June 08, 2011

Lament for the union

Strength in numbers.Here’s a wildcat thought: piping and drumming associations are unions. Well, we all know they’re not, strictly speaking, but maybe it’s time we all thought of them that way. There could be great up-side if we did.

Every association I know contends that its central purpose is to promote, further, enhance . . . whatever the piping and drumming arts. If that’s true, then shouldn’t every piper and drummer get behind the greater group for the greater good? We all too often think of associations as a requirement to compete, a necessary step simply to take part in the events that are our primary performance platform.

In fact, we should want to be a member of an association primarily to further what we do – to promote our own arts in a long-range, big-picture perspective.

The trouble is, associations may claim that their fundamental mandate is to further our art, but they often lose sight of that objective. Too many associations think that they’re in the business of running competitions, like a kind of one-product company. They may run competitions exceedingly well, but is that really for the greater good of the art? Is it to an association’s long-term benefit to do little or nothing else but administer competitions?

Companies that have one product and don’t diversify are almost always doomed eventually to fail. Once the popularity of their one thing wanes, they’re left with nothing to sell. The corporate graveyard is filled with the ghosts of one-product companies that failed to diversify, leapfrog the competition or satisfy the expanding needs of their customers.

Associations therefore need to refocus and fulfill their core goal of furthering our arts in as many ways as possible. Pipers and drummers who don’t receive more in return on their investment than being part of a competition-running-machine will eventually look elsewhere. They won’t want to be part of a “union” that is a nothing more than a condition to compete.

If we think of associations as unions, and if associations deliver on their core promise, we can leverage strength-in-numbers. If we work like the unions of actors and musicians, eventually all events where pipers and drummers perform will be required to work through our associations.

But it has to start with the associations. They have to do more than administer competitions. They have to diversify their products, extend ROI for their members and be seen as the right thing for the art. If that happens, then card-carrying members will rally around the union, and solidarity will prevail.

Why not?


  1. Competitors are an important part, but not the only part, of the piping and drumming community. We often lose sight of this. If all we ever offer are competitions, we have little to offer non-competitors and we lose an important voice from the community and part of the rich diversity of our art. Diversity enables the survival of every species. Homogeniety within a species will eventually doom it to extinction. Similarly, homogeniety within an art form will have a similar effect.

  2. Did you know that historical trends in the stock market actually demonstrate that the market place favors (monetarily of course) companies with a limited focus more so than heavily diversifed companies – or in layman’s terms “companies that do one thing exceedingly well, instead of many things with moderate success”.

    What is wrong with an association making sure games are run in a manner that is fair, equal and transparent to competitors – isn’t that essentially what a union is doing when they enter into collective bargaining on behalf of employees?

  3. I think an association has two basic reasons to exist. Reason One is to provide a level playing field for competitors. That means making sure that judges are qualified, and well-schooled in the art of judging. It is not something that comes naturally. Sure, anyone can sit and listen to a performance and tell you if they liked it or not, but a piping, drumming, or ensemble judge has to be able to make an educated critique of a perfromance, and then communicate to the competitor where the strengths and weaknesses lie so that the competitor may act upon the critique as need be, toward improvement of the performance in the future. Judging is easier said than done. Then, in order to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and being judged as objectively as possible (even then it can still be a very subjective process), a number of rules, guidelines, and policies have to be enacted, and adhered to by both competitors and judges as appropriate. The various grades attempt to keep competitors playing against other competitors of similar ability. Requirements and expectations in the grades should vary, and increase progressively. It should also be kept in mind that piping and drumming is a musical artform, and not a sport.

    Reason Two for an association to exist is to inform and educate. Competition may be, at times, a part of that process. Very little doubt that competition creates an environment where improvement occurs, for a number of reasons. Some people are not interested in the competitive aspect, however, but may still want to improve as much as possible. Therefore, workshops, seminars, enclaves, distance-learning opportunities, and so forth need to be a part of the education end of it as well. That part of it might include a magazine, or newsletter, as exemplified by The Voice in the EUSPBA, which has historically carried articles intended to inform and educate. It might also include on-line video, or audio offerings.

