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The Red Hot Booking Agent

By 19th September 2014

Have you ever met someone who truly loves their job? Not just likes it, or feels lucky, or is happy to be employed. But truly lives and breathes it, loves every second, fills their spare time with their work just because they love it so much.  I do. His name is Douglas Gillespie and every time he talks about his job (I say talks, I do of course mean posts on facebook, because this is 2014 and that’s how we keep up with people we only kind of know!) he radiates like a little ray of red hot sunshine!

I know Douglas from his weekly visits to Brig Farm Shop to buy his Highland Beef Fillet Steaks.  We have talked at length about food and whenever I bump into him this is where the conversation normally leads. So, with this in mind, it’s fair to say I don’t really know much about him other than the fact he loves food, he is the Worldwide agent for The Red Hot Chilli Pipers and his teenage step-daughter hung out in the same group of kids as my teenage son. 

When I see his posts on facebook he is always so enthused about “the boys”, that I can’t help feeling this is a man who considers himself to be fortunate.  Not in that smug, he’s-not-really-lucky-he’s-a-blowhard way, but rather a very happy, genuinely delighted, can’t believe his luck kinda way.  I like this in a person; and having watched the rise and rise of Scotland’s homegrown Bag-Rock phenomenon that is The Red Hot Chilli Pipers I ask him to lunch and plan to find out all I can.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers is an act that has crossed musical boundaries with its eclectic mix of bagpipes, drums, guitars and rock music.  They recently hit 2 million youtube views after opening Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Glasgow on Nick Grimshaw’s Breakfast Show with a cover version of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” (I’ve added it here – its bloody brilliant!)

Douglas has been with the band since they started and books their shows globally.  He runs things alongside Kevin and Willy who have the not insignificant task of moving several pipers, drummers, guitarists and all their kit, kilts and caboodle around the world – often in two different directions at once!  Douglas, as agent, mans the phones, answers emails, books them out and makes sure that all fifty of their now worldwide group members are kept abreast of what’s going on at all times.

“I’m far too old to travel the world! Kevin and Willy are brilliantly good with logistics. Kevin is a genius at international co-ordination.  Normally you need a manager on the road to keep everyone in order but because they come from a background of pipe bands they are disciplined in a way other musicians aren’t.  It’s amazing to sit and watch.”

Douglas sits over from me in North Port, defying his 64 years with ever burst of youthful enthusiasm. He talks animatedly and with that mixture of pride and joy that is usually the reserve of parents talking about a child’s first concert.

“These guys get settled into whatever city they’re visiting and they’ll either get in touch with a local pipe band to come along and play with them, or they’ll go into schools and do little concerts for the kids.  They see their remit as promoting piping and Scottish culture and because of their sheer presence they bring this historical ethos into every situation.  There’s no payment for this part, it’s all a genuine love of what they do and a desire to spread the culture. They have been invited back to Saudi Arabia three times; no other Western band has ever played there and they’re back three times!”

We’re off on a Chilli Piper path instead of a Douglas path but hey-ho, there’s fresh bread and real butter and all afternoon to chat.

How long have they been going?

“They started in 2002. Stuart Cassells the original founder came to me with this idea and so I started finding gigs for them.  And then, do you remember the Graham Norton BBC Show, ‘When Will I Be Famous’?  (me nodding) They won that in 2007 and that was it. Stratospheric!”

So you were an entertainment agent before the Chilli Pipers?

“I was a principal Teacher of English for 25 years before any of it!” Ahhhhh, now we’re on the story!

“I always dreaded the teaching becoming a bit stuffy and I didn’t want to turn into a boring old fart. So I played in a band at weekends to keep me sane.  We were called Candy and we were a posh function band. We played gigs like Gleneagles, people in bowties bobbing up and down in front of us. It was crazy – we were booked up solid for months at a time.  So, when venues called us and we were already booked I started getting them other bands that I knew.”

Douglas Gillespie and Lulu

So what’s my timescale here Douglas, when was this?

“Let’s see, we started in 1971 and ran until 1989. I had this side-line as an entertainment agent but I didn’t even realise! It just seemed sensible and helpful. I knew bands, they needed bands. It was easy.  We eventually got a bit tired, we had played everywhere we wanted to play.  When we started to tell people that we were winding up the band the manager at Norton House Hotel demanded to know how he’d be entertained now! He looked right at me and said 'You could sort it out for me'.“

Over the following four or five years Douglas built up his booking agent business alongside his fulltime teaching career. 

“We had all these cards printed for Candy that had my contact details on them.  Our strapline was ‘The Entertainers’ and this sat just below our band name. So I just cut the Candy part off the top of the card and there you go – The Agency was called ‘The Entertainer’s’ and I had a free business cards. I had all the contacts I needed from our years on the road and really quickly I picked up the five star hotel and corporate stuff. It just snowballed.”

He was busier and busier but nervous about packing in his teaching job because, like all of us, he had bills to pay and the fear of never making enough money played on his mind.

“And then I don’t know. In 1995 I just decided to go for it. We were busy, I was booking lots of different types of bands and musicians for some top drawer venues and so I took the plunge.  One of the acts I was booking out a lot was a young piper called Stuart Cassells who was in my daughter’s class at school. He was the BBC Young Traditional Musician of The Year and he was an outstanding piper. He was still really young but he was getting loads of work. And then in 2002 he came to me with an idea he had for a bagpipe group and that was it. The Red Hot Chilli Pipers was born.”

