A Century Of Premature Eulogies For The Piano

A Century Of Premature Eulogies For The Piano

...abandon hope and proclaim that the piano industry as we know it is doomed. Although the particulars of the current adversity are unique to the current time frame, commercial hardship and dire predictions about the piano industry¡¯s future have featured prominently in the columns of The Music Trades since the first issue came off the press in 1890. Ongoing changes in retailing practices, shifts in the musical and social function of the piano, and the migration of factories, not to mention technological change, seem to prompt premature eulogies for the piano with clock-work regularity. Based on the overheated rhetoric in our pages, for the past 120 years the piano has always seemed to be on the verge of extinction. Yet, three centuries after Bartolomeo Cristifori created the first piano in Padua, Italy, black and white keys remain one of the most enduringly popular tools for musical expression. This remarkable durability indicates that despite the industry¡¯s current and past woes, the piano is destined to be a fixture in the musical realm for some time to come. A brief recap of 120 years of laments also suggests that despite widespread change, the industry¡¯s current problems closely echo those of the past. Sinking sales, credit problems, price deflation, sleazy sales tactics, and competing technologies are, unfortunately, nothing new.

In the September issue of The Music Trades, we provide a fascinating in-depth account of this century-plus of tribulations, a must-read for the piano historian¡ªor the piano seller in search of some perspective. Here, we give you just a few of the highlights (or lowlights) chronicled in our pages.

1893: The emergence of the bicycle is deemed a mortal threat to piano sales nationwide. Voicing the accepted wisdom of the day, William Mehlin of Mehlin Bros. Piano Co. explains, ¡°Piano dealers are shortsighted if they view other dealers in town as their competition. Their real competitor is the bicycle!¡±

1901: Six Chicago piano dealers are jailed for offenses ranging from using forged bills of lading to pawn off  $165 pianos as $400 instruments, to moving pianos into an empty warehouse and offering to sell them for ¡°past due storage charges.¡± These antics are regularly chronicled in the Chicago Tribune under headlines like ¡°The Slammer For Another Crooked Pianoman.¡±

1911: Competition rears its head again in the form of the automobile. The topic dominates the conversation at the National Association of Piano Dealers Convention, where association President Lewis Clement declares, ¡°The piano is more of a necessity than the automobile,¡± and pledges to ¡°fully investigate ways to turn back competition from the auto.¡±

1925-1927: RCA launches the first major broadcasting network and the first radios to run on AC current, sending radio sales through the roof. Player piano sales plummet and retail and manufacturer warehouses are soon stuffed with repossessed instruments.

1932: Desperate piano makers, hanging by a thread in the depths of the Great Depression, commission a marketing consulting firm to study ways to revive the industry. In a report that could have been written yesterday, the consultant finds that the industry needs ¡°new and innovative products¡± to ward off stagnation; that classical music has grown ¡°pompous and slow;¡± and that the piano faces competition from too many alternative leisure activities. It concludes that the industry needs to make learning to play easier.

1960: Japanese-made pianos hit the U.S. market, prompting impassioned appeals by U.S. piano makers in hearings before the International Trade Commission. ¡°The American piano industry has been a mainstay of musical life in the United States,¡± declares Morley P. Thompson, president of the Baldwin Piano & Organ Company. ¡°If this vital industry is allowed to decline, the impact will be felt far and wide in the culture of this country.¡±

1980-1987: The introduction of the first electronic keyboards coincides with the emergence of the digital piano and low-cost grands from Korea. Meanwhile, the market abounds with video games and other distractions. Bill Binder of Miami¡¯s Binder Piano & Organ says, ¡°I don¡¯t see the interest in piano anymore.¡±

For our complete history and analysis on why pianos continue to defy the doomsayers, see the September issue of The Music Trades. Subscribe here today!

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