Posts tagged trends
They appear in every city ~ tall old upright pianos from yesteryear. They seem massive compared to today’s standard. In fact, it would be an anomaly to find small pianos that were made before 1930. Why? For 2 reasons: First, the technology of making small piano actions was not widely developed; and second, there seemed to be this idea of making elaborate and spectacular cabinets with grand-like tones. The only way to accomplish that was through the use of long strings and a large soundboard necessitating a taller piano.
The wheels of trends move slowly in pianos. From a cosmetic perspective, it took nearly 75 years for elaborately carved pianos (circa 1850) to turn the corner to have more simple lines (circa 1920). In fact, I’ve seen many pianos in my lifetime where ornately carved grand and upright legs have been swapped out for modern square legs. Why? Fanciful detail simply fell out of vogue by the 1920’s. You didn’t want to be seen with intricate woodworking on a piano. By the end of the Second World War and into the 1950’s and 60’s, making pianos ‘compact and convenient’ became the mandate. Having a ‘big old upright’ became unfashionable. At the same time, rising labour costs gave way to efficient manufacturing and attention to detail was replaced by utilitarian designs. There weren’t many embellishments or carvings to speak of. Finishing resins also began in the late 60’s and early 70’s to usher in an era of black glossy pianos. Pianos kept declining in height until the industry hit a new low of 36” tall pianos – called drop action pianos, where the actions of pianos were recessed inside the body of the piano. For anyone who has worked on these, you’ll know exactly how difficult they were to service. It was near this time that something switched – something that would affect the piano industry forever.
I remember pulling it out of the box in 1981. My brother, who was a local rock musician and eventually became a television, movie and IMAX composer, bought one of the first digital keyboards in the city. Being almost a decade younger than him, he invited me over to his house for the unveiling and we plugged in this Yamaha DX7 for the first time to listen to sounds that we had never heard before. We look back now and have a good laugh but it was the inception of the digital era. By late 80’s and 90’s digital pianos and keyboards became the new experiment for parents with budding musicians. “Let’s just buy this $299 keyboard for the kids and see what happens”. Having lived on the sales floor during this time, I’ve heard that line more times than I can remember. As the digital age emerged, some people argued that these would NEVER replace acoustic pianos. And they were correct. However, that is not to say that digital pianos and keyboards didn’t alter the industry. With time and technology, digital pianos have become more authentic sounding and feeling. So have they finally become a replacement? Well, that depends on your expectation. If you’re used to the subtleties of felt striking strings, and the nuances and shading of color in music, as well as the ability to truly ‘feel’ sound then the answer is no. If you want portability, decent tone, volume control with no maintenance, they might be the solution you’re looking for. (Just a plug for my friends who are piano technicians… when people tell me excitedly that they don’t need to tune their digital pianos in order to save money, I’m quick to remind them that what they save in maintenance they heavily lose in depreciation of electronics but that’s another story).
The bigger question however is “How has the electronic age affected the present day piano industry?” Well it’s time for some big broad brush strokes – ones that create generalities but also may shed some light on what is up and coming in the world of piano sales for the future.
1. Christmas is over. I remember hearing of stories (before my time unfortunately) when piano store owners would relish the fall season. It was a time when all of the new upstart piano students would come in to purchase a piano. It was like Christmas! With no other options (pre-keyboard era), parents were forced to look at only traditional pianos. Quite often, the lion’s share of the yearly sales in a retail outlet happened in the fall season. This has now been replaced largely with a 2-step process of either the purchase of a portable keyboard or a used piano followed at some point with a more ‘serious instrument’. Unfortunately in my opinion, many children never learn to fall in love with the tone of a real piano if their first experience is an unweighted, 61 key keyboard that vaguely resembles the sound of a piano. Many also quit the piano before the real instrument is ever purchased and implemented.
2. Price points have changed. Digital pianos touted as the ‘new technology’ have all but plummeted in price. What used to sell for $2,000-$5,000 is now roughly available for $600-$2,000.
3. Entrance of hybrid pianos. What’s a hybrid? It’s a digital piano with a real action. Advantages: a real touch of a piano, portability and no maintenance. Disadvantages: digital tone, longevity of electronics is unknown. The hybrid pianos albeit a great step in the world as far as technology is concerned are hitting the price point of yesterday’s digital pianos $2,000 – $5,000.
4. Digital pianos mainly create tone by replaying recordings of real concert grand pianos. So when you play a note on the keyboard, the digital piano plays the appropriate recorded note at the appropriate volume. But if digital piano tone is a recording of a concert grand, why would consumers upgrade to a small sounding real piano as the next step up? They wouldn’t. If they’re upgrading, the trends are towards bigger sounding acoustic instruments.