“Stuart got together three pipers and two drummers. They were so new and fresh; no-one had tried anything like it before. I started recommending them to my clients and that was it. They had a band!”

Was there no convincing to be done? Did people really just say “Yes, we’ll take some rock playing bag-pipers!”

“Yes. They did! Every now and then people want something new and I had built such a reputation by that time that they trusted my judgement. It was clever, it was exciting and it was Scottish! People lapped it up – we were all over the UK.”

And now we’re back to the section of the story where they appeared on the Graham Norton BBC Talent show and WON!

Red Hot Chilli Pipers

“It was incredible.  When I opened my emails the next day my inbox was constant. The boys played a gig for Ewan McGregor in London not long after that - their profile had gone through the roof. We had added the guitar for the TV show and when the festival requests started to appear they added a drum kit, a brass section and dancers.  People wanted to be involved.”

Since 2007 the band has expanded to include a pool of 50 musicians worldwide. They are now able to play two different gigs on two different continents and still pick up a wedding here at home.   Everyone involved can play in every band combination; there is no A and B team, no subs bench. They have strength in depth and the quality is consistent with every skirl of every pipe.

“Getting in is difficult. These are world champion pipers and musicians. Since 2007 they have toured in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Germany, Saudi, China – they love us in China! – and huge, music festivals in almost every country. Except Canada – but we’ve finally got that cracked next year!” 

I’m mindful that this is Douglas’s story and not the tale of The Red Hot Chilli Pipers but the two seem intrinsically linked.  I want to know if the chilli pipers made his business successful or if he made them.  

“It’s not really one or the other.  To begin with I opened doors for them because I had contacts and a list of clients who wanted new acts and who trusted my recommendations. But they’ve played venues and arenas I’d never dealt with pre their success and I’m mindful of that. They’ve played everything from heavy metal festivals in Germany to Tartan Day in New York.  They now have two triple platinum albums, a triple platinum DVD and a UK Gold Disc. They’ve brought Bag-Rock to the masses.   I think we probably help each other now.”

Big gigs is an understatement. They played the main stage at T In The Park this year. They played Proms in The Park with Bryan Ferry.  They are playing the Hydro Opening Ceremony Concert for Ryder Cup and various smaller gigs at Gleneagles during this period.  They will play 25 gigs in September culminating in a Private Party for Prince Albert of Monaco (which Douglas is flying out for!).  

Of course, The Entertainers Agency is more than just the agent for The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.   He is the exclusive supplier of entertainment to Skibo Castle and Gleneagles and boasts blue chip, 5-star clients worldwide. All from his home office in Bridge-Of-Earn, Perth.

“I love what I do.  I work with great clients and great acts and I can be a small part of this amazing machine. I work hard, I am constantly on a phone or picking up emails. Because the work is global now I need to be in international time so it’s all day, every day. But it’s not like a job; it’s more part of who I am.”

In his last five years as a teacher he worked as IT support such was his enjoyment of information technology.  He assures me his booking system is the most sophisticated out there. Douglas is a boys-toys-tech-geek.  

“I love my gadgets. I’m an Apple man.”

Work, Gadgets, Food then? I ask.

“Ah yes. The Food. You know when I was 40 I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t want to do ever again and that I was going to eat, at some point, in the best restaurants in the world.  Fiona and I have been together 19 years and still our favourite thing to do is go out for dinner.  And look at us, we’re spoiled for choice in Perthshire.  I love Tabla, I’m loving here, North Port – put them down. I’ve been fortunate enough to eat at Andrew Failrie’s many  times and it is exceptional.  And Thursday nights have to be the Fish & Chip Company at Craigie Cross.”

There’s a small diversion in the interview while we chat restaurants of Perth, restaurants of the world and cooking.  He tells me the hype around Heston’s Fat Duck is absolutely deserved and that I must go.

Corn On The Cob“It’s not just the food and the ingredients, it's the science. We were given this tea and told to lift the glass cup straight up to our lips. When you drank it half of your mouth was ice cold and the other half was hot. Hot and Cold Tea.  It is an incredible dining experience.”

His love of food has progressed to gardening and he has found it to be the best stress reliever in the world. He finds exercise a chore, with no end result to speak of. The garden keeps him active. He and Fiona have “puddled about at it” for 10 years now but got a bit more serious four years ago and have successfully pulled a sizeable bounty this year. I had spotted his Corn On The Cob on facebook earlier that day and he is suitably pleased with himself about this.

“Grown in the garden, no greenhouse!”

I ask him if, as a teenager in the sixties, he had been asked to map out his life would he have come anywhere close to guessing. He laughs loudly.

“Never! Nicki, everything I have ever done I have drifted into.  There was no game plan – even the teaching was an accident. I just wanted to stay in Edinburgh after my degree finished so I decided to do a post-grad. Then the band came. And then… well, you know the rest.

Douglas YoungerBands say to me all the time, ‘how do we get the good gigs’ and there is no big secret. You put your head down and you work hard.  That’s all I’ve ever done.  I’ve never based my decisions around money, I’ve always brought my best and what do you know? It works. 

I was awarded as a Fellow of Entertainment Agents this year, last year I had Andrea Boccelli singing in a kilt, at Stirling Castle. I have a daughter, two grandchildren, two step daughters and two step sons. Life just happens. All you have to do is make sure you’re there to work it and enjoy it.”

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