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Part 2 — An interview with DCI’s executive director, Dan Acheson

by Steve Vickers, DCW publisher

From a DCW subscriber who lives in Nevada: When is DCI going to have the championships on the West Coast? After 30-plus years, surely there has been an opportunity to have it out West, not necessarily in California, but perhaps in Washington or Oregon. Sending the DCI Division I corps out to California as a “Tour of Champions” in 2004 is like throwing a starving dog a bone. Is it because the so-called “rich corps” are all in California? Also, are the division II and III champions also invited to tour?

Dan Acheson: Drum Corps International has a unique opportunity to showcase six corps that are likely to be among the top performing units in drum corps in 2004. For the past few years we have been taking steps to facilitate enhancing the line-up in California by bringing corps like The Cadets, Phantom Regiment, Madison Scouts and Glassmen to the region.

The “Tour of Champions” is an attempt to not only showcase six corps for longtime fans who have never seen such an act in California, but also to further the growth opportunities for the drum corps activity in California in the youth markets.

California is rich with performing arts activities in schools. We hope to bring several thousand youth to the stands to see what is sure to be a magnificent event. The DCI Pacific Division has seen more growth in the starting up and success of drum corps in the past few years than any other region. This growth is due to an incredible commitment on the part of directors and enthusiasts in the area to push to make the drum corps experience available to more people.

These people see the six corps coming to California as a huge opportunity to really pump the area. With all respect to your frustration to liken this to “throwing a starving dog a bone,” I think you might be missing the potential positive results of promoting such events. While it isn’t the World Championships, I would argue that it is possible that it will be the best drum corps event to ever be staged in California.

Your perception that we have not staged the DCI World Championships in California because of the “rich corps” is unfortunate. I assure you that the Blue Devils and the Santa Clara Vanguard are far from “rich.” In fact, all the corps in the region could use this type of event to boost their support.
The division II and III corps in the Pacific Division, along with the other division I corps, will not participate in the performances, but they will participate in significant benefits that we hope will be the result of the event.

Finally, staging the DCI World Championships in California involves more than just finding a stadium and having everyone go there. Stadium availability, grass fields, venue rental costs and corps housing are just a few of the issues, and building the tour to California to get to the championships would be tremendously challenging.

Also, what has become the annual tour that connects the dots between major events would be compromised dramatically. The schedule for 2004 has been a huge challenge to create all the balances necessary for corps in all divisions, tour event partners and the scheduling of major events.

For example, there are longtime tour event partners that have thinner line-ups of top corps due to how we are trying to accommodate everyone geographically and in a shorter season. There are division III corps from the East and Midwest that typically appear at the championships and for 2004 they are considering not going.

I have never ruled out the possibility of staging the DCI World Championships in California. However, there are so many issues to be tackled, it would take an overwhelming effort to pull it off. In the meantime, I hope you will take advantage of both the DCI World Championships in Denver and the “Tour of Champions” in California in 2004.

From a former junior corps member, now a fan, who lives in New York State: In spite of your and the DCI organization’s spin to the contrary, there can be no question that our activity is shrinking. For you to dismiss a viable, relatively stable area of our activity (senior and alumni corps) as people trying to “relive their youth” was, to me, at best, a very poor choice of words. At worst it was misguided and thoughtless, not to mention an inaccurate description of that segment of the activity. These people buy DCI products and tickets and also purchase significant amounts of equipment from the manufacturers, many of which are corporate sponsors of DCI. Would you like to comment or clarify the statement you made in part 1 of your interview that appeared in the December issue, or leave it stand?

DA: “Senior corps is about putting music and performance into people’s lives.” — Lee Rudnicki

Mr. Rudnicki, who is heavily involved with the Renegades senior corps, posted this statement on Drum Corps Planet as a part of a response pertaining to my words in the first part of this interview regarding senior and alumni corps. He too was disappointed with the words I chose that were perceived by many to be a lack of respect on my part for people who participate in senior and alumni corps.

Nothing could be farther from the truth and I regret that my words may have offended anyone who is a part of the drum corps activity, whether alumni, senior, junior or fan. Anyone who is engaged in the drum corps activity has my utmost respect.

