May 30, 2010


Ungraded.The Montreal games’ decision to forgo piping and drumming competitions due to the expense is telling. Like everyone else, I’m disappointed. But I also understand the economic challenges of holding a full slate of band and solo piping and drumming contests, and I can’t fault them for deciding not to go ahead with them this year.

Rather than pay a lot more to have the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario mobilize their turnkey operation of contests, with standardized judges, stewards and rules, Montreal is reportedly spending about half as much money simply to hire four or five top grade bands to perform a mini-concert on the day. I’ve been told that each invited band will receive a flat-fee of between $4,000 and $5,000 for their musical stint, which, I also have been told, would last no more than an hour. That’s a festival of pipe band music.

And that’s pretty good going for the fortunate few bands and the paying customers. It’s Pipebandpalooza. As a listener I’d want to attend Montreal to hear this festival of pipe banding, even more so than the usual full day of competition. Montreal can do this for that fairly inexpensive rate because the bands involved will be competing the day before at the North American Championships, a few hours’ drive away, in Maxville, Ontario. I’d think that other events without performers essentially already there would have trouble getting so many bands without paying a lot more for travel, but they could probably get two bands at double the fee.

So, this is the new quandary that I think we will see more and more of around the world. Highland games really only want the sound of pipes and drums. They don’t necessarily desire the peculiar cultural phenomenon of our little competition club, which is, as I’ve said many times before, not exactly attractive to the non-playing punter. The stuff we play for competition is technically demanding, tailored for clearer critical analysis, but it’s just not interesting to the large majority of those who don’t have a vested stake in it.

The reality is, if I were organizing a Highland games I think I’d be tempted to do what Montreal has done. I’d put on a pipe band show that’s accessible to and fun for non-players – the ticket-buying public who I need to be a viable operation.

But there’s still plenty of room for piping and drumming competitions as we know them. After all, pipers and drummers have repeatedly confirmed that they like these events, and don’t necessarily want to compromise or corrupt what we do to become a show for non-players. As a result, I’m seeing more Highland games opt out of the whole massive competition thing, but I’m also noticing more self-sustaining piping and drumming contests, held on their own, without the trappings of heavy events, dancing, sheepdog trials and a sanctioning pipe band association. The two formats are gradually going their separate ways.

As far as I can see, the World’s is the most successful example of the self-sustaining event. Anecdotal evidence and observation tells me that there are very few listeners at the World’s who don’t have a vested interest in the competition. The competitors alone attract about 7,000 people, and their friends and family bring attendance way up. As a result, it’s basically self-sustaining, provided it remains popular with competitors. Either way, events that are based purely on piping and drumming competition are scalable – they can expand and contract with the entry. (Note the May 29th Kingston, Ontario, event.) Just find a field, park or parking lot, tell everyone in your organization that there’s a competition, gather start-up funding, and charge everyone for admission, entry-fees and parking. Bob’s yer uncle.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that the familiar competition format is in danger of collapse. I do think, though, that, if we continue to reject the notion of changing our system radically, then we’ll just go our separate ways. There will the self-sustaining, competition-only events, and there will be the Highland games that hire guest bands to entertain the crowds. Montreal’s Pipebandpalooza (and they can pay me later for the name) is just a first radical start to the inevitable change.


  1. Perhaps rather than risk losing our whole connection with the games — which is a valuable and sustaining one — we should consider offering a ‘competition lite’ format: a scaled-down version of solo/band competitions along with a hired concert band or two to perform in mid or late afternoon. At the moment, our approach seems to be all-or-nothing, and as time goes by we’re more frequently being offered nothing. Many years ago (1960s, ’70s), games sometimes went under, but rarely if ever did they choose to go ahead without us. We offered a much smaller package back then. As we’ve grown and the cost to games has increased, they have begun looking for (and finding) a better deal. Maybe we should be offering the better deal.

