November 24, 2008


Burn, baby, burn.

This is a lengthier post, but I hope you still read it.

There has been some hand-wringing in Ontario and other parts of North America lately over apparent declining interest in our “product.” While some Ontario Highland games, like Maxville and Fergus, are thriving with bigger-than-ever crowds, others, like Chatham and Sarnia, have recently closed shop.

Jim McGillivray recently described it as “Rome burning,” which might be over-stating things a shade. For the last 10 years, he and others have called out for a reinvigoration or even reinvention of our product – the thing that we sell to Highland games organizers.

The RSPBA and the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario sell a turn-key product to events. For a flat fee, these associations will come in and run all of the piping, drumming and band competitions, and stage the massed band or march-past spectacles. As anyone who has been to several RSPBA or PPBSO events can attest, they’re pretty much the same format from contest to contest.

Most other associations have a different model. They will “sanction” designated competitions that agree to allow them to coordinate the judging and advise on competition formats and some recruitment of competitors. In essence, they ensure that competitions are of a certain quality. But games organizers can much more easily stage creative and different events, so variety from contest to contest is greater. It’s a more competitive and capitalistic approach. Over time, competitors gravitate to the events that are run the best and are the most fun to attend.

But what about the idea of our “product”? What actually is the product that we have to sell?

Here’s a fact we should all face: ultimately, the general, non-playing public does not much like bagpipe music. Let’s accept it. The average person is not drawn to our music for more than a few minutes because, in its usual style, it’s not very accessible or understandable or, dare I say it, enjoyable. This has always been so.

Our musical product has not seriously changed in 100 years. Medleys are more adventurous, but the large crowds that listen to the top-grade competitions at the World’s and Maxville do not comprise the general public; they are the same competitive pipers and drummers and friends and family who have always listened. It’s a captive audience that has grown over many decades. The more competitors a competition can attract, the bigger the crowds listening to the competitions.

The large general public that attends Fergus and Maxville doesn’t much pay attention to the competitions. They come out for the Highland dancing, the caber tossing, the sheepdogs and the grand spectacle of the massed bands. We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.

New competition formats could freshen things for pipers and drummers, however, the competition music will still be relatively inaccessible, because it will inevitably at least compromise when it comes to arguments about “Scottish idiom” and technical complexity that we identify as necessary in order to have a serious competition. At the end of the day, no competitive pipers and drummers want to do away with competition. It’s what they do. Most of us are competitors and get off on winning. Relatively few of us are frustrated artists.

I think that our non-competition “product” for the games still works. It can be tweaked to offer more variety and showmanship, but, if so, that product inevitably will have to leave out many of the lower-grade bands, and allow the more practiced and accomplished higher-grade bands to do the work, and they will want compensation.

The people who cry out for a sweeping change invariably are those who have been around the longest. They’re bored because they have heard and done it all before, hundreds of times.

But I don’t hear competitors younger than 30 express the same desire for sweeping change, because, just as it was for the now jaundiced veterans 30-odd years ago, our competition format is addictive and alluring to a certain type of piper and drummer who spends years getting it. (I also have never heard anyone from the UK suggest that their Rome is burning, but maybe that’s a different story.)

It’s a quandary. Do we accept that the music we play is arcane and boring to the vast majority of non-players and alter it so dramatically (I’m picturing other instruments, marching formations, electronica, light shows . . .) to attract a big general-public crowd? Or do we continue along the same course, mainly pleasing ourselves and our friends and family?

And, if it’s the latter, why not hold our own competitions that subsist on our own dues and entry-fees, holding them in parking lots and fallow farmers’ fields? Why can’t associations therefore move away from being competition machines and instead become event promoters?

I’ve never been to Rome, but I understand that today it’s an awesome place that respects the old while celebrating the new. Perhaps our Rome needs to burn for us to get better.


  1. I’ll try to keep this short.
    1) The problem most likely has NOTHING to do with the competition format. LEAVE this alone!
    2) ALWAYS start Massed Bands promptly at 12:00 PM & 5:00 PM respectively. Just get it done. People come for this en masse and would like to leave in time for dinner.
    3) The games themselves need better mass appeal. Imrovements to the “County Fair” type stuff is needed. Better stalls, side show events, etc would help (never thought I’d say anything like this, but…….)
    4) “World Strongest Man” sanctioned events could draw larger audiences.
    5) The PPBSO should help fund struggling games. Revenue raising is needed. A committee should be formed to investigate ways.
    -Try to get the “Ministry Of Culture” to fund some of this as the promotion of”Scottish Culture”.
    -Promote 2-4 Pipe Band joint concerts at venues like Massey Hall with 3 or 4 bands playing 1/2-1 hour selections (anything goes – should keep Mike happy!) and use the proceeds to help fund our Art (no, not me! The culture!).
    Just some ideas…….

