March 16, 2013

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.


  1. Enter any guitar shop and enter the world of versatility. At the same time you enter a superstitious world with competitive pricing. It is no different for us.

  2. In part, the resistance to change within our little world is due to the fact that we are for the most part trying to preserve a tradition. There is room to improve that tradition, but changes need to be perceived as being within the idiom. To venture too far too fast isn’t generally acceptable as it can result in the tradition taking on an unrecognizable new face. Slower, more gradual change or changes that substitutes one means for another without any real or major modification of the original idea are more accepted. For example, switching from hand writing of score sheets on paper to using electronic devices would be an improvement and if done the right way wouldn’t change the concept of evaluationing a performance, but would speed up the process and possibly improve accuracy. The barrier to doing this probably lies with the cost of the equipment and the programming rather than the idea. Conversly, adding a second bass drone to the bagpipe, or adding an alto drone would change the definition of the instrument itself and thus would not likely be adopted. One other factor is that most people don’t really like change. For the most part we are creatures of habit and prefer to see things as we expect them to be rather than completely unrecognizable. Overall, it’s best if we all respect
    that which came before and embrace anything new that stays within the spirit of the past while taking us into the future.

  3. Whilst I am all up for inventive and varying aesthetics (and its not my choice/business as to what a band wants to do)…….I can’t help but relate these kinds of changes (or in fact the entire aesthetic aspect itself) to something along the lines of a well presented Michelin Star dish. Sure it looks fancy and attractive to eat, but its ultimately about how it tastes; an unappetising looking dish can always be forgiven if it tastes sensational with outstanding technique and execution rather than looking unbelievable and tasting like something you wouldn’t even feed your dog.

    For me, whilst some effort is appropriate and required, too much attention to the aesthetics of a pipe band for me is procrastination in its purest form; how it sounds and how its played is the priority. Concentrate on getting to the top three of G1…….then once you’re there knock yourself out with rainbow chanters and sticks. lol

  4. Good comments, Stumps.

    From my perspective, the ridiculous and almost token appearance of tenor drummers in years gone by had paved the way for someone to come along and elevate it to any sort of level above what it was, especially if the chief protagonist appears to be a human Labrador – excited about almost anything. There’s nothing wrong with that and it could easily be argued that tenor drumming has become less token and more of a spectacle and musical contributor. Whether or not it crosses the line with OTT flourishing that is more akin to marching girls and calisthenics, and big numbers is another debate. I saw one band at the worlds a couple of years ago and I thought the tenor drummers were directing an aeroplane to its docking bay, such was the ridiculous, almost naïve and disconnected flourishing they had put together. It was basically just one-upmanship and an attempt to be different for the sake of it. I guess this is what happens when tenor drummers have far too much spare time during a performance and when they only have two arms, much like pipers are stuck with 9 notes.

    In the case of tenor drumming, there’s a certain camp, ‘look at me’ factor about it all these days. I see lots of braiding, plucked eyebrows, lipstick and make-up being applied while others polish their brogues. It attracts younger people and the ‘cult of personality’ is alive and well as a result. They have their pin-up boy who’s made it all rather ‘cool’. It can’t all be bad if more people are involved. The question is, is there enough sense in the whole scene to say ‘ok, that grandstanding right there is not actually cool, it looks silly and desperate’.

    There are plenty of people out there who have designed/made/written the ‘world’s best’ reed, bag, book, chanter, drones, drum, bag cover, chanter cap, pipe case, cords, sporrans etc., just ask them!! Sweeping statements are ‘de rigueur’.

    The market will speak. In the case of tenor drumming, their actual musical contribution is still relatively minute and comparatively simple and easy. It will always therefore be about the ‘razzle-dazzle’, first and foremost. With that in mind, and knowing that drummers are completely different animals to pipers (they don’t own/pay for instruments/books reeds etc. and want the latest toys every few years), they will buy anything that is fashionable and ‘it’, especially when the whole way things are marketed to them suggests it is a fashion to follow – “Blue Silver”.

    It’s all just a bit camp, really.

  5. I’d be very interested to see the data to back up that claim on aerodynamics (I strongly doubt that any such data exists). What evidence is there that changing the aerodynamic properties of the beater makes the drum sound better?
    All these bright colours and unverified claims are just vacuous marketing BS to get you to buy stuff you didn’t think you needed until you saw the advert. If it makes the drums sound better in a double blind test, buy it. Otherwise it’s just another way of parting fools from their money. It’s not like the judge is going to give you more points for having colour coordinated your sticks, drums and uniforms.

