Hacking Bagpipe Competitions: Idea 3—The Adjudicator Fee Cap

Highland games and cultural festivals in general sit on a financial precipice. They serve an extremely narrow subset of the public in spite of every effort to make them more generally appealing. And as hard as they try, these games have an annual challenge to draw the crowds needed to sustain themselves. One or two rainy years and these games are suddenly faced with the prospect of shutting down completely. Add to this already stress-inducing burden spending money on a bagpiping competition for soloists and bands all imposed by the governing policy of the EUSPBA, and the games suddenly have one more boulder to roll uphill.

The EUSPBA is in a position to provide quite a bit more than just advice to back up the imposition it places on Highland games. Anything beyond that advice is naturally going to take the form of some sort of funding or spending. In lieu of any other brainstorming for solutions, we’ll tackle the subject here at Pipehacker with ideas that are hopefully actionable and concrete (such as Idea 1 and Idea 2). Here is Idea 3 for hacking bagpipe competitions: The Adjudicator Fee Cap.

The Adjudicator Fee Cap
Current trends show more and more bagpiping competitions showing up on the EUSPBA schedule. It’s clearly good for piping and drumming to see the expansion of our craft. But that expansion comes at a cost and is clearly unsustainable even in the best of economic conditions. Expanding piping and drumming competitions means an expanding competitor field which inevitably means a need for more piping and drumming judges on a typical games day.

Piping and drumming adjudicator fees are probably the largest single expense a Highland games has to pay. A typical season of 60 games using an average of 9 judges each brings a cost of $108,000 in adjudicator fees overall. Total prize money awarded for pipe bands reaches $150,000 to $175,000 per season on average. As a measure of value, it needs to be asked: Is it reasonable that judge fees nearly equal the prize money offered to pipe bands? In an expanding piping and drumming universe, it is not impossible to imagine those judge fees disproportionately surpassing prize money if nothing changes.

At the single games level, a typical Highland games can employ 6 to 15 judges for bagpipes, drums, and pipe bands. Judges currently receive a stipend of $200 as recommended by the EUSPBA. That is $1,200 to $3,000 for the day just for the adjudicators alone. Add travel expense, hotel rooms, and food and the judge portion is clearly a good part of the financial burden currently fronted by Highland games. But why must the games be forced to fork over such cash? It’s amazing that many games don’t just say: “You want us to hire your judges for competitions in your system, then you pay for them.” Like a lot of things we do, it is mostly habit that governs our decisions. The current model of Highland games fronting all costs for our bagpiping competitions is a habit out of control. Forcing games to pay for more and more judges at expanding competitions is no different. Why not have the EUSPBA itself pay adjudicators a flat fee and take that financial burden off the shoulders of the games?

The Adjudicator Fee Cap removes a hefty chunk of the financial burden from the Highland games who would still be left to dutifully feed and lodge our judges for their events. Piping and drumming judges work very hard during a typical summer’s day on the games grounds. Bagpiping competitions are grueling affairs to be sure. A mere $200 is but a meager reward for the amount of work and dedication shown by a typical judge out on the pitch. But, like the playing pipers and drummers, judges are not doing this competition thing for the money. It’s nice, sure, but any judge who considers the competition season a series of paydays probably needs to rethink their priorities. Under the Fee Cap, the EUSPBA would be responsible for fronting the actual fees for judges per season in a capped, flat payment based on the number of competitions judged.

We already consider piping and drumming adjudicators to be accountable to the EUSPBA. The Adjudicator Fee Cap cements that relationship and provides more direct accountability to the membership—i.e., those musicians who are adjudicated—whose dues funds would be used for this purpose. The idea also requires the adjudicators themselves to take responsibility for the number of times they are out on the field.

How would the fees in the Adjudicator Fee Cap be structured? I’m glad you asked. The amounts can be debated, but here is a start:

  • One competition judged per season: $200
  • Two competitions judged per season: $300
  • Three competitions judged per season: $500
  • More than three competitions: an extra $200 flat

Any judge out on the field more than three different times receives a capped fee of $700 for the season. Yes, this significantly reduces the possible amount of money any bagpiping or drumming judge can pull in during a typical eastern competition season. As I said, reasonable amounts can be debated as could be the cutoff for the cap. Also, as I said, any judge who would then consider limiting their adjudicating activity to only four games per season (or refuse to judge at all) facing such a cap should probably think hard about the reasons they do this bagpiping or drumming thing.