In the paragraph prior to the one with the statement I made, I used the words “focus,” “mission” and “youth.” Again, if I offended anyone I apologize, but you can see I have tunnel vision when it comes to providing access to the drum corps experience for youth. Anything that gets in the way of doing what I think is in the best interest of serving youth in drum corps causes me to be protective to a fault at times.

Please do not read between the lines of what I just said. I am not saying senior and alumni corps get in the way. What I am saying is DCI’s human and financial resources are limited. While we are consolidating all of our junior corps operations and services under one umbrella, we are struggling with how senior and alumni corps should be a part of our mission moving forward.

Both senior corps and alumni corps have needs they wish to have fulfilled to facilitate their participation in Drum Corps International events. We do now and have always welcomed senior corps participation when it makes sense to the tour event partner and the junior corps.

In my opinion Mr. Rudnicki’s statement is the perfect platform for senior and alumni corps. Drum Corps Associates has done a wonderful job over the years of serving a thriving senior activity in the spirit of what Mr. Rudnicki presents. The corps are spectacular. Many of the participants have been longtime fans and supporters of junior corps and Drum Corps International, and for that I am truly grateful.

DCA does a fabulous job of shining the spotlight on the senior and alumni drum corps activity. They have also been very helpful over the years in allowing DCI Division II and III corps access to some of their events. As it is that DCA is focused on senior and alumni corps, DCI is focused on junior corps. When there is a need to integrate the activities of both DCI and DCA, each organization has responded very positively. However, when the integration of both occurs, it is not without a share of challenges.

Regardless of how people may have perceived the three words spoken out of a 5,000-plus word interview, I assure you that I will continue to work toward using all means necessary to understand and embrace anyone who chooses to participate in drum corps at any age. Although I am enlightened by some of the responses to my comments in the first interview regarding senior corps, the decisions I make, or those of the DCI collective, still may conflict with what senior corps and alumni corps may think is in their best interest.

DCW: Now I would like to ask you to comment on a number of rumors that have circulated through the years on the various chat rooms and among directors and fans. First, there has been speculation that DCI wanted the split with DCM to happen so the organization would no longer have to deal with the division II, III and senior corps. Can you clear up this rumor?

DA: It is unfortunate that people perceive Drum Corps International to be anything other than an organization that is doing everything within its power to preserve and promote the drum corps experience for youth. The move to consolidate under the same umbrella has only to do with strengthening our foundation.

Many have interpreted our decisions to be motivated by some type of conspiracy to control the drum corps world for a select few corps. I am a fan of free enterprise and competition in the for-profit corporate world; I am also a fan of competition on the field of drum corps, but I do not see the value in non-profits with the same cause and similar missions engaging in behavior that competes with one another.

If there is conflict in how the youth drum corps activity is to be governed and operated, let us bring all the players to the same table and work it out. It takes an amazing person or group of people to operate a drum corps. These same intelligent, hardworking people can come together as one entity against all the challenges that confounds their efforts to serve youth through the drum corps experience.

Now, let me defend those that have had the wisdom of supporting DCI Division II and III corps since the formation of Drum Corps Midwest. The division I corps that were members of DCM always conceded to what served all the corps in the region. The countless sacrifices made over the years when they had several opportunities to serve themselves are remarkable.

The fact that some people believe the division I corps suddenly stopped thinking or behaving that way because they think the idea of one umbrella organization makes sense is simply disappointing. The actions taken at the recent first meeting of the DCI Central Division speak volumes as to the goodwill toward division II, III and senior corps exhibited by division I corps.

The growth and stability of the division II and III corps starts with themselves, but Drum Corps International — that is the board of directors and I — are committed to serve all junior corps with the resources we have available. We hope to look to the continued development of an environment where all corps that choose to participate in DCI are successful. Drum Corps International is proud to serve division I, II and III corps, and we are learning and dealing with how to best integrate and serve seniors and alumni corps.

DCW: For years, fans have accused DCI of ultimately wanting the activity to shrink to the point where there are only eight to 10 junior corps left in existence. Could you comment?

