Piano DisplayHave 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? 1980Design 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. 1990Labour 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. 2000China 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. 2010The 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. 2015And 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.

Ebony High Polish Market Highlights

  • 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

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