  2. I’ve been amazed at the size of crowds at some wankerish outdoor games in the US. Friggin HUGE, big money trading hands. No Grade I bands, a bunch of old dudes in pith helmets and bumblebee tartan (no offense to the McLd’s, but you know how Yanks like those colourful tartans) who couldn’t carry Sean McKeown’s pipe box, much less a tune…geez, what’s the attraction?
    1a) Beer tent – duh. A good beer tent with modestly “celtic” entertainment helps. Bonus point for gen-u-ine whiskey tasting.
    1) Great venues – shade, seats, no cow pastures but big enough to move without being trampled by the throngs, real restrooms, perhaps (gasp) an opportunity to go indoors – the heathens love it
    2) Highland Dancing and Heavy Events – sorry..the heathens love it
    3) Convenient Vendors’ areas – sell, sell, selll, heathens again
    4) Something to watch every second from when the gates open…and NOT all piping/drumming/damcing (border collies, ducks/geese/sheep – money)
    5) Oh yeah, and some pipe band contests, maybe some solo stuff, but give ’em that massed bands promptly at noon and 5:00 as Art notes – that’s what they came for.

    The few times I’ve gone to Ontario games and not competed (very few)…I truly hate to say it, but I was ready to go home by about 10am….been there, done that….for 30 years. Meet this year’s games, just the same as last year’s games (except it rained last year). And aside from Kincardine (which is of course God’s country – just ask the Colquhouns or MacLeans) and poor Chatham recently (RIP), most of the venues were not the best

    Hmm…just my observations. I’m still a sucker for strapping on the ethnic garb and competing, hang the drawbacks. Paying customers? Apparently not so much…

  3. I think broader mass appeal and awareness can help a bit with this problem. For example, I think the documentary in progress about SOS could be a good thing. Think “Best In Show” but on a smaller scale. That movie was hilarious, and I’d never been to a dog show.

    I think we must preserve the competition format. I think part of the allure is in the tradition. Making it packaged for mass consumption is probably the wrong way to go. I prefer to get more exposure and awareness into the whys and hows of the current format.

    And lastly, I find it odd that the Ontario circuit and games are struggling yet the PPBSO boasts tremendous reserves of cash. Hmmmmm. On one side we have a need and on the other we have capacity. Both with a common interest.

  4. Interesting comments. Here is a suggestion…I cannot tell you how many times I have judged a solo or band contest when a paying customer has come up and asked me who the band or solo competitor was and/or where a certain event was being held.
    My point? I think it would be worth experimenting with a P&D oriented “commentator.” This person’s role would be to educate and inform the PAYING public. Maybe this would be a bit boring to your typical camp followers but let’s assume the general public would like to be educated.
    On two solo piobaireachd occasions(both indoor), I took the time to speak to the audience about what I was listening for and what they should be listening for. I even went so far as to ask the audience what they thought of the preceding performance. I did not make any comments about a particular performer while he/she was in the room. I could be wrong but my impression was the audience enjoyed the interaction.
    Something to think about…

  5. Non-bandsmen won’t stand and listen to even the whole of G1, never mind the lower grades. Basically if you’re not steeped in the idiom (most overused word in the pipe band world at the moment) even the most adventurous medley probably sounds pretty similar to Green Hills/Battles O’er. Changes to the contest format / band formations won’t make a blind bit of difference to those people. Hell, even most bandsmen won’t listen to the whole of G1 (even if they could), except possibly at the Worlds. Go to any of the other majors and watch the crowd at the G1 ring thin out as Shotts / Strathclyde Polis / SFU / FMM give way to Ballinderry Bridge / L+B Polis or one of the other bands with no chance of a prize (sorry if I’ve insulted any bands there, didn’t mean to).
    The contests where you get big crowds of non-bandsmen are the ones where there’s lots of non-band stuff going on. The punters mostly want to listen to the odd band, go and taste some whisky, watch the dancers for a bit, shop for some tartan tat, ride the waltzers, eat some over-priced greasy burgers, have a beer or three, then regather for the finale of massed bands. That’s why despite all it’s inherent problems, Cowal will never die, because it gives the punters what they want.
    In conclusion: if you want a financially viable pipe band contest with big crowds, you’re going to have to give the punters much more than just a pipe band contest.

  6. I think it would be worth experimenting with a P&D oriented “commentator.” – Al Mc Mullin
    A reasonable idea but needs vetting. In the N East of Scotland we have a commentator at the games who has a’mission to inform’ the public about what is going on, mainly in the games arena. but when bands are competing, he won’t…..shut…..up. He just keeps chuntering on. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does Robbie Shepherd. An educated commentator would be worthwhile, but they are few and far between.
    For solo players a small notice board would be a huge benefit, showing the competitor, the event, and what tunes he is playing, as, yes, to the uninitiated, they all sound similar after a while and to hear something you like but not know its name is very frustrating. But that would require investment and some one to man the noticeboard and so on and so on and so on,
    In thew pipe band arena bands are announced, but again does the announcer have any training in how to use a microphone properly – very few have in my experience.
    A thought provoking article and a subject that has bothered me for a while, but with no immediately apparent solution.

