Sales pitch

Reeds do it. Metres do it. Even educated beaters do it. Let’s do it. Let’s fall apart.

With apologies to Cole Porter, the “it” in question is obsolescence, the failure of a product requiring customers to need the next version.

For most industries, planned obsolescence is necessary to sustain business. A product can become obsolete through continual improvement, as in your iPhone. After a time, technology overtakes technology, rendering an older product useless. Changing fashion is about style, but it’s also about creating new desirable products through perceived obsolescence, otherwise, loin-clothes would still be in vogue.

Musical instruments by and large are an exception. A quality musical instrument can last a lifetime, or even several lifetimes, provided that the instrument can cope with the evolution of pitch and, in the case of pianos, incredible tension that can eventually break down a pressure bar, rendering the instrument untenably untunable.

In terms of tension, a pipe band snare drum with upwards of a thousand pounds of pressure puts a piano’s maximum 200 pounds to shame. There is an incredible amount of torque required to bring a pipe band snare to pitch, and an ever-more-demanding drum pitch to complement an ever-sharper chanter sound is a great business recipe.

I have often wondered whether ever-rising pitch across almost all genres of music isn’t about planned obsolescence. From what I have read, the pitch of symphony orchestras has steadily increased, just like pipe bands. No one knows exactly why, but a possible theory is that it puts more pressure, figuratively and literally, on instruments, necessitating replacement parts or outright replacement.

I defer to experts on the mechanicals and engineering of a snare drum, but I believe that shells can buckle, hardware can bend, snare mechanisms fail, eventually rendering the instrument unstable. Pipe chanters generally have a much longer shelf-life, but they too are subject to the pressures of pitch, reed-seats knackered, holes gouged beyond repair, and so forth. At $850-$1,400 each, the pipe band snare drum and its various heads and snares that need regular replacing are the biggest annual collective equipment expense for a band.

I’m sure that a percussion instrument maker could create a snare drum that lasts as long as a Land Rover, but, trouble is, it would probably weigh too much to carry or be too expensive to purchase in the short-term, even though it might pay off in the long-term. Percussion instrument makers tempt bands further by bringing out the latest and greatest drums that promise to be more responsive and resilient, with glorious new sparkly shiny finishes to bling your back end. Just like your iPhone, what started five years ago as a state-of-the-art miracle device becomes a despicable piece of dated garbage.

In 2009, Terry Cleland created snare drums with carbon fibre shells that were lightweight and hardly or never deteriorated under pressure. They came in at a relatively expensive price, and haven’t caught on. He gave a complete set to the Grade 1 Ballycoan band, only to see the band buckle and break up before it ever took the drums into a contest.

Drum makers are smart to give away their instruments to the top bands, just like Taylor Made and Titleist get the best golfers to use their newest gear. The lead-drummers of the lower-grade bands beg and plead for their band to buy them the gear that is sure to up their game when, in fact, it probably won’t make too much difference to reconcile an outlay of $15,000, including matching tenors, bass and heads.

It’s a terrific business model – one that I won’t fault. If it weren’t for pipe chanters and their eventual obsolescence, I wonder how many bagpipe makers would stay afloat. Pipe band snare drum makers consistently strive to create more tension to satisfy tonal taste, and the pitch going higher and higher virtually guarantees sales. Woe betide drum and bagpipe makers if the prize-winning Grade 1 sound suddenly dropped 15 cycles. We’d all be pulling out our old 10-lug Super Royal Scots and Robertson chanters.

Pushing up the pitch is business-smart, lucrative obsolescence.

 

Oldies

The music you liked when you were younger is the music you will prefer for the rest of your life. That’s an oversimplification, and there are exceptions, but, by and large it’s true of most people.

And so, too, with pipe band judges.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the lamentably slow pace of change in pipe band competition music and style, look no further than the relatively inflexible and stubborn judge. Just as that 50-plus-year-old guy or gal on the pen goes home after the contest, opens a can of Tartan Special and puts on that LP of Cliff Richard from 1980, they’re having a hard time getting their ears around your band’s “crazy” medley.

If they hear the latest song by Drake or The Weeknd they instantly flip the radio station (not streaming, of course) and tut-tut, “That’s nae music.” It’s a knee-jerk response, and to them there are no two ways about it. “Big Country! Now that was a band!” It is a truism of every generation: what was cool growing up carries forward as their definition of likable or acceptable music later in life.

Again, I generalize. There are exceptions. I have encountered a small number of judges my age or older who relish new music – both pop and pipe band. They have open and tolerant ears, and enjoy the surprise and delight of hearing new stuff. Sure, like me they still like the familiar music of their formative years, but they move on and treat every new song or tune as yet another fun possibility. Invariably, these people get bored quickly. They embrace change, optimistically considering it as continual improvement rather pessimistically seeing the threat of messing with a good thing. Leave well enough alone.

