In this age

The RSPBA recently “aged out” three of its judges. Dixie Ingram, Joe Noble and Ian Wood each reached the age of 75, so they can no longer serve on the Scottish association’s panel.

(I have no idea if any of these gentlemen wanted or thought it best to retire. They’re only this year’s examples and, by the way, to each of you, thank you for your long service to pipe bands.)

My understanding of the RSPBA’s rules about judges and age is that, once an adjudicator turns 70, he or she has met the official retirement age. But after 70 they can apply annually if they want to continue, confirming their health and continuing ability to judge. The application is considered by the association’s Adjudicators’ Panel Management Board and then approved by the Board of Directors, all young whippersnappers, I’m sure.

I don’t know how they assess. Perhaps the 70-plus judges have to show that they can walk around a large circle in allotted time period. Maybe they have one of those sound-proof beeping booths with the 1960s headphones, asking adjudicators to raise their hand when they hear various pitches and tones. (If not, please consider as part of the general accreditation exam, including a bit to recognize notes that are sharp or flat . . .)

It’s sort of like driving licenses for old folks, but far less a matter of life-and-death. One slip of the pen might bury a band, but that’s better than a four-thousand-pound automobile careening into oncoming traffic. As far as I know, after age 70 people in the UK can re-sit driving exams every three years until they can’t.

However, for RSPBA judges, officials and directors, at age 75 that’s it. No choice in the matter. Your career of standing out there, often in the horizontal rain, is over, no matter how young a 75-year-old you might be. No more cups of tea and watercress sandwiches for you. No more £75 daily fee. The powerful salad days are over, you ancient person!

Of course, there are different degrees of aging, depending on diet, exercise, financial situation and genes. You can lose hearing, of course, which would be a major detriment to judging if it can’t be adequately remedied with increasingly sophisticated in-ear aides.

You can lose mobility, making you less able to walk around a band to hear the one piper in the corner who’s blootering along. (Then again, there’s no requirement for a judge to move at all, and some able-bodied folks like to wear out one patch of grass all afternoon, some never budging from their wee hut.)

I’d be careful with the hard-and-fast age 75 deadline (as it were). People today are overall in far better shape than they were even 20 years ago. There are wildly different versions of 75. Our top pipers and drummers are successfully competing and performing longer than ever, often because their professional piping and drumming careers built on teaching and selling stuff depend on upholding their “brand,” and the best personal brand marketing in this particularly industry is playing well publicly. So they’re finding ways to keep going.

There will be more and more top exponents of the art who, like Bill Livingstone, ultimately decide to pack it in only when they’re well into their seventies, leaving just a handful of years for the world to benefit from their adjudication wisdom, even if they might be twice the physical fitness and an order of magnitude more knowledgeable and qualified than judges half their age.

The RSPBA might want to examine its ageist policy. Categorically sending still-spry judges off to the figurative glue factory is ill-advised, that is, in this day . . . and age.

 

Sales pitch

Reeds do it. Metres do it. Even educated beaters do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall apart.

With apologies to Cole Porter, the “it” in question is obsolescence, the failure of a product requiring customers to need the next version.

For most industries, planned obsolescence is necessary to sustain business. A product can become obsolete through continual improvement, as in your iPhone. After a time, technology overtakes technology, rendering an older product useless. Changing fashion is about style, but it’s also about creating new desirable products through perceived obsolescence, otherwise, loin-clothes would still be in vogue.

Musical instruments by and large are an exception. A quality musical instrument can last a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, provided that the instrument can cope with the evolution of pitch and, in the case of pianos, incredible tension that can eventually break down a pressure bar, rendering the instrument untenably untunable.

In terms of tension, a pipe band snare drum with upwards of a thousand pounds of pressure puts a piano’s maximum 200 pounds to shame. There is an incredible amount of torque required to bring a pipe band snare to pitch, and an ever-more-demanding drum pitch to complement an ever-sharper chanter sound is a great business recipe.

I have often wondered whether ever-rising pitch across almost all genres of music isn’t about planned obsolescence. From what I have read, the pitch of symphony orchestras has steadily increased, just like pipe bands. No one knows exactly why, but a possible theory is that it puts more pressure, figuratively and literally, on instruments, necessitating replacement parts or outright replacement.

I defer to experts on the mechanicals and engineering of a snare drum, but I believe that shells can buckle, hardware can bend, snare mechanisms fail, eventually rendering the instrument unstable. Pipe chanters generally have a much longer shelf-life, but they too are subject to the pressures of pitch, reed-seats knackered, holes gouged beyond repair, and so forth. At $850-$1,400 each, the pipe band snare drum and its various heads and snares that need regular replacing are the biggest annual collective equipment expense for a band.

I’m sure that a percussion instrument maker could create a snare drum that lasts as long as a Land Rover, but, trouble is, it would probably weigh too much to carry or be too expensive to purchase in the short-term, even though it might pay off in the long-term. Percussion instrument makers tempt bands further by bringing out the latest and greatest drums that promise to be more responsive and resilient, with glorious new sparkly shiny finishes to bling your back end. Just like your iPhone, what started five years ago as a state-of-the-art miracle device becomes a despicable piece of dated garbage.

In 2009, Terry Cleland created snare drums with carbon fibre shells that were lightweight and hardly or never deteriorated under pressure. They came in at a relatively expensive price, and haven’t caught on. He gave a complete set to the Grade 1 Ballycoan band, only to see the band buckle and break up before it ever took the drums into a contest.

Drum makers are smart to give away their instruments to the top bands, just like Taylor Made and Titleist get the best golfers to use their newest gear. The lead-drummers of the lower-grade bands beg and plead for their band to buy them the gear that is sure to up their game when, in fact, it probably won’t make too much difference to reconcile an outlay of $15,000, including matching tenors, bass and heads.

It’s a terrific business model – one that I won’t fault. If it weren’t for pipe chanters and their eventual obsolescence, I wonder how many bagpipe makers would stay afloat. Pipe band snare drum makers consistently strive to create more tension to satisfy tonal taste, and the pitch going higher and higher virtually guarantees sales. Woe betide drum and bagpipe makers if the prize-winning Grade 1 sound suddenly dropped 15 cycles. We’d all be pulling out our old 10-lug Super Royal Scots and Robertson chanters.

Pushing up the pitch is business-smart, lucrative obsolescence.

 

The next big thing

Plastic drones. They’re here and they will soon be played and win prizes at every level.

That’s my personal prediction based on a number of factors.

First, the CITES blackwood restrictions are already adding expense and time to delivering new blackwood instruimemts.

Second, advances in synthetic materials like acetyl have been significant. Bagpipe makers that aren’t getting into synthetic materials might want to get moving, unless they’re happy staying smaller and bespoke.

Third, I’m led to believe that the material is far more stable than blackwood. That is, it can be made to more exacting specifications with true laser precision. It’s also not going to warp and crack like wood over time. No need for wood oil and humidity-controlled rooms and pipe boxes.

Fourth, moisture is hardly a factor today. The advent and constant perfection of moisture control systems, plastic and carbon-fibre drone reeds, and synthetic bags virtually eliminate problems with condensation building up in cold or over-played instruments.

Fifth, plastic chanters are by far in the majority. In the 1970s when War-Mac came on the scene with grey, synthetic chanters, purists poo-pooed them – until Shotts & Dykehead started to win. The tone misperceptions that might have existed at the solo level have been broken down. Synthetic chanters have won Gold Medals and Clasps for at least 15 years.