  7. “We can, and probably should, add 15-minute freestyle Grade 1 band events in concert formation, but I still think that the general public won’t really care. Performing facing the audience makes sense, but droves of punters aren’t suddenly going to appear because of it.”

    I’m not sure that would make any difference the general public. As you stated – they only listen to a band for a few minutes. There’s a limit to what a band can do to make them interesting to the ‘layman’. If we can’t get them to listen to a 6 minute medley, what chance have we got trying to keep them captivated for 15 minutes?

  8. Unfortunately I do not think that the Games commitees need the PPBSO to run the Piping and Drumming events and perhaps it is just an added cost and that is why the games are falling off, especially in our current economic situation.

    I attended Orillia and they had Solo Events and Pipe Band Events and it seemed to be far superior to most of the Highland Games where the PPBSO was involved.

    These are well organised,simple and really inexpensive venues that grow every year.

    Is it possible that we (PPBSO) are getting in the way of our own success by over thinking and creating unneeded Rules and Regulations and added costs?

    For the record I hope that this is not true as I have been a member for a long time but in times where things are not working perhaps we need to look at all possibilities as to why things are not working and find a resolution.

  9. Another non-competition venue is the Uxbridge Highland Games, officially the Highlands of Durham Games. Ten or so bands are invited to attend the two day event whose talent levels range from grade one to street band. The same opening/closing massed bands occurs but at Uxbridge there are multiple circles/areas where bands put on a 20-30 minute performance. Do what you want, face the crowd, bring highland dancers, drum kits… At all times all over the park there is piping/drumming entertainment along with the scottish cows, horses, dogs, british cars…all the things that bring out a crowd. They also bring in two celtic type bands, last year Poor Angus and the Tartan Terrors to play the beer tent.

    Gate fee 2007: $ 20 per person
    Gate fee 2008: $ 25 per person

    The paying punters love the Uxbridge games and seem to have no qualms about handing over the cash at the gate and the growth is evident year after year. Uxbridge has the whole package, but the pipe band product is something that “Joe Blow Public” understands and can come away feeling entertained.

    In another post Jim McGillivary refers to a whole cast of pipers/drummers being ignored who have a whole bunch to offer. You will find some of these folks at Uxbridge HG 2009.

    Kirk Hill

  10. 5 minute medley, 15 minute medley. You’re right, the general public won’t sit still for 15 minutes, let alone 5, to watch a pipe band stand there and play, whether facing me or otherwise.

    But take the “freestyle” part to the next level. What’s keeping the band to pipes and drums only? Quite frankly, if I was going to listen to a 15 minute medley, I would expect something very different, like rock guitars, synthesizers, smoke and light show (and maybe throw in a few highland dancers at key moments). Now that might be something the general public might stick around to listen to and WATCH.

    Hate to have to judge something like that, though.

  11. When talking about the PPBSO’s ‘product’, it seems to be discussed solely in terms of the highland games. But associations are usually formed to serve the interests of their members, which in our case should go well beyond the games. Perhaps we should discuss what else the PPBSO offers, or could offer, as well?

    It currently offers some seminars, but these happen infrequently at best, and are not repeated with any regularity. If you cannot attend for some reason you’ll have to wait quite a while for the next offering. I think education is one of the best things the PPBSO can offer. An enhanced role in this area might even enlarge our numbers by getting the public more interested in participating, thus enlarging our audience.

    I suppose the other thing would be to see if there are other venues through which we can engage the public, perhaps through the mainstream media. How often do we get coverage when a Canadian/Ontario band/piper/drummer wins a major event? Or performs in a major concert event? Can we get on Letterman?

    Maybe we don’t have to be 100% about competition.

  12. BTW, I like the commentator idea … it might help get the audience into the contest. After all, what major sport doesn’t have a commentator giving stats and other info in between the action.

  13. One thing I am concerned about is the huge drop that occurs in the level of musicianship when you move to games and gatherings without competitive events as the main attraction. For one thing, the best players don’t bother gathering. How good is that for player development and for the art itself? That does not mean I’m saying no to change. Just be careful not lose what we have. Our music is arcane, but not really boring. It is an artform; some understand it and some do not.

