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Off Beat Empire: Road Trip

Buses, buses, and buses

Luxury at its finest
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Visiting Band

So a couple of people in the comments over have been asking about road trips during the regular season. Specifically, a few of you have been asking about why bands don’t do more of them, which is the easiest question to answer. However, I will use this opportunity to delve a little more into what really happens on these trips. Frankly, my version is pretty much rated PG, if not G, but others might have some more colorful stories to share (and please do so in the comments).

So, to start... why don’t bands travel during the regular season? Simple... it costs too much and takes too much time. With the exception of a few campuses that are close enough to each other that you can make it work in a single day (i.e. East Lansing and Ann Arbor), you’re probably talking about at least one night of lodging, if not two, the cost of transportation, and at least a couple of meals for 150-350 people. Assuming you can get a really good rate and cover costs at $100-$120 per person, you’re still talking about at least $15,000 on the low end (Northwestern sized band) and up to $42,000+ at the high end... plus whatever costs are associated with tickets for the band (there are mixed reports in this regard. There may be a Gentleman’s Agreement between B1G schools to accommodate visiting bands, but other conferences do make bands pay full price for their ticket, which could mean another $40,000+ in lost revenue). One business article that was a couple of years old indicated that shared payouts to a visitor for a conference game range between the B1G’s minimum shared receipts of $300,000 and maximum of $1,000,000, so a visiting band could easily eat into as much as a 30% of gate receipts at the minimum and perhaps 10% at the maximum. It’s fine for a game or two, but eating into anywhere from 5%-30% of your revenue over an entire season just so you can say you visited Champ-bana or West Lafayette does not sound like a sound business plan.

But wait, I always see band “x” up in the stands when we play them... am I missing something? Nothing stops motivated individuals from buying tickets together, hauling in their instruments, and blowing a tune or two with a few of their buddies. Some bands are better at getting people out than others (I think Purdue has a reputation for getting pep bands to travel well for games - I could be wrong). Some of it might even be blessed and organized by the band staff and / or they might even get free space to attend from the school that they are visiting. However, you’re still dealing with a sub-segment of the full band and these are usually just plucky volunteers that are sharing rides and playing in the stands, but not performing pre-game or halftime.

How do you choose which school to visit? The same as anything else, you’re first looking for a good / competitive game to attend, preferably close, someplace where the home team is willing to accommodate (i.e. don’t go to somebody else’s homecoming, where you won’t have a chance to play at halftime), and usually you take into account whether or not they have visited your school, recently. Some areas get bonus points for the ability to work in an NFL game and / or a local city that might offer opportunities (entertainment, unique food experience, Mall of America, etc.) above the game itself.

What do you play? It’s usually a repeat of something that was performed earlier, but it will probably be one of your best shows. Everyone is competitive and wants to make their band look better than the school which they are visiting.

How do bands travel during the regular season? Bus. “School” if your university is really, really cheap. “Charter” if you’re living the high life. You’re not going to fly during the regular season - that’s probably a minimum of $200 a seat on a competitively chartered aircraft, which means that bigger bands are already spending $50,000-$70,000 just for the people, and then they still need to find a solution that will accommodate all of the instruments and equipment. Have you ever spent 25 straight hours in a bus before? I have. It was not... well... it was not ideal. Granted, for most B1G games you are probably only talking a 5-7 hour ride (unless you’re doing the Gopher to Terrapin trip), but even 3-4 hours on a bus can be quite uncomfortable. You’re also probably finishing getting dressed in your uniforms on the bus (there aren’t dressing rooms for marching bands, and you can’t walk across campus in half uniform).

What times do you travel? Usually bad hours. To the extent that a school is trying to save the cost of a Friday hotel, the band might be boarding buses as early as 3:00 AM or 4:00 AM, particularly for an early game. Usually the trip back on Sunday is a bit more relaxed, leaving in the late morning and arriving as distance / traffic allow, but that might change if the band is taking part in another event (i.e. NFL game).

Where are you staying? Probably in a hotel ~45-90 minutes away from the stadium - someplace that is going to be dead on a weekend and far enough away that you’re not interfering with the normal game day reservations in order to allow your school to have booked the up to 75-100+ rooms that were necessary for accommodations at reasonable cost (and probably with at least one or two extra people per room who sleep on cots or the floor). That doesn’t necessarily mean 45-90 minutes closer to home... it might mean driving in the opposite direction. In some cases, particularly if you are lodging on a Friday night, it might literally mean staying in strangers’ houses (I’ll explain in a minute recounting my Michigan trip).

