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.

 

Club sorta

Pipers and drummers (mostly pipers) traditionally bemoan the fact that the general public doesn’t listen seriously to what we do. We put so much into our music and performances; we live and breathe pipe music and get frustrated when non-pipers or drummers or who aren’t family or friends (call them “outsiders”) don’t turn up for even our greatest events.

It’s particularly true of piobaireachd and piobaireachd players. Here’s the most sophisticated and hallowed music we have, yet no one else seems to care.

But here’s the thing: when outsiders actually do come to piping, pipe band and, especially, piobaireachd competitions and recitals we tend to think they’re freaks, and treat them with suspicion. It’s plain weird to us that any outsider would be a keen enthusiast of piobaireachd music.

It’s a club that’s by us and for us, and we actually prefer the exclusivity.

Some years back, there was a group of burlap-and-Birkenstock-wearing folkies who’d come out to the games around Ontario. They’d arrive in the early morning, find the Open Piobaireachd contest, and plant themselves in the grass, quietly listening to each player with closed eyes and gently swaying bodies absorbing the music.

I think there were two women and two men. They’d never ask any questions. They didn’t bother anyone. They were visibly happy people. The pipers would murmur among themselves wondering who they were, but I can’t remember anyone actually speaking to or even welcoming them. Looking back, I certainly should have. They dressed like Hippies, but they were seen as freaks because they actually, truly enjoyed piobaireachd – and they were not connected with the scene or the music in any obvious way.

And there was another older gentleman in other years. He had scraggly long hair and wore a tweed flat-cap. He’d also listen to the piobaireachd events, and actually record them on his cassette deck. Since these contests rarely if ever actually informed listeners what was being played, the gent would make a point to ask the name of the piobaireachd you’d played when you’d finished. He too was considered some sort of freak, simply because he loved music that I guess we thought that only players in the club by rights should appreciate.

Those piobaireachd enthusiasts eventually stopped turning up. I hope they’re okay, and I’m sorry that I didn’t make them feel more welcome. Ultimately, it’s our loss.

My friend and one-time band-mate Iain Symington wrote a terrific little hornpipe called “The Piobaireachd Club.” It was named after the group of pipers (me included) in our band who competed in piobaireachd events. Within the band we were seen as elitist, I guess, perceived to shut out other pipers for not knowing about the hiharin-hodorin. We all got along, but the Piobaireachd Club was a running joke within the pipe section.

So, we even ostracize within our own groups, and perhaps we like it that way. We lament the lack of attention from outsiders, but we rarely welcome them into our club.

I suppose excluding people is what defines a club, but if we want it the other way we’d be wise to try to bring in outsiders  – or at least make them feel welcome as guests.

 

Quelle reprise

The now double-homage to the anniversary of the 78th Fraser Highlanders “Live In Ireland” concert in Ballymena in 1987 is much deserved and, evidently, attractive to many people who wanted to live or relive the event.

That music was made famous 30 years ago. Three decades have passed. In normal life, that’s a long time. In pipe band music life, apparently, that was yesterday.

Since then, what has changed musically? The popularity of the pipe band “suite” as a concept appears to have waned, since “Journey To Skye” seemed to initiate interest in such a concept. Today’s bands are of course tonally and technically better than ever. But musically? There’s not a whole lot truly new going on in terms of structures and time signatures or taking our music in a different direction.

Considering that mainstream music since 1987 has seen the rise and fall of Post-Punk, Grunge, Alt-Country, K-Pop, Hip-Hop, Acid Jazz and whatever else, our musical genre is relatively stagnant. To be sure, this is not necessarily a bad thing for those who like tradition and repetition.

Certainly pipe bands have done some neat things in bits and pieces. But when I try to think of a similar one-time musical event to the 1987 concert that might be as deservedly replicated on stage 10, 20 or 30 years later, I’m at a loss.

Again, I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. I’m just saying.

The closest thing might be the Victoria Police’s “Masterblasters” concert. Or maybe Vale of Atholl’s “Live ‘n Well” show. But these, as good as they were, made nowhere near the mark of the 78th Frasers’ event, and probably would not attract the kinds of interest and paying customers we’ve seen in the last year with the Frasers Redux. (Maybe kids go around loving FMM’s “RE:CHARGED” or Inveraray & District’s “Ascension” concert recordings; I’m not sure.)

And consider, too, that much of the material that was considered so groundbreaking in 1987 was actually taken from non-pipe band sources. Alan Stivell, Horselips, Don Thompson. There were adaptations and derivations galore. So, a case can be made that, even in 1987, pipe bands weren’t innovating on their own, but innovating by adapting successful ideas from other musical domains – not quite on the poppy level of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, but still derived and adapted. It’s still innovation, but, like just about all new art, it’s not totally original.

In those pre-Internet analog days, pipe bands doing such things were a novelty, certainly in the UK. The 78th Frasers had by 1987 been playing most of that stuff for years, some carrying over from the City of Toronto Pipe Band in the 1970s. But listeners further afield than Ontario hadn’t heard it in any big way, and certainly not in a pipe band concert.

(Let’s not speak of the of the odd Scottish pipe-major who came to Ontario to judge, cassette recorder attached to his belt, returned to Scotland and introduced new musical ideas to his band, allegedly not giving them due credit. But I digress . . .)

Even the same 78th Fraser Highlanders couldn’t quite tune in to a similar zeitgeist with their own following concerts, these built from material they had actually invented almost entirely from scratch. Items like “The Megantic Outlaw” and “The Immigrants’ Suite” were received well, but I doubt many people still have those recordings on repeat, at least to the degree of “Live In Ireland.” Then again, I have never heard any other pipe band play “Journey To Skye.”

The Toronto Police’s adventurous avant-garde medleys of the aughts were interesting and courageous, but not terribly well received by judges or the pipe band world at large. No one that I know of has played them since or even tried anything as adventurous, mainly because they were proven to be generally and admittedly detrimental to winning. The relatively outrageous music distinguished the band for being, well, courageous, and attracted personnel to a band that wanted to do musical things differently. In that sense, the music met an important objective, especially considering the group at the time was on the brink of collapse due to small numbers.

Is something as impactful as “Live In Ireland” even possible today? The groundbreaking, fearless attitude of it seems to have vanished, as bands and businesses have so much money wrapped up in competition that they dare not try to over-accelerate glacial musical change. Every time they do, some dickhead judge puts them in their place, which, come to think of it, I think was one the big reasons that the 78th Fraser Highlanders lost its musical fearlessness by the 1990s.

Three decades later, is there only one concert and one recording that can be held up as musically door-opening, that actually took hold of people in a major way?

In truth, that musical door is still open only a crack.