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MMD > Archives > March 2001 > 2001.03.06 > 04Prev  Next

Demise of the Player Piano
By Art Reblitz

Otto Schulz, whose grandfather organized the M. Schulz Co. in 1869,
had this to say (excerpted from his letter to Q. David Bowers, which
is printed in its entirety on p. 660 of "The Encyclopedia of Automatic
Musical Instruments):

    "The first year I was in the business, 1923, we built 11,000 pianos
of which 8,500 were players.  The business held up through 1926, but in
1927 fell by 50% due to the wide acceptance of the radio with built-in
dynamic speakers.  Grigsby-Grunow's Majestic swept the music industry
and by the end of 1928 we were practically out of the player piano
business and our sales had fallen by 80%."  [This was almost a year
prior to the onset of the great depression.  A.R.]

Dave Bowers personally interviewed many original manufacturers of
automatic instruments and their children in the 1960s, including Farny
Wurlitzer, Noel Marshall Seeburg, Gunther Hupfeld, Otto Weber, Gustav
Bruder, and many others.  On p. 12 of his "Encyclopedia," Bowers
summarizes what he learned from those industry leaders, and from his
study of American and European music trade journals, in a discussion
titled "The End of an Era." A brief excerpt:

    "Although the phonograph co-existed with the player piano and the
reproducing piano in the 1920s, the radio did not.  Those once in the
piano industry credit the radio as the factor in the great reduction
of automatic piano sales which began in 1926-1927.  Likewise, the use
of radio programs in public places ended the market for coin pianos
(automatic phonographs, or "jukeboxes," as they are called, were not
produced in large quantities until the early 1930s, and so had little
effect on the coin piano field).  By 1929 there wasn't much left of
the automatic musical instrument business.  What little remained fell
victim to the economic depression in America and Europe."

On page 430-431 Bowers provides additional insight into the European
scene in his history of the Ludwig Hupfeld Co., the world's largest
maker of automatic pianos, with 2,500 employees when Wurlitzer employed
a mere 600.

I, too, have spent much time studying old music trade journals that
were popular during the heyday of the piano and player piano, including
"The Music Trades," "Music Trade Review," "The Presto," and "The Music
Trade Indicator."  The advertising, production information, and press
releases in these journals tell the story very clearly, right as it was
happening.  Unfortunately, copies of the old music trade journals are
extremely rare and hard to locate, making research very expensive, but
the information is right there in black & white once you find it.

I also cover this subject in my new book, "The Golden Age of Automatic
Musical Instruments," which will be on its way to the printer this week
and should be available by late summer (!).  The new book includes the
original price of each instrument pictured (when available), a table
for converting the original price from British pounds, German marks,
French francs and Swiss francs to U.S. dollars in any year from 1871
to 1930, and a list of average hourly U.S. wages from 1871 to 2000.

This information enables the reader to convert an original price into
the number of hours that an average worker had to work in order to
afford an instrument.  As pointed out by others in this discussion, the
amount of money that the average consumer was willing to pay for a home
player piano is amazing, especially when contrasted to the relatively
lower cost of electronic entertainment devices.

To me, the important points already covered in this discussion are not
whether or not the electronically-amplified radio and phonograph had
a major impact on player piano sales, but _why_ they did.  I believe
there were four major reasons, as discussed in my new book:

1) The new devices reproduced all types of music, including vocal
music, not just piano music;

2) The mere fact that the technology was new made them fascinating;

3) They were much less expensive; and

4) They took up a lot less space, a factor in small homes as well as
commercial locations.

Art Reblitz

(Message sent Tue 6 Mar 2001, 17:29:48 GMT, from time zone GMT-0700.)

Key Words in Subject:  Demise, Piano, Player

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