Football

Saturdays are for the bands, and the DJs: How USC Athletics and the Spirit of Troy have changed the game day experience — but not without controversy

Recent modifications to game day have been geared toward fan engagement. The implementation has been far from universally embraced.

A photo of Trojan Marching Band members walking out of the tunnel before USC's Sept. 11 home game against Stanford.

Rallies are nothing new for the Trojan Marching Band, but the one that the self-titled Greatest Marching Band in the History of the Universe (Ever) held on Sept. 24, the day before USC welcomed Oregon State to the Coliseum, was different.

It wasn’t like the jock rallies the band occasionally holds with the football team on Fridays before home games, and it wasn’t like the performances for fans outside Heritage Hall that were typical on pre-pandemic game day mornings.

This one, the “Countdown to Gameday Sunset Rally,” widely publicized by the marching band and its members, and joined by the USC Song Girls, Helenes and Trojan Knights, had an educational motive.

Most of the songs and corresponding dance moves that the band performed that evening were ones USC fans had been introduced to before, whether formally or during a prior game at the Coliseum: the classic “Fight On,” for example, where students clap along with the first verse, sing along to the second and double-clap with the third. Or the band’s rendition of 2Pac’s “California Love,” where students are directed to move their fists back and forth in unison with each other as if to imitate a drive down the 101.

But one of the songs the band taught that night is a new one that fans have heard reverberating around the Coliseum on third downs since.

The band has long had a playlist of sorts where each song corresponds to different situations on the field. It would play “Levels” after opponents’ penalties, “Another One Bites the Dust” following sacks and “Conquest” after touchdowns, for instance. “Tribute to Troy,” perhaps the band’s most iconic tune and the one that has been the subject of the most mockery from opposing fanbases, was, among other purposes, the track for defensive third downs.

This year, there’s a different third-down tune — kind of. It’s a higher-pitched version of “Tribute to Troy,” with a quicker lead-in and different chord progression, and the last note is drawn out longer than before. It’s by no means apples and oranges, as the saying goes. More like red apples and green apples.

But inconspicuous as it may seem, the motivation behind the third-down change helps to tell a bigger story. It’s a story that encapsulates an ongoing project between the band and the USC athletic department, a story that calls upon a dilemma between historical obligation and modern innovation, a story that has drawn the ire of some band alumni and represents a philosophical shift that perhaps the most storied and legendary band in college sports had seldom undergone in its 100-plus-year history.

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On Sept. 10, the day before USC’s loss to Stanford at the Coliseum, Trojan Marching Band Alumni Coordinator K.C. Busby sent a Facebook message to the Spirit of Troy alumni group announcing a series of changes to the band’s soundtrack at football games. Much of the soundtrack would remain the same, like with the Trojans on offense, before kickoffs, pregame, postgame and at halftime.

The updates centered around USC’s defensive playlist. Before third and fourth downs, after sacks and after opponent penalties, the band would be replaced by DJ music piped in over the stadium speakers. The change was met with disapproval from the band alumni on the message’s receiving end.

To understand the significance — why anyone even cared — one has to understand the history surrounding the Spirit of Troy.

TMB is arguably the most historic and legendary band in the history of college football. It’s featured on a Fleetwood Mac song (“Tusk”), making it the first marching band to receive a platinum album. The band has traveled all over the globe. It has performed at the Academy Awards and become known as “Hollywood’s Band.” Opposing fans often misidentify the marching band’s drum major as the team’s mascot. Opposing teams often prepare for USC games by blasting “Tribute to Troy” at their practices, and the song even has a set of unofficial lyrics from the anti-USC crowd: This is the only song we know, it’s boring and it’s slow.

Opposing bands have made their own joke-versions of “Tribute to Troy,” playing them at games against USC particularly to mock subpar performance from the Trojans. Rival fans say the tune drives them crazy — and that’s largely why, upon learning it would be replaced by DJ music before defensive third downs, alumni reacted negatively.

“That is probably almost a sacred song for the band. And so removing that song from defensive stands, no matter what they are, is always going to have a negative reaction,” said Guy Finley, a TMB trombone player from 1990-92. “The song drives USC’s opponents crazy. They hate it. And that means that we should play it as much as freaking possible.”