I like to count myself among the easily bored and change-welcoming. At age 53 I listen to new music all day as part of my job, but I have always loved hearing new music and discovering new artists. I get bored with piping when I hear or play the same things over and over and over again. Without question, I understand the competition conceit of playing familiar music flawlessly, and that can be intriguing and interesting. Striving for perfection in competition can salvage 10,000 maniacal airings of “Blair Drummond.” But, regarding the content itself, I would far prefer to hear the new than the old.

It seems to me that we need more judges with such a mindset. Perhaps pipe band accreditation exams should include a tolerance test of the unfamiliar. Not necessarily measure how much a prospective judge likes new music; just how much he or she  will  tolerate it. An intolerant judge is a bad judge, so test how open-minded they are. Hell, ask them to name a few of their favourite musicians or non-pipe bands. If they respond only with things like “The Beatles” or “The Stones” or “The Who” – great though they each might be – maybe they’re better to go rust away elsewhere than inflict their intransigence on us.

Mainly because of the judging, our art evolves more slowly than a lead zeppelin. Pipe bands want to win so they err on the side of caution, terrified that intractable adjudicators will put “new” music in its place as self-appointed gatekeepers of the craft and preservationists of an art and era that they grew up with.

If we’re going to move things forward, let’s make sure that our judges are musically open-eared and tolerant. It’s the right thing to do.

 …new…

Regarding regrading

It’s regrading time, and that means associations all over the northern hemisphere are considering results and making decisions as to who should go up and down the competitive ladder.

Some bands and soloists prefer to force the matter by proactively and publicly proclaiming their intention to move up to the next grade, seemingly daring their association not to respect their wishes, “stifling” their ambition.

Others are more discreet, making a case quietly to their association, thus allowing the competitor and the association to save face if it doesn’t happen. They want to let the grading committee know their ambition, but they’re not out to make a fuss.

Still other competitors stay silent, preferring and trusting that due process will take its course. If it happens, it happens, and they’ll deal with it if and when it does.

All too often we look only at competition results. We see a band that won an aggregate championship or was even undefeated in their grade and assume it’s an automatic upgrade. They won everything, so of course they should go up!

But it is not automatic or, rather, it shouldn’t be.

Prizes are ideally an indication of quality, but certainly not the only factors. Prizes are a guide, and regrading should be only about exceeding or not meeting a grade’s standard based on a much wider view.

We all know jurisdictions that are seen as having a better or lesser quality of competition. A band that is used to winning their grade within their association’s competitions goes to another association’s event and gets nothing. Why? Because the standard is higher. And of course the opposite is true, when a band that is used to getting nothing dominates on a trip elsewhere.

This is what often gives the RSPBA fits. A winning Grade 4 band from [insert country here] wants to compete in Grade 4A at the World’s. Ideally, the RSPBA would simply accept the entry, having faith that the other association administers the grade according to a world standard. But more often than not, the RSPBA hems and haws and gets recommendations from trusted sources, and then assigns the band to Grade 4B. The RSPBA should not need to do this, but unfortunately it often has to, and is then compelled to regrade bands that aren’t even their members.

And, worse, the non-RSPBA band that cleans up at home in Grade 4 winds up getting nothing in Grade 4B in Glasgow. But the band then goes back home and demands an upgrade to Grade 3 and it’s granted. Anomaly. Bad judging. Weather. It happens frequently.

I’ve written before about the need for grading committees to be good at much more than simply looking at spreadsheets of results. They should go beyond their region and know and have experienced and have a feel for a world standard. No amount of winning or losing should automatically mean that a competitor deserves to be regraded.

In fact, a re-calibration of a grade is required when an association’s standard is not commensurate on a world level. Do re-calibrate, an association must make the difficult and courageous decision not to upgrade anyone, despite their excellent competition year. Re-calibrating a grade might also mean sending a few contestants down. Associations need to understand that this sort of tough love is for the good of the scene, and not strictly about satisfying the band or soloist’s desire.

To be sure, not agreeing to an upgrade that a band or soloist has requested can be considered as stifling their desire. I can see that. But it is far worse to officially upgrade a band or soloist knowing full well that 1) the overall standard of the association’s existing grade does not meet a world standard, and 2) upgrading them dilutes the standard of the higher grade.

Upgrading bands and soloists when an association knows that its grade standards are not in sync with the rest of the world only compounds problems. If a band or solo player is disgruntled having to remain in a grade until they exceed a world standard, they’re just as or even more likely to be demoralized losing week in and week out in their new grade where their fellow competitors who do meet the grade wonder why the upgraded band or soloist is even in it.

By undeservedly moving up competitors, a grading committee might make everyone feel good for a short time but, in reality, they only making things worse for the band or soloist, the grade-standard and the association that they are supposed to serve.

When it comes to grading, sometimes tough love is best.