Sixth: apart from the initial manufacture of acetyl and other plastics, it’s environmentally neutral and, presumably, even recyclable. Picture trading in your set of acetyl pipes and getting a recycling credit toward your next purchase.

To be sure, there are bands that still use blackwood chanters, and more power to them. Whatever works. But they’re certainly not using blackwood out of principle.They’re using blackwood because they prefer the sound and feel. I’m sure they’d just as soon play plastic chanters if they thought they sounded and felt better.

In fact, no one particularly cares what materials are used anymore. Whatever sounds the best will do the best. I don’t know a judge out there who pre-judges because of instrument materials.

If I were a bagpipe maker I would speed along this process with some canny marketing. Sponsor a top-tier solo piper and/or band to compete with synthetic drones. Don’t tell anyone. Just let them win with the instrument, then have a big reveal and watch the orders pour in.

It is completely realistic to expect that it will be commonplace for bands to have matching drones, something that I believe when Dysart & Dundonald’s pipe section played cheap model Kintail drones because the band’s pipe-major had a hand in the Kintail business.

I’m old enough to be familiar with the movie The Graduate. “One word: plastics.”

 

Vintage years

Happy New Year to all. Here’s to a prosperous and healthy 2017.

A two-week holiday break provided time to go through stuff in storage in the basement, closets and cupboards. This always leads to finding nostalgic items that tear at the heart as to whether to keep, donate to charity, recycle or simply chuck out.

I came across a few bottles of wine that somehow never got drunk, and perhaps just as well. Among them were a red and a white that were part of a fundraising project for the now-vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders. They would have been from about 1990. They weren’t good to begin with and, 26 years later, they’re probably paint-remover. I ain’t opening them for fear of the evil spirits that might escape.

It got me thinking about pipe bands and raising money. Despite winning the World Championship a few years before, several popular concerts, albums, and a solid flow of prize-money, that edition of the band was perpetually rag-tag and chronically skint. There was never any monetary sponsorship, and trips to Scotland were generally paid out of your pocket, unless you were skint yourself and an important piece of the puzzle, then you could get some assistance.

Goodness knows how someone like me who was at the time living in a basement apartment, waiting tables or, perhaps by then, making $17,000/year as an assistant editor at a small publishing company was able to afford it, but I never asked for a subsidy.

It’s probably much the same today with most bands, but today it’s possible to sell merchandise and raise money online. Back then bands had to come up with creative ways to make ends meet.

So, 78th Fraser Highlanders “wine” was contrived. I didn’t come up with the concept, but I liked it, since that era of the band was known locally for a piobaireachd-playing faction of the group having little picnics at the Ontario games, eating roasted Cornish hen, aged cheeses and cellared wines. The band wine was a bit of a joke that probably only we got.

As is the case with most fundraisers like this, it’s mostly band members and their families who ever buy the stuff. (That was true, I know, of a later effort to sell – get this – frozen chicken.) I dutifully plunked down money I didn’t have for the plonk that I obviously never drank. Maybe I’ll sell the antique bottles in the Classifieds – with a warning never, ever to ingest, much less dribble over your hands before competing . . . but that’s another story.

A concept that I came up with a little later was “Friends of the Frasers.” The band at the time was loved by many and just as many thought it was a snobby club (see picnics and band-member Iain Symington’s excellent hornpipe “The Piobaireachd Club”), so, for both groups we wanted to try to get them on board, warm things up. Anyone could support and feel part of the band by becoming a Friend of the Frasers for, I think, $20. You’d get a certificate and an enamel pin and the (as far as I know) unfulfilled promise that their name would be listed on a forthcoming album. In essence, a fan club.

We were of course ridiculed by the usual haters, but shortly after I was gratified to see bands around the world starting their own “Friends” program. It’s equivalent today to begging for money on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platform. I remember the pipe-major being not too pleased when a jealous naysayer – who’s unfortunately still around doing his chronic naysaying and bellyaching – made a sarky comment about the Friends program in print.

(Obviously, the 2017 vintage 78th Fraser Highlanders has absolutely nothing to do with all that, and I have nothing to do with them, apart from admiring the current band and looking forward to hearing their music when I have the opportunity. I am sure that their fundraising is far more sophisticated.)

Just like back then, there are scant few pipe bands with decent financial sponsorship. There are many more of the upper-grade bands today that receive discounted or free gear from bagpipe, reed and drum makers in exchange for the endorsement value. In 1990, discounts or rebates were rare, no matter who you were, mainly because the band instrument markets were near-cornered by makers like Sinclair, McAllister and Premier. I believe the 78th Frasers got free drums from the Australian start-up Legato, and that might have been one of the first of its kind. The group got by like most bands: with grit, passion, and the occasional desperate and maybe cockamamie money-maker.

Wine? Frozen chicken? I’d love to hear about other inventive, if not pathetic, fundraising programs and gimmicks your band has deployed to help make ends meet. Every band has them, so feel free to share with the comment system below.

Until then, cheers!

 

News 101

Pipe bands often have a tough time handling sensitive information, such as the dismissal or departure of leaders. These days, moves like these are rarely amicable and smooth, and often sink into a quagmire of he-said-she-said confusion.

As a publication working to report piping and drumming news fairly, when a band issues an “official” statement, then that is generally proof that the news is legit, at least according to them. It’s like a company issuing a news release. It comes from the company, the company endorses it, the facts are stated by the company.

A pipe band is a kind of company There are leaders, there’s often a management team of players and non-players, and the rest of the players make up a team of workers. Yes, a pipe band, with few exceptions, is a musical group of volunteers, but the tenets of a company are almost exactly the same.

Pipe bands and companies create additional problems for themselves when they withhold facts. Obviously, not every sordid detail needs to be divulged, but all of the essential facts should be told, whether or not they are pleasant.

As Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” These are words to live by.

Pipe bands in their canny desire to get in front of the news will often try to put out the story that they hope will be told. They tend to conveniently omit details, crossing their nine useful fingers that the whole story won’t get out.

Newsflash: it always gets out. You can either be up-front and tell it, or you can leave it to others to tell it or, much worse, speculate and jump to negative conclusions.

My profession is public relations and communications. I have handled sensitive communications matters for all types and sizes of companies over my 24-year career. Cardinal rule: do not try to hide or obfuscate the negative or uncomfortable essential aspects of a news story. Tell it, tell it again, tell it another time. Answer all questions.

Why? Because it only gets worse when the untold negative news is eventually told. You appear as if you were trying to hide something, primarily because that’s exactly what you were doing. As difficult as it might be to relay the negative sides of a story, being seen to try to hide it is far, far worse than being up-front, frank and honest.

Hillary Clinton having pneumonia is not nearly as bad as Hillary Clinton being seen to hide for two days the fact that she has pneumonia.

A one-time piece of bad news lasts a day. Damage to your reputation can last forever.

Being on the other side, as a journalist trying to report the news, the PR blunders by bands and associations make me cringe. My instinct is to try to help bands through the crisis, but that would be unethical. In a moment when I couldn’t bear to watch any more of their PR bumbling some years ago, I offered free counsel to the RSPBA to help them turn around their frequently foundering ship and set a better reputational course, but the offer went unanswered. They’re a bit better now, but they continue to make easily avoidable mistakes.

Many pipe bands and a few associations are learning to work with a professional-standard media. Missteps have happened and will continue to happen. The days when pipe bands and associations could sweep negative news under the rug and safely assume no one would bother to look there are well and truly over, yet some bands and associations live in the past.

