34: Whatever Would We Do Without Military Bands?

band-647060_640**Disclaimer: I'm a musician who was employed by the U.S. Army for 11 years prior to my current entrepreneurial ventures. I'm not affiliated with the Army in any way. The views and opinions in this blog/podcast in no way represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Army. I really don't really have a dog in the fight. I did my time, and couldn't have done it a day longer than I did. My input is that of an indifferent observer; however, as no one is without their biases, mine will show in due time.

The Conversation

I recently had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine who is both an outstanding musician and in the U.S. Army.

He was lamenting over the direction his chosen career field has taken in the last 10-15 years.

BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): The Army music field is pretty much killing itself off. In the spirit of being proactive, they've taken away any and all incentive for a musician who places a priority on music to join the military.

They've closed all the bands that were attractive assignments for serious musicians and have kept all the ones they used to avoid like the plague.

Aesthetically unpleasing, arts-uncentric places like Killeen, TX, Watertown, NY and Hinesville, GA are basically your options if you want to be in the Army and play music.

What is the rationale behind this?

My friend didn't quite say, but I suspect - based on personal experience - that the top brass in the Army wants to prove their worth by scaling their operations down to where they're located in the places where are the most troops - hence the locations I've mentioned.

That makes sense. However, my friend disagrees with this. His complaint is that making the military less attractive to a musician means that you're going to attract lesser quality musicians.

That makes sense too.


I remember this was a hot topic when I was in the Army. There was talk all the time about Army bands getting defunded.

Well, when you consider it costs the government over $260 million per year to fund the bands, I suppose it's not unfair they would come under the gun when the government pretends to talk about cutting back its spending.

I used to pontificate what the military would look like if there were no military bands, and this conversation with my friend resurrected some of the thoughts I had on the topic. But first let me explain briefly what the military band system looks like. Again, my experience is with the Army so the other branches might be a little different.

The System

trumpeters-921709_640There are various "tiers" within the military. The top tier is the bands in Washington, DC as well as the service academies (West Point, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, etc.) These are absolutely top-notch ensembles and attract the best of the best to their auditions. The auditions are very competitive and winning a job with them is a big deal. It's tantamount to winning a job with a symphony orchestra (which is for a different blog post.)

There used to be a second tier which was called "Major Command" bands, or MACOM. These were highly desirable assignments back in the day - probably until about the 2000-2005 timeframe.

They played challenging music, travelled a lot and by and large it was a pretty sweet gig.

Then you have the third tier. These bands are made up of musicians who aren't good enough to be in the first or second tier, as well as second tier players who are there for a short time before returning to their post in the second tier.

(I realize that these are really rough descriptions army people, but I'm doing my best to speak in laymen's terms here.)

Tearing Down the System

According to my friend, the second tier is basically going away. The band at Fort Bragg, NC (where I was assigned for two years) is gone. The other "MACOM" band in Virginia is about to go away. The bands where musicians most often request to be assigned are going away. This includes locations in San Antonio, TX, Huntsville, AL, somewhere in Arizona and Williamsburg, VA. These are all pretty cool places, hence the desire by so many to be assigned there.

The aesthetically and culturally challenged places mentioned above still have bands.

Why?

Because that's where all the troops are. Duh.

Fort Bragg, Ft. Stewart, Ft. Hood, Ft. Drum, and a few others is where all the major divisions of the Army are headquartered.

So of course it makes sense to have bands at these places.

The problem, as far as being a musician is concerned, is that oftentimes these uber-hooah locales expect the musicians to be, well, uber-hooah.

Musicians don't tend to go for that.

And when you embrace that mentality, oftentimes it comes at the expense of genuine musicality.


Performance Military Musicians Drummers Navy UsaIf you think about it, the rigid discipline of the military is a total dichotomy with Music. The former requires absolute adherence to clearly cut standards that can easily be codified on paper. The latter requires discipline, but the execution of it is spontaneous, oftentimes a reflection of the emotions of the person playing a piece, either composed or improvised.

This is the core complaint offered up by my friend. The net result of all these cuts is that the overall quality of the Army's music program is plummeting. What I didn't realize and was surprised to hear is that the people in charge of the band's are making these cuts.

