A Brief History of the Piano Industry
This one is for the newbies. I promise, it'll be quick.
Late 1800s to early 1900s: Pianos as we know them burst on to the American Industrial Revolution stage. Pianos are a hit and become a household item. Companies pop up all over Boston, New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and beyond. There are tons of companies making tons of huge, ornate pianos like this one:
1920s: Depression hits. Most companies don't make it. A positive side effect of the downfall of so many companies is that it weeded out most of the companies that weren't making quality products.
1930s - 1950s: The survivors cling to the market for dear life. In an effort to keep up with the American way of life, manufacturers make smaller, more portable instruments that can find a place in the growing suburbia lifestyles of their owners. Ironically, the popularization of the spinet could possibly be credited with keeping the piano market's pulse pumping:
1950s - 1970s - Generally, bad stuff happens to pianos in this time period. Quality became less of a concern during this time period and pianos were made with shorter and shorter life spans.
1980s - The last spinet was rolled out of the factory when at last, piano manufacturers realized they could no longer get away with mass producing unserviceable instruments. Spinets were the bandaid that was no longer needed when the economy was able to support quality again. "Globalization" happens during this decade, and most of the last American manufacturers sell out to Asian companies who can produce pianos for far less than American markets.
1990s - today: No, the piano industry is not "dying." Everyone needs to chill out about this. Pianos are not going anywhere, but it is undeniable that the industry is changing:
- New instruments are being produced at quality levels never before seen.
- Playing the piano is no longer an assumed skill of the average American.
These two factors mean that those who buy pianos now intend to study piano playing, and that they are willing to invest more upfront when they buy new instruments. There is no more room in the market for subpar pianos in homes of people who want to kill time every now and then. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being an uncommitted player, we just generally have more things to do than we did fifty years ago.
This is a great season in the piano industry. I'm a forever fan of quality versus quantity, and am totally okay with less pianos being around if it means they are sounding and feeling the best they possibly can. So next time you hear someone sigh about the piano industry "dying," maybe suggest they shed a tear over the death of the floppy disk instead and then invite them to tag along to the piano concert you're attending at the Kennedy Center next weekend.