ARE “HAND-BUILT" PIANOS BECOMING OBSOLETE?
Piano Buyer asked veteran piano designer George F. Emerson — whose 48-year piano-industry career has included employment with Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, and, most recently, Hailun — to comment on how globalization and the computerization of manufacturing have affected the piano industry, and whether there is still a place for expensive, "hand-built" instruments. Following Emerson's remarks are responses from representatives of several companies that manufacture "hand-built" pianos. Finally, Emerson has the last word. — Editor
The Rising Quality of Mid-Range Pianos Is Crowding Out the High End
by George F. Emerson
Between the emergence and the decline of an industry come the more productive phases of growth and maturity, and to the extent that a company is willing to invest in adapting new technologies to its particular product, that company may move out of maturity into a new growth phase. The piano industry, however, seems to be an exception. To accurately describe the piano industry, we need to inject another phase between maturity and decline: for want of a better term, the geriatric phase. Few consumer-product companies can survive without making continuous efforts to expand the capabilities of their products — Ford wouldn't have lasted long had it remained content with the Model T — but such stagnation often afflicts mature piano companies.
One important reason for this is that the piano repertoire spans centuries, and is just as vital and timeless today as when the music was first composed. This is not to say that the styles and standards of musical performance do not continue to grow and develop; they do. But the music of the old masters is just as viable today as are newer trends in music, and as welcome on the same stages of musical performance. By contrast, the programs written for the earliest personal computers are now hopelessly obsolete in comparison to the current family of computer software.
While a piano manufacturer might rely on the timeless nature of music to extend the viability of its product for decades longer than would be possible in other industries, a geriatric status is not a healthy place to be. The piano manufacturer willing to innovate stands a better chance of sustained growth over a longer period.
As an example of the tradition-bound nature of the piano industry, at a time when computer-aided design (CAD) software was already commonplace in other industries, an engineer at the Baldwin piano factories of the 1990s was not taken seriously if his desk did not display a slide rule. The most prominent feature in his office was a drafting table, modified with a large-enough top for the full-scale layout of a 9' concert grand. He would not venture onto the factory floor without packing a vernier caliper in a holster. At a time when every do-it-yourself handyman had at least one electric drill at his disposal, Baldwin factory workers were still using Yankee screwdrivers. (The reader might remember his or her grandfather using such a tool. When the handle is pressed in the direction of the screw, the shaft telescopes into the handle with a spiraling motion, giving the screw a few turns. Replace the tip with a straight-flute drill bit and it serves as a drill for the pilot hole of the next screw.) Even in a Chinese piano factory, an accountant was observed to prefer to crunch numbers with an abacus that sat next to his desktop PC. All of these are examples of the piano industry having been behind the times in most technological development.
Why was Baldwin still content to use Yankee screwdrivers when better tools were available? Because such tools were part of the company's culture; it was tradition. When a company's success is still based on a product they were building a century ago, it's hard to justify doing things differently. This resistance to change is a strong indicator that a company is in the geriatric phase of its life cycle. In most industries, a company will go into decline before it gets bogged down in this stifling aspect of company "culture." In the piano industry, due to the timeless nature of the piano repertoire, and the supposed timeless nature of the instrument itself, this geriatric phase can endure for decades, while the company's strength atrophies.