The song has since been replaced by the new, higher-pitched version of Tribute, which band director Jacob Vogel called his “brainchild.” The band debuted the new song on the road Sept. 18 against Washington State but tried different versions against Oregon State and Colorado. Vogel said he wrote six or seven different variations of the song before settling upon the current one.

Initial perception from band alumni — and even from some students in the band — is that the changes were a series of top-down directives from the athletic department. According to Vogel, that’s a misclassification. The director insists that any changes to the band’s playlist are the result of an ongoing collaborative project between the band and the athletic department, not a set of orders, and Annenberg Media couldn’t corroborate any evidence to the contrary.

“It really has been collaborative … Sometimes I make suggestions, sometimes the athletic department makes suggestions, and we are really working on a way to bring it together to make the best fan experience that we can,” Vogel told Annenberg Media. “The athletic department has never told me which music to play when … They’re really cognizant about the traditions of the Trojan Family and so it’s great to have that wonderful working relationship with them.”

There are details, however, that suggest a less-than-universally-enthusiastic reception to the changes from some members of the marching band, including but not limited to students. One example comes directly from Busby’s Facebook message to the alumni group in September.

Coming from me: We know the changes are unpopular. I, too, am not a fan,” read the message, obtained by Annenberg Media. “You can be assured that Professor Vogel and the Band staff will continue working with the Athletic Department to maintain our long-established and beloved Trojan traditions, and look for new ways to keep our fans engaged throughout the game.”

Busby, as his position as Alumni Coordinator entails, is largely responsible for maintaining a positive relationship between the band and its alumni. One alum referred to Busby as “the face of the band” who typically tries to paint band matters in a positive light to keep alumni happy.

Given his role on staff, Finley said Busby’s comment was telling.

“For him to say, even hint, that he wasn’t a fan of [the changes], I think speaks volumes,” Finley said. “Because normally, I would expect somebody that’s in that kind of position to try to toe the University line as much as possible. I think that that just kind of shows where we’re at.”

But Vogel, when asked whether Busby’s comment was indicative of the band’s initial position on the changes — even if that position has changed since the message was sent over a month ago — insisted that it wasn’t.

Vogel said that the changes the band has made since that message — such as the substitution of the new third-down song — are further demonstrative of the collaborative environment between the band and the athletic department, and that the band has moved on from that initial reaction in the five games since.

“The band is, when you include staff and everybody, that’s upwards of 300 members and people. And everybody’s entitled to their own opinion or their own interpretation of what’s become,” Vogel said. “That particular part of the comment was really reflective of his own feelings and not of the organization at large. It was intended to be an internal commentary. It’s a closed Facebook group, and unfortunately someone grabbed it and put it around and took it out of context and caused a lot of trouble that really didn’t need to be there because it wasn’t true, ultimately.”

Busby declined through TMB director of public relations Brett Padelford to comment for this story.

Another detail centers around an email template that spread among students in the marching band around the time the changes were announced. The email is addressed to the athletic department’s executive senior associate athletic director and chief of staff Brandon Sosna. An upperclassman in the band said some students encouraged each other to send it Sosna’s way if they objected to the changes.

“I am writing to respectfully express my disagreement with the decision to strip the band of its ability to play after penalties, after sacks, and before 3rd and 4th downs. While we understand the need to promote fan engagement, eliminating long-standing band traditions in favor of music piped in over the loudspeaker would not be an effective means of doing so,” read the template, obtained by Annenberg Media. “While any college football stadium can play piped in music, what sets USC apart is that we have the most iconic, infamous fight songs in college athletics. Not being able to play Tribute to Troy before third and fourth downs as a result of the changes implemented this week would be a crushing blow not only to the TMB’s traditions, but also to the aura that Tribute to Troy has created among USC fans and opponents alike.”

And, toward the conclusion of the email: “We respectfully ask, as the largest spirit organization on campus, that you reconsider your decision regarding penalties, sacks, and 3rd and 4th downs.”

It’s unclear how Sosna became the agreed-upon recipient addressed on the template, and there’s no indication that he was an integral part of the decision-making process. Sosna declined to comment for this story.

The email template originated the week in between the San José State and Stanford games — around the same time as Busby’s Facebook message. Vogel denied having any involvement in the template’s creation and insisted that it didn’t come from band administration or as a byproduct of any meetings between band faculty and student leaders.

