March 07, 2021

Opinion: Value proposition

The 1979 Glengarry Highland Games packed them in and they will again someday. But will the piping and drumming performers continue to be willing to pay to entertain the paying public? [Photo copyright pipes|drums]
There’s lots of talk about these days about the “value” that an association membership returns to a band, piper or drummer.

With a cancelled 2020 and a 2021 season in serious jeopardy in almost all of the non-southern hemisphere piping world, most associations are scrambling to stay “valuable” or even viable.

Those few associations that had already diversified to be something more than a competition-running business before the pandemic are in a slightly better situation.

But despite the warnings over decades that changes are needed for the future, the vast majority of piping and drumming associations are still one-trick-ponies. And the way they do business is extraordinary.

Think about it. Piping and drumming and pipe band associations require their members to pay annual dues. Individual memberships are typically around $50. An all-pipe band organization like the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association charges bands about $400. That’s reasonable.

After that, every contestant then has to pay additional money for every competition they enter. Solo competitors at an event run by the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario, for example, who want to compete in, say, three events, would have to pay a total of about $60 – more than their actual annual dues. Multiply that by five or six Highland games, and you’re looking at about $300/year.

Bands, too. Each pays a whack of cash to compete in a contest. Most associations negotiate with games organizers to provide a small travel allowance for each band to offset costs, but it generally doesn’t come close. Amazingly, UK bands get nothing. Band members are further out of pocket.

It’s extraordinary. The existing dues + entry fees structure means that pretty much the only people involved with an event who aren’t getting paid are the actual performers who provide the entertainment to make the event an event. The performers are losing money. Stewards, judges, administrators, the dude selling overpriced lemonade – all are pocketing money while the performers actually pay to perform.

And we pipers and drummers and bands are expected to be grateful. We have a place to perform. We get to compete and do what we love and we appear to be happy to fork over whatever it takes to do that. It’s a license for others to print money. As an RSPBA member, woe betide those who dare to question this bizarre situation. “It would be band suicide,” as one band secretary described things.

The disparity is intensified when we see the relatively huge amounts of membership money being spent on items that bring no real value back to members in a year of inactivity.

With the pandemic, this traditional structure, which essentially exploits musicians, has come into sharper focus. Pipers, drummers and pipe bands are looking at the value and the raison d’etre of an association without competition. Without competition, what is there? With competition, what was the value? And when things return, what will be the value?

If past and existing members don’t think there’s value, why should they re-up their membership dues? For most, we think, they will not buy in to the notion that they should keep paying dues “to keep the association going.” Keep going for what, exactly? So that contestant-performers can continue to pay more just to be exploited? On yer bike.

Associations are at a crossroads. The very definition of what they are will have to change, unless they want to become an anachronism of days long gone.

Associations are already talking about providing teaching for their members, but so far it appears that members will have to – you guessed it – pay more for the teaching. The PPBSO, as an example, has said that its new one-week July workshop will be discounted by 20% for members.

Presumably, the instructors will offer their services for free. After all, it’s to help the association to keep going and promote the arts. It’s online, so there’s almost zero overhead. We’d think that the online summer school should be free to any registered member. It provides value. The association can then sell memberships to those who want the value of the workshop. Works well.

The Northern Ireland branch of the RSPBA, staring down a cancelled competition season, is considering holding “festivals” with pipe bands in August and September. They’re going to canvass bands for their interest. Great idea.

Presumably, a “festival” would not include competitions because bands simply might not be ready to compete. So, rather than being “competitors,” with each contestant paying for the privilege of competing, the festivals will be made up of “performances.” Bands go from being competitors to being performers. That’s a major shift in perception that everyone would need to grapple with.

Will bands therefore still be keen to perform for nothing? In the spirit of getting something going, maybe for the first festival. But with no competition, and gate receipts and others income from the festival, the performers will want to be compensated. And they should be given a fair amount. They should share in the business.

And further into the future, we can see associations organizing non-competition festivals, but is that “valuable” to members if they’re not paid fairly?

We all want to get back to live, in-person piping and drumming, that much is certain. But beyond that, there will be ongoing questions of value for a membership in an association. Post-pandemic, what associations do to provide value will be fascinating to watch.

We are confident, though, that the days of members paying more and more and more as they provide the entertainment for paying customers are over.

Time to provide real value for membership money.



RSPBA Northern Ireland branch gets proactive with schedule
March 6, 2021

£14,704 spent in 2020 on catering and venues? RSPBA pre-AGM order paper invites questions
March 3, 2021

First PPBSO ‘Town Hall’ reveals ambitious new approach for Ontario piping and drumming
February 27, 2021

RSPBA refuses to disclose details of HQ renovation contracts
January 10, 2021

To “continue to function as an organization,” RSPBA solicits 2021 memberships
October 16, 2020



  1. Perhaps its time for the RSPBA re-write their business plan. Why can’t the AGM be hosted at the Piping Center? The core admin staff – moved to home working and the cost-savings past on to pipe bands?

  2. In the past, the PPBSO has been very efficient in organizing highland games during the summer, while the branches have sustained the competitions during the off season. But the mandate of most associations includes something like support for the arts and education. Only a small percentage of the thousands of pipers and drummers actually compete, so membership and membership dues cater to a small portion of the overall. Globally, education programs would offer more to the masses than contests. As witnessed by some online events, attendance numbers at workshops offered by the association or other groups far outstrip those entered in contests. In order to offer more for your membership dollars, i see the associations offering a mix of both – educational workshops and competitive events. Let’s make sense of this…the better and more informative the educational component, the better the competitive product down the road; win-win. The current executive of the PPBSO is steering in this direction with many of its sub-committees – education, communication, membership, etc…. an investment in the future … certainly improved value for your membership dollars… with the hope that our membership might then expand and answer one of this article’s questions:” If past and existing members don’t think there’s value, why should they re-up their membership dues?”



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