Independent Guards and the Problem with Dues

shelba waldronCoaching With Intent, Financing the Marching Arts


This post is a look at independent guard funding that comes from  21 years as a staff member with independent programs. It is a collection of conversations I have had with numerous directors regarding finances that plague guards all over the country. This is not directed at any program I work with as I work with many and it isn’t directed at any one person or any one color guard. Additionally, this post is not intended to address the financial issues that plague high school programs, as those issues which may be similar at times is not the same and function under a different set of rules often governed by a school board or band booster program. 

I am not a director of an independent color guard. I have never been the director of an independent color guard and this post is the reason why. However, when I sign on to an independent guard I sign on for one, the long haul and two, to help in any way I can. When I’m on staff I absorb the financial pain that is faced by the programs through watching the directors fret and stress over every dime that comes in and goes out. With that, I try to not forcibly violate the unwritten code of the activity by asking for obnoxious amounts of money or making the program pay for expenses that I can easily incur. When I am on staff, I am budget conscious. With that being said, being budget conscious and giving up income to teach allows me to be a stakeholder in the program. This basically means that I actually give a crap if the performers pay their dues.

I started teaching independent color guard when I was 26 at the Shaktai Performance Company. It wasn’t until I was about 36 though while teaching at Paradigm, that I started to really grasp what the directors of independent guards endure to keep the program afloat. I have taught at the Alliance of Miami and Fahrenheit and I remain in forever awe of the work that went on behind the scenes that allowed these guards to survive for as long as they did. I’m going to try to describe a directors life in the most accurate words I can possibly find.

An independent guard is run by volunteers who spend their days stressing over every dime spent. Their goal is to give the program they are working for the best opportunity for success by often times fronting money to cover the best staff, show, and accommodations they can find.  They listen to a crazy design ideas and then try to figure out how to build a prop that is reminiscent of the Titanic, while at the same time trying to figure out how to transport it and get it into a standard size gym while the design team says, “Yeah, but it will look great in Dayton!” They serve as vendor negotiators, cooks, prop builders, seamstresses, nurses, drivers, accountants, and collection agents. It’s the last task I want to spend this time discussing. We have a problem in this activity and I would love to place blame squarely on one group, but I can’t. There is quite a bit of blame to go around and the problem I’m talking about is one that the kids are not paying their dues in a timely manner, if they pay at all.

The interesting part of the last statement is that at independent programs we aren’t dealing with kids. We are dealing with adults. They are young adults, but nonetheless they are still adults as understood by the law and as adults, they sign a contract and are expected to live up to that contract. Where we go wrong as an activity is when we don’t hold them responsible for that contract. If the contract states that by December you are to make a set of payments that total $500, then it means that by December you need to make enough payments that total $500. It doesn’t mean that you blow off your financial responsibilities, because you (now pick one of the many excuses below):

  • Are waiting on your student loan check
  • Lost your job
  • Mom lost her job
  • Dad refused to pay
  • You can’t find a job that makes you look cool
  • Have other bills that are more important
  • Can’t get a job, because school is taking all of your time
  • Your drum corps payments are coming due
  • Your car broke down
  • Your hours were cut at the restaurant

I’ve heard it all. The below list is the more honest ones that we all know happens:

  • The new iPhone was released
  • Marijuana gives you a great high on Sunday night after a long camp of technique
  • Cocktails at the club tasted oh so good
  • Macy’s had a sale
  • Star Wars was better in Imax than in the normal theater the rest of us went to

It doesn’t matter if the excuse comes from the first list or the second list, because the reality is that a contract was signed indicating the responsibility is on the person that signed it. Independent programs barely survive even when the kids pay their dues in full. Rehearsal facilities is most likely the number one driver that kills an independent guard. Gyms are not cheap and very difficult to come by. Independent guards struggle with survival because of the lack of booster support that many high schools have, so fundraising is very difficult. An independent program usually cannot work a concession stand at a sporting event, because those events require a minimum amount of volunteers and most of the kids do not come from the community the guard exists in. Selling candles, candy, wrapping paper, or fruit is also difficult, because the nature of fundraising exists in a little known thing called a Rolodex. People fundraise by leveraging the dollars of the people they know. Who do broke young people know? Other broke young people. So needless to say, finding ways to get money that cuts down on the dues is a constant and full time job for directors that have other full time jobs.