Now, before I hear grunts of disproval and snorts of disregard, I would point out that we’re talking about ensuring the longevity of bagpipe competitions at Highland games. If it means removing unwieldy fees that only put negative pressure on our network of Highland games in favor of something more sustainable, then I would think that our entire judges panel should support it. Asking Highland games to compensate judges twenty years ago, when the number of competitors in the EUSPBA was half the current size or less, was clearly not asking what it is asking now. Progress in eastern piping and drumming means growth, and the spread of piping and drumming competition in the eastern US region and can only mean the need for more adjudicators at more competitions. The current fee model—forcing games to front all of the cost for EUSPBA adjudicators—works against that progress like a strong wind. Establishing an Adjudicator Fee Cap that sets the maximum per season paid in full by the EUSPBA itself clears the path for the progress we would all like to see.

  • Eric Ouellette

    At this juncture, the only reason I would consider being a judge is a) to pay for my travel expenses to get me to a games that offers a professional contest where I can rake in a little extra cash that I desperately need as a graduate student, and b) to pad those winnings with a little insurance policy that the weekend wouldn’t be a total bust. It would not be because I agree with the certification process, or because I feel called to it, or because I am really eager to listen to a 19 player field of gr IV’s pounding out full piobaireachds at 8am on a (probably soggy) park bench under a pine tree that is likely dripping pitch and dropping needles on me the whole time.
    That said: If all judges were worth $200 per games, I think it would be reasonable to ask that. However, I don’t think that all judges in our association are even worth being on the panel, so that changes the game a bit…
    just my two cents.

  • Keydet Piper

    I agree that we can reduce the cost of judges, and I’m sure many judges would be ok with this; as you said, they don’t necessarily do it for the money. However I’m sure there would be several judges who would limit their involvement if going to games is going to be a money loser for them, especially for longer travel distances. Then again, there are people who rely solely on piping and drumming for their income, and judging fees are part of that.

    Something needs to be done to take the strain off the games, but I’m not sure that this method is the right way to do it.

    • Pipehacker

      If economic conditions cause you to lose your job, we accept that as part of life and move on, don’t we? I hate the fact that money is at the heart of all this, truthfully. At some point though we need to stop looking at this as a commercial transaction and start thinking about bigger things. I personally don’t care how well (or poorly) judges are compensated but if that compensation is going to negatively effect my ability to compete, then I figure something’s gotta change.

  • Dan Cole

    Eric, you’re lucky to have such a nice rake.

    The rest of you are absolutely mental. To think that judges should be paid less is obscene. Most of our judges are in professions other than piping and have families. Those that play and teach piping for a living do this ALL DAY LONG and this is how they spend their weekends. “Why go to the lake when I can stand in a hot field for hours wrapped in wool?” That logic makes perfect sense to me! 8 hours listening to crappy piping (we are on the east coast after all… and we’re American so we don’t have time to practice) followed by 15 grade 5 bands… They don’t do this for the money, but they’re not doing it to promote slavery. Also, I won’t speak for the keeper of the purse, but there is no association money for a project like this, unless you only want to do it for specific contests. We stretch from Timbuktu to Portland, ME. Some would like it to go to Portland, OR. There is simply not enough money.The games are not going broke as a rule. Businesses go under all the time because of poor management and foolish decisions. Why should highland games be any different? When you have as many as we have, I’m sure a number fall of an a regular basis. That’s not the association’s fault. That’s nature.-Dan

  • Maureen E Connor

    Dan, I have to agree with you! Eric O, you would not be where you are today if there wasn’t a judge listening to your full piobroch in Grade 3. As a new judge, I’m happy to be compensated, and I’m sure there are ways to curb the bigger expenses—travel. When a games has to pay airfare to get most of their judges, then that’s a big expense. The stipend is nominal. However, I make lot more than $200/day to teach a workshop, so I disagree that there should be a cap on fees.

    The EUSPBA does NOT have a lot money lying around to spend on games AND I think that would be the worst thing the EUSPBA could do. I think it’s great that we provide the structure for competition and a process for certifying judges—let the free market take care of the contest. Where there are associations paying for the piping and drumming they have lost games…….where the organizers were paying a pretty low fee to begin with.


