In the world of HBCU Marching Bands there are a few that would rank amongst the best college bands in the nation. Many would argue that any reputable list of “the best” black college bands would have to include at least one powerhouse from each conference. That’s a fair assumption, but at the same time it is the exact issue that has plagued Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat of Bands (AOB) and others. How do you, fairly, rank a heavyweight that does not fight other heavyweights on a regular basis?
Unlike your typical HBCU Band, The AOB is not a member of the four Black Football Conferences (MEAC, SWAC, CIAA, SIAC). That puts them in an awkward position when being, fairly, recognized by bandheads in the college band realm. For years the Honda Battles Of The Bands, the nations largest HBCU Band showcase, attempted to help with the conundrum by creating an “independent” category for the fans of bands like TSU. This helped keep The AOB in the national conversation while also giving other “non – conference” bands like Edward Waters College the opportunity to participate on the national stage.
How does The AOB measure up to the best of the “conference bands”?
QUEEN CITY RANKINGS:
1st – Bethune Cookman University – 10/10
2nd – Norfolk State University – 9.5/10
3rd – Tennessee State University – 9.0/10
4th – Jackson State University – 8.5/10
5th – Miles College – 8.0/10
5th – Talladega College – 8.0/10
6th – North Carolina Central University – 7.5/10
7th – Alabama State University – 7.0/10
8th – Winston Salem State University – 6.0/10
It was no surprise to many music educators to see The AOB amongst the top three. But the average “twenty something” year old bandhead may have questioned the reasoning before viewing footage, mainly, because The AOB is simply not a band they “follow”. Every weekend there is heated discussion all over social media about which band walked away with a “W” and who took an “L”. Tennessee State is rarely apart of that discussion because of this…
Their conference schedule restricts them from regularly “getting in the ring” with any of the heavyweights and because of that The AOB is, consistently, overlooked on many occasions in favor of more “fiery” HBCU matchups. The reality is it is very easy for TSU, a program with a schedule that sees roughly two HBCUs a year (sprinkled with a couple BOTB performances), to become somewhat marginalized in the HBCU Band world.
So… Does who your football team play dictate the popularity of your college band? There are arguments on both sides. Miles College, a consistent CIAA powerhouse band program, with a football team, has never been to the Honda Battle Of The Bands largely due to household name recognition. While at the same time Talladega College, a band without a football team, has attended the Honda Battle Of The Bands and was selected as a Presidential Inaugural Parade Participant. Why are the results so different for these programs?
I believe it comes down to branding, promotion, and marketing of your product. More than any other time in history, today it is important to control your own messaging and media. Due to the popularity of social media platforms, today’s college bands compete with bands from across the nation for the hearts and minds of students that were once a “sure thing” due to their zip codes. I’m not saying TSU and other schools are not doing any of this. The AOB enjoys regional appeal and has been able to consistently recruit musicians in quantities that maintain an average ensemble size of just under 224 members. But the recruitment game has changed and is continuing to change. Proper branding and self promotion is more important now than ever. Band Directors who grasp the importance of branding and promotion today will become the legends of tomorrow.
Tennessee State University’s Aristocrat Of Bands is a great program historically and currently. I think it deserves to be in the mix when speaking about today’s best bands. However, I do understand why and how The AOB is sometimes left out of these conversations. Tennessee State and other marginalized programs can overcome the scheduling conundrums, popularity issues, and lack of adequate resources that persists among the vast majority of HBCU Bands today by becoming even more vigilant in strengthening their online footprint. This will enable them to stay relevant in the minds of tomorrow’s bandsmen, who won’t care what was done 40 years ago but will weigh, heavily, the result of 5th quarter battles on youtube.