Will the piano industry survive the pandemic?9:31, 14th October 2020
Some of Europe’s oldest companies are piano manufacturers. Steinway, Bechstein, Blüthner and Bösendorfer were all established around the mid-19th century. Such companies are old enough to have survived the Spanish flu and other turbulent market conditions, including the Great Depression.
The coronavirus pandemic is a huge test for the piano industry and it’s likely there will be casualties, but I predict most companies will prove sufficiently agile to survive and adapt to the ‘new normal’.
A piano is born of rare craftsmanship, fine materials and exceptional knowhow coupled with trade secrets. That makes pianos expensive, so a buyer will commonly need to trial an instrument in person before making a purchase decision. In many countries, the lockdown has meant a prohibition on showing pianos to potential purchasers for months, which has put a considerable dent in sales.
Unlike faster moving products, a pivot to online sales has not proved particularly successful for piano dealers, despite many increasing spend on social media advertising. Several industry exhibitions for piano manufacturers and dealers – including the important Musikmesse in Germany – have been cancelled this year, depriving the industry of other opportunities to increase visibility and sales. However, many larger companies have taken the decision to spend on maintaining their profile even during a period when that awareness cannot readily translate into sales. And there is good reason for the focus on awareness.
The piano industry is extremely sensitive to loss of brand consciousness. This is exemplified by the lower secondary market values of excellent piano brands which no longer manufacture or do not have a significant championing dealer.
Take Ibach, for example – once a highly respected manufacturer that produced quality instruments. When the company ceased German production in 2007 it lacked a dedicated dealer in rebuilt and secondhand instruments. This had a knock-on effect on secondary market value: Ibach grand pianos now struggle to sell in the UK for more than a few hundred pounds, despite the relatively recent cessation in their production.
By comparison, a hundred-year old piano from the leading German houses which still manufacture can sell for thousands of pounds, even in unrestored condition. Savvy dealers and manufacturers have realised that eliminating marketing spend for extended periods during the lockdown could be hazardous, and this approach will differentiate successful companies from those that suffer due to the pandemic, particularly given the high fixed costs of piano production.
COVID-19 is also having an impact on concert halls, where manufacturers are unable to present their flagship grand pianos due to closures. This is having two effects: firstly, the loss of an important forum for significant brand exposure; secondly, the interruption of a period of notable diversification of instruments gracing the concert stage. The past few years have seen Fazioli, Bösendorfer and Yamaha concert grands, and others, making more frequent appearances during piano competitions and concerts, offering audiences a beneficial plurality of tone. Even that limited momentum has now been lost, meaning manufacturers will likely focus their efforts on faster-growing segments of the piano market post-lockdown in order to drive a rapid return to revenue generation.
So one impact of COVID-19 is expected to be the return to a piano monoculture in the concert hall, at least in the near-term. Although this will present audiences with fewer options, most listeners will probably be happy listening to a Steinway.
The lockdown has presented some opportunities too. With more time at home, amateur pianists have had time to rediscover an interest in piano playing which has led to a marked increase in enquiries for upgrades to existing instruments.
Small, high quality manufactures will need to be deft to succeed in the current environment. Despite a product which is often excellent these manufacturers fall between the high priced, most celebrated brands, and the highly competitive mass-market East Asian brands.
Despite all the challenges it currently faces, the global piano market is still projected to grow modestly over the next four years. Having overcome two world wars, economic depressions and changes in consumer habits, the piano industry will endure as long as it is not complacent.
Muzaffar Shah is the director of Grand Passion Pianos, an independent dealer in rebuilt and modern Steinway and Pleyel grand pianos. It is the only company in the UK focused exclusively on grand pianos. grandpassionpianos.co.uk