A dramatic illustration of the economics of pianos can be found in Dean Petrich's workshop and piano sheds. Petrich is a longtime piano tuner based on Whidbey Island, Washington.
So many upright pianos of all ages and conditions are packed in so tightly in multiple sheds, Petrich has trouble counting them all. But he estimates he has about 82 pianos stored on his rural property. The prior owners gave them to Petrich just to get rid of them and then paid him to haul the instruments away.
Americans are still making music, just not on traditional pianos.
"As the technology for electronic instruments and keyboards has improved people have switched," Petrich observes, "because you don't have to tune an electronic keyboard. You can carry it with you, it's lightweight. It can make any sound you want."
The economic difficulties of piano dealers reflect the larger issues that faced America’s piano manufacturers. Like the U.S. auto industry, it was hit hard by imports from Asia, as well as by the growing popularity of electronic keyboards. There were 160 piano makers in the U.S. a century ago. There are only four major producers today. Manufacturing has shifted largely to China, Korea and Japan.
Restore, recycle, reuse
"I am getting more creative for what to do with old pianos," Petrich said, explaining how he’s whittling down his accumulation of cast-off pianos, from more than 200 a couple of years ago, to under 100 today. The irrepressible tuner has a book in the works describing how every part of a piano can be repurposed. He’s also restored, recycled or donated instruments.
A chance encounter last year with a small international relief charity, Eagle’s Nest Foundation, led to another outlet.
"I went in there and talked to them and said, 'Well, what about pianos?' They said, 'We never thought of that. We don't take pianos.' But they called me two weeks later and said, 'You know what, my husband knows somebody at the University of Cambodia and they have no pianos there. So we would like some."
Petrich donated 10 that were sent to Cambodia in November. He also pulled 20 pianos from his inventory that just shipped to Vietnam to benefit needy schools there.
As for local piano sales, Petrich strikes a hopeful note because of the upturn in the economy.
"The piano industry is directly related to the health of our economy. When the economy is down, the piano industry was definitely down," he said. "Now the economy is picking up. Stores are doing better."
But that might not be enough. New piano sales nationwide went into a steep dive at the beginning of the last recession in 2008. They continue to decline now "in large part due to the swelling inventory of used instruments," according to the industry journal Music Trades. It reported 30,806 grand pianos and upright pianos were sold through retailers last year. That compares to almost 54,000 in 2007.
Curt Clinton is the fourth generation of his family to run Clinton's Music House, and he says, maybe the last. The piano dealership was founded in 1898 in Tacoma, Washington.
Clinton recalls organs "were selling like crazy" along with new pianos when he took over in 1978, and he had nine competitors. Now it's just him and a couple of professional tuners who sell pianos on the side.
"As that evolved over the years and more and more keyboards started coming out, that business kind of shrunk," he said. "As that business shrunk and the mall business shrunk and we started moving out of the malls, we needed to find something else."
Clinton says refurbishing and reselling "good used pianos" is now the major part of his business.
"You always have to have that feeler out looking for that used piano that some family is done with, something that's decent that we can pick up and make into a good piano again," he said.
A longtime fixture in Oregon, Portland Piano Company, is surviving by moving out of downtown this summer to a cheaper warehouse district by the airport and by investing in online marketing. Company manager Brenda Kell says she never would've thought that selling pianos over the Internet would work, but that's what's happening.
Another interesting trend she notes is how families who immigrated to the U.S. from East Asia and India represent an increasing share of her customer base.
"If it weren't for them, I don't know what we would do," Kell said.
And she's not alone in observing a high value placed on musical proficiency among Asian immigrant populations in the U.S. That emphasis is reflected in the number of Asian-Americans in prestigious music competitions, including Daniel Hsu, from San Francisco, who captured the Bronze Medal at this year’s Van Cliburn international competition.
The downward trend in new piano sales tends to obscure the continued interest in playing the piano. That's according to Music Trades. Music publishers, for their part, report continued strength in piano method book sales.