reinventing the concert paradigm

It’s a pretty easy statement to make that the evolution of technology has contributed greatly to the evolution of entertainment. The video arcade industry crashed once the home console market was able to match and surpass its capabilities. The traveling circus as a unique exotic entertainment show is pretty much extinct now as people can be offered similar or superior entertainment through easier means. And “classical music” (as most people term it) concerts, particularly orchestra concerts, are threatened with a similar state of extinction at least in the US as that music is losing its appeal with the newer generation and less people are inclined to go to those concerts.

As a musician, composer, and educator, i’ve put a lot of thought into the audience of my craft, and recently those thoughts have led me to a radical sort of idea involving audience expectation. Most entertainment contexts these days have either a casual approach to audience protocol or have a more interactive/reactive approach to audience protocol. Sports crowds are a constant chatter of conversation and encourage loud reactions and interactions on big plays. Movie crowds are generally pretty quiet, but it’s still not unusual to get a loud reaction when one is warranted, particularly for comedies. Well-designed marching athletics in all of its forms have “reaction moments” built into the design so that the audience can applaud or whoop and holler if need be. Music concerts, whether big acts in stadiums or small acts in bars are set for a casual atmosphere where people are able to mill about, order drinks, &c.

In contrast, art music concerts have an implied audience expectation and protocol of “sit still and pay attention until we say that it’s okay to clap.” It forces the live concert-goer to completely internalize reaction until protocol dictates the time when it can come out, and to a degree even the manner in which it can come out. While i think that there’s a lot of valid reasons why this is set in place, there’s a part of me that can’t help but think that this rigid structure is part of the reason why these concerts lack appeal for newer audiences. It feels like an old-fashioned aesthetic that lacks context and thus is in its own bubble, which, while once had the strength to stand on its own, is now shrinking and will eventually dissolve into nothing.

Pitched like that, it should be fairly obvious what my idea is: change the protocol. Create a new paradigm for audience expectation for those sorts of concerts to be more casual such as the jazz club bar or the wedding reception band, or more deliberately interactive at times such as the winter drumline/drum corps show, or maybe even completely free such as the big rock concert venue or sports event.

Clearly there are challenges with this sort of shift in audience protocol, particularly as it relates to certain types of concert literature. Some pieces demand a concentrated audience awareness to achieve the maximum effect and would not fare well in a more casual environment, either for the performers or for the audience. I think overall there would have to be some experimentation with different pieces to determine how casual of an atmosphere it could support and the nature of that atmosphere. A couple of years ago the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra did a “concert in the park” deal in honor of a local supermarket opening. The supermarket cooked a huge barbecue and was selling beer/wine/liquor while the LPO played in an ampitheatre area where people could eat and listen casually to the music being played. That worked for that concert because it was free, it was a pops concert, and it was in a large open park area. You wouldn’t be able to pull that off with, say, Adagio for Strings.

More to the point, I’m not necessarily suggesting that the paradigm needs to shift for established works (although i’m not closed to that idea either); it has more to do with new compositions and new composers making an adjustment to how they compose with that paradigm shift in mind, how that changes the nature or character of a piece of music when you plan to write for that sort of environment in the first place. Suppose you have a chamber group of fl, cl, vn, vc, pf, and there’s a section where you highlight an instrument or a duet of the instruments. A jazz club atmosphere would build in them being put more in the spotlight and there potentially being an outro transition moment that could be filled with applause. A large ensemble hit moment could lend to more stage energy from the performers that could support the audience reacting to that moment without it detracting from the music. Thinking about that sort of environment creates a different compositional aesthetic.

Maybe it’s a square-peg-fits-into-the-circle-hole sort of thing, but i think it would be neat to put on series of concerts like that, programmed with a bunch of pieces whether new or old that allows for and encourages the audience to have more freedom, and then gauge its success by the hype, the sales, the reactions. it would surely be awkward at first, but i think it has the potential to gain momentum and change/reinvent the concert paradigm in a way that would resonate more with current audiences and thus maybe provide a context in which the older concert paradigm could generate new life.

Maybe i just need to become a rock star.

Case Study: The Jersey Surf model of drum and bugle corps – part 2

Read Part 1

Given those sorts of struggles on top of other small or big struggles that they face, questions arise: should they have stayed in open class? should they have reached for a longer term goal of becoming world class but with more of a full tour model? is this “in between” model that they’re employing a failed model for the world class paradigm?

The answers to these questions are difficult to answer right now because they depends on a few factors: a) what the drum corps community has set as an expectation for the Surf, b) what the Surf itself as an organization and in its individuals has set as an expectation, and c) the fact that the long-term success of this model can’t truly be determined by the results of a single year.

Going back to that first struggle item i talked about in part one, one could argue that even beating a single full-tour corps during Nats Week would be a measurable success – Surf, on its limited rehearsal schedule managed to beat a full tour corps. That says something about the organization, about its commitment to excellence.