  14. I think there’s room for all of this – it’s out there now in lots of different forms. What do we want to be? The easy part is ID’ing what could change – the HARD part is getting people engaged to go do the work to set up an event.
    I wrote to Andrew a long time ago about the PPBSO when hardcopy PD was around – remember they’re basically all volunteers, and mostly hear bitching when something’s not right, not praise when it is. And frankly I appreciated then (and now) what they do. Yeah, we’ll always have ideas to do it better, and lots of times they do.
    A long time ago I decided I’d take whatever was put in front of me, because I have neither the time, patience nor inclination to go put together something else. Fair enough to have some ideas – my hat’s truly off to those who put together Piping Live, Maxville, the Worlds, Uxbridge, the Gold Medal contests, Cowal, whatever – hard work, adn I don’t want to do it. Just want to show up and play. Some of us are organizers, some of us are competitors, most of us are performers, and lots of mixtures along to continuum of all those things…so what do we want to be, and who wants to do the work to get there?
    I’ll be happy to play there once it’s set up 🙂

  15. This is really quite a massive topic, but for me the two most important words to get started are fundraising and marketing. Attaining charitable status and then raising enough money to hire a full-time president are absolute musts. After that, the Society would do well to expand its horizons and welcome non-competing pipe bands into the fold. We would need to offer them something as well as raise revenue; perhaps acting as a booking agent would accomplish these things as well as making sure the right bands get the right gigs. Marketing entails making sure our ‘product’ is displayed at its best. I’m afraid that the current morning cacophony of what seems to be dozens of solo events running at once on a games field does more bad than good for our music. It’s a chaotic mess and leaves us no opportunity to showcase our top talent. If we want lots and lots of events we need to do that somewhere else, not at the only venues that provide us with an audience of tens of thousands. What a waste of an opportunity! The bands are presented better, but yes, an emcee is a must. Joe Games Attender and his family can be strolling the grounds now with no idea that the current World Champion pipe band is performing at its absolute best over there in that there circle.

    Nobody is saying we do away with the current competition format, nor should we. But 30 bands standing motionless in a circle one right after the other playing hardcore pipe tunes for 3 hours is not going to bring people clamouring back for more. What we do is totally self-indulgent. However, pipe bands have more to offer than we realize. Ever been to a “Beers and cheers” beer tent contest? I’ve had Grade 4 bands blow me away with creativity and quality, and when you see these bands put on their show, it’s obvious that *this* is what they would rather be doing. A couple of years ago I was in Santiago, Chile, for the South American Pipe Band Gathering. Eight bands performed in a roped off area about 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. Each band had 20 minutes to do whatever it wanted. Most did brilliant marching displays. They brought out a small troupe of Highland dancers, and the crowd — 6 deep around the perimieter for the *whole* event — were treated to marching routines, drum fanfares, dances to pipe tunes and more. One band sang. It was all absolutely brilliant, and while the playing was not of a high standard it didn’t really matter. Ironically, the final band in the event was streets ahead of the others in the playing department. They were preparing for a trip to Scotland, so they came out, formed a circle and for 20 minutes played their competitive repertoire and a couple other sets. After less than 10 minutes the crowd was dispersing so fast you’d have thought there was a bomb scare. I’m sure we have lots of bands who would much prefer preparing for this kind of event than for our traditional competition. So — let them do it, and make it the central part of the band show. Continue to run the traditional band events, but not in centre court (maybe Grade 1 in centre court).

    As for massed bands, dump the first one. (Who gives away the climax of their show at noon fergawdsakes???) With fewer solo events, the morning ends quicker, the band events start at noon, and with no first massed bands we’re looking at the main closer at 4 pm. It’s a tighter show and less exhausting for everyone.

    More on the subject of marketing: sell ourselves to the crowd. We need brochures and signage; we need news releases promoting the events and showcasing our prime talent. It’s true, the Globe and Mail might not pick these up, but lots of local community papers near where the games are held will. With these sorts of initiatives, with premier solo events on platforms with strictly enforced minimal tuning times, and some education so people know what they are listening to, we might actually start to cultivate a following. We’d never have thousands listening to the Open MSR, but heck, 75 would be nice. A similar approach geared toward communicating the intrigue and magic around pipe bands might create a similar audience, and before long when Joe Games Attender comes to his local games he not only wants to see the Heavy Events, he wants to hear what those crazy Toronto Police guys are playing this year.

    Okay, sorry to go on, but this issue cannot be addressed piecemeal. And here is the absolute most important thing: absolutely none of this can happen as long as every blessed motion has to be voted on at the AGM. Man, what a recipe for failure! This is our greatest impediment to a unified, coherent marketing strategy. The PPBSO constitution has to be changed so that once we elect our leaders, they are allowed to lead and implement the programs they see fit. That’s when the Music Board, the Marketing Committee (of which there isn’t one) and the Executive can really enter into a dialogue with the Games Committees and start to implement a vision. JM

  16. Jim — see Joel’s comment. I doubt many people would disagree with anything you say, which has been said before, and it should be said until change occurs. The problem is that all of what you suggest takes time, energy and money. It also needs a membership that agrees that those things are worth the effort. Most competition-oriented pipers and drummers just want to compete. They like the music, but they’re driven by the competition, even at the beginner level.
    Paradoxically, associations hook players with competing, not music.
    Again, maybe associations should stage their own outdoor events, so that the planning and marketing mistakes can be entirely left up to us. As it is, we leave it in the hands of the games, who usually don’t see piping/drumming as the main events, or even much of a draw.