Here’s some unsolicited advice:

  1. Get out in front of the story.
  2. If your band is at an impasse, for example, with a long-time leader who rejects the decision of relatively new leadership, then say so.
  3. Rather than pretending it’s a done deal and inferring that someone left amicably, clearly state that you are still trying to work through the matter, and hope to resolve any misunderstanding.
  4. If the news is contentious, say so, and explain your side clearly, and perhaps be empathetic to the long-time leader you’re trying to remove.
  5. Say WHY things happened. Explain your reasoning. Not doing that only invites speculation. That is not good for anyone.
  6. People naturally suspect the worst. So, if there was a change due to “musical differences,” or “the two leaders just could not get along,” or “we felt that a change now would help the band in the long-term,” then say it. Rational people understand rational reasons.
  7. Be prepared to answer questions quickly.
  8. Don’t expect the media to report only when it’s convenient for you.
  9. Provided the media is credible and willing to work to report all sides of the story fairly (and not in the back pocket of, say, an association or a business), don’t try to hide, be up-front and work with them.
  10. Keep people apprised of progress and further developments.

PR 101: get in front of the story and, when in doubt, tell the truth.

Hope that helps.

 

 

Games guide

More often than not, Highland games and contests put on by non-piping/drumming groups have little or no idea as to how to run the events to achieve the best experience for competitors. Some contests of course get the oversight of associations.

Those that work with the RSPBA and PPBSO, at least, secure a turnkey solution, in which everything from entries to stewards to judges is run by the association, and standards are adhered to. While variety is sacrificed, there is something to be said for event-to-event continuity.

But around the world, the majority Highland games have the ability to create their own versions of contests, handle entries and hire judges. For them, here’s a well-intentioned checklist from a competitor’s perspective.

Map out space for events, and then extend by another 50%. Our instruments are loud. Competitors need room to hear themselves. Judges need room to hear competitors. Do whatever it takes to ensure that there is as little “bleed” of sound between events as possible. And never have a huge unused and off limits area adjacent to a competing and tuning space where pipers and drummers are bumping into each other. It makes us mad.

Keep out the interlopers. Do your best to keep out stray animals, children and oblivious others by roping off competition areas. Nothing fancy. Just a few stakes and some  rope will remind the punters not to wander into our space. Actual platforms for players are an authentically Scottish touch.

Account for tuning. The best competitions usually have the ample space for tuning. Pipe bands need an hour to prepare before they compete. Every solo competitor needs at least 20 minutes. It’s an assembly line process, and most pipers, drummers and bands know the drill. But they need space far enough removed from events and fellow competitors to get ready by listening to their instruments, not fighting for the lone tree.

Good stewards = efficiency. Competitors love a contest that runs smoothly. They expect an order-of-play that actually runs in order. Stewards can keep things moving while still using common sense. Upper grades pretty much run themselves due to experienced players, but it’s vital that stewards are trained and prepped for their role. Standing there waiting for amateur contestants to magically show up when their turn to play comes is a fantasy.

Shade and shelter. Venues with trees are almost always more popular with players. Shade on sunny days is a precious commodity for pipers and drummers wearing 10 pounds of thick wool, working to keep a fickle instrument in tune. Roasting on a wide open field will reduce the next year’s entry. Rain is tough to work with, but an indoor contingency plan for competitors, who often travel hundreds of miles to attend your event, is ideal. Rather than have them suffer through heaving rain to complete a massed band that no one is watching, bite the bullet and cancel it. And never, ever keep travel money from bands if they miss a massed bands finale because of weather that threatens their safety or health.

Don’t chintz on medals. I understand that purchasing dozens of amateur medals is a hassle, but it doesn’t need to be. Today there are myriad manufacturers that can design and create custom, quality medals at a fraction of what it used to cost. You just need to budget and plan a little more in advance. Putting thought into medals means you’re being thoughtful with pipers and drummers. They will take note.

Shake up the judging. It might be easier for you simply to hire the same judges every year, but competitors dislike this intensely. They want variety in the form of opinions. If at the end of your event a judge gets out his/her datebook and pressures you to hire him/her next year because his/her calendar “fills up fast,” don’t do it. Work to get other judges and the pipers, drummers and bands will appreciate it.

Say thanks. It’s simple, and pipers and drummers should thank you, but you saying thanks to us goes a long way towards returning next year.

In sum, if you please the competitors by addressing the above, you will have more and better competitors who enter, and that will elevate the stature of your event and gain more respect from the piping and drumming community.

More respect, more entries, bigger gate receipts, more success for everyone.

You might have additional recommendations, from a competitor’s perspective for competition organizers, so feel free to share them.

 

Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.

 

Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.

 

Video killed the pipe band star

Making an album with a top-grade pipe band used to be a big deal. The vinyl LPs of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by bands like the Edinburgh City Police, Shotts & Dykehead, Glasgow Police and Dysart & Dundonald were coveted objects around the emerging pipe band world, at least with this kid growing up in America’s heartland.

The cardboard jacket would list the tunes, the composers and, most importantly, the members of the band. There they’d be: the names of the superstars who were actually members of a great pipe band who were actually performing on the music spinning round and round the turntable. The pipers and drummers were stars; the pipe-major and leading-drummer were superstars.

It used to be a dream for many pipers and drummers to get into a Grade 1 band and cut an album, in a studio, to see your very own name on glorious cardboard.

But, then, a bunch of things happened.

In 1987 the 78th Fraser Highlanders made Live In Ireland. It’s still the greatest pipe band album of all time, according to the majority, and it was the first major commercial live pipe band recording. It captured energy and excitement from the band and audience, happily trading those massively positive intangibles for the occasional playing blooter or tuning blemish.

So, fairly quickly the pipe band world realized that, rather than anguish for days in an expensive recording studio trying to make a clinically perfect recording with a “pipe band” that might in reality be whittled down to five or six of the best pipers and a handful of drummers, a band can put on a concert and capture it all in one take – get that energy and be forgiven because it’s live.

And digital emerged at about the same. Vinyl gave way to CDs. Recording technology became far less expensive and a cottage industry of CD makers enabled just about any pipe band to make a CD. The “album” itself became a bit commonplace.

And now the pipe band album – live or studio – is on the brink of extinction. Every other pipe band enthusiast with a phone is posting video of every band at every competition on every video platform. There’s still a strong desire for high-quality audio/video, but the exclusivity of being on a commercial recording is lost in the throng of questionable “content” out there.

I suppose being on the World’s BBC streaming broadcast is as close as we come these days to recording stardom. Definitely hitting more people in more places with more pipe band music than ever, but it’s all so anonymous. With video reproductions, apart from the P-M and L-D, the individual band members are never highlighted.

They’re just nameless there in the circle huffing away. There’s hardly a kid in America’s heartland or anywhere else who knows or cares who these accomplished pipers and drummers are. In online video there are no names of musicians, no stories to read on the album cover, no details about the tunes and arrangements – no real glamour.

It’s more inclusive to have all that sketchy video (and even poorer quality audio) content out there for every band and every competition on earth, but it results in a lot of “So what?”

We have more, more, more, but we’ve also lost achievement that used to be exclusive and inspirational.

Post-World’s-Week

World2014_Saturday_ (182)_smallA week has already gone by since Piping Live! and the World’s wrapped. It was another terrific week of piping, drumming and musical (and other) excess. The planning involved to put on the Festival and the World’s never cease to astound, and every year each event seems to improve.

A few impressions of the week:

Timing: it’s everything, and the RSPBA is the Rolex watch of associations. Even with, um, challenging weather, events run like clockwork, down to the second. If you consider that a single grade at the World’s is usually bigger than the entire number of bands at a Highland games in other parts of the world, and the RSPBA flawlessly executes eight of those events (plus finals) on the day, I, for one, am left awestruck.

