Marching arts in decline?

Marching arts in decline?

Are the marching arts in decline? On April 2nd, DCI’s Cadets announced that they have filed for bankruptcy. 90 years of excellence could not save them from financial insolvency.

The Cadets fall was hastened by the actions of their long time director, George Hopkins. There are stories online that you can read to get a sense of what he did to destroy his corps.

But, the Cadets aren’t the only corps with financial issues. In 2023 the Santa Clara Vanguard suspended their competitive season citing financial reasons. Thankfully, the have returned.

But, i’m concerned that other units will soon fail because of overwhelming costs. Marching arts units are pricing themselves out of existence. Let’s take a look at some of the basic costs of a modern marching unit.

Productions costs

I wrote my own drill design for over 20 years, and I did it for free. But, as the years went by I realized that if I wanted to see the group get higher numbers from the judges, I’d have to hire a professional drill writer. Now, my groups needed to cover close to $2,000 for drill.

I bought my music from Arranger’s Publishing Company for years. I’d find three songs and it would cost a few hundred dollars. I’d spend my summer writing the drill design with photocopied grid paper, pencil, compass, string and a very well used eraser. It was a very economical way to write a program.

But, the activity began moving to thematic shows and these shows demanded a cohesive musical palate to advance that theme. So, I started getting music from online publishers. This cost the organization another thousand dollars or so.

By the time I finished directing at STRYKE Winds, we were paying closer to several thousand dollars for music. We had to pay for copyright clearance and then pay for an arranger to write that music. After the music was procured, it had to be handed over to a drill designer. Thousands and thousands of dollars!


Who is going to write the colorguard routine? Originally, I had the colorguard captain (student) write the routine. Then, I moved on to a recent graduate. But, if you want to have a great colorguard, you’ll need someone who can write top level choreography. And they want and deserve a good bit of money!

Next, you will need great silks to spin. In the 90’s we had a band mom who would make our flags. We’d go to the local JoAnn fabrics store and buy a bunch of material. The guard mom would cut and sew us the flags we needed for the year.

The flags are more intricate now, but they also cost a bunch more money!

Let’s talk uniforms

Uniforms can be expensive. But, we’d wear them for a decade at least. The school would hopefully chip in and get us what we needed and we wouldn’t have to pass that cost on to the members.

Modern marching units want costuming. Each year that costuming changes with the show theme and that cost is passed directly to the members.

The groups look great, but the overall effect is another financial demand on those who want to participate in the activity!


In the 90’s this didn’t exist. The kids played their instruments. If you couldn’t hear something, they needed to work harder. Or, you needed to write the show in a way that they could be heard. i.e. placement on the field.

But, someone thought it would be a good idea to run power to the sidelines and mic a few things. We mic’d the marimba and other pit percussion so we could hear it better. We mic’d a flute player and they could solo! It was awesome!

Then we added keyboards and computers. We added digitized sounds! All we needed was a Macbook Pro and some additional software. We can afford that, right?

Lastly, we added boom mics. Now we can amplify an entire region of the field!

And then it rains and all that money is washed down the drain.

Or the computer craps out… Oh well, there’s always the next performance.


If you want the judges to love the show, you will need something extra on the field. Maybe it will be a tarp with a picture on it. Or, maybe you’ll use scaffolding with some artwork on it. If you don’t want to look bland, you’ll need to dress the field up.

And, hope that it isn’t too windy. Otherwise everything will stay in the equipment trailer. Speaking of equipment trailer…


You’re going to need a charter bus and an equipment trailer. No one puts together a great group and then sticks them in an un-air conditioned school bus. And you need a lot of space for your expensive stuff. You’ll need an 18 wheeler. And, while you’re at it, get it wrapped or painted with the units logo on the side.

You’re going to look great pulling into the competition site. But, you’ll hate it when it’s time to fuel up these buses and trailers.


There’s no sense in paying all of this money on electronics, music, costuming, drill and travel if you’re going to skimp on staff.

Let’s start with caption heads. They’ll report to the director. We’ll need a visual and a music caption head. Under them we’ll have people teaching movement and others teaching music.

We’ve already mentioned that we need a colorguard choreographer, but our colorguard will need numerous others as well. Some will work with flag, others with weapons and still others with dance.

Our percussion will need keyboard instructors and battery instructors. We’ll also need at least one person focused on electronics.

Our winds will need brass and woodwind specialists. The more the merrier!

And, everyone wants to get paid. They might have little to no experience, but they want money. If you don’t pay it, they’ll go somewhere else.

Marching arts in decline?

The shows themselves

Moving beyond financial issues, what do these shows mean? I’ve been watching for decades and I sometimes can’t understand what they’re doing on the field.

I hear their designers saying that they’re trying to get the judges thinking. They’ve got some deep meaning in the music, colors and motion. But, I don’t get it.

The great classical composers wrote for those with wealth and power. They had to tailor their writing to the desires of these patrons. If they didn’t consider the desires of this audience then they wouldn’t get any money.

We write shows that our audience can’t understand and then we don’t understand why people aren’t fawning over us and showering us with praise. I know that it’s exciting to be innovative and unique, but do we remember that we are performing on a football field in extreme environments? And, we are using young people, not paid professionals. The paid professionals are on staff, which is probably the desire of most of the performers. But, I digress…

Our current audience is made up of people from other bands/corps, parents and former marching arts participants. i.e. People who are currently or have in the past paid member fees.

No one else has the patience to put up with our ‘artsy’ shows.

Adapt or die

I fell in love with marching band in the late 70’s. I love/loved the power of the brass and percussion mixed with the sweeping woodwind runs. There’s nothing like seeing smartly coordinated music and motion.

I believe that we have been pricing ourselves out of the market for years. Are the shows at a higher quality level now? Yes! Are the members getting an invaluable experience? Yes! But how much longer do we think that our performers can continue to pay thousands of dollars to participate in a 12 minute show?

If DCI, WGI and BOA want to continue to endorse this approach (through their judges), it is time for them to find sponsors. And, I’m not talking about Vic Firth and Yamaha. I’m talking about Red Bull, Pepsi, Amazon etc. If we can’t get this level of sponsorship, then we’ve become irrelevant to our time and, like the dinosaurs, we will become extinct.

I hope we can adapt.


2 responses to “Marching arts in decline?”

  1. Spot on, totally agree, the Marching Art’s are getting to a point where it getting to be unaffordable for many school programs, drum corps, winter guard and percussion. We are going to have to adapt, either scale it down and design to the audience, or go get sponsors like Coke Cola, Tesla, and Microsoft to afford it in the future.

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