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.