Capitalism has arguably made human lives better in general but in certain cases the relentless pursuit of efficiency and productivity has come at the expense of quality. The piano, the musical instrument made popular by the Mozart-era of western classical music, has been one such casualty going through a steady decline in quality through the 20th century. In this piece, Zachary Crockett, takes us through the history of the American piano industry – the factors that drove its rise and fall and how an entrepreneur in the 90’s decided to revive one of its last.
“Until the late 1700s, the majority of pianos were built in Europe, first in Vienna, and later in Great Britain.
But by the turn of the 18th century, pianos had made their way to the US — and soon, a burgeoning manufacturing industry emerged in industrial hubs like New York and Boston.
… “It was widely believed that spending money on a piano wasn’t really spending. The money you paid would be embedded right there in this beautiful and useful item. So people would make great sacrifices for these instruments.”
The piano quickly became a must-have in American households — so much so, that in 1867, the historian James Parton declared that “the piano was only less important to the American home than the kitchen stove.”
Then came competition to the piano as a source of entertainment:
“… In the 1920s, a confluence of factors dragged piano sales down:
- The commercialization of automobiles opened up new avenues for entertainment outside of the home.
- The commercialization of radio created a competing source of entertainment inside the home.
- The stock market crash of 1929 tanked disposable income.
… In the 1960s, the once-formidable US piano industry hit more snags:
- The TV took over as the definitive entertainment source in American households.
- Record players and a cultural shift toward rock music chipped away at the appeal of pianos and classical music.
- Foreign competition began to creep into the US piano market.
Japanese manufacturers, who had been building their own pianos since 1900 with lower labor costs, sensed an opportunity to enter the US market at a lower price point.
In the early 1960s, Japan’s largest manufacturer, Yamaha, established a foothold in the US and began distributing pianos to American consumers. Within a decade, foreign builders from Japan, Korea, and China had more than doubled the sales volume of US manufacturers.
…In 1996, an entrepreneur named Kirk Burgett saw an opportunity to revive one of the US’s last piano manufacturers.
A decade earlier, Burgett and his brother had invented PianoDisc, a device that enables a piano to play itself for guests. The company grew rapidly and sold 120k units to customers including Nancy Pelosi, Bill Gates, and pro sports stars.
Burgett caught wind that Mason & Hamlin, one of the preeminent piano manufacturers of the golden age, was up for purchase in bankruptcy court.”
Then the point of realisation that unlike many other products, the best quality pianos were the ones built a century ago:
“… Burgett realized that the greatest pianos were those built during the golden age in the early 1900s.
So, he slowly started to rebuild — by turning to the past.
- He hired a team of three engineers to digitally reconstruct blueprints of the high-quality pianos the company gained a reputation for in the early 1900s.
- He turned back to many of the original innovations and materials the company had used a century earlier.
- He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on specialized tools, many of which were decades old.
- He equipped each piano with a tension resonator, a device pioneered by Richard Gertz, a Mason & Hamlin engineer, in 1895.
Unlike other business builders, who push things out before they’re ready, Burgett invested in quality over quantity.
It took him and his team an entire year to produce the first piano, and the company’s first employees went through a two-year training process to build a product up to the standards of 19th- and 20th-century craftsmanship.”
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