    • Pipehacker

      First, thanks everyone for your thoughts! Maureen, I’m not sure I buy the fact that without being paid, there would be no one to judge. Is that what you’re suggesting? Providing structure by itself just isn’t enough anymore truly. This idea (and the others) are thrown out there in the absence of any other ideas for when the “free market” forces games to decide that piping and drumming competitions just ain’t worth it. What then? That’s the point of this exercise. I think it is conventional wisdom to think that the EUSPBA does NOT have the money for solutions and that “games are not going broke as a rule” as Dan says. I disagree with both those precepts and defy anyone to show me the numbers to back them up. One glance at a single games’ balance sheet will set the latter point straight. Yes, some games do very well. Bully for them. But what do we do when the mere existence of our craft and its financial burden are forcing other games to make serious decisions to shut down their p&d component? As competitions expand in number, so too does the need for more judges. Imposing any kind of fees for judges the EUSPBA is forcing on games is onerous. If it means investing in the longevity of the games/competition model to make a change like this, then I don’t see why it couldn’t be considered. After all, it’s just an idea. I know one thing though, I sure don’t pay my dues so the EUSPBA can make sure that others can make a living doing this p&d thing. The EUSPBA doesn’t exist to protect peoples’ livelihoods, it exists to promote piping and drumming.

  • Dan Cole


    I don’t have the numbers, but I have the reality. The big contests have been and will always be here. Sure a big one may fall now and then, but it’s like Lehman Brothers; it happens every once in a while and we all survive.

    I’m having trouble thinking of a contest that I liked going to that has closed its doors. Delco was before my time. I understand that wasn’t the most pleasant experience anyway but, being a sentimental guy, I can understand if people miss it.

    The contests that aren’t around anymore are few and far between, and they were small and poorly run. No need for that in a market that’s over saturated.


    • Pipehacker

      Thanks Dan. No doubt games will always continue. The question is what do we do when economic realities force them to continue without piping and drumming competitions? Since we rely so heavily on the games, where does that leave us? I sound like the heretic in rags screaming in the market square, but when those decisions come it will cascade through our circuit and it will be swift. It’s all about mitigating risk. The games can choose at any time to end their p&d competitions and it seems logical to do things to make sure they never have to make that choice. In all honesty, I can’t think of one competitive organization (in any idiom) that places the total burden of funding its events on some other organization entirely the way we in the EUS do. (If I’m wrong, please send the info my way!) I am of the opinion that our model is unsustainable at the scale it has reached.

      p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica}

      • Maureen E Connor

        Vin, I think your concerns are real because there are games that have taken away piping and drumming competitions because they can’t afford all the expenses associated with running the events (judging fees, travel, Sanctioning fees, score sheets, Prize Money). Several games in the mid-west have opted to hire a couple of bands to put on the Massed Band performance (and you know the quality of those bands…)

        However, I think you are missing a point here. The games are just as responsible for COVERING THEIR OWN COSTS. Why are entry fees so low? Why don’t more games ask each competitor to pay for a ticket???? Solo competitions are NOT providing entertainment and only cost the games money. Some organizers have gone to the “pay as you go” model (X amount for 1 event, Y for each additional event) Pipe Bands may say “We’re providing entertainment and the big event” Really? Poorly marching up and down in lines that get squished and pipes banged around for 1 minute of Ooooh/Aaaahhh. Really? Games organizers should really weigh whether it is worth all that expense. And charge appropriate entry fees. What competitive events offer more in prize money than they are assured through entry fees??????

        Are bands really relying upon prize money??? Certainly not in Grade 5 or 4 and possibly not Grade 3.

        I think, you are over thinking the role of the EUSPBA. It provides structure, continuity, and a legitimate judges. Whether you agree or disagree about the quality of any of those facets, that what the EUSPBA does and that’s why people continue to re-new their membership (for a really cheap membership fee!!!) and why games want to be Sanctioned by the EUSPBA.

        What you may also be forgetting is that 15-20 years ago there were fewer Highland Games, few pipers and drummers, few judges, fewer bands and the piping and drumming world was not falling apart.


  • Maureen E Connor


    BTW, there are barely enough judges to cover all the contest that the EUSPBA sanctions, so Guest Judges are brought in (which is good thing according to your previous posts) but they cost WAY MORE. They are coming from very far away and their travel is higher.

    Also, a lot of games make use of part-time judges where they receive a smaller stipend and no hotel room.

    Finally, the ‘suggested” judging fee has been $200 for at least 10-15 years.

Content Protected Using Blog Protector By: PcDrome.