instruments you’re going to play,” Acheson says. “None of that matters if you don’t have a long-term plan. The last thing you need to be worried about is what your logo looks like. That isn’t where a drum corps survives or dies. It happens in a board room or a corner office of a bingo hall or wherever.”

Some might think that The Academy Drum and Bugle Corps shot out of the gate like a cannon, winning the DCI Division II World Championship in the corps’ third season in 2006. On the contrary, though, the corps took a very deliberate approach to entering the competitive circuit.

Executive Director Mark Richardson grew up with the drum corps activity— his father and grandfather were both highly involved—and has been with The Academy since its inception. As a band director in Arizona, Richardson and several of his colleagues lamented the fact that drum corps appeared all but dead in the state.

“There was an absence here in Arizona,” Richardson says. “Several people who were at the high school I was teaching said it was something that could be done here in Arizona. We started the Southwest Corps Connection in 2001.”

As a part of the DCI show that they hosted, Richardson and his colleagues set up a summer brass and percussion ensemble—the earliest precursor to The Academy Drum and Bugle Corps. The group consisted of about 60 musicians that performed old drum corps tunes for about three weeks during the summer.

Richardson hoped that the group would help build momentum toward the birth of a competitive corps. By 2004, the group had grown, and fundraising efforts had built enough support to start The Academy. First the group debuted a winter color guard, and then in the summer, the full corps took the field as a 117-member unit with its color guard in place.

The Academy’s story may be as close to a blueprint for the growth of a drum corps as you’ll find. Richardson’s advice for new corps? Grow slowly. “[We took] a modest growth approach,” he says. “It feels like we’ve moved quickly in terms of how strong everything has been from year to year, but really, before even the first year, we planned for a year getting that prepared. From that point, we planned on doing an exhibition group for as long as it takes until we got the resources that we would have a successful first drum corps year.”

In 2006 the corps took its first trip to the DCI World Championships, where it won the Division II title and in 2007 made its debut as a Division I (now called World Class) corps.

“We always thought that it would be harder to try to do something, fail, try to pick up the pieces and try again,” Richardson says. “We’ve always tried to do things we knew we’d be successful at.”

Similarly, the Velvet Knights Drum and Bugle Corps, which retook the field in 2007 after a 10-year hiatus, underwent research and planning before making its return.

“Do your research,” says Mayra Iraheta, Velvet Knights corps director. “Make sure that every step you take is actually calculated well. Make sure that you have a solid business plan that you can go with and stick to it. It’s so easy to say that ‘This looks good’ and ‘Let’s do that.’ You have to say ‘No’ sometimes.” The idea for the Velvet Knights’ comeback occurred in 2004. The group started a winter program in 2006 before the corps’ debut in 2007. “It took a long time,” Iraheta says. “We fundraised for a little over a year before we got on the field.”

As part of that fundraising, Velvet Knights began a unique initiative that plays upon its creative tradition. “We do a lot of [fundraising] outside the box,” Iraheta says. “One of our main fundraisers is we run concessions at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. We do every UCLA game, Fourth of July show, the Rose Bowl Game—which is a huge fundraiser for us.”

A simple goal for any corps to make is to fundraise for the future rather than paying for the tour as it happens. This strategy can help an organization establish stability from year to year and will limit the effect that a single bad year of fundraising can have.

“People tend to forget that we are a business,” Iraheta says. “We’re a fun business, but we’re a business. Keep it grounded. Keep your feet on the ground. Everything will come as long as you’re patient.”

The Human Connections

Despite all their business trappings, drum corps are really about people. They’re volunteer-driven, and it’s impossible to succeed without that human touch. The people that dedicate themselves to the corps lifestyle devote their time and efforts to set an example for hard work.

“We’re hands-on all the time,” Iraheta says. “You need to have board members that are hands-on. We’re a small organization, but all of us enjoy what we do. We enjoy what we do because of the kids. Our Executive Director, Troy, he cooks. You have to get down and dirty, really.”

Even though many directors, like Iraheta, get down and dirty, they can’t do it alone. “My dad always told me to surround myself with 10 really great people,” Richardson says. “Whether that be a board of directors or instructors. If you can, surround yourself with people that are in it for the long haul. You’ve got to do it for the kids, but if you push it too fast, it’s going to fall apart.”

Without a reliable team to fall back on, even the brightest people can falter. “When I started this position, nobody gave me a manual and said ‘Hey Jeff, here’s how to start a drum corps,’” says Spanos of his start with the Madison Scouts. “You have to have an incredible board of directors and an incredible management team. There are a lot of key ingredients—one of them is having incredible people, and they have to be accountable.”

In the face of adversity, some corps have found stability by nurturing relationships with existing entities. Take Spirit Drum and Bugle Corps, for example. After struggling for several years, Spirit of Atlanta approached the Jacksonville (Ala.) State University music department to seek help following the 2000 season. JSU agreed, making Spirit the school’s summer marching ensemble.

While very little, or no, cash is exchanged between the university and the corps, the school does provide practice facilities and has even supplied instruments in the past.

Similarly, The Academy Drum and Bugle Corps works closely with the Arizona State University Marching Band in Tempe. “A gentleman named Jim Hudson, director of athletic bands at Arizona State, was hired on three years ago,” Richardson says. “He came into town and is a big fan of the drum corps activity. He understood that there’s an opportunity for both of us to benefit—our organization and his marching band.”

The corps benefits by sharing instruments, equipment and practice facilities with the ASU Marching Band. ASU sponsors the corps’ winter guard and uses the corps as a recruiting outreach tool.

“It’s really been a gradual process of seeing how each one of us can help each other,” Richardson says. “We have shared equipment with ASU and shared staff as well. That’s kind of the way we’re trying to make it work, to make the university band an extension of the drum corps and vice versa.” The corps will even make use of the university’s new air-conditioned indoor practice facility that will be completed in August.

Looking Ahead

As DCI progresses and a new generation of drum corps evolves, corps will always look back to the activity’s long-standing tradition for guidance. This summer, the Madison Scouts celebrates its 70th season. With its reorganization, the corps looks to get back on track this summer with its 2008 show, “La Noche de la Iguana,” an exploration of the cultural evolution of Latin America.

“I want to continue to grow the fan base, the association base, the alumni base and be successful both on and off the field,” Spanos says. “There’s definitely a link there. On-the-field and off-the-field success parallels. Every organization goes through these cycles; we just happened to go through ours in the last five years.”

Photo by Jolesch Photography, All rights reserved.

About author

Eddie Carden

Eddie Carden is an editorial intern for Halftime Magazine. He is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California (USC), with a major in public relations and neuroscience. He has been playing the trumpet since the fifth grade and served last year as the drum major for the USC “Spirit of Troy” Trojan Marching Band.