January 22, 2024

Opinion: A good song is a good song – familiarity breeds popularity

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There’s a saying in the music industry: a good song is a good song, no matter who covers it or how it’s done.

That’s true. Think of all those renditions of familiar hits you like. They may not be as good as the original, but they’re generally good and often even better. You recognize them. They immediately attract you with their familiarity.

At Christmastime, we hear arrangements ad infinitum of classic carols and holiday songs done by pop stars. This is intentional. Artists and their labels know that the music-buying public will at least give them a listen.

Successful artists do Christmas covers, but not-yet-known artists also give it a go.

A common tactic for unknown artists to get noticed is to cover a hit song, hoping it gains traction and leads people to investigate their other stuff. It’s a stepping stone.

And, so, what about pipe bands?

Goodness knows, re-arranging well-known pipe tunes has been a thing forever if you think about “Cabar Feidh” being scored for every type of pipe music genre.

And in the last few decades, almost every competing pipe band has stuck a jazzy new arrangement of a traditional pipe tune in their competition medleys. Why? Because even at first listen (when most judges hear the arrangement), it provides something new but recognizable, adhering to that tenet: a good tune is a good tune, no matter how it’s done.

The arrangement of the classic tune is familiar to the judges, yet it isn’t. It’s the best of both original and familiar. Bands do this because it works.

The tactic is effective for judges and serious pipe band enthusiasts who know hundreds of tunes. But it doesn’t work for the general public who only know “Amazing Grace” and “Scotland the Brave.”

If the Highland pipes and pipe bands are to connect with a larger audience, this is the fundamental challenge: because we adhere to “Scottish” music and tune idioms, it will be tough to catch the general public’s ear.

If pipe bands want to become popular and accessible to bigger audiences, they need to play music that engages, not endless pieces that “all sound the same.”

If we want sponsors for our events, we must change. We need to draw audiences by providing an appealing product. As we see all too often, arrogant take-it-or-leave-it intransigence doesn’t work.

Our accessibility problem isn’t the sound of our music; it’s the music itself.

Look at the popularity of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Their formula isn’t about strutting around only to things like “Blair Drummond”; it’s playing hits by AC/DC, Journey and Queen. Think about how Ally the Piper reaches tens of millions of listeners and viewers worldwide with her creative covers of hit songs. Audiences go wild.

Speaking to myriad highly successful musicians, to a person, they love the sound of the pipes. They’re often ambivalent about Scottish or Celtic music but are fascinated by the resonance and tone of the Highland pipes. Most say they’d love to work with pipes in their music.

There are exceptions, of course, but our accessibility problem isn’t the sound of our music; it’s the music itself.

If we are to grow our audience, we will have to offer the sound of the pipes in familiar music. The pipes need to transition from being seen only as a solo instrument or only in pipe bands to becoming a widely accepted ensemble sound with other instruments. And not just Celtic folk bands or a rare quirky placement in the odd pop song, but far and wide.

It’s another reason why pipe band competitions need to change. pipes|drums has called for removing the MSR (our traditional mini-medley) both in jest and seriously, not because we pipers and drummers don’t like to compete with it, but because no one else understands it, particularly when 20 of them are played back-to-back (with our backs to the audience, but that’s another topic).

There might be two types of medley in the future: one calling for the content of the familiar Highland pipe tune genres; the other anything goes, any instruments but always with pipes and pipe band drums involved, and requiring anything but “Scottish music.”

To be clear, we should keep our creative medleys based on Celtic music and pipe music tune types. We wish all non-pipers/drummers loved “Blair Drummond” as much as we do, but they don’t, and after a few hundred years, it’s a safe bet they never will.

So, let’s add another category that shows what can be done with other instruments, playing music familiar to new audiences.

If our competitive art is to move ahead or even survive, we must make it more accessible and attractive. We can still strive for technical precision, but not at the expense of continually eroding whatever small audience we still have.

Like musicians trying to get noticed, pipe bands can embrace familiar and popular music while adhering to high standards and good taste.

Untapped audiences love the sound of the pipes. They respect our music but don’t understand or love it. So give them music they know and like as a stepping stone to more.

Familiarity breeds popularity.


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    1. It’s perfectly fine to dislike them, I am not a fan of RHCP myself, but in order to survive the pipes and drums community must do what it needs to. Our traditional music will always survive, but pipe bands are getting smaller like Rocky Mountain because we can’t bring in new members.



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