Timing: the Friday experiment was worth trying, but the day was flat and many people were failing to see the need for holding a Grade 1-only day to see which bands would qualify. Many said that it seemed feasible simply to have all bands compete in MSR and Medley events on Saturday, and then decide the prizes from that. No more qualifier. One and done. Get on with it.

Calum Ian Brown: this 14-year-old won Pipe Idol with sets of tunes played effortlessly, on a sweet instrument, and, most importantly, beautifully and faithfully on the beat. The last skill is elusive to even some of our best pipers. This kid has it.

Shotts: won the drumming. Finished fifth overall. Could have been as high as third. 2014 marked a remarkable and welcomed comeback for this historic band. Here’s wagering that Shotts will pick off a major in 2015, and the World’s within three.

Family judging family: again there were several examples of judges adjudicating bands with their direct family within the ranks. This is not to say that these judges were not fair, only that it looks terrible, and people talk about the optics. Just about every judged thing there is has rules preventing family judging family. It’s time that all associations around the world did the same.

Stuart Highlanders: Solid Grade 1. Nuff said.

GGPSPB: credit to Pipe-Major Duncan Nicholson and Leading-Drummer Eric Ward and the whole Greater Glasgow Police Scotland Pipe Band for delivering almost three hours of complicated Ceolry content, and then two/three days later finishing just behind SFU at the World’s.

The crowd: the main arena was a bit awkward on Saturday. The stands were not full or even close to it for much of the day, and all but deserted during the (kudos there, too) Grade 2 Final. Yet, the gallery to the side was mobbed, 30-40 deep. Why not just relax a bit, let them in, fill the seats, and create some atmosphere for the bands and the cameras? After all, these are hard-core pipe band fanatics.

Grudgy judges: those who seem to allow some ancient slight to cloud their objectivity are out there with a clipboard at the biggest event of the year. Everyone knows who they are. Their eyebrow-raising results are as predictable as a crowded beertent. They think they’re slick. They are not. Time to monitor these people and remove them from panels if their results continue to be out-of-kilter.

Last major: making the World’s the final RSPBA major championship of the season is a good move. Finish at the pinnacle. No more restarting the motor to drag to another championship. Like this.

Ian Embelton: people should remember that it has been under his watch that the World’s and the RSPBA in general have made huge strides forward. Sure, they can do more (see above), and not everyone will ever be happy all the time, but Embelton has overseen everything. He has a board of directors to answer to, of course, and they should take due credit, too, but Embelton deserves acknowledgement for often exceeding expectations in a job that is generally thankless.

Just a few thoughts from the week past. There are plenty of others not mentioned — live stream, excellent beertent, FMM, IDPB, ScottishPower . . .

What are some of your pros and cons?

Look at me!

Self-promotion is a touchy thing in piping and drumming. Tradition tells us that we accept our success and failure in equal measure. Apart from handshakes, fist-pumps and back-slaps at the prize announcement, publicly celebrating a victory has always been frowned upon, just as much as outwardly harping about a result to anyone but band-mates and trusted friends.

Thanks to social media, all that seems to be changing. Open up Facebook and you’re likely to see pipers and drummers flaunting and vaunting their wins, usually in a tacky and clunky way:

  • “Really pleased with my first in the March and 2nd in the Piob today! Congrats to all other prize-winners!”
  • “A great day and really humbled to finish ahead of gold medallist ____. Great competition!”
  • “Piper of the Day! Well done to all!”
  • “Thoroughly enjoyed judging today with [much more famous and accomplished person].”

Selfies of people wearing their own medals or in front of their trophies right after the contest even five years ago would have been unheard of. It’s pretty common now, as the “Look at me!” nature of social media has eroded piping and drumming’s tradition of letting only others and your playing itself do the promoting.

The generation of pipers and drummers that has grown up with social media, the unseemly notion of being famous simply for being famous, and “success” often determined by self-promotion is now coming into prominence as top-level prize-winners. Our tradition of magnanimous tact – quietly accepting success and failure – is being chucked out the window. Discreetly enabling and encouraging others to do your publicity is quickly becoming a bygone art.

The Look at me! culture of social media is changing the customary self-effacing nature that pipers and drummers have learned for centuries.

Magnanimous in defeat; gracious in victory: a piping and drumming tradition that we should keep.

Seven realizations in 2013

2013 was one of my more memorable years in piping, mainly because I was seeing things from a different but familiar perspective. Following a few springtime commitments, I took a break from judging, and, after eight years away, competed as a solo piper.

For the first time I didn’t have the self-inflicted burden of set tunes to crank through. It was true before, but, also for the first time, I practiced and competed with whatever I wanted to play. I was also free after competing in the morning to do whatever: go home, or stay around to listen to the bands.

Not soaking up an entire day judging 50 solo pipers and then 35-odd pipe bands was a nice change. Judging in Ontario is lonely and exhausting work; an assembly-line of competitors, each deserving close attention and specific and constructive feedback. Paradoxically, you’re thinking so much that there’s no time to think. So, this year I felt liberated from another self-induced burden, rewarding as it might be to try to give back to the community.

Looking back, there were several things I realized:

1. Tuned and steady are almost everything. If your pipe falls away even slightly, with all but the most courageous judges, you might as well forget it. Professional solo pipers who are in the prizes have impeccable, steady instruments. Wonderful music and technique more rarely than ever trump an untuned instrument.

2. Piping and drumming manufacturers have finally figured out marketing. Pipers and drummers will do anything to achieve the previous point, and makers of things know it. There is no end to what pipers will pay to gain a microscopic competitive edge. You make it; they’ll try it. The last decade has produced a dizzying array of products, each promising to deliver what you need. (Money-back-guarantees don’t appear yet to be widespread, though.)

3. Be ready to spend if you’re going to be a competing solo piper. (See points 1 and 2.) I compare solo piping to two other hobbies: golf and skiing. Each is expensive to maintain. Every year brings new equipment that promises to lower your score, allow you to turn more sharply, or steady your instrument. And, as with golf clubs and ski resorts, the price of participation in competitive piping is high. I handed over almost $500 this year to the PPBSO for the right to compete in five competitions. Low-income pipers and drummers are gradually being pushed out of the art.

4. One percent of the pipe bands control 100 percent of the pipe band scene. The world’s top pipe bands have more political and musical power than ever. As it goes with them, so it goes with the rest of the pipe band world. To some extent, this has always been so, but it seems today more pronounced than ever. Changes that should be made in the pipe band world, won’t be made unless a handful of pipe bands approve.

5. Tenor drumming jumped the shark. I’m not sure if it was a single episode akin to Fonzie jumping over man-eating sharks on water-skis, but it’s clear that pipe band tenor drumming at some point went just a bit too far, and there’s an overall retrenchment in the histrionics and pirouettes we’ve witnessed. Unlike Happy Days, the Tenor Drumming series won’t be cancelled, but it will continue in a more music-first manner.

6. The piping and drumming world is friendlier than ever. Particularly in the solo piping scene, pipers respect and support their fellow pipers, and there’s a spirit throughout of camaraderie. As I’ve said, we might thank social media for that, but I doubt there’s a more pleasant atmosphere at the games than among the Professional solo pipers, filling the time awaiting their turn to play with friendly and enlightening conversation.

7. Snide loses. The demise of hate-filled anonymous piping and drumming Internet forums is testament to point 6. Haters will hate, as they say, but we know who they are, and they will continue to be outed and ostracized from the community. Those who make personal attacks will quicker than ever find themselves without a band, out of solo circles, or, in the case of one well known attack, off of judging panels.

