Published: March 31, 2004

Expand musically or die

[Originally published as an Editorial]

The late John Weatherston and his leading drummer Wilson Young started a trend when they integrated a church organ with the Red Hackle Pipe Band in the 1960s. Since then, bands have widened the appeal of pipe band music by working with other instruments, musicians, and musical genres in concerts and on recordings. New audiences have been developed, more tickets have been bought, and more products have been sold.

There has hardly been a pipe band recording – outside of the formulaic World Championships CDs – in the last ten years that does not feature bands playing with other instruments. Similarly, a grade 1 or 2 band that in concert doesn’t embrace other instruments won’t win many fans or much musical respect from its peers. “Boring,” would be the common adjective.

Pipe band competitions, however, maintain a traditional formula of a pipe section and a drum corps playing either a march, strathspey & reel or a medley. At the Highland games, it’s all we really offer to the listening public. The medley event was first introduced to world competition in the 1960s in Ontario, and that was the last real attempt the collective pipe band world made to extend the possibilities of the music in competition.

We also observe that, these days, the listening gallery comprises primarily pipers, drummers, and a few people directly connected with the musicians. Uninitiated curiosity-seekers are almost non-existent. The audience for the World Pipe Band Championships, while relatively large, is really made up of the competitors themselves, a scattering of band supporters, and – let’s face it – a very few non-playing, unconnected enthusiasts, at whom we always look askance.

It’s clear that pipe bands long ago realized that, if they wanted to sell more recordings and tickets, they would have to become more musically creative. Pipes and drums together can be great, but adding other percussion, keyboards, fiddle, guitars or even a didgeridoo takes the music to another level. It also makes it much more interesting and accessible to non-pipers and drummers, and the uninformed masses.

So, given that bands have been integrating other instruments into their music for at least three decades, why have the world’s pipe band associations not taken the cue? Associations, bands, and games committees bemoan the fact that we don’t attract a bigger audience for our competitions, but what are we really doing to attract them? While we protect our competition music from other musical instruments and genres, we also implicitly say this to those not part of the scene: You, the paying public, are not really welcome in our little musical club.

It is time that pipe band associations take the next musical step. It’s time for select competitive pipe band events to open up to other instruments, so that bands can really extend their musical talents. It’s time that we started building an audience for what we do by changing what we do.

Even the seven-minute maximum has become tired. Most top bands are only really getting started musically by the time they have to stop. While we’re at it, let’s make a new event calling for other instruments in a selection that lasts up to fifteen minutes.

A problem, as always, is that our competitions, because they’re art, must be judged subjectively. Rather than saying that anything goes when it comes to adding new instruments, guidelines need to be developed and enforced. We suggest that, at least to begin with, no more than five to seven total minutes of the fifteen-minute medley feature other instruments. We also suggest, for this event, adding a judge from another musical scene. And to further broaden audience appeal, the crowd would have some level of say in who wins the event. Bands will stack the audience, you say? Great! The whole idea is to reach more people, attract a bigger gate, and create more revenue for prize money. Also, if the crowd likes the music, they buy bands’ CDs, shirts, and tickets to their next concert. Most important, they will return to next year’s event.

Not for a minute do we suggest that we abandon the “pure” MSR and medley formats. There is a place for those. When the medley event was introduced to competition, traditionalists raised the same concern. The MSR still thrives.

We continue down the same pipes-and-drums-only competition path at our peril. Should we do so, we should accept that our competitions are basically for ourselves. But the Highland games that we try to sell our competitions to will continue to wonder why the band events don’t better impact gate receipts. Increasingly, as we have seen, they will phase out pipe band competitions altogether. Poor return on investment; get rid of them.

There really is no good argument against experimenting with expanding the musical scope of pipe band competitions. Bands have been doing it with their music on recordings and in concerts for over thirty years, reaching new audiences, creating new enthusiasts. It’s about time we started doing that on the competition field.

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