DA: WOW! Imagine how easy my job would be if there were only 10 corps. Can I pick which 10? Seriously, what we would like is to have as many quality corps as possible. We do not place any virtue or value on fielding a corps that leaves a wide swath of unpaid financial obligations.
The simple answer is, first the corps that exist today must get better on and off the field; that is the focus of our effort for corps in all divisions. Once we finally have a handle on that aspect of what we are doing, then we can concentrate on growing more, better corps.

Drum Corps International has often taken criticism for making it too hard to start a corps and become a part of DCI. I’ll take whatever criticism comes my way as a result of implementing policy that ensures the safe and viable operation of any drum corps.

DCW: Another rumor that pops up occasionally is that DCI doesn’t care if corps fold or if new ones come along. True or false?

DA: Simply, FALSE!

DCW: Does DCI care about the history of the activity or only about what the future holds?

DA: We care about what best serves the effort to preserve and promote the junior drum corps experience. I am an old drum corps guy. I am surrounded by a bunch of other old drum corps guys on the board of directors. We reminisce about everything from our marching days to defining moments at board meetings 10 or 15 years ago.

I know many of the directors take their current corps members through history lessons each year about their corps and the activity in general. We are grateful for all that the founding directors did to get DCI going. We are also wise enough to know how our history has defined what we are today with both the good and the not so good.

Scott Chandler, Blue Devils program coordinator, in an interview on the 2004 DCI telecast, said something to the effect that it is today’s corps members who will define what drum corps will be tomorrow. Knowing the great youth that participate today, I like our chances for the future.

DCW: What about all the emphasis on marching bands? Can you explain the rationale behind DCI’s marketing push to this segment of the population?

DA: The goal is to engage as many youth as we possibly can who might be interested in what we do. Today’s marching band participants are not only future corps members, they are potential fans for life.

A recent volunteer effort performing some market research has determined that there are a little over 100,000 people that participated in a Drum Corps International Championships since 1972. Currently there are 3 million students in marching band throughout the United States and an even larger number of 12 million participating in the performing arts.

We have and will continue to market to DCI alumni and their families, and we are hugely grateful for what they do to support the drum corps experience. Simple math should be enough said.
Each of the past five years we have seen significant increases in group sales to band programs throughout our major events. Our “Commitment to Excellence” program is gaining steam.

We offer a complimentary copy of the DCI telecast on VHS or DVD and all we ask in return is feedback from the band director when they show the program to their students.

We also welcome photos and stories about the band to post on DCI.org. Last spring over 900 bands responded. If they showed it to an average of 50 students, that means that quite possibly 45,000 band students were exposed to our program with their band director’s endorsement.

DCW: Does DCI really value the fans who have been following the drum and bugle corps activity for 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years? Is DCI abandoning the old-time fans in favor of marching band members?

DA: We’re interested in exposing the drum corps experience to as many people as possible and to engaging as many young people as possible. Drum corps through DCI is about the experience that young people get from being part of it. And the value that kids get today is as important as it was 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years ago.

To say that Drum Corps International is abandoning the “old-time fans in favor of marching band members” is just, well, sorry, it’s silly. The old-time fans are the very people who follow the activity all over the country, who buy merchandise, who volunteer for active corps and, most important of all, stand up in a frenzy whenever the corps members deliver a special moment through their performance. Why on earth would we ever abandon such amazing people?

Now, we do spend more resources on marketing to marching bands than we did a decade ago, but the investment in getting the word to longtime fans remains the same. Actually, I can argue that the Web site alone is a huge investment to maintaining an active interest on the part of longtime fans.

DCW: Any other topics you’ve heard during your tenure as executive director that you would like to cover and lay to rest once and for all?

DA: The drum corps activity has been going to “hell in a hand basket” in the minds of people since I can remember. I began marching in 1969. I experienced the inspection lines at Ohio VFW State competition; yikes! I participated in the very first DCI World Championships.

I am a proud alumnus of the 1975 DCI World Champions. I taught “A Class” corps, a couple just in the “top 25.” I directed the Glassmen from 1986 through 1995. They evolved from a division III, II corps to a division I finalist.

Over the span of most of my involvement, DCI has been accused of killing the drum corps activity. A very well-respected former corps director and longtime DCI board member told me drum corps would be dead in five years. That was in 1998.