Those are a few of the things that I realized in 2013. I hope your year was full of realizations, and all the best to you and yours for a happy and prosperous 2014.

Nine p|d policies

Here are nine pipes|drums policies that you might not know about. We’d say they’re unwritten rules, but, since they’re written here, they’re not.

1. We don’t do competition critiques. pipes|drums has always been the first source for reports on competition results, but you will never find those wretched, self-indulgent, player-by-player, band-by-band critical rundowns that started with Seumas MacNeill’s 1940s Piping Times. They call them contest rundowns for a reason: they tend to run down everyone except the winner. It’s a tabloid technique: bash the best for being better than the writer. It’s sham schadenfruede. The result is the result. What we or anyone else personally thought of individual performances does not matter.

2. Advertisers don’t get preferential treatment. Businesses advertise with pipes|drums because it’s excellent marketing value. We reach more readers in a day than most magazines reach in a month and at a fraction of the cost for savvy marketers. If an organization receives editorial attention it’s because they are canny communicators doing interesting things.

3. Reviewers are unbiased experts. All product or event reviews are done by those who are as expert and unconnected as we can find. Those with a business interest in the product are not eligible, and we look for respected and current pipers or drummers who have no competitive connection.

4. We recruit the reviewers. pipes|drums always asks the experts, and any business who volunteers someone to do a critique of a concert or a product is gently told that it doesn’t work that way. Readers trust pipes|drums to tell it like it is with honesty and integrity.

5. We’re not selling anything besides editorial value. We’re not connected with a shop, or a school, or an association. We strive for professionalism, but pipes|drums is not our job. We don’t pocket any money from advertising and subscriptions. We plow back all of it into the publication and we give the rest to worthwhile, nonprofit piping and drumming initiatives. If the content is good, then the readers will read it. If the readers consider it valuable, a good number of them will subscribe. If the readership numbers continue to grow, organizations will advertise. It’s a simple and effective formula that works well.

6. Interviewees have the final edit. For every one of the more than 80 lengthy pipes|drums Interviews, the subject has been allowed to make final amendments before publication. We have always approached interviews as the story that the interviewee wants to tell. Amazingly, only a handful of times has an interview been changed substantially. Donald Shaw-Ramsay and John Kerr were the most severe, to the point where we suspected some sort of cognitive problem might have entered into the edits. The rest make very minor edits.

7. We rarely delete or edit comments. The times each year when we can’t accept a comment from a reader can be counted on one hand. We rarely have to edit them for being unfair. Our readers make intelligent comments, and monitoring them is very easy.

8. We compensate contributors. When an expert takes time to write for pipes|drums when we ask them to, we pay for their service. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s also not small – more than a judge would typically be paid for a full day. Many don’t accept it, and we’re happy either way.

9. We do it because you seem to enjoy it. We’ve been publishing pipes|drums for more than 25 years only because it’s fun to create something that many people like. Every week we receive thanks from strangers who are friends by way of association to the magazine. Those who don’t like it tend to be those who are paranoid we’re out to get them. We’re not; they are. Their loss. We hope they come around and decide to contribute just a little to piping and drumming instead of purely taking.

We’ve been at this longer than anyone else around today, and – at more than 5,000 all told – we’re pretty sure we’ve published more print and online magazine articles than any publication in piping and drumming history.

By sticking to the policies above we’ve been able to stay consistent and true to our readers. We hope that you continue to subscribe to and enjoy pipes|drums.

The market dictates

The TyFry company’s introduction of new tenor mallets claiming to be patently aerodynamic, balanced and a “new dawn” for the instrument – and available in a spectrum of bright colours – sparked lively dialog, debate and not a little consternation.

Piping and drumming still struggles with marketing and product development. We are borne of custom and tradition, and not a little Scottish austerity when it comes to drawing attention to one’s self, or outwardly selling hard. Even before new-world-style assertive marketing and promotion entered the fray, pipers and drummers lived a life of irony: one shan’t be seen to be showing off, but one must wear an ostentatiously colourful Victorian Highland get-up while (not) doing it.

Self-promotion is still a fine line to walk as a competing piper, drummer or pipe band. Pipers seen to be lobbying their ability are still tacitly knocked down a notch or two in the estimation of their peers. The tradition is to let playing ability do the talking. If the product is good, the tradition goes, then the judges will buy it.

We struggle with our own globalization. Makers of piping and drumming products compete in an ever-more-crowded market. “Innovation” when it comes to our instruments, music and apparel comes in microscopic steps. Foist too much change too quickly on too many and many will take the knee-jerk traditional reaction and reject it, cutting it down a peg or four.

Piping and drumming is used to dictating the market. This is what you will buy. This is all that is available. This is the way we do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it like we always do it.

But the market now dictates piping and drumming. Makers of instruments, garb and tunes now take risks. They push things. They need to rise above the crowd, whether with bright colours or wind-tunnel-tested efficiency or tiny little Allen keys to adjust a carbon-fibre bridle. Changes that were once glacial, now happen in a single season. We are warming to globalization.

Day-Glo pink tenor mallets? Great! Aqua snare sticks? Wonderful! Red ghillie brogue laces, powder horns and a rack of medals on the chest? Good enough for John MacColl and John D. Burgess; good enough for me.

I would think that chanters can be made in a plastic of any colour, and that kids might be more prone to practice with a bright blue chanter than that black thing that everyone else has. I love the look that Boghall & Bathgate created with their orange drums and tenor mallets. I would have no trouble with a band playing chanters of any colour, or even a rainbow array. Bring it on. If the market likes them, they will sell. Things that were once simply not available, even unimaginable, are now marketed. We have choices.

No auld baldy bastard dictates to us.

The tradition that is perhaps hardest to break in piping and drumming is the one that says we must do things in a certain way. The customary notion that a very, very few dictate the music, the look and the instruments is increasingly a thing of the past.

The market is us, and we will tell it what to do.

As ithers see us

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

“To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church” is one of my favourite Robert Burns poems. The lines above, “translated” from the Scots to common English, are roughly, “Wouldn’t it be great if some divine power could give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us?”

There was a recent cartoon in The New Yorker magazine that to put the Highland pipes on the same level of abuse as the American banjo. We all know that the pipes are much maligned (mainly by those who only know them by the ear-wrecking sound of rank novices who refuse lessons, with no interest in improving, who insist on publicly displaying their inabilities – our own worst enemies), but the banjo? I always thought it added instant happiness to all genres of music, including its native bluegrass. Who doesn’t like the banjo?

The Internet and social media have made researching just about anything easy. Pick a topic and you can get a snapshot of what people think in a few keystrokes. In a sense, it gives us the power to see ourselves as others see us.

I have many continual searches set up for all kinds of things for work and piping and other hobbies, and use Tweetdeck to take a read of Twitter activity. Of course, I have a column for “bagpipe.” What’s found is generally a depressing series of jokes and abuse, often involving shoving drones up various orifices and well-worn jokes and myths about the instrument. (The one about a bagpipe originally being made from a sheep’s liver; the difference between chopping up an onion and a bagpipe – no one cries when it’s a bagpipe, and so forth).

But what about a banjo? How does the tweeting public view that instrument? Is there, as the cartoon suggests, the same level of abuse against it that we see hurled at our treasured bagpipe? Hardly. With few exceptions, and after weeding out references to Ashley Banjo, the vast majority of mentions are respectful and loving references. There are the odd mentions of hitting a cow’s backside with a banjo, but these aren’t against the banjo itself.

