By Carl Radford, RPT
(The following is a series of articles reprinted with permission from the January, February and March 1995 Partial Post, official newsletter of the North Shore Chapter of the Piano Technicians Guild.)
According to one of my customers, there were at one time more pianos in the United States than bathtubs. In 1909, there were 273,000 pianos built, and in 1923 there were almost 400,000. At one time there were as many as 50 to 60 piano factories in Chicago alone.
Currently, a rough estimate of piano sales might be around 100,000, there are no piano factories in Chicago anymore, and piano companies and dealers are going out of business left and right. (Author's note: This article was written during the 80's recession when piano sales were in decline. Piano sales since have skyrocketed during the economic boom of the late 1990s and again after the recession of 2008) How long before this trickles down to we technicians, if it hasn't already? Why has this occurred? What, if anything, can we do to reverse the trend? Do we even want to reverse the trend? How has this affected current sales practices? Who are buying pianos and who aren't?
In the olden days, music was not as readily or easily heard as it is today. If you didn't have a piano in you home, or play some other instrument, you may have day to travel many miles, or wait for some town celebration, to hear any music at all. People wanted to hear music and they wanted to pass the time, so, as a consequence, the piano became the center of entertainment in many people's homes. The women and daughters were supposed to learn this refined art so that the men could listen and become pacified and cultured.
Now of course, with the boon of modern technology, the center of entertainment in most homes is the entertainment center with its TV, VCR phonograph, tape player, CD player and AM FM stereo radio. (Editor's note: are we more contented today than in the 1920's? Maybe, but at a great cost. We no longer can take the time to do any in-depth thinking. Long-term concentration is a thing of the past. We are so addicted to being passively entertained that we have given up a portion of our souls. Seemingly, the only escape from all this excessive stimulus is to run and hide in the attic with a good book.)
Mostly television and computers, but also radio and CDs, have become the focus of the home. I think it's safe to say that there are no longer more pianos than bathtubs, but more televisions, computers and telephones than bathtubs. It is certainly easier for a child to relax and mindlessly watch TV than to study scales and arpeggios. If a piano and a television both share a living room, when Johnny wants to watch Batman and Susie wants to play the piano, in all but the most disciplined of homes, who do you think wins out?
Unlike the past, music is heard all the time now. How much of a typical day is spent consciously or unconsciously listening to music? Television and radio advertising, stores, car radios, offices, stereos, walkmen, and so on, contribute to a glut of music that in some ways lessen its significance, or shall I say, makes us take it for granted.
In addition, it is easier than ever to hear music: just pop in a CD or turn on the radio. Why should people spend hours studying the piano or some other musical instrument when they can hear every style and variety of music at will?
It probably sounds like I'm ninety years old. No, I don't want to return to the good old days, and no, I'm not passing judgment on technology. Television, Radio, and Computers are a wonderful part of our society today. They have their advantages and disadvantages. I'm simply pointing out a trend.
EDUCATION AND DISCIPLINE
It's no secret that the decay or prosperity of art also follows the decay or prosperity of education. The more educated a society, the more understanding of art exists. One begets the other. As our society becomes less educated and less disciplined, so too do we lose the desire, as a society, for art. Could the piano be another symbol, or a marker, of a society lacking discipline and education?
I don't expect everyone to agree with me on this point, but I believe that Equal Temperament also plays a contributing factor in the piano's decline in popularity. If you've seen a lecture by Owen Jorgensen, you would know that Equal Temperament has little or no key color. The keys in Well Temperament all sound different from each other. All of the music written at the height of the piano's popularity (i.e. the Romantic, Classical and late Baroque periods) was written in Well Temperament, not Equal Temperament, but we are mostly playing it on equal tempered pianos. There is more variety and mood in Well Temperament. The discovery of Well Temperament, for me, was like viewing a Picasso painting in black and white all my life, and then for the first time seeing all the reds, blues, and greens I didn't know were there. If Johnny's Steinway is tuned in color and Susie's Steinway in black and white, who do you suppose is more likely to want to continue learning to play?
As the population on the earth increases, so does the demand for wood. As the wood supply decreases, the price increases. As pianos are made of around 80% wood, the price of a piano also increases. Labor has also become more expensive. Automation should have offset these costs, but it only extended the market and reduced the quality.
Today, I think it's safe to say that the average affordable piano doesn't stay in tune as well, sound as well, or play as well as the average pianos of the past. (There are, of course, exceptions). The cheaper quality piano has become more and more popular. I have tuned some old pianos year after year that never seem to budge. I barely have to tune them at all. However, I have tried to tune far too many new pianos that, even after years of tunings, drop a quarter step within weeks no matter how many times they are tuned. These cheaply made pianos are always out of tune, sound bad even when they are in tune, and don't play well. Little Susie can't stand to play it after a while and the customer soon fails to realize the need for tuning. If the piano doesn't sound or feel pleasing, the player will quickly lose interest. I have stopped tuning these low end pianos altogether, because I have realized it to be futile.
CHANGING MUSICAL TASTE
I have wondered lately if musical tastes have changed. Perhaps we have reached a time when the piano must give way to other forms of music much in the same way as the Baroque harpsichord gave way to the Romantic piano and the Romantic piano has given way to the band, the DJ and the Karaoke. I hope this is not the case, for I dearly love everything about the piano. The piano is still very prevalent in today's music and will probably never disappear in our lifetime.
Although tastes may have changed, I feel that in the last few decades, music itself has stagnated. This is probably due to an overly commercial recording industry (but that's another article). We are overdue for some kind of musical revolution in the future. Whether or not the piano is involved in that revolution remains to be seen. I certainly hope so.