But, you’re having all sorts of wild, debouched fun, aren’t you?! No, I’m tired (this is where my experience may have differed from others). In my case, when traveling I had usually been up since before the crack of dawn on game day. If I was lucky, I was able to get some sleep on he bus. There was probably 3-4 hours of practice before the game, the game itself was draining (and in several cases, cold), and you’re probably not getting to your hotel until 3-4 hours after the game. Now, I will never claim to be a wild man on campus, but I was an active college kid and I liked to drink and carouse just the same as anybody else. Still, there is only so much partying that I was capable of at times when I was ready to fall asleep in a corner. You are also i) probably in a hotel that is in the middle of nowhere, because that is the only way that they were going to book enough rooms to fit a band - it’s not like you can just walk down the street to a happening bar or a liquor store and ii) nobody has a car to go pick up appropriate “supplies” to keep a party going. There are certainly those who brought a few bottles and found the energy to make an evening of it, but I would put those individuals in the small minority - at least that was the case for me (I look forward to seeing what other alcoholics band members had to say about their travels that might contradict my experience).

What else are you doing on these trips? It depends upon where you are playing, but one of the trends for visiting bands at schools close to an NFL stadium is to perhaps play halftime at the pro game. I believe that a lot of schools that visit Northwestern will also try to play for a Bears game. That’s obviously not easy to do in remote campuses like Happy Valley or Iowa City, but most of the B1G schools will be within relatively close proximity to pro stadium. You may also perform for a High School band competition or something of that ilk while you are in town.

Is it worth it? Hell yeah! There’s something incredibly fun about being part of a 150+ member group cheering for your team in hostile territory. Being in the Northwestern band, it also meant seeing a “real” stadium where people actually showed up to games (1993-1994), and then seeing one of the true all-time great victories over a King program in 1995. It’s fun interacting with the other Marching Bands and seeing what they are capable of. You get to see some of the great traditions of the conference up close and personal. You get to introduce your own traditions to a new audience who hasn’t seen them before. You get to meet some interesting fans who are usually going to treat you well despite the color of your uniform. You get to share that miserable 3:00 AM wake-up bus ride with some of your best friends and laugh about it until you collapse from exhaustion. You get to see a different campus, a different attitude, a different part of the country and just soak in all the pageantry of the day. There’s nothing quite like it.

So where did you go, GTom? In 1993, I had a very early Saturday morning trip to MSU that was capped off by a fight between the teams that eventually went up into the stands and involved a Northwestern player swinging a folding chair at a Spartan (some real WWF stuff... and yes, I’m sticking with WWF, because that’s the last time I watched wrestling and Pandas are dumb animals). We were having a grand time singing “Kumbaya” and “Give Peace a Chance”. I had friends in the Spartan Band who it was great to reconnect with, particularly being a Freshman who had not come home, yet, but otherwise, I just mostly remember the game. In 1994, NUMB had a similar early morning trip out to Kinnick, where most of the day was great, but I had small bottles of liquor thrown at me and others going back to the stands after halftime (nobody actually got hit and I have grown to respect many Hawkeyes since then, but it did happen and this isn’t one of those “I heard it from somebody else” stories... they threw it at me). It’s also the game that Dennis Lundy purposely fumbled on the 1-yard line as part of a point-shaving scandal. All I remember about the post-game was eating at some sort of Amish restaurant and staying in some remote hotel. 1995 was by far my favorite road trip going to Ann Arbor. We went out a day early on Friday and performed at a local high school after which band members were to pair up with and stay with local families for the night. However, the high school in question turned out to be in the town just south of my childhood home, so my family ended up hosting the entire Alto section (I was close with that group, and who doesn’t like having sleepovers with over a dozen of your good friends?). Growing up a Michigan fan, it meant something special to be able to come out of that tunnel and perform on that field. Best of all, the ‘Cats beat the Wolverines for the first time in 30 years on the way to the Rose Bowl. Given proximity to my Parents, I just stayed with them after the game, so I don’t quite know how festive things got that evening at dinner / the hotel. In 1996 NUMB skipped the road trip and used the budget to record a CD, instead (“Wildcat Band Fire Up”... I still have my copy).

So, that is my first-hand experience and what little I know of other band road trips. Bowls are different and I’ll address that as part of a separate post (Bowls felt much more like a vacation - a really nice reward for a long and fruitful season). Like a lot of things band-related, the truth is that road trips were mostly work where your fondest memories are really around the time that you spent with your friends coupled with the excitement of seeing some different traditions first-hand. If you were lucky, you got to see your team win an important game. If you were cold and tired and losing, at least you were cold and tired and losing with your friends. Either way it was a blast.


Illinois and Indiana

So, Illinois did “Dad’s Day”, which I didn’t realize was a thing until I saw this video. I will say this... I love my Dad dearly. My Dad has done fantastic things for me in my life with little or no regard to his own pride or welfare. That said, if I had asked him to do the Hustle, YMCA, Kick Line, and Chicken Dance in front of thousands of people when I was in college... I do believe that he would have kicked my ass. I’m going to guess that there are a lot of daughters in the Illini band who hold a sweeter spot in their fathers’ eyes. Pretty much all park n’ bark, but as usual, the Illini band sounds good while performing.