The accordion also seems to be mocked as an instrument. But a search of mentions on Twitter brings up pretty much nice stuff about France and bread shops and joyful ensembles. Like the banjo, there is the odd person who thinks it’s dorky but, unlike the Highland pipes, there is nowhere near the level of ignorant hatred that we endure.

I kind of hoped that a social media search of “banjo” and “accordion” would bring some degree of comfort that, yes, the pipes have common ground with a few other instruments in terms of public misperception. But, no, we might never change the thinking of the unwashed masses, and perhaps “to see oursels as ithers see us” isn’t quite so useful after all.

Tomorrow never knows

Will Highland pipes ever have a Ravi Shankar? The great Indian sitarist died last week at the age of 92 and the entire world seemed to take notice, paying tribute to his life.

But would we have ever known about him, or even the sitar itself, had it not been for the Beatles in 1960s going all guru-India, George Harrison learning to play a bit and then incorporating sitar into a few songs? Probably not.

To take nothing away from Shankar’s obvious skills as a virtuoso sitar player, but I would bet that back then and ever since there were a dozen or more sitar players just as good. Harrison more than likely heard the sitar while tripping on acid and asked the maharishi, “Hey, Sexy Sadie, who’s the best sitar player in India?”

A few paisley-clad photo ops later with Ravi imparting his wisdom to the mystical Beatle, and George Martin had no choice but to allow the sound into “Norwegian Wood,” “Love You To,” and “Within You Without You.”

As a relatively ghetto-ized ethnic instrument, the sitar is perhaps not unlike the Highland pipe. In the 1960s and ’70s the sitar might have been heard on obscure folk LPs, but it was not part of the mainstream until the Beatles attracted millions of people to embrace it.

Maybe the pipes are waiting for a similar big break. What if the biggest pop act of today decided to make a serious pitch towards the pipes? What if Coldplay or U2 or the “Gangnam Style” dude sought out the greatest piper and hung out with him in the Highlands, surrounded by media, dressed in tartan, committed to making several songs that featured the GHB?

Imagine Stuart Liddell or Roddy MacLeod or Willie McCallum tripping with the Edge or Chris Martin or PSY beside the MacCrimmon Cairn as they diligently worked together on the scale and G-gracenotes, and then produced several massive hits that brought the pipes into worldwide acceptance as a “serious” instrument.

The pipes have been used in pop music, in one-off ways. But the pipes haven’t been an ongoing part of really big pop music, not in a Beatles/Harrison manner, with a champion for the sound, becoming synonymous with the instrument, played seriously and respectfully.

Sometimes an instrument just needs a big break.

Bully for you

When will we stop bullying each other? When will we stand up to bullies? Or, at least, when will we treat each other with basic courtesy? The publication of the third Scots Guards Collection is just another example of our tradition of skirting not only the law, but common decency, when it comes to the rights of composers.

We keep falling back on the “there’s no money in it” excuse, as if to say that it’s not worth the bother to respect one another unless there’s serious poundage involved. That the British Army and a well-established music publishing company puts out the biggest single collection of light music since, well, since Scots Guards II, and doesn’t even ask many rights-holding composers for permission to reprint their works, is inexcusable.

It’s another example of bullying that the piping and drumming world has endured and practiced itself since the beginning. The attitude and MO has been, Don’t bother with legalities, formalities and common decency – they can’t and won’t do anything about it, anyway, so let’s just keep the poor composers and performers down.

Whether it’s a major broadcaster, a publishing company, or our very own associations, they know that they won’t be challenged. Not only is there too much political risk in terms of competition repercussions, but, if you actually complain, you will simply be left out of the CD, the DVD, the TV show, the book, the streaming – all the places in which they know we crave and cherish inclusion.

It’s an insidious practice, and, by accepting it, we teach every new generation of pipers and drummers that it’s acceptable behavior. Young players just grow up thinking, Well, that’s just how it’s done. Don’t ask questions. Don’t stand up to the bully; it will just make things worse. Live in fear and maybe the bully will lose interest.

And then there’s the reasoning that we should be grateful for people actually reproducing our performances and copyright works. Don’t complain, or else they might not do it, as if they’re all nonprofits.

Again, the truth is that they produce these products because they make money. They claim that they are making no money from these illegal works, and they won’t open their books, so we have to take their claims at face value. Scots Guards III is priced at about $75 retail – great value because of its great content. Dealers would purchase it from the publisher for about $40, probably less. The publisher has a deal with the British Army, probably about $20 of each sale to retailers going to the military.

In addition to my professional life, I can use my own publishing experiences as a guide. I published a collection of music some years back, and within a month I had broken even. Everything after that was profit, which I plowed into other nonprofit piping projects. Similarly, without making a strong-sell on advertising and subscriptions, pipes|drums operates in the black. How? We develop the content that we think people are willing to pay for, which builds an audience that advertisers want to reach.

If it were not for the quality content, the product does not work. As a nonprofit, it allows us to cover costs and donate and sponsor other worthwhile and nonprofit things. And part of our costs is paying for quality content. Every solicited writer is offered compensation for their work. The content has value, and those who produce the content should be remunerated for it.

If it were a cash drain, pipes|drums would not happen. It simply would not exist because it would not make any sense. And this is true of CDs, DVDs, broadcasts, books and other products. If you have the content quality, then you have the quality product. And those who provide the content must agree to the terms of the deal, whether cash or licensing or simply a, “Sure, the exposure is enough of a return for me.”

Schoolyard bullying is in the news a lot these days. Kids are being coached on it. Parents are wising up to it. Isn’t it time that pipers and drummers stopped bullying each other, and started facing up to and exposing those who bully us?

Bling on the sound

Bulls-eye.Are pipes with more expensive ornamentation better instruments? It’s an age-old question. Bagpipe makers invariably insist that there’s no difference in craftsmanship between entry-level drones and those fully mounted in chased sterling silver, but only they know the truth.

My own feeling is that you get what you pay for and it only stands to reason that, the more a customer invests in the instrument, the more care is taken with its creation. It’s pretty much true of every industry: the luxury model generally lasts longer with fewer problems and better customer satisfaction. A manufacturer wouldn’t be around for very long if the higher-margin product – which is almost always the more expensive one – didn’t foster customer satisfaction and loyalty to the brand.

It’s probably why you just don’t see any Gold Medallists competing with a set of circa 1976 orangey-plastic-mounted Grainger & Campbell drones.

I remember one year in the 1970s when my dad – a child of the Great Depression who saved everything, collected things and always seemed to think he was one bad decision away from the soup line – took me to shop for a new car. In his lifetime, he purchased maybe three automobiles, so this was a big occasion. The model he was interested in came with a radio as standard equipment, but my father thought it was an unnecessary expense that he had no interest in buying, since he never listened to the radio, anyway.

He would only buy the car, he insisted at first, if they removed the radio. It was only when they finally got through to him that it would actually cost him more to have it taken out, since it was factory-installed. So he begrudgingly left it, in all its AM-only glory, but his stance was that all cars were the same, so buy the cheapest thing possible. He’d then spend a lot of time going back and forth to the mechanic to have problems fixed.

His compulsive frugality probably had much to do with my opposite attitude about purchases: buy the very best product that you can realistically afford, even if it means waiting until you have the money. And, until you can afford the best, make do without.