But the question is whether that is enough. That the Surf is in their first stint in world class is one of the more interesting things that’s occurred in drum corps this year, and thus has to put them under at least somewhat of a microscope in the drum corps community, and their expectations and projections of Surf may be higher. A more substantial success could also make a strong enough statement to secure more corporate sponsorships and donations as well as member and staff loyalty. Not only that, but it’s possible that if they *don’t* meet that substantial success, it would be perceived as a failure.

As an outsider with only vague ties to the staff, i don’t have a good idea of what sort of expectations Surf has for the next few years; make semi finals in two to three years, and then try to maintain a semi-final placement? Are there higher aspirations for individual aspects of the corps, the drum score, the horn score, the guard score? How does that differ from any expectations that the kids may have, the donors may have?

It’s a tricky balance to maintain because of the struggle between Surf as a pedagogical and educational organization versus a business and corporate organization and how those contradict each other.

As i said earlier, from a corporate standpoint, Surf struggles in a contextual environment of DCI as the equivalent of a small business market amidst a global business market, and by the difference between the two models alone it will never move beyond that. And for some of the individuals associated with the organization, it can be too easy to look at the immediate bottom line and think, “why am i here when i could be a bigger fish in a bigger pond?” And it would be resultingly easy for Surf and the greater drum corps community to react to that and contemplate the idea of changing and evolving their business model towards more of a full corps tour to take it to ‘the next level’. Some would see it as a natural evolution of the corps just as the move from Open to World was a natural evolution.

However, there are a few issues to consider with that. First, although Surf may have limitations as a corporate model for success, i personally think that the Surf model shines from a pedagogical and educational model more than a full corps tour does. When i marched in the Crossmen, i learned that being on a full tour may have taught me a lot and helped give me the tools to be the teacher that i am today, but i also am aware that full tour was an easy escape from reality. For three months you live on a bus and you don’t have to worry about paying bills, making money, doing chores, summer reading, &c. all you do is wake up, run, eat, drum, eat, drum, eat, drum, sleep on the bus or gym floor, rinse, repeat. On the other hand, the Surf model teaches more of a life lesson, how to handle the responsibilities of the drum corps on top of any other responsibilities that a member may have during the week. As opposed to being dictated a schedule because everyone is all in the same place, they have to work out their own schedule, find their own time to practice, otherwise face the consequences of letting themselves and the organization down when they show up for the weekend unprepared. That to me is more analogous to a real-life experience, learning how to juggle multiple responsibilities and be accountable for your own actions by the choices that you make, both within the context of the drum corps and how that fits in with everything else.

Secondly, while there may be members of the corps that may have ‘full tour envy’, the Surf model continues to grant an opportunity for kids that would not be able to afford the money or commitment for a full tour. This may be countered by the fact that there’s still a pretty strong east coast senior corps circuit represented by DCA, but the senior corps experience, while similar, has characteristics to it that are not comparable to a junior corps experience (which is a separate discussion altogether). If other drum corps existed already with a similar model to help fill that void, it would be less of an issue, but as it stands, Surf is the only organization that offers the DCI experience in this way.

Given that, if the Surf were to change to a full tour model, it may garner more success as an organization, but one which potentially sacrifices one of the more important lessons that the members can learn about life and takes away a particular membership pool that would then have an audience only with DCA. Maybe in the long term that decision will be the correct one for Surf, but at the moment it’s too early to tell, too premature to rationalize such a drastic change in Surf history and philosophy after only one year in the World Class market.

So then i return to the other question: is this a failed business model for a world class drum corps? should such a model only aspire to go so far in the world of DCI, stay in the realm of open class?

As the organization continues to grow and evolve and the DCI community reacts to that evolution, the answers will be made clearer at least in the model of drum corps that exists today. But again, i don’t feel like there is a clear cut answer to be made after a single year. Surf and DCI needs a larger and more long-term perspective to determine whether or not it can be competitive in that realm.

Regardless of whether or not it can exist in the world class paradigm or if it is a better fit for open class (or maybe the model itself will inspire DCI to consider another change to its structure, particularly if more corps come out and follow this sort of model in the future), i feel it’s important to pay tribute to and honor Surf for what they’ve already achieved and for throwing themselves into that fire as a modern drum corps history-maker in a way that none of the top drum corps can touch. it serves as an example of a model that may not be something to eventually be absorbed and identified under the current drum corps models, but as the potential birth and inspiration of a new sustainable model, something that can bridge junior corps membership in the context of today’s evolving world and serve as a catalyst and inspiration for other organizations to manage and maintain drum corps that might otherwise be forced to fold.

