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MMD > Archives > March 2001 > 2001.03.05 > 07Prev  Next

Radio and the Player Piano
By Craig Brougher

While radio was one of the forces that contributed to the waning of
player pianos, it was only one.  There were others, all vying for the
dollar that was going to buy rolls.  In many cases, for the same money
it took to buy a roll, you could see a stage show.  So player pianos
never got a lot of exposure on stage or in the movies, for that very
reason -- competition.

The thing that really stopped player production was the mini-depression
of about 1926, and then the great depression.  It really trounced the
heavily leveraged American piano industry itself (unlike the European
companies).  Players by then had run a course of about one generation
in the USA.  (We tend to look at a slump as something we can spend our
way out of).  This wasn't precisely so in Europe, but their needs and
tastes and conservative business practices were different than ours, so
I suspect their player industry, although much smaller, was also more
enduring-- if they weren't bombed out of existence first.  It was more
a cottage industry there.

Another factor: Americans also tend to be very fashion-conscious and
faddish, and our media tends to dictate to us what we will and will not
like.  So if it seems to us that not as many ads are appearing for
players, and nothing is ever said about new models, etc.  If all we
hear or read about is radio and the movies, then we tend to move to the
next square.

So, like John Tuttle, I can't hang it all on the radio.  While radios
with loudspeakers came on the scene about 1926, few bought them then.
They were a real oddity for a long time, mainly because few people knew
enough about electronics to get financing for building radio stations.

My uncle, Gail Benson, was a pioneer radio engineer who designed
and built radio stations from the ground up back in those days.  He
designed the transmitters, antennas, power service, transmitter room,
service room, everything.  And when he'd contract to build one, he
had very few other people who knew anything about it.  He had to know
everything, and that was very difficult.  That's what it was like,
then.  For years, his type was few and far between in comparison to
the 1940's and a new era.  By 1935, most homes in the Midwest had a
radio, I think.  It was the average American home ownership that forced
radio stations into existence by the tens of thousands.

Radios didn't really come into vogue and become a household item until
about 10 years after they were first introduced,  In the early 1930's
most small town neighborhoods that had a family with a radio were homes
that could string a long-wire antenna, because they could only pick up
three or four stations at night.  So although the radios had a built-in
coil, they all had screw terminals for the antenna.

If you lived in a big city close to a station, a simple ground
connection to the radiator and another to the window screen might work
for the station that was only 200 miles away, but that was a "close
station."  Until you could sell radios to little old ladies who didn't
rely on the "skip," you weren't selling enough radios yet to put players
out of business.

Long before 1935, the player piano industry had hit the skids and
Aeolian was picking up what was left of a number of piano names that
they could buy for 5 cents on the dollar, or even less.  The fact that
jukeboxes had also almost stopped making money even before and through
the end of the great depression shows that the recording industry was
getting clobbered from all sides.  The reason: Nobody had any money to
throw away on luxuries.

So it wasn't really so much the fact that radio alone was the reason,
but that it was an up and coming industry ready to take off at the end
of the depression (the middle to late 30's), the beginnings of which,
in about 1927 or so, had begun to slow the player industry.  John Tuttle
makes a valid point by mentioning that their comeback is indicative
that they never really went away and obviously their appeal is timeless.
But if we will just look at it as a combination of the worldwide
disastrous financial circumstances in which new families could no
longer afford a player, plus the fact that news and entertainment was
also being offered via radio waves and the talkies were really taking
off at the same time (because of talented entertainers and big
salaries), the situation should be clear.  These alternate media didn't
"destroy" the player piano per-se, but once player sales could no
longer sustain this huge industry it was just too large to live off of
small market shares so it folded and these came along as "what's next"
and displaced it.

What is amazing to me is how extremely popular they were and how many
they sold in the early 1920's.  They were high-ticket items, costing at
least as much as a car, and a small grand reproducer cost the same in
the Midwest as building a 3-bedroom house for cash!  So I'd say our
grandparents knew they had found something with a timeless appeal, even
though it was a huge investment.  Now that I know, I agree with them!

It's still live music, sung and played right at your own piano at this
very moment, and that's really cool here in the computer age.

Craig Brougher

(Message sent Mon 5 Mar 2001, 16:26:46 GMT, from time zone GMT-0800.)

Key Words in Subject:  Piano, Player, Radio

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