Is the World’s killing the pipe band world? Part 2
“Perhaps there’s hope in the Toronto Police’s Don Quixote approach,” Livingstone said. “Perhaps the guys from Brittany will open the door. Or perhaps, even better and game-changing forever, the top six bands will get together and agree to throw caution to the wind and play whatever the hell good music they want. Let’s see them disqualify St. Laurence O’Toole for opening with a piobaireachd variation, or SFU for deciding that the concert formation is perfect for a contest -and, yes, for an audience. The six best defying these stultifying ‘rules.’ Those rules would be gone in a heartbeat.”
Because of the obsession with the World’s, even if the non-RSPBA pipe band associations wanted to trial a new competition format, they can’t. The outcry from their best bands preparing for the World’s would be so great that such progress would never be permitted by the members who ultimately determine the rules. Associations are thus hamstrung to go along with whatever the RSPBA decides is competition pipe band music.
True enough, “traditional” music works fine in Scotland because it’s not ethnic, it’s folk. The major championships attract enough competitors that, even if no enthusiasts turned out to listen, the events would be self-sustaining, with a near guarantee of success. Pipe band competitions in Scotland are a part of the indigenous culture of Scotland. Unlike in non-Scottish countries, pipe band competitions and Highland games are not unusual ethic events. They are as culturally accepted as baseball games in the USA or cricket matches in Australia.
Outside of Scotland, Scottish Highland games are ethnic events. Where Highland games in Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand once more easily catered to first-generation Scottish immigrants, today they have to work hard to attract curiosity seekers, and have to compete with any number of other curious events on the same day. It’s increasingly harder for them to attract a paying crowd. The closed-ranks circle of pipers and drummers playing their arcane, esoteric competition music is of little interest to most people not directly involved.
There is increasing pressure to provide more than just the usual backs-to-the-crowd circle of MSR players. Where once first-generation Scottish immigrants would attend the Highland games, successive generations look to be entertained with more visual and exciting displays, without feeling ostracized by feeling that they are unwanted guests at a closed-door ethnic club.
Pipe band competitions and Scottish festivals are on divergent paths. Our competition act is less and less attractive, and increasingly Highland games are looking for more than the traditional pipe band contests. Games organizers float concepts of pipe band “shows” to associations, and associations have a difficult or impossible time offering anything but what the bands desire, and that desire often comes down to preparing for the World’s.
“This overriding commitment to the World’s has, among other things, made RSPBA music rules the de facto standard for Ontario,” Grey said.
Because of the fascination with the World Pipe Band Championships, the world’s associations are more or less beholden to toeing the RSPBA’s line, thus stifling the growth of the music. As pipe band events are woven into the Scottish culture, there is no pressing need in Scotland to change the competition format.
We can see the consequences creeping into pipe band scenes outside of the UK. With bands and associations essentially aping what goes on in the RSPBA, the opportunity to be different to attract new audiences requires buy-in from competitors. It’s a stalemate, seen most substantially in the eroding Highland games circuit in Ontario, which is down to six outdoor events.