Pleyel, in business for over two centuries, was Chopin’s favorite and counted Stravinsky, Liszt and Debussy among its customers. But the French pianomaker recently said that its last workshop will close this month.
The endorsement of august musicians could not save it after decades of struggling to compete with less-pricey pianos from the Far East.
The sad leitmotif of Europe’s pianomakers is a familiar one. Only nine remain out of around 300 that were in business in the first half of the 20th century. A grand piano, of the sort Pleyel is known for, takes between 500 and 1,500 hours to construct and sells for around $135,000. Tinkling the ivories of a mass-produced, Asian-made upright will cost a pianist as little as $2,700. And half-decent electronic keyboards start at only $140.
Cheap pianos from China dominate the market. Of 493,000 pianos made worldwide in 2012, nearly four-fifths were manufactured there. More than 100,000 were produced by Pearl River, the world’s biggest pianomaker. It exports to 100 countries, including Germany, where it uses the renowned Ritmuller name, which it acquired in 1999.
Most Asian pianos are budget models, but some manufacturers have moved upmarket by luring skilled craftsmen from fading European workshops, and by entering partnerships with well-known brands.
Pearl River now produces cheaper models with Steinway & Sons, a concert-hall favorite. Last year Bechstein of Germany teamed up with Hailun, based in Ningbo, to produce an affordable range in China.
Having come to dominate the market for cheap pianos, the Chinese may hope to strike the same note with accomplished pianists as Japanese rivals have.
Yamaha bought Austria’s upmarket Bösendorfer in 2007 but kept production in Europe. It is increasingly represented in reputable concert halls.
Kawai, also from Japan, found favor with music conservatories after developing technology that made its pianos more durable and in less need of frequent tuning.
Many music lovers will lament the decline of traditional workshops where craft was nurtured and passed down through generations. Happily for them, some traditional makers have come up with creative ways to stay competitive.
Steinway, which was sold in August to Paulson & Co, a private-equity firm, offers piano-playing crash courses to the superwealthy of the Persian Gulf, in an attempt to market its instruments as status symbols.
Petrof, Europe’s biggest pianomaker, decided to exploit Chinese demand for products with a pedigree, and focus solely on selling high-end instruments there after nearly going bust in 2004. The strategy has paid off, and the firm is now growing by 5 percent a year.
For Europe’s surviving pianomakers, it’s a case of changing their tune or facing the music.
Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.