Inside the Arc – We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us

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Let’s get it straight right away: It’s not the composers and publishers who are ripping off the drum corps. It’s been the other way around from the beginning. Allow me to explain.

From the author’s collection

When Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a British fleet on Lake Erie on September 10th 1813, he famously bragged, “We have met the enemy, and he is ours…” Among other things, his notoriety resulted in having a drum corps named for him.

Commodore Perry Scouts, Los Angeles – from the author’s collection.


From the author’s collection

Cartoonist Walt Kelly parodied that quote in his Pogo strip over 150 years later, on the first Earth Day, describing modern man’s destructive behavior towards the environment.

Today, many in the Drum Corps and band activities perceive the copyright holders as “the enemy”, and to be honest, the feeling is often reciprocal. Both parties are dead wrong, and here’s why.

When drum corps were masquerading as an “under the radar” mom-and-pop affair, they blissfully ignored composer’s rights and other inconvenient legalities, for something like 80 years. Nobody ever paid any mechanical or performance royalties or obtained licenses to arrange material. Besides, it was erroneously claimed, the music wasn’t being played on “legitimate” instruments, and the corps weren’t making any real money.

Meanwhile, their entire existence was predicated on the entertainment value generated by the music itself. Neat trick.

Jim Donnelly arranged “Oklahoma” for the Skyliners, and it became their corps anthem, complete with totally new lyrics (“Gabarina”), those words themselves a violation of a copyright holder’s right to grant permission to create a derivative work, and both versions by now performed thousands of times in hundreds of venues in various iterations, ever since the 1950s. The Rogers and Hammerstein folks derived not a dime, and this is just one example. Multiply by thousands of others.

For a long time, composers and their partner publishers could afford to ignore all this. After all, they were generating ship loads of cash from other higher profile sources like radio airplay, concert and club performances and, especially, copies of recordings, many of which sold in the millions. By comparison, Drum Corps was a guppy in the ocean.

Then along came Jobs and Wozniak, and eventually the digital download, crashing the entire recording paradigm, and the ocean dried up. It was musical climate change, and the industry is still reeling from it. Whereas a songwriter might see a royalty of 10 cents per CD or LP sold in the past, now downloads and streaming pay only about a thousandth of a cent instead per digital “play”. Today recordings, per se, are of almost no value in themselves. But… there are still synchronization rights and other licenses to be administered and the publishers got busy on those, their conscientious efforts born of desperation.

“Hello, DCI, DCA, WGI, BOA…we need to talk…”

“No-good, soulless, blood-sucking thieves”, cried those organizations and all the fans, alumni and parents who support them. And so, battle lines are drawn, enemies identified, lawyers engaged and game on. One unintended consequence: unfamiliar, often second-rate music floods an activity that used to pride itself on connecting with its audience.

Both sides lose here, and neither has an exit strategy. But here’s one:

Some peacemaker who understands the realities of both parties negotiates a “most favored nations” deal with just one major publisher, let’s say Disney Entertainment. They administer copyright on thousands of titles, not simply tunes from Bambi and Little Mermaid, but deep catalogs of film, classical and popular music, the kind drum corps audiences would love to hear again.

Cut a special deal for reduced royalties for uses of this music in this arena. The publisher’s music comes off the blacklist, and the fees become affordable. Rather than be denied this market and trapped in legal fee hell, all the other publishers will follow suit.

Peace treaty, handshakes all around, songwriters get paid, corps don’t go bankrupt… win-win.

And into the bargain, audiences get to recognize the music. There might even be a major chord once in a while.

About the Author:
Frank Dorritie is one of the legends of the activity .... a performer, instructor, arranger, adjudicator, and observer over the past 5 decades. Frank has been playing the bugle and trumpet since the 1960s, and has performed with artists like Billy Cobham and Maynard Ferguson. He has instructed and/or arranged for the Blue Devils, Cadets, Santa Clara Vanguard, Cavaliers, Chesterton and Tenri High Schools, the Bushwackers, Bridgemen and a host of others. His audio production honors include 9 Grammy Nominations, 2 Grammy Awards and membership in both the World Drum Corps and Buglers Halls of Fame. He is active internationally as a clinician and adjudicator, holds the DCA Soprano/Trumpet/Tenor Individual titles for 2003, 2005 and 2006. Frank also chairs the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College. His popular brass method book, “Power and Endurance”, is available from The opinions expressed in this column are strictly those of the author.

Posted by on Tuesday, April 11th, 2017. Filed under FrontPage Feature, Inside the Arc.