And despite the fact that drum corps remains and should remain a competitive activity, i feel that the mission of the activity is to provide kids and adults alike a conduit for which they can learn and experience life lessons that they would not otherwise have access to. So if more drum corps could be sustained, revived, or created through alternative models such as this, it is the responsibility of DCI and of the drum corps community to support it and grant it an avenue where those organizations can be successful. Drum Corps changed my life. Without it, i would not be the teacher i am now, i would not have made the connections that i have now, i would not have made the friends who i love and cherish and will for the rest of my life, and i know many people who feel the same. In that sense, there is no doubt in my mind that the dedication, bravery, and vision that has pushed them to this point already made them a world class success even before they took their first step on the competition field in Rome, NY.

originally posted on darkblog resonate. i prefer any comments there.

Case Study: The Jersey Surf model of drum and bugle corps – part 1

The Jersey Surf Drum and Bugle Corps are in their cinderella year in World Class this year, and as an individual who has some personal investment in the corps as a former staff member and the mentor of one of the current staff members who likes to chat it up with me, i felt like it was worth doing a writeup of their unique position in the world of DCI and drum corps of today.

First, a little background:

Since it’s birth in 1991/1992, Jersey Surf was a Division II corps (now dubbed “Open”), and in the past few years established themselves as one of the more dominant forces in that class, culminating in a 2nd place finish in 2007 (winning both brass and percussion performance) and a 3rd place finish in 2008. Given their success and growth as an organization, they decided bump up to World Class for the 2009 season.

What makes the Jersey Surf unique in today’s drum corps world is their summer schedule. The corps director, Bob Jacobs, has always been a drum corps fan, but was never able to march in a drum corps in his youth because he couldn’t afford to not work over the summer, which took most full-summer-tour corps out of the picture. His goal with the Surf was to be able to give kids who needed a summer job or otherwise wanted or needed their summers free the opportunity that he didn’t have, to give them the opportunity to march in a respectable junior drum corps organization without having to sacrifice their entire summer. Thus, Surf functions primarily as a weekend corps in the summer with a couple of two-week block “tours” that go every day.

Surf has gone through a lot of growing pains in their history, but has steadily matured as an organization culminating to their open class success. I feel that part of this has to do with the focus in recent years to raise the level of professionalism and organization of Surf’s middle and upper management, and thus be able to bring in greater staff talent tha and build loyalty in the staff talent. When i taught Surf in 1999, everyone on staff was volunteer, and that can only draw from a certain pool of instructional staff. Eventually this model changed, and along with that was a gradual changeover of the staff that was able to bump up the vision of excellence and the reputation of the corps as a force that even with its strong running start in its early years continued to build in strength and be a force to be reckoned with, which in turn helped attract a stronger and more loyal membership pool.

Although I don’t know all of the details of the Why and How of Surf moving from Open to World Class, it seems like this was an inevitability given the sort of momentum and evolution they’ve had as an organization. Regardless of this, making this move couldn’t have been easy and deserves a high level of admiration. i’m making an educated guess that it would have been easier for them to stay in Open Class and know that they had the potential to capture their first gold medal. Instead, they decided that they needed to think bigger, and even if there was a risk that it was biting off more than they could chew, they threw themselves into the fire as a new rookie to see where it would take them. In today’s world where it seems like more organizations and individuals focus mainly on stability and creating a business model that they know will succeed with very little risk, Surf needs to be commended for standing against that model and attempting to try to see how far it can push its success.

And now that they’re in their first summer tour as a World Class organization, i think that it’s highlighted some of the challenges that this new kid on the block has to face not only because it is their debut year in World Class, but because of their unique “weekend-only summer” model, the only World Class drum corps tomy knowledge that is functioning in this way. And i think that it’s important, therefore, to take a moment to do some outside analysis on the choices that Surf has made, how that fits within the bigger picture of the current DCI model, musical pedagogy, and life pedagogy, and speculate as to what role Surf has in the future, both for itself and for the activity of drum corps.

There’s no doubt that because of the choices that Surf has made, they’re fighting an upward struggle. Take the shittiest and most inexperienced drum corps out there that does a full tour and pit them against the Surf, and there’s a good chance that the shitty drum corps will beat them purely because of how much more time they practice and thus how much more time they can meld as a collective ensemble from the top down, how much more chops are built through consistently playing/spinning every day, how much more physical endurance they develop, &c. Talent can only go so far behind solid, consistent, hard work.

Top that with the perception that Surf has struggled with for years as being a “gateway corps”, as in kids will come to Surf as a means to build their chops, experience, and resumé to then go march in a full tour/top 12 corps a year or two later. It’s true that every year is a building year, there are always going to be age outs or transfers, but i think Surf had to deal with that more than most because their weekend-only model is definitely seen by some of the membership (although i can’t say how much) as “not a full drum corps experience”, and when they see top 5 corps like Crown or Cavaliers or Blue Devils, they get the grass-is-greener complex, particularly if they feel like they have the talent and the means to be a member of those corps.

Given those sorts of struggles on top of other small or big struggles that they face, questions arise: should they have stayed in open class? should they have reached for a longer term goal of becoming world class but with more of a full tour model? is this “in between” model that they’re employing a failed model for the world class paradigm?

Part 2

originally posted on darkblog resonate. i prefer any comments there.