    If an association also chooses to organize and hold competitions, then I would see that as being a part of Reason One, and it should be made clear to the membership that part of their dues are being used toward that end. Transparency an explanation of why something is being done should be of paramount importance. Not every member will agree with every decision, but they should be given the opportunity to understand why the decision was made.

    Unfortunately, MOST members of the association do not care about the process, much like the average citizen of a republic. They may show up to vote from time to time, but most don’t involve themselves in the process of government. And you can’t please everyone. Abe Lincoln got that right. There will also be someone out there who will bitch about anything just to hear their head rattle. You could hand them a silver tray full of gold bars, and they’ll flip it over to check the hallmark on the tray, then blame you because the gold fell off and broke their toe.

    Although competitions are often held in conjunction with Highland games, I see no reason why they can’t exist as stand-alone events. I do think piping and drumming need to get a clue from the highly successful DCI folks, and make the competitions more entertaining to the general public. The best way to make sure events have longevity is sponsorship of some kind. Sponsorship is only beneficial to the sponsor if there is an interested audience their to see their logo, or products.
    We shouldn’t be shooting fireworks out from under out kilts, but I think it’s time to get out of the- circle-with-the-infinte-back, and time to get way from forcing every band performce to begin on two three-paced rolls and an E attack. The associations need to lead the way into the future of the art, while maintaining the history and tradition where appropriate.

    Nuff said.

  4. “Disagree” —
    You are correct that the stock markets often like one-trick-pony companies – as long as they last. When the company suddenly faces competition that has a better trick, or the trick becomes unpopular, and the brand stands for one thing and one thing only, then the company is in trouble. It’s usually too late to correct the problem. Customers and shareholders flee. Associations are too often one-trick ponies. It’s also called complacency.

  5. I know it’s only a blog Andrew and what you say sounds plausible, but have you got any examples of what you assert about PB associations?

    There is no doubt that competitions are a major focus for PB Associations, but the good ones recognise promotion and education as their main reason for existing, because these things ensure a prosperous future.

    Om the other hand they can’t afford to run crap competitions because the wrath of the membership would rain down upon them.

    I prefer a different analogy – that of the elected Government of a small Pacific Island or Caribbean nation. Getting on quite well but fraught with nepotism, difficult personalities, loosely followed rules, an indifferent electorate and a propensity to secede. However, when the population get together they party well and are patriotic when competing against a common foe.

    I could go on, but essentially where’s your evidence Andrew?

  6. The point is about associations operating like a union and being seen as such by pipers and drummers. But to do that they have to offer value to members, preferably in a variety of ways. If readers see a piping and/or drumming association as not providing value, then that’s up to them. The point I intended to communicate (and evidently could have done a better job at) is that operating like a union, from all perspectives, could be a good thing. Or not.

  7. Unions are antiquated. They are contrarian to free and open markets that allow for the best to propser and the weak to fizzle away. Unions were formed in the States to protect exploited workers as the society progressed from rural farming to urban industrialization. The laws of the land weren’t evolved enough to protect the day-to-day evolution of the industrialist society. Now they are.

    Pipe band associations are similar in their bloated inefficiencies. They have their roots in socialist nations. Like we need an additional organizational layer? Tax (charge) the individual to keep it all afloat. If everyone pays a little more, it will be largely unnoticed and create a concentration of money and power to spread influence at the discretion of the leadership of the day.

    Now let’s ask the associations to agree and cooperate on standards and practices in order to homogonize the experience for their members worldwide….please…

    If associations are like unions, then the result of their influence will be similar to what the American Automotive Industry has suffered recently. As well as the NFL, teacher’s unions, etc. Escalated costs with diminished results.



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