“It certainly was not anything that came from our administration through the students,” Vogel said. “It could’ve come from the students, but again, I can’t really answer that question objectively because I wasn’t there and nor did I ask for it.”

When asked by Annenberg Media about its origins, a student leader in the band said he was previously unfamiliar with the template, hypothesizing that a group of students may have convened to formulate it on their own. The student reiterated the collaborative relationship between the band and the athletic department.

But however the template came to be, and whatever the nature of the relationship between the two parties, the changes themselves are an example of the overhaul that game days have experienced in recent years. Stadium music has taken an increasingly front-and-center role in an effort to promote fan engagement, occasionally taking the place of songs that had been in the band’s repertoire for years, dating back well into the tenure of former director Art Bartner.

But though the nostalgia of the band’s classic tunes is a defining characteristic of TMB, Vogel said not everything always clicked. “Another One Bites the Dust,” for example, was part of the setlist when Vogel joined the band in 2009, but he said it doesn’t pack the same punch today that it used to, especially given the infrequency of sacks in the modern collegiate game. He called the song a “blind spot” due to its scarcity; for that reason, he said he’s not convinced it always even sounds great.

“Levels” is another example. It’s based off Avicii’s 2011 hit, and Bartner began associating it with penalties shortly after the band started playing it. But Vogel said the song doesn’t always fit in seamlessly with the flow of the game. The occasional confusion surrounding penalties — not knowing which team was flagged, referees taking considerable time to announce the call or initially botching the announcement of the guilty team — all hampered the engagement between fans and the band.

That engagement, Vogel said, is the driving force behind any changes the band and the athletic department decide upon.

“My main goal is that any piece of music we play needs to have an active association with the fans and not passive,” Vogel said. “Ultimately, if they’re moving, if the fans are moving and shaking, they’re putting energy out into the world, if I’m gonna be a little existential about it. And so if we play something that gets the fans on their feet doing something, then that energy goes to the team. Or if the DJ plays something and gets the fans on their feet doing something, then that energy goes to the team. So ultimately, whatever we’re doing, the band or Athletics or as a team, it’s about making sure that it has active participation from the fans who are there in the Coliseum.”

Some alumni, however, are skeptical that the increase in piped-in music indeed has a positive impact on fan engagement.

“The band plays an important part not just in the fan experience but what gets into the minds of the opposing team,” said Ed Cabico, a TMB trombone player from 1981-84 and a current member of the Trojan Athletic Fund. (Cabico requested a disclaimer that his views are his own and that he doesn’t represent TMB, its alumni or USC.) “If you ask fans of other schools what is it that they dislike, they dislike the band because it irritates them. It bothers them. But it’s something that we know gets under their skin. And why take what’s popular and what gets under their skin — why should that be taken away from the student experience and the entire football experience at games?”

Cabico, along with band alum Bryan Arenas (a flute player, section leader and band TA from 1987-92), added that there seems to be a disconnect between the band and the DJ-operated music played over the stadium sound system. They drew the comparison to basketball games — which played a role in inspiring the changes at the Coliseum — and Cabico said that the fan environment cultivated in the much smaller Galen Center doesn’t translate well to the 78,000-capacity Coliseum. The alumni noted that sometimes an apparent lack of coordination between the DJ and the band — regarding who should be playing when, for example — ultimately causes confusion and distracts from the action rather than increasing fan engagement.

These are concerns that the alumni, among others, have expressed to the athletic department. When USC launched its 2021 USC Football Fan Experience Survey in late September, the marching band’s alleged silencing was one of the primary points of contention, both in the survey itself and in the comment section of Sosna’s tweet encouraging fans to take it.

“They asked us ‘Can we contact you?’” Cabico said. “I haven’t heard squat from them yet.” And though Finley himself didn’t write to the department, he said he knows people who have — and he doesn’t know of anyone who has been contacted in response. Arenas wrote as well and hasn’t heard anything.

According to the alumni, it’s representative of a larger paradigm shift that has given them less and less of a voice with the University administration. Finley said that recent changes giving the University control over the finances and operations of various alumni clubs — including the newly created Trojan Marching Band Alumni Association, officially sanctioned by USC in October 2019 — have restricted alumni’s ability to provide input to the University. Finley said that this most recent development regarding game day has served as a crescendo to the growing frustrations from some band alumni toward the University administration.

