Defense Department spends $500 million to strike up the bands

By Walter Pincus
Monday, September 6, 2010; 10:39 PM

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, when discussing his plans to cut back overhead and excessive spending in the military, often makes the comparison that the number of people in military bands is larger than the number of State Department Foreign Service officers. He never indicated that the bands were heading for the budget chopping block, but when I wrote about them two weeks ago the defensive response was so great that I decided to take a second look at their cost.

The Marine Corps provided the only solid number. It spent $50 million last year on its military bands, including $10 million to support the 130 elite musicians in the Washington-based Marine Band, known as "The President's Own," whose prime mission is to provide music for the White House.

The Marines have another 600 musicians in 12 bands around the country, costing $35 million, according to a Corps spokesman.

There are no comparative figures available for the overall costs of military bands in the Navy and Air Force, because they are carried as expenses for subsidiary organizations spread around the country and overseas.

The Army, according to a spokesman, estimates that it spends about $195 million a year on its bands, but that does not include those of the National Guard. Altogether, the Army says on its Web site that it has 5,000 musicians, describing itself as "the largest and oldest employer of musicians in the country."

Based on the Marine figures, total Defense Department spending could reach $500 million or more a year.

A new Army Field Manual describes the purpose of Army bands, a description that could apply to all the military services. It says that the mission is to "provide music throughout the entire spectrum of operations to instill in our forces the will to fight and win, foster the support of our citizens, and promote America's interests at home and abroad."

Col. Michael J. Colburn, director of the Marine Band, said his organization is unique in that it was organized to play for the White House. One result is that the professional musicians who become members of "The President's Own" do not go through Marine basic training, nor do they draw guard duty or other activities that members of other Marine Bands do.

"That does rub some people the wrong way," Colburn said, "but that was what we were created to do."

The Marine Band is in the third year of a five-year agreement, inside the Corps, that it is to get a 2 percent annual increase in its spending budget, Colburn said.

One recent change is to turn its newsletter entitled "Notes," in its 25th year, into a full-color, bimonthly publication. It is sent to more than 50,000 readers worldwide.

The upgrade was designed "to include more information for our patrons . . . and get word out about the band to those who are interested," according to Dennis Buriam, a Corps spokesman.

Another unusual aspect of the bands is that those representing the Army, Navy and Air Force military academies are not cadets attending the institutions. Rather, they are professional musicians enlisted in the services and assigned to those academy bands.

The Merchant Marine Academy Band, on the other hand, is made up of cadets at the school. In addition, costs of that band are covered by private contributions, according to Thomas W. Harrelson, a vice chair of alumni affairs for the Merchant Marine Academy.

That mission has included such things as producing CDs and even instructional videos for free distribution to educational and other nonprofit organizations.

The Marine Band, whose tradition of being recorded goes back to 1890, produces one CD annually. This year it was called "Feste," devoted to music "representative of the festival traditions of five different cultures," including those of Russia, Mexico, Poland, Greece and ancient Rome, according to notes accompanying the CD.

The Marines produced 20,000 copies of the "Feste" CD at a cost of about $51,000, according to its spokesman. The Corps maintains a list of 16,000 schools and radio stations to which it sends CDs.

"This Is Navy Country" is the soon-to-be-released CD by Country Current, the Navy Band's country-bluegrass group. The manufacturing and royalty costs of producing 5,000 of them came to $9,725, according to Senior Chief Petty Officer Aaron Porter, a band member since 1986 who also handles its public relations.

That cost does not include expenses for Navy personnel, who not only perform and handle the recording process, but also those on the band's public relations staff who produce the artwork and notes packaged with the CD.

Porter said this will be the third Navy Band CD produced this year. The others are "American Odyssey From Sea to Shining Sea" featuring the Sea Chanters, the band's chorus, and "Sounds of the Season," by its contemporary entertainment ensemble, Cruisers.

A statute passed years ago by Congress, at the behest of the national musicians union, prevents the services from selling their recordings: They must be given away to educational and nonprofit organizations. The Navy, for example, set aside 1,000 CDs to be distributed to the annual Midwest Band Convention, attended by band teachers from around the country.

Another new activity has been undertaken by the Army Field Band, located at Fort Meade. It has produced a series of instructional videos to be distributed to music educators. They include a history of each instrument and "methods for improving tone, technique, intonation, and ensemble," according to the band's Web site. Titles include "The Trumpeter's Resource" and the "Trombone; A Player's Guide," with current plans to produce two new videos annually.

The service CDs have also created a private, profitable industry made up of companies that obtain the band recordings under the Freedom of Information Act. They then re-press and package them for public sale.

Al McCree, a retired Air Force fighter pilot, owns Altissimo Recordings, a Nashville record label featuring music of the service bands. He formed it in 1991, after he retired. While serving, he wrote a song in honor of Air Force families that was recorded by an Air Force band. Seeing that service band recordings were not available commercially, he developed a business in which the performance was free and could be pressed and resold once he dealt with getting licenses from copyright owners of the music.

The services got nothing.

"We are very proud of what we do. We are providing fabulous recordings of these magnificent bands to audiences all over the world," McCree said in an interview.

His company is not alone. The Marine Band Web site lists eight other private firms that sell CDs using the band's material.

Asked about the service bands, McCree said that they had "long been an instrument of military PR" and that he was aware that there had always been a "debate within the military as to whether they are cost-effective."

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