Why Would They Do This?

When your way of life is threatened, you react to the threat, oftentimes irrationally and not considering the consequences. The repeated talk of defunding the bands caused the band leaders to react, rather than respond.

I don't know what was said behind closed doors which led to these changes.

My guess is they concluded that in order for them to avoid being cut out completely, they decided to scale down their operations. Taking the initiative to do so, they can now testify to Congress that they've relieved them of the burden of spending X amount of dollars on the bands and are able to continue the tradition of having military bands in key areas.

If that is indeed the case, I think it's a savvy move on their part.

Of course, my friend is left to lament the utter lack of musicality in the Army bands. Friends of mine who have positions of leadership in the Army bands have voiced similar complaints to me.

So, it's savvy, but at what cost?

Back to My Original Point

This podcast and blog is called MusicPreneur: Making Money Making Music, so I'm not going to go in depth with my opinion of what direction the military bands should go. 

The whole purpose of this post is that this conversation reminded me of what I thought would happen if Dianne Feinstein got her way and there were no military bands.

So, here goes.

Ready for it?

Here's what I believe would happen if tomorrow there would not be any military bands.

Civilians would fill the void.

Yes, it's that easy.

I didn't say that there wouldn't be a military. That ain't happenin' folks. It's going to be there, and of course music is an important part of their traditions.


hqdefaultWhy would we assume that the  music would go away just because military bands went away?

A highly motivated entrepreneur - perhaps an unemployed band operations NCO - living in Fayetteville, NC or Hinesville, GA would start a business offering musical services to their local base, from a small quintet to a full-on marching band.

Each unit is allotted a certain amount of money to spend on things like ceremonies and banquets.

If they want live music for their event, they can pay for it like everyone else.

I mean, seriously. They pay caterers to provide food for their balls and banquets. Why is the concept of paying musicians to provide a service that makes their event "memorable" and "time-honored" outside the realm of acceptable options?

This entrepreneur would be able to both charge a fee that the units can afford and pay professional musicians a fair market wage for their services. There are a ton of freelance musicians and really good college students who would be more than capable of performing a ceremony, complete with all the movements (which can be taught in about an hour) and would be willing to drive pretty far in order to make $200 performing 3 ceremonies in a day.

Just like military bands have various ensembles in their ranks, i.e. brass quintet, rock band, etc. this private company could provide all of those services.

Or they could choose to excel at just one thing... Like being the best and baddest marching band on the planet.

And you know the best part of this setup?

At the end of the day, the musicians go home and continue to be musicians, while the soldiers go home and continue to be soldiers.

The biggest fear of military musicians - well, of musicians period - is that everyone will go digital and render their services obsolete.

Well, I have a hard time believing that a battalion or a division commander would be okay with music being played on a loudspeaker for their change of command ceremony when there's a private company off the base who will provide OUTSTANDING live music at an affordable price.

Before you call for my head...

Remember I'm not saying this because I wish that there were no military bands. I'm just a guy with a blog/podcast giving his opinion on a very real topic. It's not like this is going to be used as testimony in a congressional hearing or anything.

 

Military musicians have seen a ton of changes just in the last decade. Bands that were once considered the foundation of their system are no more.

There are more to follow.

There are simply no guarantees, nor is there the same level of "job security" that existed just 10 years ago.

So, if you didn't get all that, get this

Military musicians have dealt with the threat of getting the axe for well over a decade. They've learned that there are no guarantees. The days of  hanging out and staying quiet until they've "hit their twenty" are basically over.

Is it likely that they'll go away completely?

No.

Will there be more cuts?

Probably.

Perhaps you have some ideas on how you can capitalize on them if and when they do.

If so, I'd love to show you how to make it happen as a MusicPreneur. Bookmark this website, subscribe to the podcast and join the email list.


You'll have done more than 99% of people are willing to do for their own success.

Don't be among those who cry "foul" any time mention is made of military bands being cut.

Americans somehow learned the heritage of their country and the Army before there were Army bands, and they'll continue to do so if they're gone.

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About the author, James

I play the cornet, and trumpet when I get called to do so.
I'm also a podcaster.

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