Conclusions: Used pianos and electronics have shored up many of the sales of pianos below $3,000. Consumers buying new acoustic traditional pianos are looking to upgrade into something better and so they’re starting to shop bigger. The challenge is to hit the price ratio for today’s economy. The chapter in Piano Price Point that has surprised me over the last 5 years is Upright Piano Chapter 5 ~ pianos priced between $7,000 – $9,000. It’s the largest chapter within Piano Price Point. The prices reflected are Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) which are often inflated by up to 1/3 of what you would find in local stores. This means then that new piano sales are targeting somewhere between $4,500 – $6,000, consistent with the report published by NAMM this year (read about it in our Piano Market Trends article from November 2014). And if you scroll through the pianos in Chapter 5, take a look at the sizes. They’re averaging 48” tall. Shoppers are moving back to the fact that bigger is better. Also, the cabinetry details are also becoming more significant. Two-tone wood with gloss black are coming of age as well as decorative veneers of exotic woods such as bubinga, macassar and even simple cherry or mahogany. It appears that the cosmetics of pianos are getting a bit of a makeover and the manufacturers are moving towards larger instruments. The giants are once again emerging.
To end, I’d like to point out that there are a few manufacturers moving back towards 138cm or 55” tall pianos (Steingraeber, Bechstein, Bluthner and Heintzman to name a few) and tell of a recent incident that sparked this article. Through a series of events, an old Ronisch piano (still being made today by Bluthner) became available locally. Being the curious sort, I had to go take a look. It was not a 52” tall piano – standard height for tall piano manufacturing today. No, it wasn’t even 55” tall… it was a whopping 58” tall (145cm)!! I had to acquire it mainly for the reason that I’ve never seen an upright piano this large (pictured at the top of this article). To be honest, I don’t even know what I’m doing with it yet because it’s sitting in my hall. When I pass by, I quite often play the lowest notes – sounds that I’ve never encountered on a large upright piano. Finished in burled walnut, this forgotten treasure of yesteryear is an example of how piano makers (this one from 1885) desired to make a grand sound in upright form. As consumers are looking once again for timeless heirlooms and pianos that truly inspire through beautiful cabinetry, amazing tone and responsive touch, I believe that the industry may move back to 55” tall pianos as part of the repertoire of piano making in the future and discontinue smaller instruments. The piano industry is quickly becoming a niche market and makers are just now feeling the effects of 150 years of trends coming full circle.
Have you walked into any piano store lately? It’s a sea of black and shiny? Why is that? Since the development of polyurethane resins (circa 1970), that mirror piano finish has become synonymous with ‘modern piano’ and has won out in popularity far above any other ‘look’. From a finishing perspective, making that incredible shine requires skill and knowledge and proper facilities. The only problem is… shiny doesn’t necessarily mean good. Consumers however seem to get those two points confused. If that type of finish has been around for almost 50 years, what has transpired in the world of piano making that we CAN’T see? The finishing techniques on the outside are obvious, but what are areas that have changed on the inside of the piano? How do we convince consumers that pianos from the 1980’s have been improved upon for the last 30 years?
I’m always fascinated by the business of piano manufacturing. I’ve witnessed and played so many different types of pianos that all have a similar look and yet are vastly different. Even consider the different prices of pianos today. A grand piano can sell for $10,000 and one right beside it can sell for $150,000! They look similar to the untrained eye but they sound and play really differently. So what has happened in the ‘modern age’ of piano making (1970-2014) if the pianos look almost the same?
Design has definitely changed. And by design I mean the internal workings of the piano and not so much the cabinetry. If we could paint broad brush strokes, I would venture to say that the 70’s and 80’s were marked by the advent of automation. Although boutique makers will always exist specializing in hand-crafted instruments, giants started to appear making tens of thousands of pianos annually. Productivity leads to efficiency and ultimately consistency. By the 1980’s, Japanese and Korean workforces dominated mass produced pianos. It was conceivable for MILLIONS of pianos to be made by a handful of companies. Like it or not, the word for that era is Consistency. Good design or bad, these pianos were consistent. Global marketing meant that many of these instruments became household names. With the exception of a few manufacturers in North America, piano makers all but closed their doors in the early 1980’s financial crash while mass produced pianos mainly from Asia were emerging.
Labour costs were up, profits were down and the diversification of labour, parts as well as cost cutting measures was initiated. The extreme growth of the 70’s and 80’s has declined (compare a high of 275,000 pianos sold in 1979 to 99,000 in 1995). Trying to fill gaps and stay competitive, many piano companies started developing multi-tiered levels of quality giving both choice and price considerations with A,B and often C lines of pianos.
