Haves and have-nots

There are those pipe bands that have and those that have not. And increasingly there are competitions and Highland games that have and have not. The size and success of bands and competitions are linked.

June 23rd was one of the more ironic and remarkable days of piping and drumming news that I can remember. Within hours of one another, the Virginia Tattoo folks proudly announced that two “have” bands – Inveraray & District and ScottishPower – would be flown in to the April 2016 event in Norfolk. Big, successful, wonderful bands that are having all expenses paid to the sunny and warm southeast USA to play in the first annual big extravaganza.

Nice news. What’s not to like?

An hour or so later came a rather different message from the good people who organize the 150-year-old competition in northern California, referred to fondly as “Pleasanton.” This somewhat dire announcement outlined that hoping for top-grade bands to get to their event, each bringing upwards of 40 members, has become unrealistic for the bands to pay for, and impossible for the contest to underwrite. So, Pleasanton’s solution is to reset their own rules. Three invited Grade 1 bands would be limited to competing with no more than eight pipers and seven drummers total.

Interesting, but not a little sad.

Thanks to the proliferation of the numbers game – not just in Grade 1, but really across all grades – larger bands have to be far more selective about where they travel. If their way is paid, as with Inveraray and ScottishPower, or the event is a must-attend, many  simply can’t get to most events. Unless a competition like the World’s or Maxville has built up its stature, events have to find the money to attract bands with prizes or travel subsidies or both to get them out.

The irony is that when bands have size enough to be competitive, they can no longer get to events to do what they want to do: compete.

John Biggar, with the cooperation of the Western United States Pipe Band Association, has created a new event: the small band competition, which is pretty much a step back to 1975 or so when bands of eight, three, two and one were not only acceptable, they were common.

Pleasanton used to have it all, attracting full-sized Grade 1 bands to finish their season in northern California. Today, this very successful event is left having to not just reinvent itself but reinvent pipe band rules to continue its success.

It’s a ridiculous state of affairs, but that’s what it has come to.

Because so many bands prepare for the World Championships, it will take the RSPBA to evoke positive change. Otherwise, we will see competitions like Pleasanton take things into their own hands by creating events that more bands can attend, that the event itself can afford. But those events will need to work with associations to bend their rules, and, as we saw in Northern Ireland with the Spring Gatherin’, that’s not always possible, or even likely.

I’ve written over the last 15 years (for example, here, here, here, here, here) about the dangers of allowing band sizes to expand unchecked. For sure, large bands make for interesting sounds and sights, but it invites situations like we’re seeing now, where there are not only have and have-not bands, but there are have and have-not competitions.

Twenty years ago, most Scottish pipe bands would compete at about 15 contests a year. Now most get out to maybe eight, five of those the major championships. The larger size of bands makes it difficult to get to an event with a full complement of players, so they pick and choose. I see top-grade bands scraping for players to boost numbers, bringing in pipers 15 years retired, fielding kids with experience no higher than Grade 4, pressured to feature at least seven across the front at virtually any cost.

I think the majority of bands would support reasonable limits of section sizes — not tiny bands of eight, four and one, but maybe 18, eight, four and one for Grade 1; 15, seven, four and one for Grade 2; and so on. There would be better quality bands. There would be more bands. There would be more bands to attend competitions. Bands could afford to get to more competitions.

Other than hurting a few feelings for a few days when lesser players are cut loose (to become better players in other bands), I can’t really think of a single good reason not to limit section sizes.

The situation is capitalistic. Survival of the fittest and all that. But, to me, the piping and drumming world needs a more social approach. We need to level the playing field by putting a reasonable limit on numbers across all grades, so that we can continue doing what we do and make the business of competition sustainable.

 

Shake up or shut up

The grand old Crieff Highland Games deciding, at least this year, to drop solo piping competitions from its day in August is certainly a shame for piping tradition, but it’s  emblematic of the challenges facing event organizers — and us.

I wrote about this very threat nine years ago. We pipers and drummers like our competitions. And the large majority of us like our competitions to be just so: piobaireachd, MSR, five-seven-minute medleys, and so forth. We like our assembly-line of contestants. We dislike any more muss or fuss than the predictable: judges and stewards, no fanfare, nothing but closed backs-to-the-audience circles, no inquisitive outsiders who are not part of the club daring to ask just what the heck we’re doing.