    1. NeilM, well said. All Tyler would have to do is tell them and they’ll believe/buy it! Hook, line and sinker. The guy has one product, really, and a big following. Re-inventions of the wheel are therefore as predictable as sunset. He has a fickle and easily led market to exploit. He plays the game and bobs up all over the globe. He’s got a following of fans (of what exactly? Used to be about his playing. Not so sure it is now.) that has become his bread and butter. It’s an example of great marketing to a soft and malleable market. What we are all forgetting is that we’re talking about an instrument that is still the ONLY non-compulsory element in a pipe band. Blogs like this are living proof the guy has made enough noise and waves to always get air time when he needs it. The amount of discussion, polarisation of opinions, angst etc. this all causes is not commensurate with the actual importance and contribution on tenor drumming in a PIPE band. The term ‘bottom feeders’ might be cruel, but that’s where they sit on the pipe band food chain. Anyone outside the pipe band world might read blogs like this and think otherwise. Good luck to the guy. $90 for mass produced plastic and nylon dish mops that enables a reverse 1 and 1/2 pike, inward double tuck, front dive half twist……with a side salad and a “high Fry” – nice work if you can get it! Good reeds don’t make better pipers. Same applies here, but buy-up people. Gotta have the latest ‘must-have’ accessory and look for this season. Don’t want to be seen dead with last year’s stuff. That’s so yesterday!

  6. Highland bagpipe makers have sold a variety of models of pipes based solely on decoration. They always contend that the craftsmanship in the wood and the bores is the same from set to set. But, hey, if you want fully-mounted hand-chased 18-ct gold, they are more than pleased to take your money. Whether it’s teal tenor mallets of full silver-and-ivory mounts, this is not a new concept.

  7. Andrew – a good point. I was thinking along those lines; I wonder if this big of a fuss was made the first time a piper chose a coloured bag cover and cords to match their uniform. Or used a bag cover at all…

  8. To be honest I’m pleased that changes in piping move about as fast as a species evolves. Well maybe it’s not that slow. One thing about a gradual evolution is that we see people from all walks of life and age connected by a love for something old. I don’t know of any popular music where such reverence is held for the older player. If Richard Parkes and Willie McCallum had formed a sucessful rock band they would be playing to an aging crowd. Instead they are relevant and looked up to by young players.
    One of the things we see in the world today is our elderly being forgotten. I can’t help but feel piping is one place where that happens a bit less. I’ve know men who taught in their death beds. Their pupils brought their practice chanters and smallpipes to get their last lessons. The hospital staff said they had never seen such a thing.
    I decided to play pipes because they’re old and connect me to the country I was born in. If I’d wanted to be progressive and explore something that is always changing I would have picked up a guitar or learned to dj electronic music in packed bars.

  9. Highland ‘Mental’ Games and their Products?

    The quality of any pipe band member’s musical instrument or product, like a tenor mallet, is really not that much of stretch when compared to that of today’s sports equipment, be it a snow board, golf club or tennis racket; where we bang into, hit or swing things with them. The principal is basically the same, they all engage science, human physical dexterity and a recognized refined product to achieve an acumen in optimum performance.

    Manufacturing companies will spend millions of dollars to tweak or fine tune any object designed to improve a user’s success rate. (Check the weighted Big Burtha driver in any weekend golfer’s bag.) Marketing companies will spend 10 times more millions to promote and advertise a product over another. The target audience typically consists of you or me, and dependent upon the depth of one’s personal passion for a sport, like golf, or even competing in solo’s or in a pipe band, will we typically subscribe to any brand or product that will allow us to “up” our individual game. It’s human nature and even sensible to not use things that were designed hundreds of years ago, and perhaps go for something ‘new’. What is that worth to us, winning or losing perhaps?

    A dated article in Business Week describes the term “sports marketing”as the marketing of sports products or the marketing of non-sport products through associations with sports. Many companies use sports marketing to attach certain attributes — like success, performance, and passion — with their brands. This term is so vast and yet captivating that it affords any news or information about the impact of marketing through athletes, teams, and sport events and how a particular brand can effect performance. What is that worth, in a brand saturated world? The figures are staggering.

    So how would we… in the real world of Piping & Band Competitions or Championships describe the term “pipeband marketing”? As the marketing of pipeband products or the marketing of non-products through the associations of Scottish pipe bands? And, furthermore, would many regular players use “pipeband marketing” to attach certain attributes — like success, performance, and passion — with their chosen brands (and bands)? Equally the concept is again so vast and captivating here, that we all have been known to relish any news or information about the impact of a particular product’s or ‘instruments’ rather, used by winning champion players and champion bands, that might effect the outcome of a performance? Surely is can’t JUST be about traditional able playing?

    All things being equal, we also can’t forget about the tantamount value in the “psychology of the competitive edge”. Perhaps it is not just about tenor mallets after all really, and more about one’s own mental game? What is that a game changer worth to us, who really wish to win? The simple fear of failure perhaps?

    Innovation leads to invention AND… to a natural consumer infatuation.
    A “High Five” to Tyler Fry. (And I bet, he is not spending millions doing it.)

  10. The colored chanters caught my eye. I’ve been a piper for 30 years and recently bought an established machine shop in the U.S.. I jumped into the foray of bagpipe manufacturers within the past year after seeing an opportunity to actually “have available” products that I believe people are seeking. A current social trend is that people want to be different. A way to be different is to show unique colors, and this carries over to our hobby. The intent of our company is to fill that unique color niche in the piping community. I don’t believe colored practice chanters or having fun with colored products at practice or for special events is out of line or gaudy. The intent of these products is to be more fun. Lastly, I respect tradition, and I’m only hoping these “fun” colors do not show up at the Worlds.



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