China hit the ground running. While the rest of the world has experienced the piano for almost 200 years, the popularity of the piano has all of a sudden exploded in a country with more than a billion people. USA, Europe and Japan are almost deemed ‘mature’ markets and thus begins a decade of decline. However by the end of the decade, more than 180 piano companies emerged in China alone including many established companies opening up facilities within China.
The big have gotten bigger. There’s this trend where massive companies are establishing all price points and in order to do so, they have purchased many of the ‘godfathers’ as I refer to them… the upper end German boutique makers and conversely either contracting or setting up facilities in China for lower end production. China is now a decade into serious piano making and the game of ‘catch-up’ and consolidation has begun. Unprecedented is the aid of computer assisted design and reverse engineering has all but debunked many old piano making techniques.
And so I return to the question, “If all pianos are starting to look the same, where do we go from here?” Someone asked me recently, “Have inexpensive pianos all but caught up to more expensive ones?” In a word, no. Expensive makers were busy raising the bar at a time when low end makers were simply making pianos viable. In recent years, upper end makers have been pursuing excellence in tone: rather than simply making ‘soft’ hammers, they’re going after versatile hammers through the use of better felt (see interview with Jack Brand on Weickert) – ones that play soft and felty but also loud and percussively. Tonal aspects are also more advanced – with old growth timber gone, boutique makers are pursuing high elevation slow growth wood with tighter more resonant grain for soundboards. Strings and what is called scale is ever increasingly moving towards purer tones with focused harmonics. And actions are (as I like to describe them on high end pianos) like chocolate – rich and beautiful. In my estimation the whole world in piano making has just upped the ante in these last 5 years. But new pianos do come at a cost. Modestly priced piano models from the 70’s and 80’s are now unaffordable by many households. Like never before there are several piano companies that have broken the $100,000 mark for price point. It appears that with the emergence of the nouveau riche in many countries, the boutique makers are reaping the rewards. This has left the bottom arena rallying for market share. Kudos (where credit is due) to the improvements in fledgling companies who have grown from nothing to substantial instrument makers within the span of a decade. If you are in the camp that quickly dismisses Chinese made pianos, you’re in for a surprise – especially in the coming years. Regardless of your budget, however, there’s even more reason and more incentive to look at buying a new piano than ever before.
- China still tops the industry with an estimated 79.6% of sales worldwide. Domestic imports in China are up by 15%
- Consolidation continues and productivity is between 40,000 – 130,000 pianos annually for many of these companies (doing the math, that means some manufacturers are making between 100-350 pianos PER DAY)
- Luxury markets are up and German exports continue to rise
- Viewing 10 year trends, North American sales of acoustic pianos has recovered from 2008 financial crunch and have remained relatively stable but numbers are still down by 42% in retail dollars and 61% lower in units since 2004
- According to NAMM 2013 report, demand for larger grand pianos has increased in recent months to the 6’ size and there is a greater demand for higher quality upright pianos with average price point set at $16,425 and $4,834 respectively
- Last year roughly 32,000 pianos (grands & uprights) were sold in the USA
To prove artistry and craftsmanship in the late 1800’s, pianos were intricately and ornately carved. As the Victorian era ended and we were ushered into the 20th century, many of the older piano legs were swapped for simplistic ones to stay ‘modern’. The advent of both world wars saw an era where mainstream piano cabinets became simple and plain and if you wanted something a little special you ordered an “art case” piano. Fast forward to the late 60’s… black is IN. Browns are in the background. Why? With the advent of resins and polyester finishes, there was a demand for a more polished look and manufacturers didn’t need to consume time with matching great looking veneers. Let’s face it, you can spray black over top of any finish but great cuts of wood require time, attention and skill.
Fifty years later, after a sea of black pianos, makers are slowly changing the tides. Accents are in. Custom makers such as Steingraeber are touting their skill by mixing wood with black – that’s the hottest trend. As I’ve piled through thousands of pictures of pianos and brochures compiling this online book, the common theme is that the mix of wood with black is what many are finding the 21st century trend. From a sales perspective, it’s a ‘value added’ feature or another way to sell up.
And it’s not just happening with the boutique makers – right across the board at every price point – from Bosendorfer, Fazioli to Hailun to Story & Clark to Yamaha these accents are becoming more and more prevalent. Is it a completely new trend? No. Many of the European art case pianos have been integrating different woods on rims and under sides of lids for over a century. What is new is that these accents are becoming the 21st century mainstream for piano decor. While there used to be carvings and “gingerbread” on old pianos, now there are accents of exotic woods on rims, music rests and selective panels.
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