I hope I won’t remember the day. I hope its a day a long, long time from now when I am dead and gone. It’s not going to happen like the Titanic either. It’s not going down in one big swoosh all at once. Like anything that’s alive, even barely, the living goes on and on; no matter how meekly, or sickly until one day all that is left is simply curled up into a little ball, stinky and gone. But long. gone.
The music industry, in my opinion, has been on a slow crawl to death ever since I fell in love with it really. When you love something deeply, watching it die a little bit more every single day for 33 years is heart breaking; despite all my efforts to engage educational institutions, music trade magazines, manufacturers and musicians, I have been unable to rally support to improve its health. It’s a totally helpless feeling to sit and watch while others ignore or are unwilling to do something about what is happening. And we all know, nothing great is ever achieved alone.
Look at the years between 1870 and 1930, way before my time, but it illustrates brilliantly the rise and fall, and the continued decline, of the music industry really.
As surprising as this may sound today, the biggest-ticket item on every household budget besides the house itself was its piano. Everyone had to have one. Those who didn’t have one aspired to have one. It was a prize, an essential part of life, and they sold by the millions and millions. That too was new. Americans before 1850 mostly imported their pianos. American manufacturing was nearly nonexistent. After 1850, that changed dramatically with the flowering of what would become a gigantic US piano industry. The Gilded Age saw a vast increase in its popularity. By 1890, Americans fed half the world market for pianos. Between 1890 and 1928, sales ranged from 172,000 to 364,000 per year. It was a case of relentless and astounding growth.
They were used in classrooms everywhere in times when music education was considered to be the foundation of a good education. They were the concert instruments in homes before recorded music and iPods. They were essential for all entertainment. American buyers couldn’t get enough, and private enterprise responded.
All of this changed again in 1930, which was the last great year of the American piano. Sales fell and continued to fall when times were tough. The companies that were beloved by all Americans fell on hard times and began to go belly up one by one. After World War II the trend continued, as ever more pianos began to be made overseas.
In 1960, we began to see the first major international challenge to what was left of the US market position. Japan was already manufacturing half as many pianos as the United States. By 1970, a revolution occurred as Japan’s production outstripped the United States, and it has been straight down ever since. By 1980, Japan made twice as many as the United States. Then production shifted to Korea. Today China is the center of world piano production. You probably see them in your local hotel bar.
~ Excerpt from The End of the US Piano Industry by Jeffrey Tucker
And the same thing has happened to musical instrument manufacturers and the instrumental musicians. Bands are shrinking in size. Fewer kids are joining the program. Jobbing musicians say they have 1/4 or less of the work they use to have 10 years ago. School budgets are the first to cut the arts. Federal funding continues to diversify their dollars into other sectors. More and more instruments are made in China replacing European hand craftsmanship. And the prices keep going up and up while the major venues for music instrument manufacturers and retailers gathering in places together like NAMM shrink in size and numbers year after year.
And while the industry swirls around chasing the almighty buck, and the research continues to support how great the power music making is for us; the musicians who are playing their musical instruments stay locked in their practice rooms afraid to look beyond their music stand obsessed with playing perfectly; instead of using their love to help create a sustainable life built from a healthy industry from those who love it.
The courtship of learning a musical instrument- in our youth- is all consuming, if you get the bug. I help customers every single day buy Buffet clarinets and their devotion to learning how to play better could light up a room so bright everyone in it would be blinded by their ambition. I remember well blocking the world out and focusing so intently on only one goal- to be the best clarinetist I could be. I had not a clue about ‘the industry’. I, like my customer, knew back then very little about what or how to make the industry the best industry it could be; or how to serve the most people I could through helping the music industry make better products; or help them to teach others about the joys of music making to make the market more stable because more people would equally, like I, feel the love. I had zero exposure to it other than the money my folks shelled out to buy me my beautiful new instrument.
And without this kind of introduction or apprenticeship style of education, why would I ever bother to look beyond my own contributions? There seemed to be no limit or bar high enough to achieve my own satisfaction within my own performance on my own instrument; so my view finder got narrower and narrower and narrower and the hours in the practice room greater and greater; while my perfectionism and need to feed it obliterated everything in my peripheral view about what the purpose was of this obsession, this love and who it was meant to serve.
And then one day, while I was attending Northwestern University, with my full myopic mindset attire on, I looked around me and at my colleagues- my fellow clarinetists- and realized we were all the same, really. Carbon copies of each other. Insecure. Single minded. Competitive with each other and ourselves and lacking most every single imaginable skill possible that we would need to be successful in life, or to help the industry we loved, except for one- we all could wiggle our fingers and tongues and make beautiful sounds doing it faster and better than anyone else, so we thought. And quite honestly, it was all that still seemed to matter after all these years of sitting in the practice room too, really.
And then I woke up into blackness. I realized my view finder had gone black. I had narrowed and narrowed and narrowed my view to something so small and so insignificant in the grand scheme of what music and the industry was, that what once filled me with possibility, had become very very dull.
Surely where money was involved, naively, I thought at the age of 17, there had to be a more common sense approach to bringing an industry full of myopic music nerds together to spread and share our love? There had to be more to music than my need to excel wiggling my fingers and tongue. The Industry, after all, had money. Surely they had to care about helping the industry realize its highest purpose and potential, if not for any other reason than its own survival. How naively I thought.
With 33 years invested into it and counting, what I see is an industry who largely is driven, like the musicians in it, by their own self serving desires. The only kumbaya I hear radiating outwardly into the industry, from The Industry, is the one that seduces their customers into paying more and more money for their instruments of joy and love.
So what about the University. They are devoted to education and surely this must be where the desire to stitch together the musicians to their beloved industry with the skills to succeed in it must flow from. Right?
But education, itself is a business. More veiled and disguised than The Music Industry writ large, but all the same with an agenda of self serving motivations all of their own.
And finally, you have the millennial student who comes to school with a sense of entitlement and little work ethic as, perhaps the final beat of the drum. In the last two years I have hired 3 of them. 1, despite being a research academic was unwilling to follow basic instructions after repeatedly being taught them resulting in the taking of a fraudulent order and being terminated; another was unwilling to do hard work because it was, well hard; and another had no respect for the great opportunity they were given which included full-time pay for part-time work and took advantage because they could.
If we have an industry who does not care to care for its sustainability by investing in youth education to help expand its productive purpose by teaching it about its purpose; and we have a University education system that is more interested in perpetuating itself than helping our youth deepen their skills and love for what they love by expanding their knowledge, skills and abilities broadly in it; and the musician themselves lack an appetite to grow and learn; the death knell has begun.
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