However, we still come back to this little problem. The people that audition for an independent guard do so with an understanding that they will have to pay a set fee and within that will sign a contract stating that they will be responsible for that set fee. I am a fierce advocate for kids marching color guard…in high school. I am not a fierce advocate for adults marching independent programs when they can’t afford it or refuse to do the work necessary to live up to their responsibilities. It is not my job as a member of the pageantry instructional community to fund the dreams of a performer unless I actively seek out an individual who has done the work. I have more than once met a kid half way with their dues, but they had to meet me half way before a check was ever written and that check always went to the organization.

The activity is expensive and I can’t fix that. I can’t fix the fact that to march drum corps will cost several thousand dollars a summer and I can’t and will not ask an independent guard I teach to let a performer off the hook for dues, just because they happen to make a top 12 drum corps. If a performer wants to march drum corps and winter guard in a singular fiscal year, it will most likely cost them anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 depending on where they go…and that is just in dues. That doesn’t include other costs such as travel, team jackets, flag bags, and other things that usually come with marching in these programs. How many college kids do we know that have that kind of money? This is problem number one. Choices. They need to make a choice and we need to encourage them to make that choice responsibly. Additionally, we need to bring those costs down. Period. Do they really need a flag bag? Does the staff really need a retreat in Las Vegas to discuss show design?

Problem number two. We are in a system that these young people are taking advantage of and we need to stop it. The drum corps and winter guards need to collectively say that we will not allow a member to abuse another program in the summer or winter just so our program can flourish. If we do, then what lessons are we teaching these people and if they do it to one, you better know that chances are they will try to do it to another.

Problem number three. Not red flagging the performers that are behind early in the year. In independent guards, it’s usually December that you can start to see the pattern. Once the pattern is identified the design staff needs to be aware, because that kid or those kids need to know that their days are numbered if a significant payment doesn’t come in and soon. Red flagging allows the staff to look at how they stage that performer if the day does come that they will be cut for failure to pay. This part is where we often break down, because by the time the finances become critical, it’s usually too late to change the show without significant rewrites. Sometimes it is our compassionate side that doesn’t want to cut a kid and sometimes it’s our ego. How many people have marched a program and failed to pay knowing they are the most talented in the guard? It’s our ego that keeps that kid in that star role, and the reality is that we are doing that young person a disservice, because once he/she leaves the gym there isn’t one single creditor out there that gives a rats ass that they can throw an 8 on rifle.

Problem number four. The excuse that the activity is more expensive now than it was back in the day. Yes, I realize that middle class income has declined in the last 20 years and no, I couldn’t have marched winter guard or drum corps at a cost of $4,000 for the summer and $2,000 for the winter. However, I can’t fix that and I understand that there is privilege that comes with marching color guard. I understand that for many the dream of marching on the field in Indy and the court in Dayton is a big one and it’s a worthy one, but just like all dreams it is up to the individual who has the dream to figure out a way to fund it. If they think they can do it with a GoFund me account then have at it. If it means they need to drop out of school for a semester so they can work then do it. A performers dream however does not give them the right to abuse a color guard by failing to live up to their responsibilities. I have had two life long dreams. The first is to write a novel and the second is to spend an extended amount of time in Spain. I ask no one to fund my dreams or give me a leg up. They will both happen one day, but it will be after a lot of hard work and years of saving money. In my time as an independent instructor I have heard amazing stories of sacrifice by performers to fund their pageantry experience. I’ve taught kids who were late night phone operators, McDonalds managers, dog walkers, web designers, lawn workers, and day laborers. I have even had those that stripped. Yes…stripped. I don’t like to see that, but they took their responsibility seriously and paid their dues. I have had kids that have chosen to not march in one singular season so they can save money for the following season. I know numerous kids that had to choose between college and guard. Some, many in fact only get to do one season. On the other side of the spectrum I’ve known some that use the activity to hide out in and don’t have as my grandmother would say, “A pot to piss in.” It’s about choices and planning properly for those choices.