  17. It’s all in the organization. I see alot of contest come and go in Florida, usually because they think they will draw a lot of bands by putting out big prize money that they don’t have because they again, “think” they will draw huge crowds. Then checks go bouncing. Take time, gather up your sponsors, and it never hurts to start out modestly.

    Myself and a friend of mine, are in the process of putting together an open mini band contest to be held in beer tents at the games after closing. The rules are mainly keeping it to a certain time limit. But the big thing is, the advertising to the general public. Making them aware that it’s a little more than Wings, and Flowers of the Forrest. We basically have geared the advertising to Joe public as something fun, and something they maynot have seen before. All while having a good drink. Women and men tend to look better after a few pints, so why can’t pipes be more fun? We hope by holding it in the beer tent, with prizes that we can help draw bigger crowds tot he games, and the beauty of it, is that the games just has to allow us to hold it. Everything is paid for by sponsor dollars.

  18. Andrew:
    Yes, I agree with you about time issues. That’s why part of the vision is to figure out how to generate revenue — not to show a profit, but to pay staff to do the work none of the rest of us have time to do. Unfortunately, while pipe bands are our greatest asset, they do tend to suck up all the energetic people who might otherwise help the Society. People don’t commit to the organization; they commit to a band.

  19. Agree again, Jim. Anyone remember “Tattoo 90”? The PPBSO’s Toronto Branch, with the support of the parent organization, in 1989-90 decided to try to stage its own tattoo-type event in a big auditorium at the CNE grounds in downtown Toronto. PPBSO-member bands, including all in Grade 1, performed over two nights. Each band was paid, I believe. While the event was reasonably well sold, the PPBSO lost a lot of money on the venture. This is also the fear, since it’s a leap of faith. jamie D.E.’s point about starting modestly is important.

  20. Another idea, I remember the first time I went to Scotland, and I played at Annan Highland games in 1994………..SHOCKED! it was of course cold and crappy out, but it looked like a flea market/county fair. Of course at most of the games you have very few vendors like we have over here in North America. No British Shops, and no huge tents with tons of celtic cds. So I when I say modest I mean it. The most important part is entertaining, and the best way to go I feel is after the kids and the drinkers. Just like in Scotland, then build from there. I’m surprised we don’t see more of our games with carnival rides and such. I’m sure one “Moon Walk” for kids would probably help cover the cost of the prize money. Kids love the Moon Walk (no Ghillies please)

  21. Some very good thoughts here, Jim, Jamie, Andrew. I think competitive types (like me) keep trying to make most contests mini-Worlds, which, when you get right down to it, sucks for a non-pipe-band type (other than they do have an announcer!). And there’s no reason that a wee tweak here and there could still make it great for competitors while being waaaaay more enticing to non-playing folks.
    While I totally got off on the rock star feeling at the Worlds of marching up to the line through a THRONG of people who were parting in front of us (and have a great picture from some Glasgow newspaper of us at the line with a gazillion people behind us that gives my non-piiping friends some sense of the scale of that event)….some of the most fun I had in the last 10 years was playing my bass with Toronto Police for the North Bay contest and at the Highland Ball! In addition to my pipes, of course. REAL rockstar stuff! And that North Bay crowd was digging the bands that had dancers and jugglers and elephants and pennywhistles.
    And those events weren’t organized massively different than a “regular” contest and really shouldn’t require any more effort.
    So I think even for a jaded “I like competitions, not a big fan of doing concerts” type like me, we have it well within our reach to make a relatively few changes that could greatly increase the appeal to non-players while not driving off old-skoolers like yours truly.
    How Ol Skool? MSR’s rule (for me, maybe not you), and I think a ’50 Merc chop-top primered lead sled with a flathead V8 and wide whites is a fine daily driver, even in 2008, so consider the source – your results may vary!

