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MMD > Archives > March 2001 > 2001.03.04 > 03Prev  Next

Demise of the Player Piano
By John A. Tuttle

While I don't quite agree with Arthur Reblitz about what 'killed the
player industry' in the very late 1920's, I'm not prepared with any
hard evidence to argue the point (more continued below).

The request I made in my MMD posting was for information about the
European player market.  From pictures I've recently seen, it seems
that the French continued developing their regular player pianos
after the Americans had basically stopped.  I'm curious to known if
production figures reflect the same basic decline in sales experienced
in the US before and after the Crash of 29', when player production and
sales in the US basically ceased for decades to come.

If the Europeans were 'behind' America in development/production and
sales, it seems somewhat reasonable that they experienced their
saturation point at a later moment in time (see below).  Therefore,
they would have continued developing their systems after the US makers
were already starting to call it quits.  And that would explain why
their systems appear to be higher quality machines even though they
were made at the same moment in time.  Any thoughts?

Continuing from above: While the radio certainly lured people away from
player pianos and basically changed the entertainment industry forever,
the fact that players made a come-back in their (basically) original
form some decades later suggests that the image of a player piano as an
entertainment device never really died.  The fact that solenoid players
continue to enjoy fair sales shows that the desire to hear music on a
real piano is still alive.  People have enjoyed the sound of a real
piano for centuries past, and they will continue to enjoy listening to
that sound for perhaps centuries to come.  The point is, the allure of
the player piano, while having already enjoyed its 'day in the sun',
didn't really die as a result of the radio.  It was, however,
temporarily stopped in its tracks by the Crash of 29'.

My feeling is that the player industry was beginning to experience a
saturation point in sales similar to what the computer and Internet
companies are experiencing today.  The percentages of rise and decline
are quite similar.  (For while the 'desire' to own a computer is still
quite obvious, the number of new buyers who can afford that 'luxury'
is now dwindling rapidly.  In a sense, the industry has reached a
'saturation point' economically speaking.  'Those who can afford one,
already have one.')

The player piano of the early 1900's, also being a "luxury item",
enjoyed much success as an 'entertainment device' during its first
twenty years because many middle and upper class people could afford
them (much like PC's from 1975-1995).  However, after some twenty years
in the limelight, the allure of owning 'something new' had worn off,
and those would could afford a player piano already had one.  So, sales
begin to drop off significantly.  In contrast to that, the computer
industry continues to enjoy relatively good sales even though just
about everybody who can afford one already has one (or two or three) .
So it seems fairly obvious that the Crash of 29' lowered median incomes
to the point where 'luxury' items were simply out of the question, and
as a consequence, the player industry was forced into withdrawal.

You see, one of my basic beliefs is that human nature changes extremely
slowly.  The desire to 'keep up with the Jones' has been around for
thousands upon thousands of years.  Only that which is considered
deserving of 'keeping up with' changes rapidly, and the evidence of
that abounds.  Consider the open reel tape deck or the 8-track player,
and now the cassette player.  After their days in the limelight, they
are being replaced by more sophisticated devices, and yet the
roll-operated and solenoid-operated player piano still survives.

Why?  Could it be that, despite everything to the contrary, people just
love listening to a real piano?

Therein lies my dispute with the educated opinion that players died as
a result of the radio.  I don't think the two are, or ever were, on the
same plane.

Musically opinionated,

John A. Tuttle

(Message sent Mon 5 Mar 2001, 01:42:39 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Demise, Piano, Player

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