Despite occasional attempts by associations to be more audience-accommodating, such suggestions, motions or trials, with rare exceptions, have been historically shut down. Just keep doing what we’ve always done, and screw the rest.

It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

We rely on events like Crieff to supply us with a place to compete. And when places like Crieff make the tough decision to drop events that are, to non-pipers and drummers, rigid, mysterious, repetitious and, let’s be honest, boring, we act surprised, as if we are somehow owed something.

Well, we are entertainers of sorts who are willing to perform for free, but, in truth, we are owed nothing.

Highland games and Scottish festivals are businesses. They might be for-profit and nonprofit, but they are businesses at least looking to break even. To do that, like every business, they must offer a product that people like. If solo piping and pipe band competitions are not attractive products, why on earth would a business offer them? Because they owe us something? Give your head a shake.

It’s simple. We can increasingly continue to hold our own events that are supported by the competitors themselves via membership dues and entry fees, or we can help Highland games to offer a better product. For the former, we can play “Blair Drummond” ad infinitum, and all will be good. For the latter, we have to be flexible and creative; we need to be prepared to entertain non-pipers and drummers better and work creatively with Highland games to break down that wall of mystery between our wee club of pipers and drummers and the general public. They might be interested and like the music, just not hours and hours of what, to them, becomes the Same. Damned. Thing.

I’m all for both kinds of events. We can continue to hold our anachronistic competitions for ourselves. But for our “public” events, we have to help ourselves by creating a better product.

And if we’re unwilling to create a more sellable product for the games, we have only ourselves to blame when they drop piping, drumming and pipe band competitions.

If we don’t help ourselves by trying to help them, they owe us nothing.

 

Video killed the pipe band star

Making an album with a top-grade pipe band used to be a big deal. The vinyl LPs of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s by bands like the Edinburgh City Police, Shotts & Dykehead, Glasgow Police and Dysart & Dundonald were coveted objects around the emerging pipe band world, at least with this kid growing up in America’s heartland.

The cardboard jacket would list the tunes, the composers and, most importantly, the members of the band. There they’d be: the names of the superstars who were actually members of a great pipe band who were actually performing on the music spinning round and round the turntable. The pipers and drummers were stars; the pipe-major and leading-drummer were superstars.

It used to be a dream for many pipers and drummers to get into a Grade 1 band and cut an album, in a studio, to see your very own name on glorious cardboard.

But, then, a bunch of things happened.

In 1987 the 78th Fraser Highlanders made Live In Ireland. It’s still the greatest pipe band album of all time, according to the majority, and it was the first major commercial live pipe band recording. It captured energy and excitement from the band and audience, happily trading those massively positive intangibles for the occasional playing blooter or tuning blemish.

So, fairly quickly the pipe band world realized that, rather than anguish for days in an expensive recording studio trying to make a clinically perfect recording with a “pipe band” that might in reality be whittled down to five or six of the best pipers and a handful of drummers, a band can put on a concert and capture it all in one take – get that energy and be forgiven because it’s live.

And digital emerged at about the same. Vinyl gave way to CDs. Recording technology became far less expensive and a cottage industry of CD makers enabled just about any pipe band to make a CD. The “album” itself became a bit commonplace.

And now the pipe band album – live or studio – is on the brink of extinction. Every other pipe band enthusiast with a phone is posting video of every band at every competition on every video platform. There’s still a strong desire for high-quality audio/video, but the exclusivity of being on a commercial recording is lost in the throng of questionable “content” out there.

I suppose being on the World’s BBC streaming broadcast is as close as we come these days to recording stardom. Definitely hitting more people in more places with more pipe band music than ever, but it’s all so anonymous. With video reproductions, apart from the P-M and L-D, the individual band members are never highlighted.

They’re just nameless there in the circle huffing away. There’s hardly a kid in America’s heartland or anywhere else who knows or cares who these accomplished pipers and drummers are. In online video there are no names of musicians, no stories to read on the album cover, no details about the tunes and arrangements – no real glamour.

It’s more inclusive to have all that sketchy video (and even poorer quality audio) content out there for every band and every competition on earth, but it results in a lot of “So what?”

We have more, more, more, but we’ve also lost achievement that used to be exclusive and inspirational.