  22. There have been a number of lengthy posts here already, so I apologize for adding yet another. Blame it on my youthful inexperience!
    To backtrack for just a minute, I’m 17, which puts me in the under-30 category that Andrew mentioned in his original blog. As I have yet to confer on this issue with any piping friends my age, I may or may not be “in line” with other piping youth, but personally I don’t really care whether I am or not. I also don’t care what I’m required to play, or for how long. As long as I get to play at all and spend the day with good friends, whether I have to play a 5-7 minute or a 15 minute medley is the last thing I’m going to worry about. I’ll just do it. In fact, I think that rather than extending the current time limit, we should just add another event, for a total of two medley events. Which one bands play in is up to them, but that way, nobody’s forced to do something they don’t want to do, and those that want to play two medley’s have that option. And as for shortening up the solo events, combining the separate March and S/R events into a single MSR, and making the Jig a Hornpipe/Jig would allow a wider variety of music to be played … although, I guess that doesn’t actually shorten things .. oh well, looks like we’re going to have to do more of what we love!
    But the gist of it is, if the games disappear, I don’t get to do any of that – none of us get to – and I’m a greedy child, so let’s not let that happen. Charity status for the PPBSO, fundraising events, hired presidents, increased PPBSO funding of games or a bake sale, it doesn’t matter to me what we do, let’s just do it (and why not do it all, by the way?). I’ll just attend every event I can, in the hopes of doing my part. But something needs to happen apparently.
    Which is part 2 of the problem, in my opinion – everything’s all talk, no action. Blogs and comments functions like this are great, but why are the volumes of impassioned arguments posted here not acted upon? The trend I’ve noticed is that there is a flurry of discussion for a month or so after each meeting, but then over the course of the following year, the flames die out, and by the time the next meeting comes around, everyone’s forgotten what they said a year ago. How effective is that? Not very. Is a more-than-annual meeting required? Personally, despite being the one to put the idea on the table, I don’t think it is for a number of reasons. I do, however, think that a method of ensuring that the executive hears any plausible solutions put forward here might be in order – a suggestions box essentially. And I agree with Jim in that, if the changes necessary to our continuation can’t be made because they get voted down, then the process needs to change. I hesitate to say they shouldn’t be voted on, and that the executive/music board/future marketing committee should have longer terms and more power … but I’ll put it out there.
    So to sum it all up, in my opinion, before we can make the changes we WANT (longer medleys, more/fewer solo/band events, free bunny rabbits awarded to winners etc.) or NEED (decision to hold fundraising events, seek charitable status/donations etc.), there needs to be an amendment/change to the constitution that will allow those necessary items to pass. And talking about them isn’t going to make them happen.
    Not all of that was directly related to this thread, but in my opinion, we’ll need to think about it all at somepoint in the future.

  23. Looks like the next step could be to form a Marketing committee within the PPBSO. This group would be responsible for promotion and fund raising for the society. Outsiders could be brought in and enlisted as PPBSO members to act on the playing members behalf and compensated as required. This committee should be given full autonomy to put the above ideas and observations into action without interference from the PPBSO as a whole. Let’s say that we get this committe going in FY 2009. Preliminary meetings as to the formation of this group and the rules of engagement should take place ASAP. Could we call apon the PPBSO executive to start preliminary proceedings by calling a meeting with the Branch executives to start the ball rolling towards this goal in mid December 2008?
    “Let’s move people. If we stay on this beach, we are going to die!”

  24. There is a PPBSO Marketing Committee. It’s run by the executive, which was actually one of those questionable AGM motions passed at the 2006 AGM. Previously, it was supposed to reside with the Music Board. Like young Will says, talk is cheap, and, like Jim says, action is difficult because most people who aren’t retired commit their spare time to actual playing. Better off hiring and paying for professionals to do it right, and who can be held accountable. Hard to get pissed off at volunteers. The RSPBA actually understands this and has done many marketing things (not PR, though) right.

  25. Andrew, thanks for the information.
    Good. Looks like some of the work is already done.
    For an idea regarding compensation for these yet undiscovered or appointed outsiders or non-players, perhaps the committee members could work on a commission basis. ie draw their compensation from the funds being raised at a fixed %. The more money raised, the more they get paid!

  26. I think the outside marketing firm idea is great! The man-power in the current PPBSO Marketing committee can then be put to other uses in the Society, and as Andrew says, we can have professionals do it right.
    I think there might be a difference between marketing and the fundraising that your talking about Art. Not to argue semantics though, as it’s probably just me getting my words mixed up, but I think we should do both marketing (big, flashy signs in Times Square sort of thing, although maybe not literally) AND fundraising (Scotch tastings, concerts, Ontario’s/World’s most famous pipers calendar, etc. with some/all the profits going to the Society). And we should have a committee for each, in order to keep them separate and make sure that they each get the attention due to them. (in the case of marketing, that would be the outside, non-player people).
    I think starting those up would be two giant steps in the right direction in terms of getting some more money in the coffers, which we can then use to help out the struggling games.

  27. Ummm, where’s the business plan guys?

    What are you trying to market, to who, where does your customer base live, and how do you measure progress?

    Seems the PPBSO’s only real customer base is the games committees, so who is this marketing team supposed to reach?

  28. Hey, John. I understand where Jim’s coming from, but I think you’re asking viable and reasonable questions. And that, too, is the challenge, as Jim has suggested also — acting or even becoming a business rather than a bunch of volunteers. Associations find themselves at a crossroads when they know that they need to act like a business with products and services, but either can’t or are unable to take the plunge. But even amateur organizations should have a plan. Also, this discussion has become focused on the PPBSO, but it really pertains to all piping/drumming organizations.