Problem number five. Just plain financial irresponsibility. I don’t know how to fix the situation that there are kids paying their dues with student loans and putting them on credit cards with an interest rate of 27%. What is let’s say $1,500 in dues, can become thousands when it is still being paid off years down the road. I believe that we have a responsibility to financially educate our performers on the danger of writing a dues check on the back of high interest based loans. We say all the time that the activity is here to help kids become responsible young adults. Well are we or aren’t we? Because in that same breath you hear someone say how important the activity is in growing responsible young adults, is the follow up comment that we aren’t here to raise kids. In the next comment you will hear the same instructor call the guard members “their kids” when referring to the performers in their program. Sometimes raising responsible adults is telling a performer to come back next year when they have gotten their shit together. If they are truly our kids, then we need to treat the with the same tough love a good parent does.

The problem we are facing with dues in the activity stems from ego and entitlement. No one is entitled to their dreams on the back of others and those that believe that has an ego that needs to be brought down by about ten notches. My son is 10 years old and in his short life he has participated in karate, gymnastics, baseball, and cub scouts. Not one of those activities has been free and not once have I been allowed to miss a payment and in fact, most private club payments are automatic. I don’t have a choice in whether I write a check or not, because the payment is automatically withdrawn. In a recent Facebook post where I brought this up, I was able to calculate that there was over $75,000 in outstanding dues owed to only 7 independent guards. That’s absurd. If you take the number of all the guards headed to Dayton (128) and just took a guess that only half of those guards had performers that haven’t paid and put the number  at a modest outstanding amount of $2,000 per guard by the time we get to Dayton, that’s approximately $130,000 in outstanding dues performing on the floor. However, I strongly believe that number is very conservative. Personally I don’t care if it’s $1 or $500 owed. If you have a guard where most performers have paid their dues in full by Dayton and a couple that have failed at their responsibilities, then the guard has then created somewhat of a welfare system where a person is being funded on the backs of the hard work of others. Except in this welfare state we are not talking about extreme poverty, homelessness, or meals on wheels. We are talking about color guard and as much as I love this activity, there isn’t a reason I can find where color guard is a life or death scenario.

We always say that kids today are entitled and spoiled. Well then we need to stop feeding that entitlement. Life is hard. It has been extremely hard on me at times. I’ve had creditors harass me. I’ve faced layoffs and disappointment, but not once have I placed that blame at the feet of others. Do I think the system sucks? Yes ma’am I do. I lost my home during the recession and I didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, I never missed a payment. Nonetheless, I lost that home anyway. It was a dream come true when I became a home owner and just four short years later I was no longer a homeowner. I learned yet again, that life doesn’t offer guarantees even when I desperately want them. My kid has a learning disability and he learns most things backwards and slowly. If he chooses to perform in a drum corps or winter guard one day, learning choreography will be very difficult for him.  Life is hard. I have a friend whose daughter has severe autism. She’ll most likely never get the privilege of spinning a flag. Life is hard. I believe that there are kids out there that deserve their one shot at the floor in Dayton as some people simply need to have hope and hope is what the activity gives us. However, when we put it all into context, the majority of the world goes through their day to day lives with struggles and they deal with those struggles by realizing that none of us are special and maybe that’s the best lesson we can teach the performers of our activity. These young people need to pay their dues and we need to figure out how to bring those dues down so we truly can let kids live out their dreams, but we also need to know when it’s time to play mama bird and push them out of the nest and say, “Go. It’s time to fly on your own.”