SALES AND ADVERTISING
Everyone wants a piano, but few need a piano. So, unlike a car or a refrigerator, pianos are more prone to be a luxury item and fall prey to the ups and downs of the economy. It has been my experience that pianos are a better indicator of the upcoming economic tends than the Wall Street Journal. A piano salesman can tell you months before an economic downturn, because people stop buying pianos long before it shows up otherwise in the market. luxury items are the first things to be cut out of people's spending in a poor economy.
In the early part of this century, everyone could afford a quality piano, but now only the rich can afford a quality hand-built instrument. It is ironic that those who can afford the best pianos today often don't play and the musicians who should have good pianos often can't afford them.
Since pianists are becoming less common, and generally can't afford it anyway, the are buying fewer pianos. It is the people who want fine grand pianos as furniture in their living rooms as symbols of status, or the young parents who want their children to be well educated who buy most of the pianos sold today.
As a result, the successful piano stores today are the ones who advertise to the younger parent. Dealers who advertise on the Classical radio stations will generally find themselves advertising to an older, more affluent audience who, for the most part, already have pianos and older children. Younger people tend not to listen to these stations as much. If a dealer wants to reach the piano buyer, i.e. the young parent, he will have better luck advertising on the Rock, New Age Jazz and news stations. Still, it is amazing how few dealers realize this. For better or worse, this is the age of advertising. A bigger market share means a bigger advertising budget. The independent pianos stores will give way to the larger stores that advertise, just like the Mom and Pop hardware stores have given way to the chain hardware stores like Ace and True Value. How long can it be before we see the first national piano store chain?
Another change is the trend away from in-store prep to in-home prep and lower prices. The manufacturers and dealers can no longer afford to spend the money necessary to properly prepare a piano before delivery. As a result, the price to the customer is lower, but the quality of service suffers. For a technician to do a high quality job preparing a piano, i.e. leveling and seating the strings, regulation, tuning and voicing, it could take a full day or more. The dealer can't afford to spend much more than an hour for what he earns for a typical warranty tuning. Consequently, most new pianos usually sit in the home sounding an playing far below their potential.
As I mentioned earlier, today there is an overabundance of cheaper pianos. I think this has prospered, in large part due to the ignorance of the piano-buying public. Most pianos that are sold are never even played before the sale. The public trusts that they are getting reasonable quality. ...After all, a piano is a piano, right? Dealers and piano companies inadvertently have fostered this for decades: "Don't by their piano Mrs. Jones. It doesn't have staples in the hammers." Technicians know that hammers haven't needed staples ever since high quality glues were used, and yet most pianos have staples, or the store down the street will take away the sale. It seems that if manufacturers wanted to save a little money for the customer, they would just eliminate the staples, But the bottom line is more often sales, not the consumer.
Unfortunately, it seems that factories and dealers that sell poor quality instruments don't seem to realize that they are slitting their own wrists. Every time they sell a piano that doesn't stay in tune or will never be pleasant to play, they probably thwart another future pianist. Not only that pianist, but that pianist's children and grandchildren, as well, may never play or buy a piano. How long will it be before these manufacturers and dealers realize that they are partly to blame for their own declining market share? Ironically, dealers and manufacturers who are idealistic lose business to lower prices, lower quality and unethical sales tactics.
WHAT TO DO?
So what can we as technicians, dealers, and teachers do to reverse the further decline of the piano? First, I have to ask, should we do anything at all? If this as a natural trend, like the harpsichord giving way to the piano, wouldn't it be unnatural to fight it? I don't know, and probably only time and history will tell. In the meantime, it is up to each individual to decide for him or her self. All I know is, for me personally, I love to play and hear the piano, and I would like to see it fostered.
There was a time a few years ago, during a pre-midlife crisis, when I couldn't figure out why I was tuning pianos. It seemed I was just paying bills and buying some material possessions, and that just didn't make any sense to me. I mean, why bother? Then I realized why I tune. Maybe it was partly rationalization, but nevertheless it gave me a completely different outlook on life in general and tuning in specific. Call it Zen and the art of piano tuning. I discovered that I receive more joy out of tuning when my goal is to inspire the potential pianist to play. That means leaving the piano well tuned, voiced and regulated so that the customer will be pleased with the tone and touch and therefore want to play. It also means demonstrating the piano after the tuning for the customer so the they will be inspired enough to desire to play the piano themselves. If a potential pianist gets half the joy out of playing the piano in life that I have, then I feel that I have really accomplished something.
So, it is up to we technicians to not settle for unfiled hammers, unvoiced or unprepared pianos (and not for free either). I urge you to learn how to tune Well Temperament and use it, when appropriate, to resurrect the color in Classical and Romantic music. In other words, make the pianos sing to inspire the next potential pianists. Refuse to work on inferior instruments, if you can afford it, but more importantly, let the customers and the dealers understand why you refuse. If you work on high quality pianos your referral base will also be of high quality. Less is more.
As dealers and manufacturers, we should sell the best pianos possible, educate the customer and change the focus from sales at all costs to quality and inspiration of the customer at all costs. Again, sometimes less is more. Less profit now could mean more for the future.
As teachers, make sure your students understand the value of a quality piano, a proper tuning, voicing, and regulation. Don't allow students to purchase poor quality pianos, and educate them to recognize the difference. Make sure their piano is in a different room from their TV.
There may be more reasons for the apparent decline of the piano, but I hope I have covered most of the bases. I would be interested to hear any comments or ideas about this, so feel free to write in if you agree or disagree. Hopefully all of this is simply just a downturn and we will yet see another revitalization of the piano perhaps even greater than in 1923. At any rate, here's to all the future pianists you inspire in the meantime.