  2. As a member of the PPBSO who participates in competitions I think its unfortunate that organisers of games have felt the need to cancel their events or have a few pipe bands there as purely a form of entertainment. It is a ‘games’ after all. The bands are supposed to be competing. We don’t see the heavy events participants chucking things about the field just for fun without measuring how far they have thrown them or dancers prancing about purely for the applause. If they did then it would be a festival not a games.

    How has the current model of sanctioning by the PPBSO contributed to this? I am not privy to the inner business dealings of the PPBSO (which is another issue about transparency, not unique to the PPBSO in the pipe band world) so I can’t pass judgement on decisions they are making regarding their product and its viability. But in my short time in the pipe band world long term games such as Sarnia, Hamilton, Chatham, and Fort Erie have disappeared. There has been speculation in some of these cases if not all that the cost of PPBSO sanctioning has been a factor. That is the evidence I as an external observer with a vested interested have to work with. Based on that I ask the question, what is being done by the PPBSO to look at its operations and adjust to market demands? Any organisation for-profit or not, has to regularly look at its business model and adjust.

    My fear is that if more games organisers move to the Montreal model and just a few of the top bands are participants then how does that contribute to the perpetuation and advancement of our art form? Games for all grades gives those in the lower level bands and solo players a place to play and compete. It is a great motivator to advance their skills and to expand the player base. I would think that these are supposed to be the primary goals of the PPBSO and pipe band organisations the world over. If the old model of achieving these goals is no longer the best way to do this then its time a new model.

  3. Oops…the last sentence is supposed to be; “If the old model of achieving these goals is no longer the best way to do this then its time for a new model.”

  4. Does this mean I can stop wearing those silly outfits? And massed bands…can that go away too? If so, I’m all in. Just don’t take my Elephant Ears and Beer Tent….please.

  5. If the games are saving money by spending $20,000 to have four bands perform perhaps the problem is how much the PPBSO is charging for these contests? Cost was the main reason we switched our games (Zephyrhills) from SUSPBA to EUSPBA sanctioning. SUSPBA charged us a flat fee to run the enitre competition while EUSPBA charges us a $50 sanctioning fee and let’s us manage our costs. No surprise that running the contests now cost us significantly less! Perhaps the PPBSO should consider changing it’s approach to sanctioning. In my opinion the “games” that hire “four or five top grade bands” are saving money at the expense of those that provide competition to allow those bands to reach that high level. Keep that in mind when you agree to perform at or attend them.

  6. I’m not so sure saving money is always a good thing. Like cheap steak and cheap shoes, you are never quite satisfied. Recent example at a EUSPBA games, there wasn’t even a circle drawn in the grass. One of the adjudicators stood out in the middle of the field and said “stop here!” Kind of unsettling when getting ready to play a contest.

  7. Steve has a point. As a Kiwi I’m gobsmacked by the dollar numbers you guys seem to take for granted. Bands over here would kill for $10000 (even at our miserable exchange rate) plus travelling expenses. We organize our own contests, rarely receive any prizemoney and pay our own travel. Not to mention accommodation if necessary. Perhaps you have had it too good for too long!

  8. This whole project in Montreal started as a money saving idea to rebuild our resources after two rain soaked years. The project took on a life of its own however, and the feedback from almost everyone has been very positive. I am a little disappointed that some people seem to think the only way to build our art is through competition. Sure it helps, but there are other routes to the same goal.
    As it turns out, we are not really saving any money from the competition format but I am really looking forward to the results of this endeavour.
    Many of the comments from others concentrate of the fees the PPBSO is charging for an event. Organizers need to be able to offer the events they want and not what a sanctioning organization has prepackaged. We are the guys paying the bills and I have always liked the cliche “If ya pays the piper, ya calls the tune”. It seems we do the paying part but don’t have much say in the content. I wanted to run the band contests on a stage in concert format but that was not how the powers that be wanted it; so it wasn’t going to happen.

    Kirk Johnstone
    Chairman – Montreal Scottish Festival

  9. There’s one more comment I would like to add that I forgot when typning the previous message: this chap Andrew bertoff is an obviously very intelligent and insightful man as can be seen from the comments in his blog.

    Kirk Johnstone



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