Bagpipe makers will maintain the premise that all of their instruments are created equal in terms of bores and wood quality and workmanship. It’s something of a tradition, and I wonder if it’s the right thing for them to do. The mounts on Highland pipes serve a functional purpose: ferules and caps protect and bind the wood that might otherwise crack and chip; projecting mounts are like bumpers – again protecting the precious wood. Lucky for pipe-makers, it’s a great opportunity to use different materials that vary in their blinginess.

If I were a marketing strategist for a bagpipe maker, my plan would be to include even more superior craftsmanship with the more adorned instrument. In fact, I would position the expense being for, first, the better musical instrument, and then many of the bells and whistles would be factory-installed, but a few extra “packages” could be bought. Take a page from the auto industry.

That’s not to say that my entry-level instruments would be poorly made – on the contrary. I would simply emphasize the fact that those who purchase the all-chased-silver model would also get the very best, darkest, most seasoned blackwood, made by hand by the most experienced turner or, if it’s a CNC machine spinning it out, finished with the discerning eye and talent of a recognized expert human being. A “premium” instrument is more about premium sound and performance as it is about decoration. People will ooh and ah over your 7-Series BMW, but the thing also performs like a rocket. No contest.

I’m not a bagpipe maker, and they know their target markets best. But I am a marketer, and something tells me that the traditional approach to pipe-making, in which all instruments are said to perform equally well, and pricing is only determined by decoration, might well be the wrong way about the whole business.

 

 

Pass the pipe

Breeding ground.There was a time when passing around a bagpipe to let anyone who could play and who wanted to “have a tune” was commonplace. It seemed like at any informal gathering of pipers there would be a bagpipe that was going well, and no one had any reservations about having a go.

It seems like that tradition has all but died away in this era of germaphobia. Passing the pipe has fallen victim to marketing’s discovery that creating a fear of unknown and unseen bacteria, and subsequently selling all manner of “germ-killing” products from hand sanitizer to dish soap to toothpaste, has worked to kill off our willingness to share a germ-infested blowpipe and pipe bag.

I’m not sure if passing around a single instrument at a party of harmonica players or clarinetists or Jew’s harpers has ever been a thing, but I do know that it was because of the pass-the-pipe tradition that I first had the opportunity to play a really good instrument. It was probably about 1978, and the bagpipe was Gordon Speirs’ MacDougall drones and Sinclair chanter. I had been used to playing a basic set of Hardies and some sort of newfangled plastic band chanter. To be sure, the tenors were tuning about a quarter-inch from the projecting mounts, if they were tuned at all.

Suddenly, when Gordon’s MacDougalls were passed to me I had under my arm a wondrous sound alive with resonance. Relative to my hurricane-like instrument, his pipe took almost no effort to blow. It stayed in tune. I could feel each note of the chanter on my fingers. I could have played all day on that instrument, and wanted it back as soon as I passed it to the next person. I had experienced a sound that I knew I wanted to achieve.

And, as far as I can remember, I didn’t get sick from any saliva-borne disease. Because of society’s fear of germs, I wonder how many kids today miss opportunities to play great instruments.

I was recently at a party where a good-going pipe was passed around. There were several excellent players there, but there were also a few lower-grade amateurs, and I noticed one kid in particular whose eyes seemed to light up, not with fear of catching a horrible canker sore, but with the feel and sound of a well set-up bagpipe.

I’d think that in this age when synthetic bags and reeds are more common than the virtual Petri dish that is sheepskin and cane, passing the pipe would be safer than ever. I do know that, back in 1978, the only thing I caught was a lifelong addiction to achieving good sound.

True-love giving

“Twelve drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping” . . . these are maybe the greatest connections to piping and drumming we have when it comes to bridging to the non-playing public. Everyone loves “The 12 Days of Christmas.” It’s the “Scotland the Brave” of Christmas Carols.

I’m not sure about your part of the world, but it seems that Christmas windows at big department stores have made a comeback in Toronto. That’s nice. I’d hate to think that kids never get the chance to gaze dreamily at the mechanized glittering windows before they become completely inured to consumerism. It used to be that department store Christmas windows were a marvel of technology; now, they’re a quaint throwback to the days of Hornby trainsets and Meccano.

The fancy Holt-Renfrew store on Bloor Street this year has a really clever series of windows that have a fashionista take on “The 12 Days.” Their interpretation of 11 Pipers Piping is quite brilliant: 10 female mannequins in plaid/tartan with “drones” sticking out of their designer handbags. Get it? Bag-pipes. (The eleventh mannequin appears to be a man smoking a pipe, to keep everyone honest, since I’d imagine about one out of every eleven Holts customers is male.)

Sadly, the 12 Drummers window is made up of mannequins in a tin soldier motif. Drummers can be many things, while pipers to most punters, at least in the western world, are Highland bagpipers. Ed Neigh said many years ago that pipe bands must be eternally grateful to drummers, who have so many other musical options, but instead chose to play in, of all things, a pipe band.

Every year you see financial calculations of how much it would cost to buy or rent the entire 12 Days. For the 12 drummers, they always seem to go with a marching band of some kind, while the cost of 11 pipers is mainly that which the local pipe band would charge for what today would often mean about half of its pipe section. I’d imagine that hiring 11 of SFU or Field Marshal Montgomery’s pipe section would set you back at least a thousand dollars, or about the price of five decent gold rings — six if you throw in both Lees and a Parkes.

Swans, a partridge in a pear tree, geese a laying – all very doable, and I’d bet you could wait around Westminster to get 10 Lords to leap on their tea break. I’m not sure what eight farm-girls go for what with the cost of their dairy cows, or if eight wet-nurses are even possible in this age and day.

“Eleven pipers piping”: a true gift to our art.

Put a golf tee in it

Just shut it.pipes|drums is all about creating constructive conversation and dialog, and I like to think that over the years many sensitive topics have seen sunlight after having been swept under the rug for ages. We’re getting there.

Reviews are always done by those who have the right combination of objectivity, detachment, respect and expertise to make their words count. People who sell the product or compete with the item or have some other vested interest – real or perceived – are avoided. It’s often difficult to find the right match, and sometimes the best potential reviewers have to decline because they’re too busy or just feel uncomfortable about the task. I like it when they say no, rather than deliver something that disappoints or is well past the product’s sell-by-date.

Increasingly, RSPBA judges are declining the invitation to review products or events. It’s not because they feel they’re biased, it’s because the association allegedly requires  that they get permission in advance to write or speak about anything to do with piping or drumming. So, some of our best and brightest apparently are afraid to share their insights with the piping and drumming world, and don’t want the hassle of requesting advance consent from the association.

What a shame.

In 2007 I wrote about pipe bands veering towards that wrong-headed tack. Fortunately most of them have lightened up a great deal since then, as they’ve realized the communications potential of  Facebook and Twitter and other means to share insights. When an organization disallows members from speaking about their passion, and using their common sense when doing so, they undermine trust. The band or association views it from a strictly negative perspective, cynically thinking that their member will somehow embarrass the group, rather than indirectly vaunting it with their intelligence.

Granted, no organization should have members go out and speak for the organization, but, when it comes to a musical art, all they have to do is tell them to stick strictly to talking about music. Then trust them to do so.

As I understand it from RSPBA judges, they might not be allowed to post anything related to piping or drumming on Facebook, on which most of them have an account. They allegedly shouldn’t post any videos or anecdotes or comment about any band performance anywhere without prior consent, or do any interviews without prior approval. Should they just keep their mouths shut and their fingers off their keyboard? If they play a recital they shouldn’t speak to the audience without clearing things first with 45 Washington Street? Put tape right across your entire hole?

Are their only unapproved comments those that they put down on score sheets?

It’s a case study in how to get the least from your best.