Apropos for the conversation at hand, we then had Indiana come out for a short rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in honor of Veterans’ Day. This too was well played, but as part of a single formation.

The two bands then joined together for a brief duet of “Taps” followed by a “Salute to the Services”, complete with Indiana Tanks, Illinois marching Marines (I like the step effect they were able to create for the stick figures), Indiana Anchors, Illini Jet, and Indiana Coast Guard symbol. The combined band then finished off with “America the Beautiful”. As combined band routines go, it wasn’t anything really difficult, but it was executed just fine and the despite having so many instruments in play, there weren’t any phasing or other issues with the sound.

Of course, the Illini then completed the halftime show with their traditional three-in-one.


The Gophers also started with a patriotic theme for Veterans’ Day, performing alongside the 451st Army Band with “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. They then change directions to ‘60’s rock with a rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” and “I Get Around”. For some reason, the theme changes gears completely again to “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”. Then we get Elvis’s “Hound Dog” followed by “America the Beautiful”. OK.... WTF Gophers?!?! What does any of this have to do with the rest of it?! Drill was simple, but the Surfboard effect in “I get Around” and the flag props for “America the Beautiful” worked well. There was decent sound throughout... nothing that really popped, but it all sounded good.

For those who can’t see an embedded video below, you can click this link for the show.


NUMB caught up posting a number of shows this week, including a repeat performance of their West Side Story versus Iowa, their performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris” versus Michigan State, and their performance of the same for Nebraska as a visiting band. I’m only going to show the Michigan State performance below, as the others were repeats. I had also seen all of these except the Nebraska performance live, and I remain very proud of the Band for the quality of what the continually put on the field. Drill for all of these shows is generally at a higher level of activity than the average for the conference... not much park n’ bark in these performances and the sets change much more frequently. The sound is very good and the arrangements have some depth to them. The band still suffers a bit for its small size, which keeps the brass hits from being as fierce as they should be, but overall these are all good performances. I will note that I did not recycle on the day in question... sorry.

NUMB was also in action versus Purdue. They also did a “Salute to the Services” in honor of Veterans’ Day and I’m pretty sure that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was performed plus either “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America”... I can’t fully remember what it was. Unfortunately, video for this performance is not up, yet.

Ohio State

As others have done at different points in this season, the Buckeyes used this week to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with a variety of Beatles tunes from that album and a few others (“Yellow Submarine” and “Penny Lane”). As is almost always the case, drill for the show was top-notch, featuring an Abbey Rd. Stick Man crossing and a moving submarine on top of some well-executed free form shapes and block drill. Somewhat unusual for the Buckeyes, we did get a park n’ bark tune for “When I’m 64”, but that song kind of sucks, anyway, so I can forgive them for their indiscretion. The sound was solid and held together throughout - I particularly like how they executed the crescendo in “A Day in the Life”, using the album cover as a sound shield for the ultimate climax and final chord on 50. Another excellent show by the Buckeyes.

Penn State

OK, it gets repetitive, I know, but we got another “Salute to the Services” from the Blue Band for Veterans’ Day. The shapes were great, Boat for Coast Guard, Tank for Army, Anchor for Navy, Eagle for the Marines, and Jet for the Air Force. After seeing everyone’s version, I still contend that Minnesota did the best job of this particular piece (I still crack up over Minny’s “shooting” the drum major out of the tank gun, among other antics). For the remainder of this show, the Blue Band were joined by alumni for a standing rendition of “America the Beautiful” (what exactly is the crowd chanting or cheering?). Overall, a good sounding show that honored our vets.

Everyone Else

The person who designs drill for Nebraska has released a couple of high speed videos, but there is no Cornhusker played music to go with it. I am almost tempted to review that given the absence of other online presence, but the Cornhuskers were off anyway given that the game was away at Minnesota. Maryland was in action, but I still only have one show for this year that was recorded by a Rutgers fan. We’re behind one show for Northwestern, but it would have been my ?6th? review of “Salute to the Services” so that is probably a good thing. Wisconsin was also in action, but did not post their show for the week, yet. All other bands were on break given road games.


You now know the importance of the Bus to road games. Both IU’s combined to salute the vets (and embarrass some Dads in the case of Illinois). Minnesota took too many drugs in the ‘60’s and got confused about the theme of their show. Northwestern got caught up on some video, which left me feeling Rhapsody after being Blue. Ohio State showed us a Day in their Life. Penn State was the 2,000th college marching band to salute our services this weekend.

I wish I could leave you with video of the great 1993 ‘Cat / Spartan crowd fight, but alas, no highlights seem to be available. Instead, I’ll share video of NUMB’s halftime performance for that game...