• U.S.

Business: Merchants of Music

6 minute read

For three long days last week in Chicago’s Stevens Hotel drums boomed, pianos banged, guitars twanged, trumpets tootled, piccolos shrilled, saxophones squealed, kazoos squawked, tubas oomped. Assembled there were some 2,000 of the sobersided businessmen who supply U. S. music with everything except talent. Retailers gathered for the annual conventions of the National Association of Music Merchants, the National Retail Musical Instrument Dealers Association and the National Association of Sheet Music Dealers. Wholesalers appeared to curry favor with retailers, to attend the annual meeting of the National Association of Musical Merchandise Wholesalers.

To get in right with the wholesalers the manufacturers put on the real show, bringing their wares to meetings of the National Piano Manufacturers Association of America, the National Association of Musical Merchandise Manufacturers and the National Association of Band Instrument Manufacturers. In showrooms and hallways on four floors of the world’s biggest hotel music men talked earnest business amid a steady cacophony of competing demonstrations.

Most exuberant exhibitor was one M.M. Pochapin, who displayed a line of kazoos running from ordinary noisemakers at 5¢ to fancy models at 50¢. According to Kazooman Pochapin, his business this year has been booming as the result of political conventions, swing music and The Music Goes ‘Round and Around. No pessimist, Mr. Pochapin predicts he will sell $250,000 worth of kazoos in 1936, which would be $236,000 more than he sold last year.

Most of the music men were astonishingly serious. They religiously attended a series of luncheons and dinners which was climaxed by the 35th annual banquet of the National Association of Music Merchants. To soothe string and wind instrument makers who have been nettled in past years by the fact that piano players have dominated the banquet entertainment, NAMM this year packed the bill with cornetists, harpists, marimba and accordion players.

Music men go in heavily for pep-talks, high-pressure promotion. A poignant little editorial in the Etude Music Magazine last year related the tale of a millionaire’s daughter who was saved from something worse than death by staying home to practice on her piano. Retail association heads exhort the trade to avoid competitive squabbles. Thundered NAMM’s President Alfred D. LaMotte in the convention issue of Piano Trade Magazine: “I protest most vigorously any implication that there is any real competition between pianos and piccolos, accordions and ocarinas or harmonicas and harps.” Pianos. In 1935 about $60,000,000 worth of musical instruments were sold in the U. S., largest slice of which (some $35,000,000) went as usual to the piano makers. For the first half of 1936 all music men reported business well ahead of the year before, with piano sales alone up 37%. Piano men are the aristocrats of the musicindustry and for years have been as impoverished as the aristocracy of Tsarist Russia. In the ten years through 1925 U. S. piano sales averaged 320,000 units, $200,000,000 annually. By 1932, with radio, Depression and changes in U. S. mores, piano sales were down to 27,000 units annually. Last year the figure was 65,000, may reach 100,000 this year.

Most piano companies are tight little family concerns, often officered by grandsons and great-grandsons of the founders, who look down their noses at the raucous upstarts of wind and string. There are 37 piano makers in the U. S. today. In Chicago, W. W. Kimball Co., which ranks high in dollar volume in the medium-price field, has the world’s biggest piano and pipe organ factory, makes all its own parts instead of buying them from supply houses like most makers. Kimball sells to dealers on consignment, which is considered sharp practice by most piano men.

Ranking abreast of Kimball is Baldwin Piano Co., which also consigns products to dealers, is consequently called in the trade “that banking house.” In third place is Winter & Co. Winter goes in for low-priced pianos, stands near the top in unit production. One of its models is a “pianette” at $99.50 built to compete with Japanese pianos, which cost $4 to make, sell in the U. S. for $50. Aeolian American Corp. has been slipping in the past few years but still holds fourth place in dollar volume with such big names as Chickering and Knabe.

Fifth in volume, first in prestige, is famed Steinway & Sons, now run by three grandsons and three great-grandsons of Founder Henry Engelhard Steinway. Among the Steinways shown this year was its new $885 model, designed to do for the company what the medium-priced Packard 120 has done for Packard motor. Last week in Chicago, Steinway’s ace front man, baldish Roman de Majewski, suavely entertained buyers with the champagne that Steinway always serves. Disdaining most of the convention’s activity, President Theodore E. Steinway failed to show up for the final banquet.

Trailing the five leaders is Wurlitzer Grand Piano Co., which also makes organs. Story & Clark Co. is growing fast under Lothrop Perkins Bull, 35, smart, aggressive and present president of potent National Piano Manufacturers Association. A lawyer until two years ago, Pianoman Bull got into piano making by marrying a Story.

Wind & String instruments in Chicago last week included a $1,000 accordion, a six-foot “bassoguitar” and cellos equipped with loudspeaker horns. Oldest & biggest band instrument maker is 62-year-old C. G. Conn, Ltd., which reports business currently running 35% ahead of a year ago, has 1,000 men at work in its Elkhart, Ind. plant. As with other makers in the same line, the saxophone is still Conn’s biggest seller. Also in Elkhart is big Martin Band Instrument Co., whose founder walked there after being burned out in the Chicago fire in 1871, got a job with Conn, branched out with his five sons in 1907. In Elkhart, too, is Leedy Manufacturing Co., famed for its trap drums. No. 1 U. S. drum maker is Chicago’s Ludwig & Ludwig.

One of the leading makers of stringed instruments is Kalamazoo’s Gibson, Inc., which used to mean mandolins to many a high-school boy and girl. Gibson reports that guitars now account for 95% of its sales, compared to 5% before Depression. Another leading stringed instrument makeris C. F. Martin & Co., which is not to be confused with the Elkhart band instrument company. President is C. Frederick Martin IV, a suave, blond young man who is also president of National Association of Musical Merchandise Manufacturers. Says he: “My family has been in the business 90 years. . . . Americans as a class are attaining real musical appreciation for the first time.”

Though musically the violin is by all odds the most important stringed instrument, there have been no Steinways of the fiddle trade since Stradivarius and Amati. Of course, the reason is that a good violin never wears, out. Improving with age, they are traded like works of art. What few fine U. S. violins are made today are the product of independent craftsmen like Manhattan’s Paulus Pilat, who turns out ten instruments per year at $500 to $750 each.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com