Show Me the Money

Whether out of financial necessity or a desire to appeal to broader audiences, some marching bands are starting to look beyond the traditional campus events and accepting payment for private performances. Playing at weddings, corporate retreats and even professional sports, marching bands add cash to their bank accounts as well as a new level of engagement to the functions.

Photo courtesy of BD Entertainment

With school district and university program budgets getting tighter and tighter each year, playing paid gigs might be worth exploring, as it could make a huge difference in the financial well-being of a marching program. Playing in front of an audience brings its own excitement; the addition of a paycheck only ups the ante—in a positive way— even further.

Groups have found ways to adapt to events of all sizes by having different ensembles available.

Brett Padelford, public relations director for the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band in Los Angeles, says the band’s ensembles are kept busy playing at more than 300 engagements a year. “We have a 10-piece brass and percussion ensemble that goes out the most,” Padelford says. “That’s the typical size for things like birthday parties, anniversaries, and weddings, but we also have a 20- or 40-piece band for larger events. We also have what we call ‘two bus gigs’ with about 80 people, plus all of our gear.”

Smaller ensembles make details much easier. “We use a 15-passenger van as a mobile gig unit, and we can go out and play a bunch of gigs in one day,” Padelford says. “My advice would be to keep it small.”

The University of San Francisco (USF) Don Marching Band members decided to promote themselves as paid musicians as a way to create their own identity. “We have a kind of weird relationship in terms of working with our athletic department, and we wanted to have some autonomy with our band,” explains Chris Waldref, student band manager. “By taking paid gigs, we could raise our own money and have that autonomy.”

The students were encouraged by their band director, Joseph Lares, who first brought up the idea of getting paid to play. “We always knew it was a possibility,” Waldref says.

Two years ago, the band played its first paid gig. “We’re the only college marching band in San Francisco, so we were bombarded,” he says.

David Gibbs, executive director of BD Entertainment, a subsidiary of The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps from Concord, Calif., says the business side of the group was formed to keep up with requests it received. “For years we got many requests to do special events, and we really didn’t have a mechanism for them, so we decided to form the entertainment division,” he says. “It started with the fact that we needed the infrastructure and performers, and it turned out to be a great fundraiser for the organization and a way for our performers and staff to make some money.”

The business organization has secured The Blue Devils some impressive functions; it is the official drumline for the Indianapolis Colts, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Golden State Warriors. “We usually do about five events a year for these groups and an additional 10 corporate events,” Gibbs says. “We’ve also done films and commercials.”

Booking Agents

Event organizers are always on the lookout for acts that can make events unique and memorable, and it’s important to have good marketing tools that capture what your group is about and get you in front of booking agents. In-person networking can also help.

“A lot of our bookings come through trade shows,” Gibbs says. “For example, a company won’t hire us; they’ll hire an event company who hires us. In terms of hooking up with an event company, that’s a good idea because they facilitate a lot of events.”

Gibbs also suggests groups connect with their local Chambers of Commerce, or hotels and convention centers in larger areas. “We’ve gotten requests from all of these kinds of places.”

To make research even easier for potential clients, providing links or booking information on your website or social media page can also be effective. The USF Don Band has information about booking the group for paid events on its website but does most of its marketing through Facebook.

Padelford suggests being clear about your message in all marketing. “Whether you promote on Facebook, Twitter, or a website—or all of them—come right out and say, ‘Hey, we’d like to come out and play at your event,’” he says.

Wide Apeal

Another effective marketing tool is a versatile playlist. “Have an adaptable repertoire— have some modern and some traditional things,” Waldref recommends.

USF has played at high-energy events like a corporate meeting for a Bay Areabased software company and a local basketball kickoff event, as well as low-key events that called for mellower selections.

Whatever the event, Gibbs recommends the musicians engage the audience as much as possible. He recalls one event where attendees were invited to show off their inner drummer. “We did an evening event in Orlando, and there were bouquets of drumsticks on the tables, and the people couldn’t understand what they were there for,” Gibbs says. “Our musicians went into the audience and invited them to grab the sticks and tap along. It was a really fun, exciting event, and having the audience participate was a nice add-on.”

Fee Structure

Because of factors like member availability and transportation, groups may need to be selective with the offers they accept. Padelford estimates that USC receives about 600 to 700 requests a year but is only able to play about half of the gigs due to resources. “The ones we turn down … sometimes it’s because they can’t afford the donation we request, and sometimes it’s the distance,” he says.

On the other hand, USF plays an average of three per year because it does not have transportation readily available. Because of this challenge, the group tries to negotiate transportation into its price. “We were provided transportation for the corporate meeting and the basketball event, but on other occasions, we’ve had to turn down the offer because transportation wasn’t available,” Waldref says.

The fee structure should be set based on the size of the band, mileage to the gig, and load-in/teardown considerations. “We charge between $500 and $1,500, which sometimes includes food and transportation,” Waldref says.

The Blue Devils determines its fee by the type of event the group is playing. “We’re pretty unique, and we pride ourselves on the fact that we design our show to fit the client’s needs,” Gibbs says. “Some events have 50,000 attendees; some have 500. Some want a whole production, and some want something basic, so we price per event—we don’t have a standard range sheet.”

USC determines its rate by the distance from campus. “We have a suggested fixed donation for local events in Los Angeles and Orange County, then another rate for out-of-town events, then beyond that the donation is negotiable.”

In most cases, the fee either goes toward the group’s operational costs or to pay the musicians. “Our fees go toward scholarships and our travel fund, and some go to the students in the band for a 10- to 20-piece,” Padelford says. “For the 80-piece, the payment goes back into the band’s general fund.”

Every group’s situation is unique, but the added element of getting paid for playing can help the entire organization in many ways. “It’s helped us to be a little more financially independent, so we don’t have to worry so much about doing bake sales and other fundraisers,” Waldref says. “It also does help us to stay a little sharper. We keep in mind, ‘We’re getting paid for this,’ and we need everyone there to sound good. It ups the ante and puts a little pressure on us to sound better and look nicer.”

Gibbs reminds all groups to remain focused since a group’s reputation (not to mention its event calendar) relies on repeat business. “The most important thing is you have to deliver a product the client wants,” he says. “Remember that it’s not a competitive marching show— you’re getting paid, and you should bring quality and professionalism.”

About the Author

Sara Hodon is a freelance writer and proud alumni of her high school band’s front silks squad. Her writing has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, including Match.com’s Happen Magazine, History, Lehigh Valley Marketplace, Pennsylvania and Young Money, among others. She is also a copywriter for corporate clients. She lives, writes and relives her band memories in northeast Pennsylvania.

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