March 29, 2020

Business unusual: How piping and drumming manufacturers and dealers are adapting

Times have changed greatly since the days when J&R Glen sold only through its Edinburgh shop.

We can’t overstate the seriousness of the global COVID-19 crisis. Every piper and drummer is doing their part to mitigate the risk of acquiring or spreading the virus, and we all hope that we can get through this harrowing situation as well as possible.

A silver lining to the dark cloud could be that pipers and drummers and many piping and drumming businesses were early adopters of the Internet. Unless you’re in the bigger cities of Scotland, or select other hotbeds around the world, having an actual storefront wasn’t crucial to your business.

The Internet has made it possible to reach a global collective market of tens of thousands of pipers and drummers eager to try new products and keep the latest and greatest merchandise coming to their door at a mouse-click.

That’s not to say all is well, though, in the sudden wake of the COVID-19 tsunami. Far from it.

Like nearly every artistic or sporting discipline, piping, drumming and pipe bands depend on events to keep them active and vital. In our case, competitions are by and large the key motivator to stay on top of the game. With contests being cancelled, the entire Northern Hemisphere competition season in limbo, and most pipe band rich countries under self-isolation protocol, pipers and drummers will inevitably alter their spending habits.

We’ve already seen several manufacturers suspend their operations. McCallum Bagpipes, R.G. Hardie & Co. and others have suspended making more products, mainly because they are deemed “non-essential” businesses, and the safety of their workers comes first.

McCallum Bagpipes temporarily shuts down; contributes to local health services
March 24, 2020

Other businesses, like Colin MacLellan’s PipeReeds.com, are stopping in the interest of health and hygiene.

“I’ve decided to close the reedmaking business until things get sorted out,” MacLellan said. “In retrospect, it’s just not a good idea to be sending reeds out into the current climate.”

While G1 Reeds of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, have also stopped manufacturing, they came up with a novel approach to mitigating the risk of spreading germs of any kind, with a spray-on solution that they sourced locally, which they maintain does not impact the quality of their products.

G1 Reeds comes up with solution for sanitary reeds
March 26, 2020

David Chesney of Chesney Reeds & Chanters said, “It’s really a case of no one needing reeds or chanters for a season that most likely won’t happen. Curve-flattening looks to be a long slow process.”

Fortunately, with a worldwide network of online dealers of piping and drumming products, virtual shops are well stocked with inventory, so ordering products will most likely be seamless.

Many manufacturers, even though they are household names in piping and drumming, are one-person operations. They are able to keep making their products.

Jim Begg of Begg Bagpipes, maker of popular pipe bags for more than three decades, will continue to cut, sew and finish his bags as long as he can access materials from his own suppliers. Before the crisis hit, Begg had seen pipers and pipe bands gearing up for the season.

“Fortunately, I’ve had busiest three months, which will help ride the virus crisis,” Begg said. “I do anticipate a downturn due to events being cancelled, however, I’m advising customers to use the postal service as I’m well geared up on this side and really my preferred option. Order online and bags, reeds, pipes will be delivered quickly. I have no plans to change, and will keep production going. Production takes a long time, so I do it all throughout year constantly.”

With what could be months of no contests and performances or even in-person band practices, there could well we an explosion in business when things return to a more normal state.

“I’ll be ready for demand when it picks up,” Begg said.

“Due to the ever-changing situation, Henderson Reedmakers made the decision to suspend the reedmaking side of our business,” said Murray Henderson. “We will resume as soon as we feel it is appropriate to do so, and in line with the UK government’s policy and recommendations at that time.” Henderson runs Strathmore Bagpipes and Henderson Reedmakers, and he’s also one of the world’s most in-demand piping teachers.

The National Piping Centre has probably the most prominent and famous business premises in the world. While it’s shuttered during the crisis, their online lessons continue with pipers all over the world.

One of the earlier adopters of technology was Jori Chisholm of Seattle. He’s based in one of the hardest-hit regions of the world, yet he’s more prepared than most to weather the storm. Through his BagpipeLessons.com business he’s been teaching online full time for more than 15 years.

“I feel very fortunate to have a home-based business that can stay open and also a business that is mostly online,” Chisholm said. “I’ve moved my in-person lessons online now, too.  I’m looking at this disruption in our lives as an opportunity to see how I can help. I’ve heard from some pipers who are finding it hard to play sheltered at home, but also from many who are finding working from home to be a boost to their piping. I’ve also heard from some pipers who feel less interested in playing with no competitions on the horizon, but also from many who are looking at this as an opportunity to learn new tunes, work on their skills and technique, and also to make some updates and changes to their equipment, reeds, bags, etc.
“I’ve been teaching online since 2003, so I have some experience that I have been sharing with other pipers and musicians broadly. I have a small team who help me with my business and I’m going to try and speed up the development of new products and educational offerings to keep them busy and working.”