I understand why people perceive the evolution of DCI to have been the “killer” of the activity; after all we had a few hundred active corps in 1972 and now we have fewer than 100. However, while the concept of a community-based corps appears to be almost non-existent, I will argue that more youth are achieving excellence in marching music than ever before.

Drum Corps International remains the worldwide leader in influencing the marching music activity. The evolution of the high school marching band over the past two decades has everything to do with drum corps evolution and influence.

I am thankful for the changes that have taken place in drum corps that many do not consider. The care and feeding of the corps members is dramatically better than it was when I marched in a world champion. The corps adhere to DOT and other governmental regulations.

I was taught by some great guys who cared very much for our development as human beings, but they did not have the credentials in music and design that you see today. Society has evolved and, therefore, drum corps has evolved.

Drum Corps International as a governing body and promotional entity has certainly made many mistakes over the past 30-plus years, but I think we can also blame DCI for doing a lot of things right as well. Corps are being better managed, the DCI operation has been fiscally sound for several years, the traffic on DCI.org is pretty spectacular even in the off-season, there are more students auditioning for corps at all levels than ever before.

The DCI marketing strategy has something to do with that I think. We have seen a swell in DCI major event attendance the past few years. I already mentioned the rise in group sales. The DVDs are the best thing to come out of our operation in the past four years, thanks to the talents of Tom Blair. How about the Legacy Series on DVD? WOW!

Let’s not forget we had one corporate partner at the beginning of 1996 and we know have 18, plus five strategic partners.

I obviously do not enjoy criticism when it comes our way, but I am extremely grateful there are so many passionate people out there who care about the drum corps activity and DCI. We’ll no doubt make some boneheaded decisions down the road, but it will not be without the right mind for who it is we ultimately serve.

If there is anything I would like to get out to the world, it is that Drum Corps International is governed by some very extraordinary, intelligent, hardworking directors and volunteers. The DCI office staff, mostly old drum corps people, are dedicated beyond the 40 hours a week that is expected of them. The passion runs deep in all circles of our operation and governance to provide the very best we can for the youth that come to participate each year.

We are not the NFL. Our players do not make millions. The corps and DCI are non-profit organizations. Keep the input and/or criticism coming, but I ask that you think through some of the dynamics that might be involved before you react. We’ll keep listening to your concerns regardless, but please do not discount the efforts and passion of those responsible for serving as caretakers of Drum Corps International.

Lastly, thank you to Drum Corps World’s Steve Vickers for over three decades of coverage of the drum corps activity. Although your independence as a publication has caused me frustration with what has been printed from time to time over the years, you have exhibited tremendous class in how you handle all sides of the various issues raised.

And to the many readers of DCW, thank you for continuing to support the drum corps activity and specifically Drum Corps International. I encourage you to ask a corps in any division how you can help at an upcoming camp or a fund-raiser over the next several months. Anything you can do from serving food to buying merchandise from a corps or DCI goes a long way in preserving the drum corps experience.

Thanks again for allowing me the opportunity to address some of the concerns brought forth to Drum Corps World. To all, I look forward to sharing with you a GREAT 2004 season of youth achieving excellence through the drum corps experience.

DCW: Thanks, Dan, for taking the time to get together. Your input has been enlightening and interesting. I appreciate your willingness to discuss such a wide variety of material. We’ll do this again soon.

Publisher’s note: Part one of this interview appeared in the December 2003 issue and is also available online at www.drumcorpsworld.com.

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Drum Corps World is published as an on-line electronic magazine by Sights & Sounds, Inc., Madison, WI. It is supported by advertising from manufacturers, service providers, corps, circuits and show sponsors. The publication began in October 1971 at the same time Drum Corps International was formed and has been produced continuously as a tabloid newspaper until April 2011 and on the Internet since May 2011. It is released monthly, as well as six additional e-mail blasts, one in late June, three during July and two in August.

The worldwide staff of writers and photographers provide show reviews during the season and interviews, feature articles, news and human interest stories during the off-season. The photographs that appear in the magazine are provided by 27 staff members who are scattered around the world. The publication covers World and Open Class Drum Corps International corps, Open and Class A Drum Corps Associates corps, alumni, mini-, parade and standstill units, as well as the growing activity in Europe, the Far East, Southeast Asia, the Philippines and South Africa.