Everything can improve. We regularly shake up pipes|drums’ format and content with an aim to be better. We listen to our readers. We accept fair criticism. It’s all good.
Before we say anything further, the World Pipe Band Championships is a great event. The contests run like clockwork, and the event has become a spectacle that few if any would have dreamed of when it started in 1947. The RSPBA executes a reliable competition of extraordinary complexity.
That said, like everything, it can always improve.
For the first time, we had the pleasure of watching the World’s from afar. Circumstances and personal priorities took precedent this year and, while pipes|drums invested in a team covering the event on the ground, we took advantage of the opportunity to tune in to the live-stream. As a result, our perspective on the event is that much clearer.
Since we don’t have any corporate masters and are not on the payroll of any association, here are a few suggestions with every good intention to take the World Pipe Band Championships to an even higher level:
Split Grade 1 – the top six in 2018 were the same top six of 2017. There were few changes to the 12 bands in the Grade 1 Final. Bands are growing weary of competing for, at best, moving a few places up the list. Climbing a ladder rung by rung to top-six status seems insurmountable. Declining attention spans and the constant lateral moves of Millennials and Generation Z players make building and sustaining a top-six band over a decade increasingly unrealistic. So, give bands something more for which to compete. Create a Grade 1 World’s Final of 10 premier bands that have earned their place throughout the year. Take the top-six from the four RSPBA majors, plus the top bands from Canada (two), New Zealand (one) and Australia (one). The remaining 12 or so compete in their own event.
Take the Grade 1 Final indoors – with the approach above, those 10 Premier bands should compete in a ticketed event at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall or Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre. Equalize the notoriously inequitable outdoor weather conditions of Glasgow, by putting these truly virtuoso musicians in a respectful and hospitable setting that allows them to show their best. Stop denying that this is possible. It is. Further, think of the terrific camera angles and audio for a live broadcast, subsequent show, archived streams and downloads. It’s like the Pre-World’s Concert on steroids.
Make the livestream pay-per-view – anyone who thinks that the current BBC live-stream is “free,” please think again. UK taxpayers who fund the BBC pay for it. (So, thank you, UK taxpayers.) We estimate conservatively that the audience for the live-stream is between 10,000 and 15,000. Pipe band zealots all over the world wake up at and stay up until crazy hours to watch it. They will pay a moderate amount – say, $10 each day – to view the live-stream. That’s between $200,000 and $300,000 that could be collected. The BBC can’t sell their programming, so put the event out to tender to other broadcasters. YouTube could be interested.
Pay the performers – musicians of every stripe are exploited; that’s not exclusive to pipers and drummers. Musicians just want to make music, and greedy organizations have from time immemorial taken advantage of them. It’s great “exposure”! Like us, fledgling mainstream musicians are afraid to ask to be paid for fear of being cut off. C’mon. Pipe bands are tired of getting soaked, as it were, but they dare not complain or ask for anything or even comment on Facebook for fear of reprisal. They’re over a barrel. So, with the proposal above, split the pay-per-view proceeds appropriately. The production company takes 40%, the RSPBA gets 10%, and the remaining $100-150k can be allocated to the performers – you know, the people who make the product being sold. That’s about $5-$8k per performing band. It won’t come close to covering their true costs, but it’s closer to fair, or at least not completely exploitive.
Shake up the commentary – a lone voice, a single opinion at the mic for the live-stream is a recognizably tough job. But imagine a major sporting event broadcasted with one commentator. It doesn’t happen and, because a pipe band competition is subjective, all the more reason for contrasting opinions. Comments – particular some of the strongly negative ones that we heard – should be balanced. There are plenty of eloquent, well-informed, recognized, unbiased experts who have competed in the arena with a prize-winning Grade 1 World’s finalist who could provide credible variety . . . maybe even – gasp! – a drummer. They will say that we should be grateful because it’s “free,” but, as said earlier, it isn’t free and the bands and the audience deserve variety and balance.
Create covered space at Glasgow Green – Glasgow Live and the RSPBA should consider the huge marquee tents erected at the Festival Interceltique de Lorient in Lorient. Divert some of the money used for the arena stands to create a similar tent for the biggest World’s events. While they’re at it, use the existing huge and expensive hospitality tent for final tuning for bands. Divert some of that budget to improving conditions for the performers.
Expand the judging – at least for the Grade 1 and Grade 2 Finals, add more judges to get an even more equitable result. Double the numbers to four piping, two drumming and two ensemble. That’s maybe an additional $1000 in fees (use PPV livestream proceeds), but the increased reputation and credibility of the result are worth it.
Replace the march past – we’ve said it before, but the existing RSPBA march past, where Every. Single. Band. marches by a “reviewing stand” while six “centre bands” must play them on for two solid hours, is an anachronism. It’s outdated. It’s a holdover from our military roots, replete with awkward “eyes right” salutes and shrieking commands from kid drum-majors. The only people who might enjoy it are the Honourary Chieftain, and even he/she is more likely to feel extremely awkward. Instead, create a thrilling spectacle by having four or five waves of 20 or so bands each marching en masse led by drum-majors. You’ll have them on the field and ready to do a quick “Highland Laddie” within 20 minutes. If you don’t know how to execute this, just ask any of the world’s major pipe band associations for advice. They’ve been doing it for the last century.
Reduce or drop Drum-Major results – speaking of anachronisms, the drum-major is a thing of pipe bands’ military past. We have full respect for these folks, but it’s time to at least scale back on them. At most, announce only the winning D-M for each grade and move on. It’s a pipe band music competition, so focus on the musicians. Hold a separate prize-giving for the D-Ms and showcase their spectacle in the waves of massed bands suggested above.
All members of bands performing on the broadcast should get in gratis – many will not know that the Grade 1 bands that fail to qualify get only 25 passes to get in to the Saturday. That means most bands will have 10 or more members who would have to pay. That’s ridiculous, especially considering they just provided the entertainment for the paying public on Friday. (See “Pay the performers” above.) The world’s greatest pipe bands perform on the Friday, and then many have to pay to get in on Saturday? Wow.
Change generally happens in small increments, and that’s particularly true in our tradition-steeped world of piping and drumming. Some of these suggestions might seem major, but they’re really not that difficult to implement. The World’s is already a great event. A few adjustments could catapult it even higher.