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Pied Paupers? Devoted Cal Band keeps marching on a shoestring budget

November 16, 2013
by Katie Tandy

The Cal Band is an indubitably upbeat bunch, its can-do spirit personified in longtime band director Robert Calonico. Which is why—despite being significantly underfunded and forced to foot many of their own expenses in support of the University—the band’s director and musicians prefer to stress how grateful they are for what they do receive.

But not everyone is so unfailingly optimistic.

“As an institution, the University has to support the band at a higher level,” insists Brad Brennan, UC Berkeley’s director of student musical activities. “You can’t look at the support of other universities and not think, ‘something’s not right here.’ At the end of the season you should just see us—we’re just rags!”

Compare Cal to, say, the University of Washington. Cal’s marching band is made up of 200 players and has annual expenses of about $600,000; the Husky Marching Band is comprised of 240 musicians and has annual expenses of approximately $575,000. But although the Husky band gets 100 percent of its budget from the university’s athletic department, the Cal Band receives about 3 percent of its budget from Cal Athletics.

That $19,800 seems a paltry sum in the face of the towering amount the band needs to operate and thrive. Calonico won’t complain— after all, he explains, “we don’t ‘belong’ to them.” Cal Band is under the umbrella of Student Musical Activities, as opposed to either the music or athletic departments.

Like other public institutions, the University of Washington has experienced the detrimental effects of the current economic climate: state-funded universities budget cuts, layoffs, and a doubling of the UW’s undergraduate tuition, all in the last five years. “Major institutions (have gotten) creative in their funding of their respective athletic band programs,” says Brad McDavid, the UW’s director of athletic bands, “because they realize the importance of a vibrant marching band in their campus community.

“Given the fact that the Cal Band—much like the Husky Band—is widely considered the University’s most prominent public relations tool, and has been for many decades,” he says, “I find it difficult to understand why the Cal upper administration doesn’t look at alternative or additional funding support for their proud band program so that those incredibly dedicated students who give of their time so frequently for a myriad of campus and alumni events do not have to pay out of their own pockets to be the great ambassadors of the University they are.”

A bit of history here. Brennan explains that Nathan Brostrom—former vice chancellor for administration—recommended the band be given an additional $175,000 in the 2008-09 budget. But what transpired was just the opposite: the band was rocked with budget cuts.

“We’re still not funded at recommended levels that were stated six years ago,” says Brennan.

Then in 2010, the University went through a process called “Organizational Excellence,” whose purpose was to streamline, consolidate and share services with the dream of saving the campus up to $80 million dollars. While Brennan says he understands the timing was bad­—with a global financial crisis and declining state revenues that led to declining state support—the budget cuts were so severe that the band is still reeling.

And ironically, the university eliminated the job of the administrator who helped support the band in many of its fundraising efforts. So the band was forced to adapt Plan B, which meant spending more time trying to raise money.

“That was a blow and it still is,” says Brennan.

Worse yet, he explains, band members sometimes pay up to two-thirds the cost of road trips to away games, which can cost several hundred dollars per student. Such student expenditures were one of the main reasons Brostrom made his initial recommendations for a budget infusion to the band; he found it deeply unfair that students were paying to support the football team and the campus.

“Obviously some students can’t afford a $300 to $400 trip, so that excludes students that really should be able to participate,” laments Brennan.

Natalie Cohen’s band bequest of  $500,000 to the band in 2008—which offers a $20,000 yield annually—often helps cover the cost of band travel to away football games. Even so, the band is forced to skip some.

“We had to stop going to every game a few years ago, around 2008, and that ended more than a decade-long streak where we never missed a game,” says Brennan. “It was a huge deal the first time the band wasn’t there…and that’s continued. This year we were able to use Natalie Cohen money for trips to Oregon and Washington so students didn’t have to pay.” But Colorado was a miss.

With more than 160 performances every year, the band’s annual budget covers mailings, facility rentals, office supplies, photo and sound equipment, royalty payments, food, uniforms, travel costs and more.

The Cal Band is almost exclusively and passionately student-run; five members head up everything from public relations and charting band performances to logistics and finances. And everyone in the band commits to rehearsing and performing on top of their regular workload and academic demands. “There’s actually very few music majors in the band,” Calonico says with a laugh. “Maybe ten at the most. There’s actually a lot of engineers, hard sciences, and pre-med.”

On a weekly basis, the students’ minimum time commitment is 8 hours, but can reach as many as 20 hours. For football games, they are often traveling and playing 12 hours a day—delighting fans with field shows that in 2013 has included a “Vive la France” performance of French Electronica, a “Modern Folk” show featuring the tunes of Mumford &  Sons, and a medley of Britney Spears hits that prompted the pop star to gush-tweet: “Heart bubbles popping @calband. I teared up watching this. Thank ya’ll so much!! Go Golden Bears!”

“They’re quite a group,” says Calonico. “They work their tails off and there’s just no stop. It’s pretty much all year.”

In the last couple of years, the band’s financial straits improved a bit. In the spring of 2011, George Breslauer, executive vice chancellor and provost, recognized their need and vowed to make up the gap. Calonico says that by then the budget had shrunk 40 percent over five years.

“I got an email from George that basically said, effective July 1st, we would get about $91,454 per year to cover the budget shortfalls that had gone back to 2007,” explains Calonico. “The second part of the email said that the University would match $50,000 for four consecutive years if the Band got $50,000 of new donorship ourselves.” And the Committee on Student Fees—which makes recommendations as to how to spend student services’ fees—recently awarded the band $100,000.

But the Cal Band also is getting savvy about seeking dollars elsewhere. Members raised the $50,000 needed for the University’s matching funds by using new channels such as social media.

“We found via Twitter and Facebook we could really get the word out,” says Calonico. “We’re hoping to do the same this year and the following two years. I’m hoping by the time I pass the torch they’ll be some money set aside for my successor to buy uniforms and whatnot. I’m just thrilled that the University recognized the gaps in our budget and helped fill them. For a long time we depended on the same constituency, rather than looking into other avenues for support. So it’s been really great for us.”

“Yes, we’re very grateful for improvements,” Brennan agrees. “But there is still a ways to go.”


Cal Band’s information for those wishing to donate is here.

California magazine delved into the rich history of the Cal Band in our Summer 2011 issue here.

Watch the Cal Band’s recent field shows, including its Britney Spears tribute, here.


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