  29. Sorry guys, thought I was at a pipe band meeting for a minute! 😉

    It’s not news that the Highland Games format is getting old, so festival committees have to take a look at the whole package of what they are offering to the paying public. It’s no different than the problems Celtic fairs, Jazz and Blues festivals face too.

    It’s a challenge to run any event that is affordable for all, but this has to be addressed by the games organizers at a local level. Most games dry up because of problems within their own organization which is why Chatham has just experienced.

    You only have to look at the successful games like Fergus, Maxville, Celtic Classic, Grandfather Moutain and Pleasaton to understand what really works.

    It’s not carnival shows or beertents that keep people coming back, it’s all about family tradition.

    Here’s something for nothing, why not have all kids under 18 enter for free?

    If mom and dad don’t have to pay a fortune to get the family in, you’ll attract more famlies. Youths don’t have money and wouldn’t pay to get in anyway, but it’s good to give them a place to go for the day!

    Once people are in the gate, they’re going to spend more money too!

  30. Those are all great points John. But, as you said, that’s all up to the individual games organizers. I think if we answer some of your original questions, we’d have a better idea of what we, as a “Piper’s & Pipe Bands Society”, can do to help out in this situation.

    “Do we have a business plan?”
    I’m 17 … I barely know what a business plan is, let alone how to write one! But if you, John, or anyone else out there reading this, has any knowledge of business plan making, the Ontario Piping World could use you! Andrew and Jim, you’re both running thriving piping-related businesses: did either of them involve creating a business plan? I may be stepping out of line here, and I surely don’t mean to assign tasks. I’ll admit, I have no idea how much work drafting a business plan takes or doesn’t take, but I think that if we could present one to the executive that is feasible and attainable, they’d be reasonable enough to consider acting on it. (Jim, I mean send it straight to the executive, not wait till next years AGM)

    As to your comments about the PPBSO customer base, I think that we, the members, are part of it as well. After all, they offer a product to us too, don’t they? I think the non-competing pipers/drummers/bands (that Jim mentioned in his AGM article posts) are also part of the customer base. Or if they’re not, they should be. Creating a product that these people could use would be a simple thing to do: give them a networking function, and/or act as a central “request system” for people needing pipers in the province. (Sorry Jim, I seem to be plagiarizing you’re ideas a bunch here! Hope you don’t mind!)
    Cheers .. Will

  31. Further to the comment regarding the Highlands of Durham Games (Uxbridge). A few years back (8 or 9 ?) they had the 78 th Fraser’s playing a concert in the bandshell – fantastic in my humble opinion for both those who were pipers/drummers and those who were not. Anyway, what about introducing a concert by a grade 1 band? It would be appealing and something different to those who stay to hear the competition bands, and those who are in attendance for a “day out”.

  32. This is al ittle off topic, but…..
    The idea of a show or concert as part of the games is a good one, but will require buy in from the bands being asked to do this. There is a tremendous amount of work, creativity and coordination required to put on an interesting show of as little as even one hour duration. It would be a different scenario if the band members were all professionals and didn’t have careers and families outside of the pipe band world, but this isn’t the case for most people. Perhaps several bands could be askeed to do a 1/2 hour section?
    As far as playing 15 minute selections in competition, please think about this bad idea a little. It is not an accident that most pieces of music vary from say 4 to 8 minutes. You only have to look at the popular music world or think of folk songs to realize this. Even Symphonies are centered around 3 or 4 5-10 minute sections of musical arrangement with clear breaks and pauses between these sections. It is hard enough to create, practice and play a 5-7 minute selection of tunes on the pipes and drums (don’t forget that the drummers, including our illustrious tenors, have to compose EVERY note played) never mind extending this to 15 minutes. Also, imagine how “wonderful” the sound would be towards the end on a lovely rainy day or scorching, blazing afternoon.
    Also, anyone prepared to propose this idea had better be prepared to compose/arrange that 15 minute selection AND PLAY IT.

  33. I don’t believe that a concert during a highland games has to be as complicated as a regular one. Dunedin Highland games for a few years, started offering $100 or $150 dollars to any of the bands that would go to the dancing shell after they finished competing and would play a 5 minute medley of what ever, to try and garner interest from the crowd. Unfortunately, a lot of us are premadonnas and didn’t want to spend the extra time (you even got a free beer) on top of it, the City of Dunedin Pipe band, was more warmly received this year at our yearly Celtic Festival (not games) by going up with the combined Grade4 and 2 bands, and just playing 15 minutes worth of the old favorites. Crowd loved it, we didn’t expend too much time putting it together and it was just weeks after our seasonal break. Some thoughts, I wish everybody luck, and I’ll third the motion about talk being cheap.

  34. Good points Art, but we’re getting off the topic which is, why are some festivals failing while others are thriving?

    First, the games committees are not blaming us, we are not the central point of a highland games. I sat on a game’s board for 4 years and not once was the format of what the bands played was ever brought up. All they cared about is, how many bands are we getting.