Arresting change

Yesterday's news.A change is as good as a rest, and we all like a good rest, but for the rest of us a change makes all the difference. On that note, welcome to the latest rendition of Blogpipe!

You’ll find all of the content and comments that were with the previous iteration, but we’ve streamlined the look and usability, removed some clutter and improved a few important functions like search and usability on mobile devices.

With your iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and iPad, you can visit Blogpipe using the main URLhttp://blogpipe.wpengine.com/  and up will pop a clean and efficient rendition optimized for your device. And with nearly 500 posts dating back to March 2005, searching for things is that much easier.

Because there are so many daily visitors to the blog, many organizations have inquired about advertising. So, we’ve added a place for ads for a nominal charge to those who want to tap the marketing benefits. As ever, advertising has nothing, zippo, nada, zilch to do with posts or comments.

As for the approach, well, it will be the same sort of babble on a variety of topics, some barely even relating to piping and drumming. It’s all about conversation and constructive dialog.

I hope that you enjoy it!

– Andrew

Sign language

U-turn.Here’s a piece of simple advice that I hope will help your next event: Invest in decent signage.

You can have the best piping/drumming competition, your Highland games might be a wonderful little gem, your gala evening might ultimately be great fun, but your first chance to impress is with a well-made sign.

I cringe every time I see hand-written directional signs on flimsy pieces of paper at otherwise high-profile piping competitions. Or, how many times have you driven to a Highland games and barely detected a wobbly board with spray-painted lettering and maybe an arrow for where to turn? Or, worse, tried to find an event that completely forgot to make signage?

It’s unprofessional and immediately implies that the organizers forgot to sweat the details. It makes me want to go home, and, I would bet, not a few people opt to do something else instead of take their chance on this apparently amateur event.

And, while it’s pretty easy to do-it-yourself, it’s an even better choice to set aside a few dollars and some time to invest in signage designed and made by a professional company. By making them reusable, your small investment will be a one-time effort with long-term results.

Signs. Good signs. Simple. Effective. Inexpensive. Professional. A lasting first-impression.

Say what?

The good folks with Hear Toronto at the Toronto Indoor.At Highland games, bouncy castles, Scottish sweets-stands and greasy pies are pretty much the norm. You get the odd Ham-a-lot or Montreal smoked meat, and of course the essential beer-tent. Naturally, there are the vendors of Highland gear and pipes and drums. All of this is pretty familiar and predictable stuff.

I’m a big fan of marketing ideas that resonate so immediately that you can’t believe that they took so long to appear. Sometimes, the most obvious stuff is the smartest.

At the recent Toronto Indoor Games I had a eureka marketing moment when I did a double-take after almost walking by a little booth with folks who were selling hearing protection devices. I’m so used to the same-old-stalls that it’s easy to bypass something like this.

But it made perfect sense. Here’s an indoor piping, drumming and pipe banding event held in a cavernous hall. Pipers and pipe band drummers play loud instruments, and hearing loss is a serious concern with players over time. Of course! The audiologists from Hear Toronto set up shop and were selling serious protection devices by Etymotic Research, including custom-fitted models. They were even taking silicon impressions on-the-spot for anyone who wanted to pay $200 to protect their hearing while providing “uniform 15 dB sound reduction across frequencies,” i.e., quieting, not degrading, the sound quality of the pipes, drum, pipe band or nagging spouse.

I was talking – or, rather, shouting over the piping/drumming din – with the venerable Brian Pollock, a veteran of nearly five decades of top-level piping, hundreds of competitions and, I’d guess, more than 10,000 practice sessions. Brian seems to have all his faculties still, including hearing, and he’s also got serious business acumen. I mentioned that it was impressively smart for Hear Toronto to do some marketing and selling at the Indoor. Bagpipes, drums, pipe bands = hearing loss.

We both wondered why it had to stop there. Why not look at other afflictions that we pipers and drummers face? Can’t they, too, come on out to our events? We started to brainstorm.

  • Massage therapists – anxious competitors could take a load off and get a good rub-down before their event.
  • Psychiatrists – just set up a little screened-off booth for discreet visits and I bet this would be booked solid by neurotic competitors.
  • Loan accountants – is there a piper or drummer who doesn’t need more money to support his/her affliction? Cha-ching!
  • Hypnosis therapists – who doesn’t know a piper or drummer who couldn’t use a little of this? “look into my eyes. . . . you are getting sleepy . . . sleepy . . . when you hear the words ‘quick march’ you shall play perfectly until you must stop . . .”
  • Marriage counselors – maybe this little booth wouldn’t get much action, since, as I’ve only witnessed on TV (honest!), marriage counselors need both parties to attend the counseling. The many who need it of course wouldn’t be at the contest with their spouse . . .

So, forget the big lemonade stand and the taffy booths. The real marketing and selling opportunities at the games are with stuff we really need. I’m sure you have your own ideas about what would sell.

Creative break

Massive challenges ahead.North American pipe band associations have to change. For the last 60 years they have coordinated familiar solo and band competitions that are modeled after Scotland’s traditional Highland games. These events resonate mostly with first-generation post-war immigrant Scots. But in 2011, many North American Highland games – at least as we know them – are on the wane as they struggle to compete for attention from a less-Scottish and more demanding public.

Associations are going to have to reinvent themselves – and quick.

There always will be opportunity to supply the usual turnkey piping and drumming events. Reactively sanctioning competitions under association rules at the request of Highland games put on by other organizations won’t be abandoned, but they are abandoning us. Consequently, associations increasingly will need to proactively create their own platforms for their members to perform. Waiting around for the phone to ring with a Highland games on the line, ready to contract the piping and drumming won’t cut it any longer.

More creativity and more entrepreneurialism are needed if associations are to continue to serve their membership. Risks will have to be taken, and some mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. But the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward can be.

North American associations have faced a quandary for a long time: how to push the boundaries of the art while maintaining the competition desires of members and still respect the ethnic musical “idiom” of the Highland pipe. The fallback has almost always been a cookie-cutter approach to events, with conventional competition formats and requirements. The unchanging competitions are very often almost completely ignored by the general public, who really only want the pipes as background music for their day, culminating in a massed bands spectacle.

The irony is that, in general, the public is indifferent to the competitions but love the massed bands, while pipers and drummers love the competition but dislike the massed bands.

Which begs the question: why don’t associations simply create their own events and stop relying so heavily on Highland games? Perhaps associations should give up on the fantasy that piping and drumming events alone will one day attract the respect and interest of the public, and embrace the challenge of staging their own competitions mainly for their membership. In essence, expand the concept applied to existing indoor events to outdoor venues.

Associations and their branches already are expected to be entrepreneurial and creative. See the Metro Cup. See the Livingstone Invitational. See the BC Indoor Gathering. See the Toronto Indoor Games. See the success of unsanctioned events like Winter Storm, the Dan Reid and Mastery of Scottish Arts. All of these events put piping and drumming first and operate on their own. They’re not a Highland games afterthought; the centerpiece is piping and drumming itself.

Scotland will never have this problem because Highland games and pipe band competitions are not an ethnic oddity, they’re a cultural occurrence. The decline in interest in ethnic Highland games is perhaps more pronounced in Canada than it is in the United States. But the two countries, which once had massive first-generation Scottish immigrant populations, are now dramatically more ethnically diverse. I’m not sure if Australia, New Zealand or other countries are facing the same thing.

North American associations need to adapt to a changed population, halt the erosion of the familiar and alter their traditional approach to meeting the needs of their membership with creativity and entrepreneurialism – before it’s too late.

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