Finley also noted the decision to move the band from near the student section to the end zone in the early 2000s due to a spike in season ticket sales as another point of contention.

“I think we, as alumni, recognize the university makes some business decisions like that one. Speaking for myself, I think the university could do a better job of weighing the impact of those to what I would call the ‘Trojan experience.’ The band is a big part of that,” Finley said. “We don’t feel like we have a voice with the administration to bring issues to their attention … I just kind of think they’re being short-sighted by not opening up those channels of communication a lot more.”

For his part, Vogel insisted that much of the pushback to the recent changes from fans (not specifically alumni) is a knee-jerk reaction that came before the updated game day experience was given a chance. He said it seemed to him as though many of those who reacted negatively to the new changes — such as the DJ music — did so before even attending a game and witnessing the modifications firsthand.

“It really seemed to me that a lot of people were upset without even going to the game. They hadn’t really listened,” Vogel said. “A lot of it just seems to be perception without waiting to see what the product would be.”

Vogel added that the outside perception of a weakening relationship between the athletic department and the band is inaccurate. Vogel, who took over as director in January, insisted he hasn’t felt taken advantage of in his new role following Bartner’s departure after half a century atop the ladder (a dynamic theorized by some alumni). He said that if he had, that’s a conversation he’d have with the athletic department.

Vogel referenced an Oct. 5 event held by Town & Gown of USC — a nonprofit designed toward providing scholarships, facilitating campus enhancements and supporting cultural programs — where athletic director Mike Bohn was the guest speaker.

Vogel said Bohn was tasked with talking about himself and his plans for the athletic department moving forward. But in his speech, he repeatedly referenced the band (no fewer than 20 or 25 times, Vogel estimated), in illustrating what separates USC from other institutions.

“If you’ve ever met Mike Bohn or Brandon [Sosna] and talked to them, they’re big fans of marching bands and what they contribute to athletics,” Vogel said. “The members of this band would march to the end of the earth in support of Trojan athletics. And I can unequivocally say that the athletic department appreciates and understands the drive and tenacity of the band students in their support of the student-athletes.

“I really hope that people trust that the collaboration between the band and the athletic department is really there to support these athletes and help them win these football games,” he added. “That’s what we’re there for.”

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That limitless support of USC athletics is a feeling exuded by Cabico, Finley and Arenas each.

Arenas said that when he was a member, some students would fly to away games on their own to turn a 10-piece group into a 20-piece one, and the athletic department would pitch in to fund the band’s travel if TMB couldn’t do so. He remembers the band heading to “the dungeon” — an old weight room — and playing for the players as the early version of today’s Friday jock rallies.

He remembers attending games in the years since which came down to the final possession, and the Coliseum got so loud that opposing offenses would shut down, helping the Trojans to victory — and the band was largely responsible. (A 30-28 win over Cal in 2002 specifically came to mind.)

Finley remembers USC’s former head coach, the late Larry Smith, attending one of the band’s rehearsals during a particularly tough season, huddling the group together and telling them they were the only ones on the team’s side. Finley recalled being “crazy dedicated” to the band — which jokingly referred to itself as a fraternity, “Tau Mu Beta” — during his time as a student in the early ‘90s. He traveled to USC’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament road games in multiple seasons, which, at the time, was rare for a band underclassman like him. He played at women’s and men’s volleyball games, swim meets and the annual Swim With Mike event that raises scholarship money to help physically challenged student-athletes continue their educational pursuits.

Finley remembers showing up to march with the band at one point during his sophomore year and finding sunflower seeds in his mouthpiece from baseball games the previous spring.

He said he’s sure that many of the current band members are as “crazy” as he was. That dedication and passion is what’s driving his investment in the band’s current operations in the first place, when some of the changes he’s witnessed — not just the DJ music, but also the concerns over the alumni association and the end zone migration, to name a few — indicate, in his eyes, a relegation of the band to the metaphorical sidelines over the years.

“There’s revenue to be generated when people identify with the University and want to support the team,” Finley said. “That’s really what the band’s always been about … The one core thing has always been about supporting the teams — always. That’s what the band’s there for.”

And Cabico said his passion on this particular topic isn’t due to his status as a donor or his membership on the alumni association’s homecoming committee a couple years ago. “I’d still have a lot to say,” he said. “It’s not about that.

“It’s all about maintaining who we are.”