    Their meetings are consumed with issues like, Parking, Security, Toilet facilities, grounds cleanup, Liquior licencing, insurance, Complimentary tickets, VIP facilities, advertising and recruiting volunteers.

    The biggest single thing we could do to help is put on a great final massed band show.
    We’re all guilty of putting on a sloppy show, playing minimal tunes and getting out of there. Who has’t groaned when pulling duty band service too, just imagine pulling concert band duty.

    At one games, we had to follow the drum majors up and down the field, one at a time!!!

    Most of the American games are two days as well, so you have to be careful what you propose to the games as you can’t take back what you offer for free.

    I don’t think it’s a wise idea to involve the society as a festival promoter, but there’s nothing stopping anyone to forming a private enterprise and offering their services to the games organizations?

  35. The economy is certainly playing a part in games attendance in the US. Less disposable income means that people are more discerning with regard to what events they attend. So, the gate is down at a lot of places.

    On top of that, piping doesn’t make money for most games. It costs them money. Therefore, competitions can be seen as more of a detriment than an assett for many games organizers. They get more bang for their buck hiring a couple of boisterous Celtic Rock bands. But, the largest draw, and the part the general public likes best, is massed bands. That’s the time that most pipers and drummers see as a time to come out and play the same old boring crap, and stand around while long-winded people pat each other on the back for their organizingmefforts. So maybe bandsmen have had a few beers, or don’t care that the band isn’t tuned up, or that uniforms are a bit disheveled. There’s a BIG disconnect. The time the audience is most interested in what we’re doing, we put on our least effort.

    The other disconnect is that we as pipers and drummers are more interested in the competition, and the audience is more interested in being entertained. You’re not going to get sponsorships, or convince games organizers of the value of competition and fork out money for travel and prizes unless we can engage an audience and make them WANT to be there. Drum Corp International fills stadiums every year for their competitions. It’s because of showmanship. Something our bands lack. Pageantry, showmanship, and good music are what it takes to attract an audience, and sponsors won’t follow unless they have someone to aim their marketing at.

    I don’t suggest we go out and march in complex, changing formations as we play, but we could be doing more to appeal visually to the audience. We already offer a unique aural experience. Even a Grade V band should be able to tune up and play Scotland the Brave in tune and with some musicality, so it’s not that general audiences are only hear bad piping. If they do, it’s out fault. We need to educate bands and audiences.

    The EUSPBA has a proposal on the table for discussion to alter the Medley format. Details can be seen in the report from the AGM found at It suggests doing away with the requirement to start the Medley on two three-paced
    whether it be the entire band striking in, or a solo piper or drummer, or combination of pipers and drummers. And a good band could have pipes and drums cutting off and coming back in to actually add a little thing called dynamics, and real Ensemble. No more circle with our backs to the audience. You want to play in a concert V, fine. Would a phalanx be more advantageous to your presentation? Go for it. Does a Pyramid showcase your musical presentation best? Cool, do it. Judging would have to change a bit, but Ensemble is already becoming more importany anyway. This approach would make it moreso.

    It will be interesting to see where this goes.

  36. That’s an incredible idea Kenton. I have wondered if certain things were done in unison why should you be disqualified? Like having some people cut out completely, and or false notes. On the main subject though, festivals should look at their venues. A lot of places are just big open fields……woooowwww.(rolls eyes) Miami Highland games used to have an incredible park that had a lot of covering, until a hurricane made it the hottest games on the planet. One of the worst locations (my personal opinion) is Sarasota’s, yet they have the beautiful grounds at Ringling, that I’m sure they could get with some effort. Try to find a location that is patron friendly. Make sure the pipe bands are not next to the celtic rock bands, but don’t keep the food on the otherside away from the beer. I feel a big part is the destination. Would you like to go to a highland games here…

    or one here…

    this could help a lot.

  37. Another great site is Stone Mt. They don’t have crowd concerns, and to justify the cow field….not everyone has championships or perm. set ups like Maxville. It still aamazes me the crowd that travels there.

  38. I did, and I summed it up to the surrounding culture. Many places lay claim to some small amount of Scottish, Irsh culture in the town as an excuse to hold games or fest. Some places are lucky enough to really have a strong base. Much like Glengarry, Dunedin, Sumerside, and the likes. One thing I noticed tonight, was that my parents were sent a brochure for Miami Highland games, yet I’m the competing and playing member of the house. I… nothing. Alot of organizations have turned to electronic entries for the entire year, and in turn I think have forgotten about promoting the games their competitions are held at. Aside from a link, most organizations do very little to help with the promotion. It would help loads if the societies would help try to bring more people to the festivals by promoting their product (us) and in turn the games would have another outlet to reach the common folk. With how easy and cheap it is to get email list, and address list, this would take very little time or effort. And with the increased crowds the games might be able to stay running a little longer, or at least make it through that tough first year.



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