But He Didn’t Pay His Dues…Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

debaseinstallFinancing the Marching Arts

1pastdue.jpg (250×225)
Boy try’s out for guard. Boy performs in guard. Boy makes finals with guard. Boy see’s that the grass is greener on the other side of the gym. Boy tries out for new guard. Boy makes guard. Boy ditches old guard and leaves them hanging out to dry. Boy owes money…a lot of money. New guard takes boy on knowing of his debt. It’s like a heart warming fairy tale and ahhh…it so warms my heart. Promises are broken, ethics are breached and everyone asks the question…Whose fault is it anyway?
To be clear, this post is about the issues independent guards face in the struggle to get young twenty something’s to pay their dues. This is not about under aged minors in the scholastic arena, whose parents are paying the fees at a public school. That is a different topic, with a much different argument.
Every year, EVERY SINGLE YEAR, since I have been teaching, I have been involved with or been witness to the obligatory fight of the kid who didn’t pay dues and is now performing somewhere else. They almost always end the same way. Old guard gets mad at new guard. New guard doesn’t know how or why this is their issue and performer gets his/her way and marches anyway. In the middle of the drama, lies adults on both sides spending their time arguing about a twenty something brat. And yes. They are brats. The idea of not paying dues and stiffing an organization for the balance is bratty, egotistical, irresponsible, and in some circles could be called stealing.
Now that I have skewered the performer, let’s take a look at the problem and why the solution is multi-faceted and difficult. To give you some context, I have been teaching in the independent arena for the majority of my guard career. I like it. I like the freedom it give me as an instructor and I like the opportunities it affords me creatively. Independent guards however, have pitfalls and the biggest pitfall of all is without a doubt money. When I think about this topic, I often think about the aged old reason many of us do this. We do it for the kids. We do it to help them get a leg up on life and use the activity to help teach lessons. We teach teamwork, punctuality, leadership, respect for self, respect for team, and respect for community; all lessons needed to survive in life. It’s the latter of the lessons however, where we tend to fall short. Each September, hundreds if not thousands of young hopefuls gather in gyms to audition for their favorite independent guard. They are offered positions, sign contracts, create the obligatory Facebook post sharing the joy with their friends. 
Somewhere in that year however, something goes awry. This excited performer realizes they are in over their head as they fail to fulfill the contract they signed, promising to pay for the services of the guard. I am always floored when we get to Dayton and I hear stories of performers who went into prelims owing dues into the hundreds, sometimes the thousands.  How did that happen? It happened, because the guard the person was marching in failed in their responsibilities as well. Period. The performer was allowed to miss payments, but keep rehearsing. They were allowed to attend shows, but continue to miss payments. They were allowed to buy the new iPhone 12 and take pictures of the guard with that iPhone 12, while not paying a dime. They were allowed to lie while saying, “Yes, I’ll have you a payment this weekend,” when in fact they never intended to live up to their obligation. In defense of the guards in question, often times the burden comes in when decisions have to be made that could negatively impact the actual show, in a time when filling a hole is not advisable. Independent guards are often caught between a rock and a hard place. We live in a time when the independent performer had the upper hand. The market, so to speak, is saturated with guards trying to be successful. These guards need to fill the floor with performers just so they will have the possibility of staying in existence. They make deals with the performers in good faith. Many performers know and take advantage of the fact that the contracts they sign really aren’t worth the paper they are written on, because only a handful of guards actually follow through with legal action for failing to pay. It almost reminds me of the housing market bubble. Too many houses. Bad loans. Failure to pay. BUST!
My own child, as most children are, participates in a variety of activities. He takes karate lessons and plays baseball. I pay $175 for a season of baseball and $135 a month for karate. ALL PAID UP FRONT! It’s not a choice and not an option. If my kid wants to play…I must pay. So why, why don’t our independent guards function like a private business? If we as colorguards signed rental agreements, paid monthly insurance, hired instructors, and earned a living off of the sport, then you bet these kids…no adults…would be paying up front. But oh wait…we do rent facilities, pay insurance, and hire instructors. So what is it? Is it that many directors in our activity don’t understand that budgeting is not just about balancing what comes in to what goes out, but also the risk of nonpayment to the organization in the long run?
We as an activity say that our job is to raise responsible kids in the name of pageantry. It’s practically our mantra, but when the biggest lesson of all must be learned, we oftentimes fall short. Sometimes it’s our own ego and often our own naievty that exacerbates the problem. When talking to directors about this, I frequently ask the following question. If we let this person fail to pay, what service are we doing to those who actually did pay? What precedent are we setting when others find out that one person performed on the backs of the responsible payee’s of the team? Most independent staffs work for free and pay their own travel, food, and lodging. They are volunteering their services in the name of the creative process and the joy of being a part of the organization, but what happens when those on the team fail in their duties? Winter Guard is no longer a small activity functioning out of the kitchen of Lynn Lindstrom. This is a multi-million dollar, multi-faceted international industry. Think about that. How many other industries with this amount of dollars flowing through it would allow this? No longer do “kids” make up the independent classes, especially the World and Open class. Many, possibly most, are adults in their twenties who are grown men and women capable of signing a contract and following through with said contract. If those adults fail to plan for their finances, such as calculating the cost of dues, gas to rehearsal, food during the weekends, extras such as rehearsal attire, jacket, and the obligatory end of season professional group photo, then maybe they need to not participate. It is not our job as an activity, at the risk of the units, to make up for their financial messiness. It is theirs. When an independent team takes on a performer who owes another team, what do you think they will do to you? I do agree with the argument that it isn’t the new guard’s job to collect past dues for another, any more than it would be a new baseball team to collect past dues for my child. It is however, shortsighted and damaging to the activity as a whole. This system of ours breeds entitlement among the performers and we need it to stop.
As I write this, I’m reminded how often times in this activity we care so much that we forget that sometimes tough love is the best love. We are at our very core a soft-natured people. We don’t want to turn anyone away and let’s be honest…we also don’t want to re-write a show. Many in this activity are more of an artist than a businessman, but any artist will tell you that without the business…the art will die. We are competitive and clamor for the talented kids and that competitive nature sometimes puts in positions with the membership that is damaging. When some young independent directors start a guard, they do so with the dream of one day being the next Pride. No one comes out hoping to be the next 30 year non-finalist. They see finals and medals and the art of design and the hope of infamy. They don’t see budget sheets and contracts and risk management plans, thus creating the beginning of the downfall. 

I have come to believe that the winterguard activity is more than just an art. It’s a fine art. When I go to an art festival and fall in love with a  painting that costs let’s say $1,500 and would look just perfect in my living room bringing me years of joy, I look at my bank account to determine if it is financially feasible for my circumstance. If after looking at my account I decide that paying that amount of money for a painting is out of my reach, then I must turn around and admire it from afar. I cannot, under any circumstance, pick up that painting and start running with it without payment. When we have performers who sign a contract to pay and then do not and don’t make payments toward that debt, then they are stealing our art and that is in fact wrong.