Iain MacDonald, who operates Reelpipes.com, an online mail order business for pipers and drummers, recognized that employment uncertainty with many pipers and drummers could have a significant impact on sales, at least in the short-term.

“There is more time for people to pursue certain aspects, but part of the challenge is that there is going to be less disposable income. People are losing wages and income, and having to spend in other ways. Hobby spending is going to be down. We’re going to hold things down and see where we come out on the other end.”

Similarly, renowned piper Jim McGillivray foresees a similar situation. He runs McGillivray Piping, specializing in both new and vintage bespoke Highland bagpipes, plus his own line of teaching aids.

“We’ll just ride the slow time.” − McGillivray

“I expect a drop in orders; how much I don’t know,” McGillivray said. “I think people are being affected economically more than medically at this point.”

Will he create special offers and incentives? “We’ll just ride the slow time,” he added, saying that he doesn’t plan to modify product offerings substantially.

With thousands of pipers and drummers at home while their employer or school/university is closed, they could have a lot more time to spend on with their instrument. The stay-at-home situation could well result in a spike in orders, players looking to refine their skills, learn new music and gain and improve their playing and sound.

It’s a time when pipers could look to expand their library of music, either with inexpensive one-time downloads from sites like McGillivray’s PipeTunes.ca and Jack Lee’s BagpipeMusic.com. Hard copy collections of music are available all over the world, and, if there was ever a time to expand one’s repertoire, it’s now.

As pipes|drums has written at the start of the crisis, we could see a surge in tune writing, scoring and arranging from our composers, lead-drummers and pipe band leaders. Watch for new collections of original music, inventive new drum scores and adventurous new pipe band medleys, possibly later in 2020 or, almost certainly in 2021.

A new golden age of piping and drumming composition and orchestration could emerge. Something else to look forward to, perhaps.

Ian Lyons, who operates Lyons Bagpipes & Highland Supplies in Melbourne, Australia, recognizes possible silver linings for both customers and business.

“I find that people will always revert to their hobby, and the things they enjoy, during times of difficulty,” Lyons said. “I have been selling out my CDs, books and DVDs stock. Maybe it’s a good chance for people to snap up any publications that are missing from their collections.’

He was quick, though, to stress the need for pipers and drummers to follow guidelines and orders to stay personally safe and mitigate the risk of contracting or spreading the disease.

“As long as pipers and drummers and pipe bands continue to adhere to their local government recommendations for social interaction, then things will be controllable” he said. “Physical distance is the key to ensuring that we can keep this issue under control and minimize the spread of infections.”

The conditions might also be excellent for pipers to finally take the plunge into new electronic instruments.

Murray Blair of Melbourne, Australia, is renowned for his bagpipe innovations, and most notably the Blair Digital Chanter. Priced between about $650 and at more than $750, it’s a premium product, but one that Blair is constantly improving with online upgrades.

He’s already brought out free offerings to customers. “We created three free bagpipe downloads for the Digital Chanter, which were fast-tracked and made available recently. With so many pipers without gigs, concerts and income, if anything I want to support them with more options to continue making music. More free instruments will be released in the coming weeks, and brainstorming an online digital pipe band.”

Rather than substantially modifying his products, Blair is ramping up his catalog of products, perhaps also taking advantage of having more time to commit to that side of his business.

“Humans are a creative and resilient bunch and I’m confident we will get through together this with gained wisdom, new innovations, and more gratitude and greater appreciation for the people and things we’ve previously taken for granted.” − Chisholm

“Research and development on several tech-products is already well progressed, focusing on genuine affordability for the piper and thorough investigation,” Blair said. “They’ll still be released in 2020 as planned.”

Jim Scott of Scott’s Highland Services in London, Ontario, is one of the most established dealers in North America of all manner of piping and drumming products. He also said that his company will use the time to improve his offerings.

“This slowdown has allowed us to look at some of the existing piping items and improve them,” Scott said. “We recently came up with a new and improved Manometer that is a good improvement from our previous product. We have had to change some items since raw materials have totally dried up. It’s an issue I would prefer not to have had happen, but it will help us in the future with better products to offer our customers. I am always on the lookout for new items or companies as we firmly believe that if we don’t have new products we are likely declining and don’t recognize it.”

The health of pipers and drummers worldwide is certainly first and foremost. The health of piping and drumming businesses is also a concern, but canny and well prepared organizations are already adapting to the situation, as everyone looks forward to an eventual return to normal.

Jori Chisholm summed it up: “Humans are a creative and resilient bunch and I’m confident we will get through together this with gained wisdom, new innovations, and more gratitude and greater appreciation for the people and things we’ve previously taken for granted.”

In the meantime, our world community is working together through and even making the best they can of this challenging time.

Stay safe and stay healthy.

Be sure to support our businesses if you can. It could be a great time to hone your skills as you turn to your music to help you through the situation.

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Keeping on keeping on . . . leaders of top bands on holding things together




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